- The Ghosts of Guerilla Memory: How Civil War Bushwhackers Became Gunslingers in the American West by Matthew Christopher Hulbert
The subfield of Civil War memory studies has exploded over the past two decades. Dozens of historians have interrogated the manner in which Americans remembered and made sense of the war to the extent that readers might reasonably wonder whether there was any new angle on this important, but possibly overworked, field. Matthew Hulbert's recent volume, The Ghosts of Guerilla Memory, which looks at how Missourians conducted and remembered irregular warfare, however, confirms that indeed there is.
At the heart of Hulbert's fascinating and very readable book lies his contention that the very nature of guerilla warfare presented complications for those who tried to enlist its memory [End Page 81] for particular political and social purposes in the decades following the war. No matter what their angle, historians of Civil War memory almost always contend that part of the rhetorical bedrock on which Union and Confederate memories rested was the honorable and orderly military conduct by men in uniform on fields of battle. By its very nature, then, guerilla warfare challenged these norms. Irregular warfare was often spontaneous, disorganized, and carried out by civilians against other civilians. It took place in homes and yards and in doing so, turned women into combatants. In sum, it did not fit within the accepted conduct of a masculine honor-based nineteenth-century ideal of war.
Hulbert shows that, nevertheless, white Missourians worked with what they had to use memories of guerilla warfare toward their memorial and political purposes in the postbellum era. Despite the individual and personal nature of guerilla violence, they managed to cobble together a number of collective narratives of the war. While the messiness of guerilla violence would seem to preclude its perpetrators from having a place in an honor-based "Lost Cause" vision, writers like John Newman Edwards recast the past in a way that sought to wipe away the stigma from such violence. In his volume, Noted Guerillas (1877), Newman cast famed Missouri raider William Quantrill as a heroic and effective fighter whom Confederate leaders had disregarded at their own peril. In his work, he sought to place what many saw as peripheral violence at the center of the Confederate war effort in a manner that was politically useful in his war against Republican reconstruction efforts in Missouri. Confederate partisans in the Show-Me State also developed their own version of the "faithful slave" narrative, which included tales of loyal slaves who protected their masters' location and safety in the face of unionist threats.
Hulbert's book seeks to do more that just incorporate "irregular recollections" into prevailing interpretations of Civil War memory. He has a much broader goal—to shift "our angle of historical vision, reconstituting the Missouri-Kansas borderlands as the geographic center of a nation engulfed in a multipronged conflict over abolition and empire" (12). Here he adds something quite original to the field. If historians of memory in the eastern, midwestern, and southern United States are focused on how Americans manipulated historical memory of the war in an effort to restore racial unity and order, Hulbert shows that westerners had a different agenda. They were interested in transcontinental expansion. To facilitate it they needed [End Page 82] to cast the West as a place that was "safe for free white settlement, white commerce, and white industry while maintaining a scrupulous distance from the violence" (12). In an effort to do this, they sought to reframe and even erase certain aspects of Missouri's Civil War experience in what Hulbert calls the "westernization of guerrilla memory" (11). The atrocious Civil War guerrilla violence on the western frontier, cringeworthy because its victims were civilized and innocent white families, was remade through sleights of memory into justifiable postwar violence waged on Native Americans.
In the riveting final two chapters of The Ghosts of Guerilla Memory, Hulbert demonstrates...