Vol. IV, No. 4, Spring 1991 / Vol. V, No. 1, Summer 1991

Terror In the Ozarks

"Then cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war."

Mark Antony to the ghost of Caesar in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar

The Confederacy named it The War Between the States. The Union officially made it The War of the Rebellion. Popularly it has always been The Civil War.

Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma knew the essence of civil war: no lines; few armies but unending bloodshed; guerrilla warfare; a victimized civilian population; atrocities without end; mounting terror; destroyed landscape, destroyed societies; and human misery beyond desperation. No-quarter civil war on frontiers is sickening.

In 1854 the Ozarks was still a remote, slumbering region, the quietude of its interior fastness interrupted but little by the activity on its flanks; mining and commerce in the east, rising Missouri River societies in the northern counties, stirrings on the frontiers to the south and west. Three years later the Graduation Act would set off a flurry of absentee-owner speculation in the Ozarks that was not ever to end.

But in 1854, out in Indian Territory, Congress created the new Territory of Kansas, and a struggle began there between pro- and anti-slave people that was in fact the beginning of the Civil War. That struggle for "Bleeding Kansas" quickly attained a ferocity that is difficult to grasp even now, when we are supposedly hardened to such things.

The warfare on the Missouri-Kansas border raised up cohorts of guerrillas, bandits, and cutthroats, who refined a new brand of frontier violence that was sucked into the Ozarks after the Civil War proper began, and savaged the region for more than a generation.

The interior Ozarks with its difficult terrain provided cover for self-declared Confederate bushwhackers and irregulars who sought recruits there for themselves and for Confederate forces in Arkansas. Equally vicious brigands wrapped themselves in the Union flag to prey upon real or imputed southern sympathizers. The truth is that neither Union nor Confederate armies could "pacify" (a modern euphemism) the Ozarks, nor, given the divided loyalties and simple individualism of so many Ozarkers, could locals defend themselves.

Whether marauding bushwhackers or avenging Union patrols on "search and destroy" missions, the result was pillage, fire and death. Dozens of towns and settlements were leveled, and river valleys were laid waste. Many Ozarks counties were virtually depopulated, as survivors fled for their lives.

The land lay open to the Dogs of War.


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