[Extreme Civil War: Guerrilla Warfare, Environment, and Race on the Trans-Mississippi Frontier by Matthew M. Stith (Louisiana State University Press, 2016). Hardcover, map, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:177/230. ISBN:978-0-8071-6314-6. $42.50]
With the horrific and well documented excesses of the wars of the twentieth century serving as the benchmark for many when describing mankind at its worst, most observers are loath to place the American Civil War in the same category. However, there were pockets of Civil War conflict that did approach what some might call "total war," and one such area is examined in historian Matthew Stith's Extreme Civil War. Instead of once again revisiting the bloody lower Kansas-Missouri border, Stith's study shifts the nexus of people and events southward in a fresher direction to encompass not only those sections of Kansas and Missouri but also large swaths of NE Indian Territory and NW Arkansas. If ever there was a true Civil War "no man's land", one with a near complete breakdown of society, commerce, law, and order within its boundaries, it was this rugged and largely underdeveloped borderland shared by Kansas, Missouri, Indian Territory and Arkansas.
In Extreme Civil War: Guerrilla Warfare, Environment, and Race on the Trans-Mississippi Frontier, Stith traces the near absolute disintegration of a frontier border society only recently placed on the road to prosperity. Railroads were still absent from the region in 1860, but white settlements and some industrial developments (like the lead mines at Granby) were prospering and tribes traumatically resettled to the Indian Territory (like the relatively populous Cherokee) were regaining their footing. As the book amply shows, the war dramatically halted this shared growth and progress, changing all of it for the worse.
As Daniel Sutherland and Clay Mountcastle persuasively demonstrated in their recent breakthrough studies of the irregular Civil War, Stith reveals that all the elements of what would come to be known as "hard war," including the targeting of civilians, were present on the Trans-Mississippi's western border from the conflict's earliest moments. Although the regular forces of both sides traversed the area on an infrequent basis (and Union garrisons permanently occupied key points), the guerrilla war was the war for the vast majority of the civilian population, one often characterized by daily terrors. As Stith notes, attacks by southern sympathizing guerrillas only encouraged harsher and more indiscriminate Union measures aimed at controlling the population and eradicating bushwhackers. Sutherland's view (in A Savage Conflict) of guerrilla warfare as generally counterproductive to Confederate national interests (in a military sense as well as in alienating the civilian population) is well borne out by Stith's research regarding this particular region. Routinely engaging in the same brand of murder, arson, and robbery, the Union occupiers did not enhance their own case as upholders of social justice and order. In exploring this widespread terrorization of non-combatants, Stith reaches deep into the archives, with every facet of his book enriched by firsthand accounts written by soldiers and civilians from both sides. Some are penned by figures familiar to students of the Civil War in the Trans-Mississippi but many are not.
By the war's midpoint, society at the western edge of Trans-Mississippi settlement had devolved into the kind of nihilistic free-for-all that Michael Fellman described so vividly in Inside War, his classic study of Missouri's guerrilla conflict. A natural response to this scale of human disaster is to flee, and Stith's book also documents well the refugee crisis (white, black, and Indian) that engulfed the region, one that depopulated entire areas and often overpowered the civilian aid resources of Union military authorities. In terms of death, desolation, and displacement, Stith's study reinforces arguments put forth by previous scholars (most recently by Clarissa Confer, Mary Jane Warde, and others) that the tribes residing in Indian Territory suffered more than any other segment of American society from the ravages of the Civil War, ironically a conflict none of them wanted in the first place.
The war's connection with the environment, both in terms of the natural surroundings and attempts by both sides to alter (or take advantage of) existing terrain, is another important theme of Extreme Civil War. Bruce Nichols's colossal four-volume history of Missouri's guerrilla conflict perhaps best illustrates the seasonal nature of that mode of warfare in the state, and Stith's findings clearly suggest that the phenomenon held true in other parts of the Trans-Mississippi. With refugees of all races pouring into Union safe havens in Kansas and elsewhere, depopulation meant an explosion of the feral hog population and the return of wildlife, ironically increasing the available food supply for foraging soldiers and guerrillas. As part of their counterguerrilla strategy, Union soldiers and militia also set fire to forest land in an unsuccessful attempt to rob enemy bushwhackers of their cover. Non-combatants sought to alter their surroundings, as well. As an act of self-preservation, pro-Union civilians who wished to remain in the region sometimes banded together into fortified farm colonies, their stockade defenses and armed guards deterring both bushwhackers and less discriminant Union army foragers seeking easy targets for supplies and plunder. Weather also played a role in how the irregular war was fought. The winter of 1863-64 was the coldest in two decades and an extended drought meant that supply ships could not reach Union garrisons situated along the upper reaches of the Arkansas River. Coinciding with the period when the guerrilla conflict was at its worst, these factors severely limited the distance Union military expeditions could operate from their bases and also meant the needs of suffering refugees could not be met.
Was this frontier indeed where the Civil War was at its most "extreme"? With the region's civilian population already living a precarious existence before being targeted by the armed supporters of both sides and subjected to daily terrors (including the very real threats of murder, torture, robbery, and arson) that only increased in frequency as the war progressed, one is hard pressed to imagine a worse situation for non-combatants. While certainly a more rare occurrence, even women could not escape the worst of fates in this lawless frontier. From the evidence provided in Stith's book, an argument can certainly be made that all of this, combined with an unforgiving environment, did indeed create the Civil War's closest approximation to a "total war."
In recent years, there's been an explosion of scholarly interest in contested Civil War borderlands, especially involving areas touching Missouri, Kentucky, and (West)ern Virginia. By directing its own focus much more to the west, to a Trans-Mississippi frontier that encompassed Indian Territory and the bleeding edge of the harshest brand of hard war experienced by both sides, Extreme Civil War considerably expands the geographical area under consideration by border war scholars and enhances our understanding of just how frightening and deadly the war could be for civilians The book also succeeds in making meaningful connections with newer branches of study (like environmental history). For all the reasons stated above, Extreme Civil War is highly recommended reading.
More CWBA reviews of LSUP titles:
* Two Civil Wars: The Curious Shared Journal of a Baton Rouge Schoolgirl and a Union Sailor on the USS Essex
* Damn Yankees! Demonization and Defiance in the Confederate South
* Citizen-officers: The Union and Confederate Volunteer Junior Officer Corps in the American Civil War
* Civil War Infantry Tactics: Training, Combat, and Small-Unit Effectiveness
* The Enigmatic South: Toward Civil War and Its Legacies
* Corps Commanders in Blue: Union Major Generals in the Civil War
* Gateway to the Confederacy: New Perspectives on the Chickamauga and Chattanooga Campaigns, 1862-1863
* Emancipation, the Union Army, and the Reelection of Abraham Lincoln
* Greyhound Commander: Confederate General John G. Walker's History of the Civil War West of the Mississippi
* Knights of the Golden Circle: Secret Empire, Southern Secession, Civil War
* Milliken's Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory
* Battle of Stones River: The Forgotten Conflict Between the Confederate Army of Tennessee and the Union Army of the Cumberland
* Granbury's Texas Brigade: Diehard Western Confederates
* The Last Battle of the Civil War: United States Versus Lee, 1861-1883
* Confederate Guerrilla: Champ Ferguson and the Civil War in Appalachia
* Lincoln and Citizens' Rights in Civil War Missouri: Balancing Freedom and Security
* War No More: The Antiwar Impulse in American Literature, 1861-1914
* Isham G. Harris of Tennessee: Confederate Governor and United States Senator
* Executing Daniel Bright: Race, Loyalty, and Guerrilla Violence in a Coastal Carolina Community 1861-1865
* Mosquito Soldiers: Malaria, Yellow Fever, and the Course of the American Civil War
* Homegrown Yankees: Tennessee's Union Cavalry in the Civil War
* John Bankhead Magruder: A Military Reappraisal
* A Wisconsin Yankee in the Confederate Bayou Country: The Civil War Reminiscences of a Union General
* Bleeding Borders: Race, Gender, and Violence in Pre-Civil War Kansas
* Jefferson Davis and the Civil War Era
* Where Men Only Dare to Go Or the Story of a Boy Company, C.S.A.
* Encyclopedia of Civil War Shipwrecks
* Walker’s Texas Division, C.S.A.: Greyhounds of the Trans-Mississippi
* The Confederate Cherokees: John Drew's Regiment of Mounted Rifles
* A Crisis In Confederate Command: Edmund Kirby Smith, Richard Taylor, And The Army Of The Trans-Mississippi
* The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock