Monday, February 17, 2014


[Guerrilla Warfare in Civil War Missouri, Volume III, January - August 1864 by Bruce Nichols (McFarland ph. 800-253-2187, 2014). Softcover, maps, photos, drawings, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:400/487. ISBN:978-0-7864-3813-6 $39.95]

Guerrilla Warfare in Civil War Missouri, January - August 1864 is the penultimate release of a colossal undertaking, author Bruce Nichols's four volume micro-history of the 1862-65 bushwhacking, jayhawking, and clandestine Confederate recruitment activities spanning every corner of the state. In keeping with the established geographical and temporal matrix developed in the two earlier books covering the years 1862 and 1863, Volume III at its highest level of organization categorizes events by quadrant (NW/NE/SW/SE) and season, with two additional layers shepherding the reader down to meticulously documented guerrilla and counter-guerrilla action.

By most measures, the latter part of the 1864 period covered in the book represents the peak of guerrilla violence in the state during the Civil War. While it remains unclear how well coordinated the actions of guerrilla bands were with Confederate authorities headquartered in Arkansas, rumors and a high level of anticipation associated with the planned 1864 invasion of Missouri by the Confederate army led to substantial increases in both guerrilla violence and rear area recruitment drives by commissioned officers (their activities often shielded by local guerrillas). In terms of scale, the acts of violence described in the book run the full gamut, ranging from individual killings of soldiers and civilians on up to pitched battles between Union forces and bushwhacker bands numbering into the dozens and perhaps hundreds.

A truly gruesome and tragic picture of the 'cycle of violence' that plagued Missouri emerges in the book's pages. On the Union side, a combination of Missouri State Militia (MSM), Enrolled Missouri Militia (EMM), and US volunteer regiments send to the state to bolster the local forces confronted guerrillas directly, but they also committed a long string of atrocities against unarmed pro-Confederate civilians. Jayhawkers from Kansas, and even Missouri Union soldiers on leave from other theaters, frequently killed civilians thought to be part of the guerrilla support network. On the Confederate side, guerrillas, who could not expect to be spared if captured, fought a take-no-prisoners conflict with Union forces, while also murdering pro-Union civilians in alarming numbers. Learning from 1862, recruiters tended to avoid conflict.  One who did not heed the lesson was John Thornton, who initiated a premature uprising of his own in the false belief that Sterling Price's Confederate army was not long in coming.  Thornton's small army of recruits, numbering in the hundreds and bolstered by deserters from the "Paw Paw Militia" (81st and 82nd EMM regiments), was largely broken up by converging Union forces. Thornton's attempt to "liberate" NW Missouri and the Union response to it are abundantly detailed in the text.

The amount of research that went into the project is astounding. Every category of source material was judiciously consulted, but there's little doubt that no one has scoured newspapers and county and local histories to the degree that Nichols has done in order to assemble existing scraps of information on the state's guerrilla war. In recognition of the streak of unreliability that runs through such publications, the author diligently searched for corroborating material. Most of the endnotes contain a long list of citations, often numbering a dozen or more, as well as commentary. Maps, drawings, and photographs of individuals from both sides are abundant, but one wishes a better way to use visual aids to track locations and the flow of events had been devised for the series. The maps provided are basic and sterile, at the opposite scale of the narrative's micro-level action.

The nature of the book is overwhelmingly descriptive. A consideration of the culpability of Union and Confederate leaders and policy makers for the behaviors of their representatives and supporters in Missouri is beyond the scope of the work. Similarly, high level guerrilla warfare analysis and interpretation like that found in earlier works by Micheal Fellman, Clay Mountcastle, and Daniel Sutherland (to name a few) is not part of the series's mission. However, Union attempts to develop better strategies to combat guerrillas, many of which Nichols credits to new department commander William S. Rosecrans, are presented and evaluated. These include the first generalized attempt to arm local civilian groups to protect their own communities [presumably, this was previously discouraged for fear of their weapons and ammunition landing in the hands of the enemy], pairing Kansas and Missouri units together in the hope that this would prevent indiscriminate civilian targeting, and foot patrols aimed at surprising guerrillas in their own camps.

Nichols's work hasn't received a great deal of attention outside of Missouri specialists. That's a shame, because, among other things, it might prove incredibly useful in answering long standing questions about the war, one of which is numbers related. In Inside War: The Guerrilla Conflict in Missouri During the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1990), Michael Fellman broadly estimated that perhaps 10,000 civilians were victims of Missouri's retributive cycle of violence. Nichols's ground level work spanning the entire state could very well prove to be a useful tool in arriving at a figure of civilian deaths based on actual evidence.

Series Volume III is a highly recommended addition to the historiography of Civil War Missouri, a must-have for the guerrilla war reference library. The quality of the series has been maintained throughout its entire run and interested parties will eagerly await the final volume scheduled to be published later this year.

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