Missouri: The War Inside the War

This entry is part 5 of 18 in the series The Hard Hand of War

A State DividedWhile 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 1850s 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.

But 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.

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. Among those forced to leave were Kansas City founder John Calvin McCoy and its first mayor, William S. Gregory.



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