Extreme Civil War
Guerilla Warfare, Environment, and Race on the Trans-Mississippi Frontier
Matthew M. Stith
Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 2016, 232 pages
Book Review published on: August 11, 2017
A few years ago, I wrote a review on a book in which the author’s thesis was that the level of violence in the U.S. Civil War was limited and restrained, primarily because the vast majority of combat engagements were “white on white” conflicts that lacked elements of racial animosity. That author chose, however, to ignore the Shenandoah Valley Campaign and Sherman’s march from Atlanta to the sea, thereby, excluding the vast majority of contradictory evidence and perpetuating enormous researcher bias. Matthew M. Stith makes no such mistake in Extreme Civil War. His examination of the events in the Trans-Mississippi region, defined as the areas of western Missouri and Arkansas, and eastern Kansas and Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) is well balanced, thoroughly researched, and convincing. The book’s thesis is that the region, although the site of few major conventional battles, was ravaged by constant guerilla and counterguerilla conflict. This protracted conflict produced often random and senseless retribution upon civilians by Union and secessionist regulars, militias, and sympathizers; neighbor-on-neighbor warfare; and the creation of a huge ungoverned space in which bands of outlaws operated freely, while justifying their actions as contributions to a cause. In this region, the Civil War was not just a military and political war, it was an economic and social war, in which the production of the region, especially foodstuffs, was the prize, but the support of the indigenous civilian population was the center of gravity. The region was complex terrain: topographically, politically, demographically, and sociologically. It was the site of a fracture line between slavers and abolitionists, confederates and unionists, Native Americans, and European settlers.
During the Civil War, in most of the rest of the country, if you were unfortunate enough to live at or near the site of a major battle, the conflict arrived at your doorstep and mayhem reigned for a relatively short period, and then moved on, enabling recovery. There were exceptions, of course, such as Manassas. In the Trans-Mississippi region near the Ozark Plateau, the war never moved on, even after the major battles at Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove. Although the Union established nominal dominance in the region, it never established control.
In the absence of a restraining hand provided by lawful, legitimate government, the region became an extremely dangerous place, not only for military forces, but also for civilians. The region remained contested, in every meaning of the word, with conflict between Union regular forces and Confederate guerillas, militias of every stripe, and civilian settlers attempting to survive the predations of foragers, militias, outlaws, and the environment. Civilians in the area did not simply observe or experience a battle and recover in the aftermath; they experienced four long years of devastation from the conflict. Men who had not enlisted or been conscripted were executed in the doorways of their homes for being sympathizers—one way or another, depending on the sympathies of whoever rode up. Jealous or envious neighbors used the chaos as a cover to inflict retribution for other neighbors’ offenses, real or imagined. The region experienced depopulation as civilians fled the chaotic, unpredictable violence, reluctantly abandoning years of effort to establish their homesteads. Women defended their husbands, hiding them from assassins and bloodthirsty outlaws. Women also became the defenders of the homesteads where the men were absent, either because they were fighting with forces elsewhere or had become casualties of the war.
Stith’s work, as part of the Louisiana State University Press series, “Conflicting Worlds; New Dimension of the American Civil War,” is a valuable contribution to the body of knowledge surrounding the Civil War. It is also a worthwhile study for any student of warfare in general. As students of military history, we tend to focus on the strategy and tactics surrounding the great battles and the great leaders of those battles. We have a tendency to neglect the relatively minor players and regions, while virtually ignoring the civilians caught up in the conflict. Stith closes much of that gap with his examination of this extremely hostile and dangerous environment, where the threat to civilians was arguably greater over time than the threat to military forces in the region. Readers may note similarities to the experiences of civilians and Union forces in the Trans-Mississippi region, and those encountered in Vietnam, in Northern Ireland, and more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This book is also a cautionary tale for those who hold the belief that war is manageable, that it is predictably neat, clean, precise, and largely bloodless. Conflict has a way of spinning out of control, especially around the edges. It can, and does, escalate in unpredictable ways, often entangling civilian populations in protracted violence that is even more devastating than major battles. Because of its protracted nature, guerilla warfare can be especially devastating to civilians, as was the case in the Trans-Mississippi region during the Civil War. Stith has done a great service by shining a light in a dark, neglected corner.
Book Review written by: Thomas E. Ward II, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas