Surviving a Guerilla War
Mothers, sisters, and wives shouldered many of the responsibilities once held by men who had left to fight.
Civil war brought grievous personal losses to the border families, whose sons fought and often died in the conflict. Women were not merely passive victims, however. While violence and anxiety shadowed the most basic of human interactions, life did carry on. Child-rearing, farming, and market commerce persisted, their rhythms interrupted and terms now strained by deprivation and the exigencies of war. Mothers, sisters, and wives shouldered many of the responsibilities once held by men who had left to fight.
Years of guerrilla conflict, however, transformed the border in profound ways. Civil institutions withered and sometimes collapsed amid martial law and irregular violence. Immigration and the clamor for railroad development—key forces behind the opening of Kansas Territory—ground to a halt, at least temporarily. At the same time, the border’s population remained in dramatic flux, unsettled by years of bloodshed, drought, and fear. Native Americans, displaced time and again by the thrust of westward expansion, saw their tenuous claims further imperiled.
The Union army struggled to eliminate the guerrillas by force. Southern families and other sympathizers actively sustained the guerrilla resistance by providing partisans with material aid, including food, shelter, clothing, fresh horses, and information about the movements and strength of Union forces.
Brigadier General Thomas Ewing, appointed to command of the District of the Border in the summer of 1863, concluded that the most likely way to quell intractable violence was to eliminate the bushwhackers’ basis of support. “I can see no prospect of an early and complete end to the war on the border,” wrote Ewing, “so long as those families remain there.”
Federal troops soon began to arrest the wives, sisters, and mothers of known guerrillas and to hold them in buildings throughout Kansas City. On August 13, one of the army’s makeshift jails, a three-story brick building collapsed, trapping almost a dozen prisoners in the rubble. Five women died, including Charity Kerr, a niece of Bursheba Younger, and Josephine Anderson, sister of notorious guerrilla William “Bloody Bill” Anderson. Critics charged that complicit Union men knowingly placed the women in a dilapidated structure.
The border war reached its brutal climax on August 21, 1863. Just after dawn Quantrill led a band of 400 guerrillas in a surprise attack upon Lawrence, Kansas, an abolitionist stronghold and the home of Senator James Lane. To that point Missouri partisans had struck Olathe, Shawnee, and other towns across the state line, but none of those previous raids rivaled the ruinous carnage of that morning.
Quantrill reportedly told his followers to shoot any male old enough to hold a gun. By midday the bushwhackers killed between 160 and 190 men and boys, plundering and burning much of the town before escaping back into Missouri. Former guerrillas would later insist that the raid was a response to the Kansas City jail collapse, Lane’s 1861 raid on Osceola, and various jayhawker provocations.
The Lawrence massacre prompted Ewing to issue General Order No. 11 on August 25, 1863. The measure proved to be the most sweeping anti-guerrilla policy enacted by Union forces during the entire Civil War. Order No. 11 called for nearly all of the residents in Jackson, Cass, Bates, and northern Vernon counties to “remove from their present places of residence.” Inhabitants of Kansas City, Westport, and Independence—where federal strength was greater—were to be spared. Also exempted were those persons who could demonstrate Unionist loyalties to the satisfaction of local military commanders.
View a video of historian Michael Fellman examining the moral and religious justifications Americans offered for participating in violent guerrilla acts in the Civil War. A keynote event at the Kansas City Public Library.
Order No. 11 devastated much of western Missouri. Several thousand people, exiled within a fortnight, streamed into the adjacent counties, where many communities were scarcely prepared and often unwilling to absorb the refugee population. An additional provision, designed to keep guerrillas from foraging upon the countryside, empowered Union troops to seize the grain and hay crops of displaced families. Soldiers and bandits plundered abandoned properties and set many farmsteads ablaze. Once the flames jumped to the adjoining tallgrass prairies, fire quickly consumed much of Cass and Bates Counties, an area that came to be known as the “Burnt District.”
Ewing’s orders proved tremendously controversial. Outraged Missourians, including artist George Caleb Bingham, who immortalized the policy in his painting, Martial Law, charged that the army brought undue hardships upon innocent women, children, and even many Unionist households. Although guerrilla violence continued to flare nearly unabated in other parts of Missouri, Ewing’s defenders argued that Order No. 11 reduced irregular violence in the affected counties.
The guerrilla war along the Missouri-Kansas line raged through the summer of 1865. In spite of an army policy that offered no quarter to bushwhackers, partisans and outlaws continued to roam the countryside. Union officers had begun to allow the limited resettlement of western Missouri in 1864, yet relatively few households took the opportunity to return until the war’s end. Many families never came back to the border.
For some dispossessed families, embers of hostility smoldered long after the shooting stopped. Bursheba Younger died in 1870, having never returned to her antebellum home. Her younger sister, Frances Fristoe Twyman, captured the emotional toll exacted by years of guerrilla fighting, a domestic kind of warfare that was waged both upon and between border households. “To me it was a most cruel and unjust war, a war in which innocent women and children suffered most,” wrote Twyman. After a struggle so vicious and vengeful, questions of innocence, guilt, and justice would linger without easy resolution for those who survived and for the generations that followed.
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