- Extreme Civil War: Guerrilla Warfare, Environment, and Race on the Trans-Mississippi Frontier by Matthew M. Stith
Turning his attention to the western edge of the Trans-Mississippi Theater, Matthew M. Stith seeks to illuminate the "extreme" style of warfare that characterized this borderland during the Civil War. In explaining how soldiers and civilians in this region experienced the war, Stith uncovers that the conflict within this culturally and environmentally diverse region escalated far beyond what many scholars have termed "hard war" (2). By interlacing discussions of race, culture, politics, guerrilla tactics, counterinsurgency measures, and the environment, Stith demonstrates that the western Trans-Mississippi border was a unique theater of war in which the conflict became increasingly brutal and civilian-centered.
In Extreme Civil War, Stith, a professor at the University of Texas at Tyler, focuses on irregular and regular forces, the environment, and the role of race in the war in the Trans-Mississippi borderland. As both guerrillas and the West are growing fields in Civil War scholarship, Stith's book is a welcome addition. Building on recent works on guerrilla warfare and complicating Mark Grimsley's 1995 book The Hard Hand of War, Stith examines how the policies and actions of soldiers, guerrillas, and governments shifted over four years of war. Simultaneously, he discusses the ways in which the environment influenced the war, was altered (and in many cases, completely destroyed) by war, and became a tool of war.
Organizing his book chronologically, Stith recounts how a different kind of warfare emerged—one that occurred not only on the geographical margins of the Trans-Mississippi, but also on the margins of civilized warfare. In this extreme form of "hard war," Stith argues, nobody was immune to its immediate and long-term effects—women and children became active participants alongside soldiers. In the region where Arkansas, Indian Territory, Missouri, and Kansas met and formed a cultural, racial, and environmental borderland, civilians were drawn into the conflict almost as soon as hostilities began. Although Stith explains that guerrillas subscribed to a code of honor that limited violence against innocent white women and children, this did not keep them from stealing or destroying everything they owned. Men, older boys, and African American civilians, however, were rarely exempt from the guerrillas' death code on the Trans-Mississippi border.
Environment plays a key role in Stith's book, as both an influencer of warfare and a victim. Just as nobody was entirely immune to guerrilla tactics or foraging soldiers, nobody was immune to the environment's extremes. Even before the war began, the harsh climate transformed the region into what some called "Starving Kansas." During the war, as guerrillas and Union forces competed for control of the region, confiscating or stealing livestock, foodstuffs, and supplies along the way, civilians struggled to survive. Frigid winters and wide fluctuations in rainfall, likewise, plagued civilians, Confederate guerrillas, and Union forces. Relying on recollections from soldiers and civilians who witnessed the desolation, Stith illustrates the extent of the devastation and the horrors of "extreme" war. [End Page 86]
While environmental factors significantly affected civilians and combatants, Stith also reveals that civilians suffered due to the Union army's presence in the region. In their fight for the region, thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers traversed southwest Missouri and northwest Arkansas. Just as Confederate guerrillas attacked potential unionists, Union troops punished civilians thought to be loyal to the Confederacy. Feeling threatened by both forces and the environment, people living outside towns fled the area. Their isolated homes and, Stith explains, became center points of what had rapidly turned into a vast and brutal battlefield. And beginning in 1862, civilian-centered guerrilla warfare quickly expanded to take the place of large armies and grand campaigns (83–84).
This transition from regular versus irregular warfare to full-scale civilian-centered guerrilla warfare is what, for Stith, makes the western Trans-Mississippi region worth studying. While civilians were not immune to warfare...