Missouri: The Civil War Inside

This entry is part 3 of 14 in the series The Divided States of the South

Missouri in the civil warThe state of Missouri and the border areas of Kansas were among the most hotly contended in the war. Pro- and anti-slavery groups had been fighting for supremacy starting in 1854. In fact, conflict over the Missouri Territory had begun in 1820 with the passage of the Missouri Compromise primarily for the regulation of slavery in the western territories.

While attempts at conciliation seemed to be prevalent in the Eastern Theater, events in the Trans-Mississippi Theater took a different tack. Missouri and her neighbors to the north and the south were the scenes of violent activity against the civilian populations.

The Missouri-Kansas border war of the 1850’s set the tone for this bloody activity. Free Soil Jayhawkers and pro-slavery Border Ruffians repeatedly clashed in a bloody proxy war that presaged the Civil War. John Brown and his sons were militant Jayhawkers who eventually took their campaign to the East and Harper’s Ferry.

Missouri was a Border slave state and had been a key state in the North-South seesaw battle before the war. At the onset of the war Missouri was deeply divided. The Missouri legislature called for a special convention to vote on secession. The convention voted decisively to remain with the Union but Pro-Southern Governor Claiborne F. Jackson had other ideas. He mobilized several hundred members of the state militia who had gathered in a camp in St. Louis for training.

Union General Nathaniel Lyon struck first, encircling the camp and forcing the state troops to surrender. Lyon directed his soldiers, largely non-English-speaking German immigrants, to march the prisoners through the streets, and they opened fire on the largely hostile crowds of civilians who gathered around them. Soldiers killed unarmed prisoners as well as men, women and children of St. Louis in the incident that became known as the “St. Louis Massacre“.

These events heightened Confederate support within the state yet Missouri never left the Union and 75% of Missourians who wore a uniform served in the Union Army or the Unionist State Militia. Despite this the Union Army treated Missouri as if it was enemy territory.

This attitude was due primarily to Nathaniel Lyon and Francis P. Blair Jr. Their uncompromising attitude almost immediately ignited a guerrilla war that was to last throughout the entire war.

After the St. Louis Massacre, Lyon declared war against Jackson and his pro-Southern Missouri State Guard. He chased them as far as Wilson’s Creek where he was killed in a fight where his forces were outnumbered 2-to-1. But by then he had been instrumental in keeping Missouri in the Union.

By then the die was cast. Missouri would be the scene of many bloody confrontations that were devoid of any semblance of gallantry or fairness. The pro-Southern Missourians formed companies of bushwackers that attacked Union troops at every opportunity and then disappeared into the general population.

Unable to strike back at their tormentors, Union authorities decided to make the civilian population pay for their attacks. Lyon gave orders that were similar to other Union commanders. He condemned pillaging and urged his men to respect private property. But when it came to active secessionists he was extremely harsh.

In the central Missouri district nicknamed “Little Dixie” Brig. Gen. John Pope appointed committees of public safety. At least two members were prominent secessionists. If the attacks did not stop, Pope said, “…I desire that you will give them plainly to understand that unless peace is preserved, their property will be immediately levied upon, and their contribution collected at once in any kind of property at hand.” Other Union commanders used the same techniques to tamp down support for the secessionists.

Though regular Confederate troops staged some large-scale raids into Missouri, the fighting in the state for the next three years consisted chiefly of guerrilla warfare. “Citizen soldiers” or insurgents such as Colonel William QuantrillFrank and Jesse James, the Younger brothers, and William T. Anderson made use of quick, small-unit tactics.

Meanwhile , Small remnants of the Missouri Guard remained in the state and fought isolated battles throughout the war. Price soon came under the command and control of the Confederates. In March 1862, any hopes for a new offensive in Missouri were dimmed in the Battle of Pea Ridge just south of the border in Arkansas. The Missouri State Guard was to stay largely intact as a unit through the war and was to suffer heavy casualties in Mississippi in the Battle of Iuka and Second Battle of Corinth.

Pioneered by the Missouri Partisan Rangers, such insurgencies also arose in portions of the Confederacy occupied by the Union during the Civil War. Recently historians have assessed the James brothers’ outlaw years as continuing guerrilla warfare after the official war was over.

In 1863 following the Lawrence Massacre in Kansas, Union General Thomas Ewing, Jr. accused farmers in rural Missouri of either instigating the attack or supporting it. He issued General Order No. 11 which forced the evacuation of all residents of rural areas of the four counties (Jackson, Cass, Bates and Vernon) south of the Missouri River on the Kansas border to leave their property, which was then burned.

The order applied to farmers regardless of loyalty, although those who could prove their loyalty to the Union could stay in designated towns and those who could not were exiled entirely. Most of the soldiers who carried out the order were Kansas volunteers, who regarded all Missourians as “rebels” to be punished, even though many residents of the four counties named in Ewing’s orders were pro-Union or neutralist in sentiment.

Animals and farm property were stolen or destroyed; houses, barns and outbuildings were burned to the ground. Some civilians were even summarily executed, a few as old as seventy years of age. Ewing’s four counties became a devastated “no man’s land,” with only charred chimneys and burnt stubble showing where homes and thriving communities had once stood, earning the sobriquet “The Burnt District.” There are very few remaining antebellum homes in this area due to the Order.

Ironically, Ewing’s order had the opposite military effect from what he intended: instead of eliminating the guerrillas, it gave them immediate and unlimited access to supplies. The Bushwhackers were able to help themselves to abandoned chickens, hogs and cattle, left behind when their owners were forced to flee. Smokehouses were sometimes found to contain hams and bacon, while barns often held feed for horses.

With the Confederacy clearly losing the war in 1864, Sterling Price reassembled his Missouri Guard and launched a last gasp offensive to take Missouri. However, Price was unable to repeat his 1861 victorious campaigns in the state. Striking in the southeastern portion of the state, Price moved north, and attempted to capture Fort Davidson but failed.

Next, Price sought to attack St. Louis but found it too heavily fortified and thus broke west in a parallel course with the Missouri River. This took him through the (relatively) friendly country of the “Boonslick”, which had provided a large percentage of the Missouri volunteers who had joined the CSA. Ironically, although Price had issued orders against pillage, many of the pro-Confederate civilians in this area (which would be known as “Little Dixie” after the war) suffered from looting and depredations at the hands of Price’s men.

The Federals attempted to retard Price’s advance through both minor and substantial skirmishing such as at Glasgow and Lexington. Price made his way to the extreme western portion of the state, taking part in a series of bitter battles at the Little Blue, Independence, and Byram’s Ford. His Missouri campaign culminated in the battle of Westport in which over 30,000 troops fought, leading to the defeat of the Southern army. The Missourians retreated through Kansas and Indian Territory into Arkansas, where they stayed for the remainder of the war.


Series Navigation<< Virginia Divided and OccupiedMississippi and the Free State of Jones >>

3 thoughts on “Missouri: The Civil War Inside

  1. Really interesting facts about Missouri that I didn’t know, especially the St. Louis massacre. Thanks for the info. If you happen to have any info on the Catholic Sisters who nursed during the war I would appreciate it. Photos would be miraculous!! Our next app is about the Sisters who nursed on the Red Rover, but we are doing a series of these apps, our first Civil War Truce tells the story of Sister Lucy who nursed typhoid victims in Paducah. Just thougt I’d ask. thanks

Leave a Reply