Thursday, January 20, 2011

Geiger: "FINANCIAL FRAUD AND GUERRILLA VIOLENCE IN MISSOURI'S CIVIL WAR, 1861-1865"

[Financial Fraud and Guerrilla Violence in Missouri's Civil War, 1861-1865 by Mark Geiger (Yale University Press, 2010). Hardcover, maps, photos, tables, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:158/314. ISBN: 978-0-300-15151-0 $55]

Most readers interested in the Civil War in Missouri know that, after the hostile June 1861 Planter's Hotel meeting in St. Louis between Union General Nathaniel Lyon and Missourians Governor Claiborne Jackson and former governor Sterling Price, the state legislature responded to Lyon's threats by authorizing the creation of the Missouri State Guard. What is less well known is how this new military force was funded and the how the means employed led to profound and unintended consequences. A work of refreshing originality, Mark Geiger's Financial Fraud and Guerrilla Violence in Missouri's Civil War, 1861-1865 explores the issue on several levels. It first seeks to establish the facts behind a conspiracy between Gov. Jackson and the pro-secession managers of Missouri's rural branch banks to funnel funds to the secessionist militia. Geiger also attempts to make the case that the fraud was a (and perhaps the) significant factor in intensifying the guerrilla conflict. Finally, the author believes the unforeseen financial and legal fallout destroyed the power of the pro-southern political class, driving many of its members from the state altogether. Unlike Kentucky (which many wags maintain became a Confederate state after the war), post-war Missouri's southern drain, combined with the continued heavy influx of northerners, ensured that it could not maintain a significant sectional identity.

Before he was elected governor, Claiborne Jackson was the state banking commissioner, a role that obviously familiarized him with the system and its deep intertwining of family connections [in Missouri's case, the planter community] with commerce. Thus, he was well positioned to take advantage of the fact that three-fourths of the branch presidents (located across the state, but outside St. Louis) were at least initially pro-southern in sentiment. Geiger does an excellent job of relating to the reader who these men were and documenting their connections to, and financial dealings with, prominent secessionist families. The author, an experienced professional financial auditor, pored through circuit court records to discover that at least $3 million dollars was diverted to the Missouri State Guard and Confederate forces in the state from the banks in the period 1861-62. The pro-southern men that signed these promissory notes did not expect to be held responsible for the debt, as Jackson assured them that the state would assume the principal and interest after the fighting ended.  Unfortunately for all concerned, Union forces rapidly took control of most of the state, arresting or replacing all the bank officers and suing the note signers for recovery of the money.  With the signers unable to pay, hundreds of the thousands of acres of land were seized and auctioned during the war.

All of the above is very clearly explained by the author and backed by extensive evidence. However, the overriding thesis of Geiger's book, that these widespread forced sales were the primary force behind the extraordinary level of guerrilla violence in the state remains largely unconvincing. Although the author makes a valiant and impressive effort, from multiple angles1, to link the two2, the fact that the guerrillas left behind little in the way of documentation [there is no primary evidence linking guerrilla motivation to the land seizures] seems to preclude such a confident assertion.  The author's statement that "it seems likely that without the indebtedness, the incidence of guerrilla violence in Missouri would have been closer to that experienced in other border states" (pg. 111) strikes one as an oversimplification and an interpretive leap, especially when one considers the excellent scholarship dealing with the 'inner' Civil War that has emerged in recent decades, demonstrating that the intensity of violence in Missouri is not as unique as previously thought. Nevertheless, just because Geiger's argument appears inconclusive does not make it implausible, and indebtedness as a contributing factor to guerrilla violence is certainly compelling on some level.

However one regards his main thesis, Mark Geiger's discovery and documentation of the conspiracy hatched by Missouri politicians and sympathetic bank officers to funnel massive amounts of money toward the support of state militia and Confederate forces is a major achievement. His work is also an extremely valuable introduction to the antebellum banking system that existed there. Financial Fraud and Guerrilla Violence in Missouri's Civil War, 1861-1865 is recommended reading for all students of the conflict in that troubled state.

Notes:
1 - Factors include family connections between young guerrillas and the older note signers, geographical overlap, and the timing of increased guerrilla activity with that of land seizures.
2 - In addition to the book's expansive endnotes, 70 pages of documentation append the work. This material includes a fine historiographical essay, notes on methodology, an outline of numerical data and calculations, a list of the promissory note court cases that comprised the author's sample for analysis, and, finally, a large group of data tables pertaining to Missouri banks, bankers, defendants, cases, guerrillas, and planters.

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