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Guerrilla Warfare in
Civil War Missouri, 1862
McFarland & Company, Inc
Box 611, Jefferson, North Carolina 28640
Hardcover, 256 pages, including index
published March 2004
Suggested Price: $45 + $4 s&h from publisher
now available for purchase
Reviewed by G. E. Rule
There is power in repetition. The mind can accept the explanations of historians that the Civil War in Missouri was a widespread conflict largely prosecuted by small groups of men in creek beds, wooded hillsides, farmyards, and dusty country roads from one end of the state to the other –but it takes a work like the new one by Bruce Nichols, Guerrilla Warfare in Civil War Missouri, 1862 to really internalize this fact at an emotional level.
Much admirable work has been done by previous chroniclers of the history of given Missouri guerrilla groups such as those lead by Quantrill and William Anderson. Michael Fellman’s Inside War provides a chronicling of the psychological impact on both sides of the guerrilla warfare that inflamed Missouri for four years. However, no previous chronicler has undertaken what Nichols does here –a discussion of every known action in the state for a given year.
This results, as might be imagined, in a great deal of the repetition noted above. Many of the same situations occur over and over again from county to county, month to month. For the general reader new to the story of Missouri in the Civil War, this probably makes Nichol’s book not the best place to start their education. For someone who has read a bit, and is interested in digging beyond the high-level summaries provided by others –in reaching an emotional understanding that exceeds the anecdotal through the sheer power of repetition—Nichol’s book will be greatly appreciated.
Nichols reports that he originally intended to take this approach to the entirety of the war in Missouri, rather than the single year presented here. He found the full project too daunting. Only those who can relate to the amount of time hunched over a microfilm reader and at tables in county historical societies can fully appreciate the amount of work this book represents, and the decision to limit it to one year. Still, if one had to pick one year above the others, clearly 1862 was the right choice. This was the year when the guerrilla war in Missouri really kicked into high gear, with both guerrillas and “recruiting commands” spread from one end of the state to the other. Having said that, one can hope that some day Nichols or someone else will complete the set –we would particularly love to see 1864 next –the lead-up, during, and aftermath of General Price’s Great Raid at this level of detail would be a quite interesting and useful addition to the historical record.
Nichols’ approach here is to divide the state into four quadrants, Northeast, Northwest, Southeast, Southwest, and deal with each through the four seasons of year, starting with the winter of 1861-1862. He also breaks up the narrative by inserting some independent essays between sections on relevant topics such as “Why Guerrillas?” and “The Enrolled Missouri Militia: Guerrilla’s Controversial New Enemy”. By taking this approach, one gets a very vivid picture of the Confederate tide rolling in from Arkansas early in the year, peaking in the summer in the Northern section of the state, and then receding again in the Fall, with its collection of new Confederate recruits to add to the CSA army and guerrillas on their way to winter in Texas.
Nichols style is sober and clearly makes every effort to tell the story in a balanced and thoughtful way for both Union and Confederate. He tries to use neutral language in describing situations and people, though no doubt some will find fault with his use in certain instances. Simply including the stories of the “recruiting commands” of Coffee, Porter, Cockrell, et al in a book titled “Guerrilla Warfare” will cause some to bristle. Indeed, Nichols includes a nice passage on the relative inability, and deadly consequences, of Unionists to perceive the difference between these commands and “bushwhackers” at the time. The effort to be balanced, does not, however, prevent Nichols from making the occasional trenchant observation, such as this one: “As it happened, each succeeding northern unit sent to squelch Quantrill in Jackson County had to learn the same painful lessons over again. As indicated in such battle reports, all they seemed to pass along to each other was an ignorance of who they were fighting and how to do it.”
Indeed, it is in chronicling the formations and doings of the Missouri State Militia and Enrolled Missouri Militia at this level of detail that is one of the greatest contributions of the book. These units, some good, some bad, some horrible, have generally not received this level of detailed attention in a major work. The number of mentions of southerners –maybe bushwhackers, maybe not—“shot while trying to escape” by these units is truly horrifying. On the other hand, it was heartening to read of several instances of the Union militia going after Kansas Jayhawkers with gusto.
All in all, Nichols’ book is a welcome and worthy addition to the field. Physically it is of sturdy and quality construction with a glossy cover and gorgeous illustration rather than a dust jacket. It is also supplied with a goodly number of illustrations and photos from the period, including many from familiar Missouri works such as Noted Guerrillas and With Porter in North Missouri. One suspects that public libraries and historical societies are one of the target markets that the publisher has in mind. Should you decide to make the not-inconsiderable investment for this book, it will grace your Missouri Civil War library in style for many years.
now available for purchase
©2004 G. E. Rule
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