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

More Than Bullets

The Social Impact of Guerrilla War in the Ozarks

by William Garrett Piston

The scene is a familiar one, born of folk memory, perpetuated in memoirs, and enshrined in movies and television. Blue-coated figures tramp a dusty road toward an uncertain objective, senses dulled by fatigue. Beneath tilted caps, sweat drips from the faces of young men whose downcast countenance suggests a deep alienation from their surroundings. Where are they? Clearly, far from home.

The action begins with a shout, close by, but from an unexpected direction. Heads turn. Even before the first fusillade of shots, a chorus of voices blend in a rising scream that causes every Yankee face to turn white. The surrounding forrest gives violent birth to a swarm of gray riders, their speed a testament to the harmony of man and horse. Pistols crack, and in an accent usually Irish, but sometimes German or New England, the dreaded word is spoken: "Guerrillas!" The contest is brief, violent, almost primeval in its fury. When the smoke clears, corpses litter the road, wounded invaders writhe in agony, and the sheltering woods swallow the daring riders. Such, at least, is the stereotype.

Like many stereotypes it contains an element of truth. The Civil War in the Ozarks was marked by countless ambuscades. The chief weakness of the simplistic scenario lies in the implication that guerrilla warfare primarily affected adult males. The addition of a few frightened teenagers will do little to correct the picture. True, many Confederate guerrillas were young; so were many of their opponents. But what of the women and children? The men too old or unfit for military service? That dusty road went from somewhere to somewhere, and along the way, whether on isolated farms or in small villages, lived the common people of the Ozarks.

Bushwhacker, Jayhawker, guerrilla, partisan ranger. The terms were applied to men engaged in a bitter war-within-a-war, but their vicious struggle rippled through Ozarks society in its entirety, sparing no one, regardless of age or gender. More than hearth and home were threatened. As Michael Fell-man notes in Inside the War: The Guerrilla Conflict in Missouri During the American Civil War, the struggle "pounded against all those cultural ligaments which tied people to one another and normally gave the security necessary for individuals to organize their psyches and their lives."

The people of the Ozarks had much in common. Largely descendants of Scots-lrish pioneers, most identified with the South, yet owned few slaves. More importantly, they were united by a heritage of Protestant Christianity which instilled in them a strong sense of right and wrong. But guerrilla or partisan warfare eroded the distinctions between right and wrong, for guerrillas lived off the countryside. As Mao Tse-Tung notes in his famous"little red book," the people form a sea in which the guerrilla swims; without their support, the guerrilla cannot survive.

Cooperation with guerrillas, however, carried a price, as efforts by the Union government to suppress unconventional warfare became increasingly draconian. Property was destroyed and lives were lost, all in the name of restoring law and order. Nor were guerrillas always content to wait for voluntary assistance. Many exacted tribute from local farmers in a manner little different from open robbery. The Ozarks region thus constituted a turbulent ocean. It was every bit as dangerous for the nameless men and women who remained in villages or on their family farms as it was for reckless riders of legend such as William Quantrill and Bill Anderson.

Guerrilla warfare was not entirely new to Ozarks families in 1861. The struggle over slavery in "Bleeding Kansas," which dated from 1854, first introduced Ozarks residents to the brutality of war without rules. Fathers, husbands, and brothers had shouldered rifles and headed west, some never to return. But most of the Ozarks lay east of the troubled border region, and Ozarkians made up only a portion of the so-called "Border Ruffians." It took the Civil War to bring guerrilla warfare home to families in Missouri and Arkansas, and this largely as an accident of geography and technology.

The large, complex armies of the nineteenth century required rail or water connections to sustain their operations. Railroads and waterways linked Kansas City, St. Louis, Jefferson City, and Rolla in Missouri. Rivers provided communications between Little Rock and Helena, Arkansas. But in a vast region stretching from the Oklahoma line through northern Arkansas and up into southern Missouri, earthen roads and wooded trails limited travel to foot-power or horseflesh. Rugged terrain further impeded the prospects of sustained campaigns in the Ozarks, which lacked sufficient agricultural resources for armies to live off the countryside for extended periods.


Under these circumstances, the Ozarks region should have been ignored by both sides. But it was not, for the Civil War was above all else a political war. Both Union and Confederacy lay claim to the Ozarks, making the presence of enemy forces unavoidable, yet unacceptable. The maneuvers which culminated in battles such as Wilson's Creek, Pea Ridge, and Prairie Grove amply demonstrated the near impossibility of sustaining large standing forces for any length of time. Northern and Southern commanders therefore resorted to mounted units small enough to live off the land.

The Northern goal was pacification, a restoration of law and order, and the re-establishment of loyalty to the Union. Although most Ozarkians probably preferred neutrality, when forced to choose most sided with the Union despite their Southern antecedents. This strengthened the Federal government's determination to control the region, for the retention of a "loyal" slave state such as Missouri had political as well as military benefits for Lincoln's administration.

Confederate objectives included the expulsion of a "foreign" invader, and the disruption of enemy operations in a manner calculated to tie down a disproportionate amount of his resources. Revenge, for either real or imagined atrocities, soon joined the list of motivations for both sidles.

Had the achievement of these goals been entrusted to well-trained, disciplined troops directed by responsible, centralized leadership, the war in the Ozarks might have differed little from that in Tennessee or Virginia. But manpower limitations and the shortsightedness of authorities in Richmond and Washington, combined with the isolation and poor communications resulting from rugged terrain, gave the struggle for the Ozarks a viciousness unparalleled in American history.

Caught in the middle were thousands of families, who increasingly were forced to make decisions based not upon their innate sense of right and wrong, but upon nothing less than the need for survival. An Ozarks farm woman, living in semi-isolation and heading the family because of her husband's absence for military service, faced acute crisis every time soldiers approached her home. Who were they.9 The answer to such a simple question is basic to the adoption of proper behavior during social interaction. In a civil war, however, misidentification had potentially grave consequences for life and property. Yet identity was perhaps the most elusive component of the war in the Ozarks.

Lacking men and material, Southern commanders west of the Mississippi took full advantage of Confederate laws authorizing independent companies of partisan rangers. Although required to report regularly, most did not, and the Ozarks swarmed with bands of men whose allegiance to the South varied from sincere to conditional. Only a few donned identifiable Confederate uniforms. Either from a lack of supplies or as a deliberate ruse de guerre many of these guerrillas wore captured Union uniforms, while other wore civilian clothes. Under the usages of nineteenth century warfare, those not properly uniformed were liable to immediate execution if captured. Facing the death penalty, Confederate guerrillas played for keeps, and as they relied on forage for food, the dividing line between patriotism and banditry could be razor thin.

Accents provided few clues for civilians confronting soldiers. While the Federals used troops from several Northern states to fight guerrillas in the Ozarks, the demands for manpower elsewhere forced the military to create various home guard units. In theory, local citizens of unquestioned loyalty would establish law and order, providing a shield behind which social norms would be re-established. In reality, Union militia, particularly in Missouri, often used their positions to exact revenge upon the families of Southern soldiers. Law and order sometimes gave way to extortion. Poorly trained and disciplined, indifferently uniformed and equipped, these Union "patriots" bore more than a little resemblance to their Confederate partisan counterparts. Some Federal officials admitted openly that their men were as deserving of the title "guerrilla" as were the enemy. Indeed, there are numerous documented cases, and a plethora of suspected ones, in which Union militia pretended to be Confederate guerrillas in order to plunder civilians with impunity. Some regularly enlisted state troops, particularly those from Kansas, considered all residents of the Ozarks to be Southerners and enemies by definition. Led by men such as James Lane and Charles Jennison, Kansas exacted deadly, heavy-handed justice upon anyone who dared oppose them. There were no limits to the violence. To give but one example: In Arkansas, Union authorities arrested fifteen of their own officers and enlisted men on charges of robbery and "feet burning."

Under these circumstances, all armed men--indeed, any strangers--constituted potential threats to Ozarks civilians. Mistreated by both sides, they consequently developed a technique that historian Michael Fellman has labeled the "survival lie." Behavior ceased to be based on shared community values of fight and wrong; rather, any behavior which provided a chance of saving life and limb became acceptable. Civilians learned to ask no questions of visitors in the night, to feed all who requested food, and to acquiesce without protest to appropriations of their property. This bizarre environment produced acute psychological stress. It stemmed from a sense of social collapse and the creation of a milieu in which the ordinary rules of human behavior no longer applied. This stress was exacerbated by the awareness that the strangers in the dark demanding food might be directly responsible for the past or future death of one's kinsmen. Who could tell? Yet acquiescence brought no assurance of safety, for there was always the fear of retribution from the other side. Claims that assistance had been coerced usually fell on deaf ears. Barns and houses went up in smoke.


Powerless against the soldiers of either side, civilians struck back at the only available targets: each other. Unable to offer individual, direct resistance to the nightriders, civilians sought to destroy the basis for their effectiveness by informing on each other, thereby eliminating the guerrilla's sources of supply. In short, they reached the same conclusions as the military. With a brutally cold logic that seems "rational" only amid the insanity of war, Ozarks civilians legitimized their own status as targets. Union war records overflow with reports from civilians testifying against neighbors. While some were probably motivated by pre-war feuds, the amount and nature of the testimony indicates that Ozarkians saw this as a method of restoring communal order. A vicious cycle was thus created.

Much has been made of the famous Order No. 11, by which the Federal government attempted to remove all citizens, regardless of loyalty, from troublesome Missouri counties along the Kansas border. Yet the brutality of the war in the Ozarks had almost the same effect, and it encompassed a far greater area. Portions of the Ozarks, particularly in southwest Missouri and northwestern Arkansas, were virtually depopulated as thousands of people fled. Some left to avoid violence, others departed as a result of it, their homes destroyed. While rape, looting, and murder occurred in the Ozarks, the most common response of either Union or Confederate guerrillas toward civilians suspected of supporting the enemy was to burn them out. Civilians themselves advocated such treatment, providing, of course, that it happened to someone on the other side. There are no statistics for property damage in the Ozarks during the Civil War, but it clearly exceeded the combined effect of every natural disaster in the region's history. Measured in 1991 dollars it would total hundreds of millions. With the shortage of adult male labor, and the disruption of the agricultural cycle caused by the confiscation of the oxen and mules needed for plowing and harvesting, Ozarks families went hungry. Cut off from towns by the destruction of bridges and the dangers of travel, farm families which had begun shifting to a market economy reverted to subsistence agriculture. Worn out shoes and clothes could not be replaced. Soldiers passing through the Ozarks reporting seeing residents reduced to a state of nakedness. Many farms were destroyed outright, but many more were simply abandoned and left to decay, as residents fled either north or south to escape the chaos. Northern Arkansas was particularly devastated. Approximately two-thirds of all farms went tenantless for a great part of the war. Fayetteville, Hopeville, Hot Springs, Berryville, and Carrollton were virtually destroyed by the contesting forces of North and South. Of those civilians who remained in the region, perhaps a thousand perished either from starvation or diseases which preyed on the malnourished. Conditions in Missouri were equally grim.

Neither the Union nor the Confederate government was prepared for the thousands of refugees who streamed out of the Ozarks. Crowded together in places such as Little Rock, Fort Smith, and St. Louis, their suffering due to temporary overcrowding, food shortages, poor sanitation, and concomitant disease resembled that of the runaway slaves who flocked around the liberating Union armies. Hundreds died. A generation of Ozarks children was scarred, emotionally as well as physically.

So much property was abandoned in northwest Arkansas that the occupying Federal army established agricultural communes composed of refugee families. These were similar to the kibbutz system used in modem Israel. Protected by blockhouses (miniature forts), armed farmers worked the land in common and shared the responsibility for the settlement' s defense. In theory, all residents were loyal to the Union. Communes were established at Union Valley and West Fork in Washington County, Bentonville and Pea Ridge in Benton County, and Brush Creek, Huntsville, Richland, and War Eagle in Madison County. The concept was relatively successful, yet in the spring of 1865, the last year of the war, the Federal commander at Fort Smith reported the presence of 5,000 starving civilians. Most were refugees from the Ozarks. A full year after the war ended, an Arkansas newspaper reported that the northwest corner of the state was marked by "[w]asted farms, deserted cabins, lone chimneys marking the sites where dwellings have been destroyed by fire, and yards, gardens and fields overgrown with weeds and bushes...."

Missouri was equally effected. Although Confederate authorities in the Trans-Mississippi surrendered officially in late May, 1865, guerrilla conflict continued well into the following year. Historian Michael Fellman estimates that at least 300,000 people fled the state during the war. Many never returned to their homes. Contemporary sources report a steady migration of civilians to Texas, Colorado, California, and other points west. They were replaced after 1865 by immigrants from Northern states.

Although these newcomers tended to settle near towns and waterway s rather than in the more isolated regions of the Ozarks, the character of Missouri was forever altered. Since the end of the Civil War, the Ozark's Southernness has eroded dramatically, at least north of the Arkansas line.

It would be wrong, however, to divide Ozarks history simplistically into pre-Civil War and post-Civil War periods. The rich folk heritage that is celebrated today stands as a testimony to the region' s resilience and the triumph of continuity over catastrophe. But the catastrophe was genuine.


All Americans paid a price during the Civil War, but the residents of the Ozarks suffered disproportionately. There are no monuments honoring these common people for their sacrifices, but courage is their legacy, for they endured.


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