No One is Safe in Civil War Missouri

Well, so far I’ve focused more on the libraries and archives end of what I have promised in this blog.  It is time to change that!

We’re in the middle of the 150th anniversary of the war that divided our nation.  The American Civil War might be called the first modern war due to faster communication (the telegraph), faster travel (train), the advent of the rifle, trench warfare (ex. Siege of Petersberg in Virginia), and guerrilla warfare.  As most know, Virgina hosted the most battles, followed by Tennessee.  Surprisingly, as state with only a handful of notable battles hosted the third most–Missouri.

William Clarke Quantrill

William Clarke Quantrill; Photo from Wikipedia via The Library of Congress. The photo is in the public domain.

Missouri is mostly known for the Battle of Wilson’s Creek,  the first major battle to occur west of the Mississippi River.  It’s next most well-known battle is The Battle of Fort Davidson (also known as The Battle of Pilot Knob).  Then there were others: Westport, Carthage, Glasgow, Kirksville, Island 10, and two at Lexington, to name a few.  Several, like Fort Davidson and Westport were part of General Sterling Price’s 1864 raid into Missouri, a last-ditch effort for the Confederates to regain control of the state.  However, Missouri is not known for its formal battles.  It was the home to the most guerrilla warfare of the Civil War.

Guerrilla fighters were everywhere.  Union troops worked hard to secure the state, focusing on the areas of highest population.  Garrisons protected the capital, Jefferson City, and St. Louis.  Forts and smaller outposts protected other cities, like Cape Girardeau and Rolla, and Pilot Knob.  General Order No. 11, (1863) issued by Brigadier General Thomas Ewing, Jr. created a forced evaluation of the Kansas City area (Jackson, Cass, Bates, and parts of Vernon counties) due to the overwhelming number of those resistant to the Union cause.  Why?  In the western part of the state, William Clarke Quantrill and his bushwhackers (known as Quantrill’s Raiders), including Jesse James, raided western Missouri and eastern Kansas towns, most famously in the “sack of Lawrence,” Kansas.  In the raids, they killed Union sympathizers, stole food to subsist on, and often ransacked homes and businesses.

M. Jeff Thompson

M. Jeff Thompson;  photo from Wikipedia via Duke University. The photos is in the public domain.

It was no better in the rest of the state.  In the southeast, M. Jeff Thompson became known as the “Swamp Fox” as he stirred up trouble at the beginning of the war, utilizing guerrilla warfare in Missouri’s now-drained swamplands.  He went on to command battles at Fredericktown and along the Iron Mountain Railroad (as far north as Jefferson County, the county south of St. Louis!).  In 1863, he followed General John S. Marmaduke on a raid into Missouri during which the Battle of Cape Girardeau would occur, and was captured.  Beginning in 1862, Samuel S. Hildebrand, a native of St. Francis County, also began raids throughout southeastern Missouri.  He was known for the violence and terror he carried out, personally murdering many.  He not only survived the war, but has an autobiography of his accounts published.  Other smaller groups protested Union control elsewhere.

Most of the works on the Missouri’s role in the Civil War tend to focus on the battles.  One must turn to primary sources (often newspapers, letters, diaries, and autobiographies) to gather the full picture of this guerrilla warfare.  This warfare evoked fear and led to many rash decisions.  However, sometimes one can learn equally well from well-researched historical fiction.  To this end, I have two recommended fictional sources that evoke the feelings of this era in Missouri’s history.  Both are well-researched and provide an accurate historical backdrop.

Ride With the Devil DVD Cover

Ride With the Devil DVD cover; from and linked to CD Universe.

First, is the movie Ride with the Devil.  Released in 1999, it featured many well-known actors* before they became famous.  Ride with the Devil depicted the guerrilla warfare actions occurring in the western part of the state by following a group of southern bushwhackers as they organized and raided many Missouri towns.  It continues to depict them joining Quanitrill for the Lawrence Massacre.  At several points, countering actions of Union solders and their Jayhawker counterparts are also shown.  In addition to accurate depictions of the warfare, it showed the tensions between the mostly British-descended southern supporters and the newer Union-supporting German immigrants.  It was based on a novel by Daniel Woodrell, Woe to Live On (later renamed to match the movie).  I hope to read the novel and compare the two someday.

Enemy Women Cover

Enemy Women cover; from and linked to

Second, is Paulette Jiles 2002 novel Enemy Women.  Set in Southeastern Missouri, Enemy Women follows the fictional Adair Colley and her struggles.  It opens to an accurate depiction of a young woman attempting to manage her family and home by herself; the exception to the rule is that she is the oldest daughter of a widower.  Attempting to take her and her younger sisters to safety, they head north.  With all women under suspicion for hiding their male family members from Union soldiers or as southern spies, when they stop for assistance at Fort Davidson, Adair is arrested as a spy and sent to Gratiot Street Prison in St. Louis.  Gratiot Street Prison was an infamous for holding captured Confederates and guerrillas, women spies, Union deserters, and civilians thought to be disloyal in deplorable conditions.  This novel accurately depicts both life in the prison and the guerrilla raids Adair and her sisters face on their journey.  Both Enemy Women and Ride with the Devil also depict romantic relationships, but do so in a way that does not harm historical integrity.

As we can see, Missouri has a long history of southern versus northern tensions and this led to  much internal fighting between Missourians during the Civil War.  Unlike other states which overwhelming supported one side or the other, Missouri was truly a state most divided, even compared to the other border states.  Even today, many of these divisions can still be found in the state with thoughts towards politics, local governance, and regional beliefs.  Why?  When Missouri was settled, after the initial French and Spanish settlers prior to the Louisiana Purchase, the majority of the settlement in the southern half of the state came from Virginia and the Carolinas while the majority of settlers in the north had roots in New England.  Additionally, many of Germanic origin settled in the major cities and along the Missouri River Valley in between.

*  Tobey Mcguire, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Simon Baker, Skeet Ulrich, James Caviezel, Mark Ruffalo, and Jewel were the main cast.

Updated: 9/5/2012.  A link has been created on Samuel S. Hildebrand.  Following it takes the reader to a photograph of Hildebrand from the Jefferson County (Missouri) Library’s Facebook page that was posted earlier today.


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