Guerrilla Warfare, Manhood, and the Household in Civil War Missouri

Joseph M. Beilein Jr.

Kent State University Press, Kent, Ohio, 2016, 304 pages

Book Review published on: May 5, 2017

Joseph Beilein Jr., an assistant professor of history at Pennsylvania State University-Erie, reassesses the guerrilla warfare that took place in Missouri during the Civil War. Beilein’s research indicates histories and popular literature written following the war depict guerrilla leaders such as the infamous William Quantrill and William “Bloody Bill” Anderson as either depraved demons or mythical figures with superhuman powers and impeccable virtue. He states that such descriptions reflected the biased view of earlier historians and that, unfortunately, modern scholars have continued this trend of characterization despite more recent efforts to present a more balanced view.

Beilein broadens previous research of Civil War historians whose scholarship generally focuses on guerrilla personalities and operations. He uses the term “household war” in describing the extensive relationship that existed between the guerrilla, his family, and community. Beilein’s in-depth research into several prominent guerrillas has revealed the prevalence of “guerrilla families” that extended into several counties, which made guerrilla groups especially effective and elusive to Union counterinsurgency efforts. He also shows that women played a prominent and active role in supporting guerrillas even as guerrillas protected their female supporters from marauding Union patrols and outlaws.

Among Beilien’s extensive research, three points stand out. First, Quantrill was a killer but not the sadistic psychopath described in Union Army reports or popular literature following the war. Quantrill was very conscious of the importance of the public’s perception of guerrillas, especially as that perception related to the value of property. As a result, he made the protection of Southern men and women and their property the number one priority of his guerrillas. To that end, Quantrill placed a great deal of emphasis on catching any and all perpetrators of pointless actions against men and women, regardless of their political affiliation. Additionally, Quantrill endeared those who served under him with the avoidance of unnecessary bloodshed or needless actions that might endanger his men.

Second, Beilien highlights the advantage that the guerrillas’ use of revolvers gave over Union Army patrols armed with rifles. Guerrillas negated the rifle’s range advantage through surprise and close combat. With reins in one hand and a pistol in the other, guerrillas could ride upon Union Army patrols, discharge a relatively large volume of fire, and ride off again out of the effective range of musket fire. As a result, Union Army patrols were often at a disadvantage in gaining initiative against an enemy who often decided when and where to fight.

And, third, Beilien shows why Union Army counterinsurgency measures were counterproductive. On 13 March 1862, Union Army Gen. Henry Halleck declared that no quarter would be given to rebel guerrillas operating in his Department of Missouri. The subsequent guidelines given to help local Union officers were loosely written in a manner that gave wide latitude of interpretation in identifying potential guerrillas. One result was that they could be read by Union officers to include men with known Southern sympathies who were not active guerrillas but were, in fact, at home on their farms trying to stay out of the war. Abusive treatment stemming from Union officers who chose to equate sympathy with the Southern cause with guerrilla activity meant that many men faced the choice of dying at home or joining their neighbors as guerrillas in the bush where they would have a fighting chance. As a result, it was no surprise that guerrilla ranks increased during the war.

A major complaint against Beilein’s work is his suggestion that his guerrilla model applies to all Missouri guerrilla groups. Guerrilla groups in southeastern, southern, and northeastern Missouri fought the war for different reasons and used different styles not presented by Beilein’s research on guerrilla groups in western Missouri. Nevertheless, his extensive research provides much needed balance to the general body of scholarly work examining the guerrilla warfare that occurred in Missouri during the Civil War. Bushwackers is highly recommended for anyone interested in the study of guerrilla warfare or Civil War Missouri.

Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas