- Extreme Civil War: Guerrilla Warfare, Environment, and Race on the Trans-Mississippi Frontierby Matthew M. Stith
Serious scholarly attention paid to Civil War guerrillas has increased dramatically within the last decade. In keeping with this movement to better understand the war's irregular underbelly, Matthew M. Stith's Extreme Civil War: Guerrilla Warfare, Environment, and Race on the Trans-Mississippi Frontieris a deeply researched attempt at integrating new characters—mainly Native Americans—as well as the environment itself into the guerrilla equation.
While most studies of guerrilla violence have focused on a specific state, border zone, or part of a feature-defined area, Stith's coverage of the trans-Mississippi West is more geographically ambitious. Throughout the book, Stith moves back and forth between Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, and the Indian Territory. To accommodate this wider reach, Extreme Civil Waris divided chronologically into five chapters. The book begins in 1860 with a brief overview of life on the western frontier before the outbreak of regular war, and it ends—somewhat abruptly—in 1865 with the official collapse of the Confederacy.
Stith's decision to examine the trans-Mississippi West as a bloc is double-edged. This expansive approach allows him to produce a more intricate account of how regular and irregular military forces interacted in the region. Taken together, the narratives of Federal soldiers, Choctaw and Chickasaw refugees, African American troops, guerrillas, women, and even children shed new light on the region-wide cause-and-effect relationships triggered by policy decisions, military outcomes, and environmental factors in each individual state or territory. That said, Stith does occasionally imply a level of real-time connectedness between people, places, and events that did not exist during the war.
On the environmental front, Stith examines two types of exchange. The first involves variables of the natural world—flora, fauna, topographical features, weather—influencing the waging of war. The second consists of cases wherein people physically altered the landscape or their use of it to affect the outcome of the war. These latter instances, though less frequent in the book, are fascinating. Stith explores efforts to burn acre upon acre of underbrush to neutralize guerrillas' home-field advantage and the establishment of militarized communes to cope simultaneously with safety concerns and food shortages. At times these environmental explorations would benefit from comparative contextualization; Stith could have parsed to what extent these exchanges were unique to the irregular conflict of the trans-Mississippi region. Regardless, Stith [End Page 434]has sounded the call for further investigation of how irregular war interacted with the environment.
When dealing specifically with irregular violence, Stith effectively captures the degree to which terror constituted a central part of daily life for trans-Mississippians. In other ways, however, the book's coverage of guerrilla warfare lags behind current scholarship. Distinctions drawn between combatants and civilians are inconsistent, which begs the deeper question of whether civilian status, conventionally conceived, was really possible in a place where the traditional line between battlefront and home front did not seem to exist. Though women were depicted by both sides as involuntary victims of war, they played a critical role in waging war from the household. The study would have benefited from deeper coverage of women as primary agents of irregular violence. More problematic still is how Extreme Civil Warappears to revive an outmoded "blood sport theory" in which irregulars are stripped of their legitimate motivations to violence. Instead, Stith portrays guerrilla warfare as random and brutal and its practitioners as universally uncivilized—either in the form of revenge-bent sociopaths or opportunistic thugs. To be sure, bushwhackers had unorthodox rules of engagement, but even theirs was not a war conducted indiscriminately or without political inflection. While the war was fundamentally brutal, what "hard war"—regular or irregular—was not?
In the end, Stith does underscore the role of the environment in the Civil...