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How to Remember “This Damnable Guerrilla Warfare”: Four Vignettes from Civil War Missouri

From: Civil War History
Volume 59, Number 2, June 2013
pp. 143-168 | 10.1353/cwh.2013.0033

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Late in the summer of 1862, G. W. Ballow offered his thoughts on the untamed nature of war in Missouri. “I am happy to state,” he informed a friend, “that guerrilla warfare is rapidly playing out in all parts of Missouri.”1 Contrary to his prediction, at this particular moment in Missouri’s forty-one-year history the sky still represented the virtual limit for guerrilla violence, perhaps making Ballow the state’s lousiest clairvoyant. In fact, major guerrilla engagements at Lawrence in 1863 and Centralia in 1864—each of which involved an outright massacre—proved his prediction ineffably wrong. But even these bloodlettings, perhaps the best-known incidents of Missouri’s guerrilla war, only served as the exclamation points of a daily struggle that engulfed the state throughout the entirety of the Civil War.2 Counties, towns, hamlets, and neighbors hitherto bound by communal interest or kinship ties stood bitterly opposed and ready to remunerate blood with blood.3

Twelve years after the war, ex-Confederate cavalryman and Democratic fire-eater John Newman Edwards provocatively chose to extol the wartime record of the men at the very center of this carnage. His 1877 magnum opus, Noted Guerrillas; or, The Warfare of the Border, featured a grandiose mythology designed to honor and deify the controversial exploits of the Missouri bushwhacker. Edwards argued that notorious guerrillas like William C. Quantrill, William “Bloody Bill” Anderson, Cole Younger, and Jesse James—to name just a few—had valued a variant concept of guerrilla honor that touted efficient violence and necessary brutality over gentlemanly conduct. Edwards further insisted that the Missouri bushwhacker, by way of an intentional separation from the failed Confederate state, could not be held responsible for Confederate defeat. By this reckoning, Quantrill, Anderson, and company had been the most diehard of all Confederates, and Edwards wielded this distinction to create a southern, Democratic political identity for Missouri and equip the state with an elaborate, if mainly fabricated, Confederate past. This retroactive boost of the state’s Confederate cultural credibility constituted Missouri’s own “irregular” version of the Lost Cause. For better or worse, the broad narrative of Noted Guerrillas has functioned as a launching point for nearly all subsequent scholarly examination of the guerrilla war in Missouri.4

But while John Newman Edwards sought to furnish Missouri with a variant Lost Cause narrative tailored to match the state’s unique guerrilla war experience, the product of that process is inherently (and deliberately) misleading; from the start, his grand, cohesive narrative belied the fractured environment of remembrance in Missouri that prompted Edwards to concoct his account in the first place.5 This article attempts to get underneath Edwards’s fabricated commemorative uniformity and lay bare the kaleidoscopic quality of Civil War memory in Missouri, a place where violence tended to be hyper-local and hyper-personal and where the “memory industry” was never so pronounced as it was in places like Virginia. By focusing particularly on four individual memories, as they were made, told, and retold in four families, this article seeks to explain why it was so difficult for Missourians to create a master, or meta-, narrative of the war. Instead they were left with what I call “guerrilla memory”—a patchwork of anarchic images and half-resolved traumas that could never be either fully celebrated or fully forgotten.

Without hallmark battlefields like Manassas, Gettysburg, Antietam, or Shiloh, the war in Missouri crystallized from an incalculable number of local, though still politically inflected and largely unpublicized conflicts.6 Inside this microcosmic framework of wars within a war, attempting to draw a precise distinction between traditional notions of “the battlefield” and “the homefront” seems arduous, if not futile.7 In a letter demonstrative of this dichotomy, one Union soldier hinted to his wife that guerrilla executions had become quite pedestrian—that such martial occasions even doubled as social soirees. Despite the morbid nature of the event in question, he casually remarked that a sizeable gathering of local ladies had recently attended, and apparently enjoyed, the hanging of an accused bushwhacker. Though unnamed, the short-lived life of the party had allegedly been one of “Holtzclaw’s gang.”8

Broadly speaking, the state...



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