In western Missouri, battle sites and re-enactments open a window into a past that still chafes.
By Beth Gauper, Pioneer Press
Perhaps more than any other state, Missouri was scarred by the War Between the States—that is, the Civil War.
Skirmishes along its western border began six years before, as Kansas abolitionists led by John Brown clashed with slave-owning tobacco and hemp growers who had come from the South. The first land battle of the war was fought in Carthage, a Confederate victory followed by two more. The Union regained control of Missouri in 1862, but ensuing strife between Confederate guerrillas and Union troops made Missouri the most fought-over state after Virginia and Tennessee.
To take a side was to invite revenge, but those who tried to stay neutral were preyed upon by both sides. Eventually, people simply fled. Jasper County, where the Battle of Carthage was fought 16 days before the Battle of Bull Run in Virginia, had 6,383 residents in 1860; by war’s end, only 30 remained.
“The area was so devastated,” says Ed Robertson, a volunteer at the Museum of Pioneer History in Bates County, one of 3 1/2 counties evacuated in 1863 under the notorious Order 11. “People were too appalled for years to talk about it. It was a taboo subject for a long time.”
In some parts of western Missouri, resentment is passed down like an heirloom. The mother of Harry Truman, born in nearby Lamar, wouldn’t sleep in the Lincoln Room after her son became president. Even today, at battle re-enactments, Rebels leave the field to warm applause.
“There are some very strong Southern sympathies in this county,” Robertson said. “There are still areas where they talk about the Yankee dogs.”
In western Missouri, the personal became political. It was hard to look at abstract issues of justice and equality when your brother had been killed by Jayhawkers from Kansas, or your house and crops confiscated by German-speaking troops from St. Louis. Residents of the area had come from the South, so their sympathies lay there, but they became more extreme after brutal incursions by Kansas military units.
“(Their) conduct…has done more for the enemy in this state than could have been accomplished by 20,000 of his own army,” wrote Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck to the U.S. Army commander-in-chief in December 1861.
That’s about when the infamous William Quantrill began his career. Three months later, Halleck issued an order requiring guerrillas to be executed upon capture. It didn’t stop Quantrill, whose band of bushwhackers, including Frank James and Cole Younger, terrorized Missouri for the rest of the war.
Many of the band, unable or unwilling to resume normal lives after the war—the 17-year-old Jesse James was shot in the leg while trying to surrender in Lexington—carried vengeance beyond it. Hatred for Union Gen. Benjamin Butler, nicknamed “Spoons” because he liked to filch Confederate silver, may have drawn the James-Younger Gang to attempt a robbery of the First National Bank at Northfield, Minn., in 1876. Butler had $40,000 invested in the bank, where his son-in-law, a former carpet-bagging governor of Mississippi, was a director.
“There was a lot of hatred to get through after the war,” says Terry Ramsey, coordinator of the Bushwhacker Museum in Nevada, dubbed “Bushwhacker Capital of the World” by Union troops just before they burned it to the ground. Unable to catch the bushwhackers, Union troops simply destroyed crops, houses and anything else that could help the guerrillas.
To Northerners, who think of the Civil War in terms of good and evil, Missouri is an eye-opener.
“I always say, “Keep your mouth shut and your eyes open,” says Newell Chester, a Coon Rapids historian who leads tours of Civil War sites in Missouri and other states. “In Mississippi, you know what you’re getting into. In Gettysburg, you know what you’re getting into. But in Missouri, even with a scorecard, you can’t tell what side the players are on.”
This is a good year to visit Civil War sites in western Missouri. Re-enactments will be held near the sites of all three of the main battles. In Carthage, the first land battle of the war was fought in July 1861, when a well-trained force of 1,100 German immigrants from St. Louis, led by Col. Franz Sigel, clashed with the 6,000-strong Missouri State Guard, led by pro-Southern governor Claiborne Jackson, who had been driven from the Capitol. House-to-house fighting presaged the devastation to be wrought on civilians. It ended with a Union retreat, though Sigel lost only 13 soldiers to Jackson’s 30.
Carthage was burned by bushwhackers in 1864. But it rebounded after the war, thanks to its stone quarries and lead and zinc mines, and today its streets are lined with lovely Victorian homes. It once was a stop on Route 66, still marked by the Boots Motel and Route 66 Drive Inn. Downtown, the castle-like 1895 Jasper County Courthouse dominates a square lined with shops and cafes.
The Civil War Museum is nearby; it’s a fine museum that tells the story with a mural, diorama, video and exhibits. It also tells of Myra Maebelle Shirley, a Confederate courier and intimate of Cole Younger and other guerrillas who became known as Belle Starr, “Outlaw Queen.”
The next big battle site is an hour east, near Springfield. Here, in August 1861, Brig. Gen. Nathaniel Lyon and Col. Sigel and 5,400 soldiers attacked 12,000 men under Gen. Ben Culloch and Maj. Gen. Sterling Price at Wilson’s Creek. After six hours of fighting, Lyon’s death and 1,317 casualties—1,222 for the Confederates—the Federals withdrew. One of the Rebel soldiers was Frank James; he was captured that winter, forced to pledge allegiance to the Union and released, after which he joined Quantrill’s bushwhackers.
Today, the site is Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield, which includes a visitors center, a five-mile auto tour and an evocative 3/4-mile walking tour of Bloody Hill.
Price next headed for the prosperous Missouri River town of Lexington. Riding into town, he laid siege to 2,700 Union occupiers, fortified in the grounds of Masonic College. As the garrison ran out of water, Price’s army of 10,000 advanced behind dense bales of water-soaked hemp, which repelled cannon balls. The garrison surrendered and Price became a hero throughout the South and in Lexington, returning all but $37,000 of the $960,000 the Federals had taken from the State Bank of Lexington.
Today, the Battle of Lexington State Historic Site includes the 1853 Anderson House, 100 acres of battlefield and a visitors center with exhibits that open a fascinating window into prewar Lexington. This town, unlike its counterparts in the southwest border counties, had a real stake in slavery: In Lafayette County, 47 percent of the population were slaves, many used to produce hemp, a time-intensive cash crop that withered after the war. Old newspaper notices tell of slave auctions; a video with readings from a local woman’s diary speaks of the “exalted ideals” and “gracious way of life” shattered by the conflict.
Lexington was again occupied by Federals two weeks after the battle. The next spring, in March 1862, the Union won a decisive victory at the Battle of Pea Ridge, not far from Carthage in northwest Arkansas, and the Confederacy took its regular troops east.
But for the average Missourian, the war was far from over.
Beth Gauper, who writes about Midwest travel, can be reached at (651) 228-5425 or email@example.com
Trip Tips: Civil War in Missouri
Getting there: Kansas City is a seven- to eight-hour drive from the Twin Cities. Lexington is an hour east of Kansas City.
Re-enactments: May 13-14, Battle of Carthage, with 1,200 re-enactors. Carthage tourism, (417) 358-2373, www.carthagenow.com
June 16-18, Wilson’s Creek, with 6,000 to 8,000 re-enactors. http://dabear.tzo.com/wilsonscreek. Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield, (417) 732-2662.
Sept 16-17, Battle of Lexington at the Battle of Lexington State Historic Site, with 1,200 re-enactors. (660) 259-4654, www.digitalhistory.com/schools/battleoflexingtonstatehistoricsite. Lexington tourism information, (660) 259-4711.
Festivals: June 16-18, Bushwhacker Days in Nevada. The Bushwhacker Museum, in an 1860 jail, is open daily.
Battle of Westport: In September 1864, Maj. Gen. Price returned to Missouri and was defeated the next month at the Battle of Westport (now Kansas City), the largest battle fought west of the Mississippi. A 32-mile self-guided auto tour around Kansas City includes 25 historical markers. (816) 561-1821.
Tour: A May 19-24 Civil War tour that includes stops at Westport, Carthage, Lexington, Wilson’s Creek and Pea Ridge will be led by Coon Rapids resident Newell Chester. Cost of $1,195 includes air fare to Kansas City. Call (763) 427-4110.
Civil War in Missouri information: The website www.taborgFx.com/civilwar is a good source.
Missouri information: For a visitors guide, call (800) 877-1234, (www.missouri-tourism.org). For Kansas City information, call (800) 767-7700.
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