Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Review of: Beilein - "BUSHWHACKERS: Guerrilla Warfare, Manhood, and the Household in Civil War Missouri"

[Bushwhackers: Guerrilla Warfare, Manhood, and the Household in Civil War Missouri by Joseph M. Beilein Jr. (Kent State University Press, 2016). Hardcover, maps, photos, illustrations, notes, appendices, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:208/297. ISBN:978-1-60635-270-0. $34.95]

In both the scholarly and popular Civil War literatures, the Missouri bushwhacker is still commonly portrayed as a nihilistic outlaw, a hyper-violent societal misfit who all too often seemed to enjoy the act of killing. This enduring stereotype is emphatically rejected by historian Joseph Beilein in his book Bushwhackers: Guerrilla Warfare, Manhood, and the Household in Civil War Missouri, a thoughtful and uncommonly empathetic study that earnestly seeks a deeper understanding of the guerrilla fighter and his connection to the home front, a military and societal dynamic that the author terms the "household war."

In Bushwhackers, Beilein formulates a well developed response to Civil War historians (among them the highly respected Michael Fellman and Daniel Sutherland) whose scholarship has generally characterized the guerrilla conflict as internally divisive and a degenerative influence on southern society. For the local level in Missouri, Beilein instead finds that the guerrilla conflict more often acted as a binding process between fighters and area inhabitants, bringing together blood and marriage kinship groups as well as new "guerrilla family" relations, the latter a tight community connection forged through shared grievances or politics. Guerrilla family members often included wealthy male Confederate sympathizers of non-military age, war widows, and other female heads of household. Neither of these contrasting approaches to the subject, however, can convincingly account for the entire sweep of guerrilla war experience, illustrating just how problematic it can be to generalize about the "inner war" fought within the Border States and Confederate South.

In his study, Beilein presents an interesting comparison between a guerrilla logistics network created in the border counties of Missouri (for the purposes of the book, he calls this the "Fristoe" system) and one developed in the state's interior (the "Holtzclaw" system). He finds that Fristoe border network bonds (named after a prominent family of supporters) were far more geographically concentrated (within a single county) than Holtzclaw's more dispersed support nexus. Beilein's in-depth research into guerrilla chieftain Clifton Holtzclaw's three-county household supply line clearly demonstrates that the wider geographical extent of his "guerrilla family" network in central Missouri made his band much more elusive to Union authorities. While the infamous Order No. 11 was effective in dealing with the border county guerrillas, Holtzclaw's band remain active until war's end. The differences between the systems as outlined in the book are stark, but what's less clear is just how typical each network was to the border and central sections of the state.

As effective as Union quartermasters were in supplying their armies in the field and brush, the foodways chapter in Bushwhackers indicates that the guerrilla household logistical network worked even better, with fresher and better food offered in abundance by various female-headed (and to a lesser degree older male-headed) farms. For his study, Beilein examined a number of guerrilla groups, but once again the Holtzclaw system proved most illustrative. The author identified 32 households (the research data is well arranged in the appendices) across three counties as primary suppliers to Holtzclaw's band. Pre-war census data clearly showed that, when local suppliers were used on an alternating basis, small guerrilla groups would face no shortages and the civilian providers would also suffer minimal hardship in the process. Beilein's additional point that the Confederacy's conventional war, with its active front more distinctly separated from the home front, was far less attuned to the household war is well taken, but his suggestion that Robert E. Lee's opposition to guerrilla war may have been grounded in "vanity" (i.e. if his army dissolved into small groups, Lee could not have maintained his lofty command position) isn't terribly compelling.

Another fruitful comparison between the Confederate conventional soldier and guerrilla involves contrasting ideals of masculinity. According to Beilein (and others), the masculinity of the soldier was defined by his relationship with his comrades in the ranks, and he wore a uniform to represent this corporate association and identity. Guerrilla masculinity, on the other hand, was defined by fiercely individual expression and the reciprocal relationship between men and women. The guerrillas protected their female supporters from Union soldiers, militia, and outlaws while the women in turn supplied the needs and wants of the guerrillas. Perhaps the most visible intersection of the two above mentioned pillars of bushwhacker masculine sensibility was the famous and flamboyant guerrilla shirt, which was created by female allies and worn as a highly individualized badge of identity. In the discussion, Beilein also hints at some of the symbology surrounding specific embroidered features like flowers. Constructed from heavy cloth material and endowed with numerous pockets (to store extra ammunition, revolver cylinders, etc.), the oversized shirt was also a highly practical item for use in the field, especially on horseback.

At the time, Missouri guerrillas were universally described as excellent horsemen often riding atop thoroughbred horses. Horse ownership and equine maintenance both being expensive, this trait also had class implications, with many guerrillas coming from leading families that made mastery of the horse an important early element of manhood. Indeed, residents of those counties with the highest concentrations of guerrilla activity also had the state's most established horse culture (stretching all the way back to their colonial Virginia forbears). The high ratio of horses per white person in these counties made it relatively easy for fighters to swap worn down mounts for fresh ones. The author is probably correct that other scholars have taken this aspect of the guerrilla war largely for granted, and his quantitative research on horse ownership, among its other aspects, marks this particular section of the book as a more serious attempt at quantifying and understanding horse culture and its connections to the war than prior studies, which have been largely anecdotal in nature. Antebellum paramilitary experience fighting Indians, protecting the border during the Kansas troubles, and conducting slave patrols also prepared the fighters for the Civil War in the brush. The guerrillas therefore began the conflict with a tactical and material advantage over their opponents. The book's position that the balance between improved and unimproved land in Missouri perhaps represented the war's best environment for effective guerrilla operations is similarly credible, with the former providing more than enough food, shelter, and fodder for both fighters and civilians and the latter more than enough densely wild terrain to hide small insurgent groups.

At least in the context of the border/frontier guerrilla, the book persuasively revives the stereotype (somewhat discounted of late) of a southern fighter more comfortable with horses and firearms than his northern opponent. Frontier southern horse and gun culture (additionally fostered through the aforementioned slave patrols, border warfare, and Indian conflicts) allied during the war with the emergence of the perfect instrument for brush warfare in the form of the Colt revolver to the make the Missouri guerrilla a particularly deadly fighting machine. The book's gun culture argument is plausible in the main, weakened only a little by the author's admission that few fighters possessed pistols at the outset of the conflict (instead obtaining them later on through other means, including capture).

In places, Beilein's blanket criticisms of the existing literature can seem a bit unfair. His suggestion that "the military scholarship has not acknowledged that the guerrillas were fed by their friends and family" (pg. 86), instead supposing that guerrillas were primarily sustained through plunder, does not strike one as an entirely accurate assessment of the diversity of views expressed in the published work on the guerrilla conflict. Also, as good as the book's analysis is as a whole, it unravels a little bit at the end. In the final chapter, Beilein's claim that "(n)early the entire native-born white population outside the city of St. Louis held Southern sympathies" (pg. 176) is a considerable exaggeration. While many Missouri volunteer units were indeed filled with German immigrants or citizens from other states like neighboring Illinois, recruits from all across the state swelled the ranks of many others. The author's point that disaffection within the ranks of the compulsory Enrolled Missouri Militia represented significant pro-Southern feeling among the populace is accurate to a degree, but the several instances of active EMM collusion with the enemy (or even switching sides altogether) cited by Beilein and others in the literature did not represent the normal state of affairs, nor should the EMM be viewed as sufficiently representative of citizen allegiances as a whole. The Missouri State Militia, a full-time force funded by the federal government and tasked with fighting guerrillas, countering Confederate recruitment drives, and assisting with regular operations, is ignored entirely in Beilein's assessment, as is the Provisional Enrolled Missouri Militia (a select offshoot of the EMM). With an average effective total strength of something less than 10,000, the MSM organization was the primary counter-guerrilla force in the state from 1862 onward, and, contrary to Beilein's claims that the general unreliability of Missouri's internal security forces required the services of outside regiments (like the 2nd Colorado Cavalry), many of these militia regiments proved to be ruthlessly dedicated and effective guerrilla hunters. Beilein additionally appears less convinced than his fellow scholars have been of the dubiousness of the Missouri secession ordinance. With the better evidence arguably on the other side, the book's seeming lack of appreciation of the true breadth of political allegiances among native-born Missourians somewhat undermines the chapter's attempt to portray guerrillas not as societal "outliers" but as the true representatives of the household war in the state.

The study's coda includes an interesting discussion of the fate of guerrilla William C. Quantrill's bones, and contained in the appendices are both raw data and quantitative analysis related to Beilein's fairly large sample group of 122 Rebel households with 884 white members. Spawned from this extensive collection of material is the book's substantive study of the contrasting Fristoe and Holtzclaw guerrilla support networks mentioned above.

A largely effective counterpoint to some of the celebrated recent works that have attempted to synthesize the scholarship of the irregular conflict and develop broader themes designed to explain its nature, Bushwhackers reopens much of the debate to divergent views and certainly enriches the literature as a whole. Joseph Beilein's fascinating study is probably also the closest thing we have to a cultural history (social and material) of the Civil War guerrilla, at least the Missouri variety. It is highly recommended.

• For more CWBA reviews of KSU Press titles, go HERE

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