Monday, January 8, 2018

“The Bushwhackers” – the Confederate Guerillas of the Civil War

In high school and college, the teaching I received on the American Civil War via teachers, lectures, and textbooks focused on the economic, social, and political factors leading to the war; the slavery debate; the major battles of the war; and the Reconstruction period. The major political and military personalities were always covered – Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Ulysses Grant, Robert E. Lee – as were the major battles like Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Bull Run, and more.

What tended to be less covered were the events in the Border States – the slave states that remained with the Union, like Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri. I learned from other reading that Missouri’s decision to stay with the Union was a very near thing indeed – the governor and likely most of the populace favored secession; it was businessmen in St. Louis who played a crucial role in marching on the Jefferson Barracks military base and securing it for the Union, and thus helping to prevent secession.

I’d heard the term but didn’t fully understand the meaning of “bushwhacker.” I tended to lump it with other derogatory terms that came from the Civil War and Reconstruction periods, like “scalawag” and “carpetbagger.” I didn’t know that bushwhacker meant guerilla, and that it was a term especially applied to Confederate guerillas. I didn’t know that many historians today consider the bushwhackers as far more important to the development of the Civil War than previously believed. I didn’t know they operated extensively in the border states like Missouri, where they often engaged in pitched battles with federal troops.

And I didn’t know that some of the most famous outlaws of the Old West, including Frank James and Cole Younger, got their starts as bushwhackers in the Civil War.

In one ebook volume, Sapere Books has published some of the key accounts of the activities of the bushwhackers. The Bushwhackers: Fighting For and Against the Confederate Guerillas in the American Civil War is a collection of articles, memoirs, and book-length histories of what the bushwhackers did in places like Missouri, federally occupied Louisiana, Virginia and the mountains of North Carolina.

William Quantrell
What is particularly valuable about reading these accounts is how the same event – such as the raid on Lawrence Kansas in 1863 – could be described in such radically different terms by people on the opposing sides. It was either a dastardly and vicious attack on innocent townspeople (according to Judge J.D. Bailey) or revenge for the burning of Osceola, Missouri, by federal troops and the systematic plundering and looting of farms and plantations by federal troops led by the general who lived in Lawrence (according to bushwhacker John McCorkle).

"Bloody Bill" Anderson
The stark differences in accounts of the same events would be similar to the accounts of the November 2016 election by a Hillary Clinton supporter and a Donald Trump supporter – the descriptions are that starkly opposite.

The accounts included in The Bushhackers include Three Years with Quantrell by John McCorkle; Quantrell’s Raid on Lawrence by Judge L.D.Bailey; The Autobiography of Samuel S. Hildebrand; Ten Days’ Experience with Colonel William T. Anderson by Sgt. Thomas Goodman; Fighting the Guerillas on the Lafourche, Louisiana by Capt. Frederick Mitchell; The Memoirs of Colonel John S. Mosby;  Four Years with Morgan and Forrest by Col. Thomas F. Berry; McNeil’s Last Charge by J.W. Duffy; and The Border Outlaws by James W. Buel (covering Frank and Jesse James, the Younger Brothers, and others).

Some of the highlights:

·      John McCorkle was a bushwhacker who operated with the raiders of William Quantrell (often spelled Quantrill) in the counties around Kansas City in northwestern Missouri.
·      Judge Bailey was visiting Lawrence and staying in one of the town’s hotels the day Quantrell’s raiders attacked.
·      Sam Hildebrand lived in southeastern Missouri and claimed he was driven to joining with the Confederates even though he’d originally been a Union man.
·      Sgt. Goodman was aboard the train that was stopped near Centralia, Missouri, in 1864 by “Bloody Bill” Anderson and his men; Goodman was the only soldier spared from a systematic execution of all soldiers aboard the train.
·      John Mosby was one of the most famous Confederate soldiers of the Civil War. Arguably less a bushwhacker and more of a regular soldier and officer, Mosby’s exploits included leading his men into a Union camp, capturing a general, and bringing him back behind Confederate lines.

A depiction of the federal raid on Osceola, Missouri
Common to all of the accounts are the sense of ongoing violence; the motivation of revenge; the heightened sense of outrage on both sides; the attacks on civilian populations, including people in towns and living on farms; how anyone could himself (or herself) accused of having the wrong kind of national sympathies – all it took was one accusation and you could find your home burned down and your crops confiscated or destroyed. A few of the accounts included in the volume are contemporary; most are written years and sometimes decades after the events they describe. 

The Civil War period was a bloody, vicious time, and not only on the famous battlefields. The Bushwhackers reminds us of what life could be like in total war.

Top photograph: the Quantrell raid on Lawrence Kansas in 1863, as depicted in Harper's Weekly.

2 comments: said...

We have similar terms for those folks today. One side claims they are freedom fighters. The other side declares them to be terrorists.

Glynn said...

One of the real benefits of assembling original source documents like these is the ability to show the same event -- like the raid on Lawrence, Kansas by Quantrell's Raiders -- from the perspectives of both a raider and a resident of the town (in this case, a judge). You almost think they're describing entirely different events. The differences are similar to today's political rhetoric, dominated by extremes.