The Border of Memory: The Divided Legacy of the Civil War (Page 2 of 2)

An essay by

Election-Year Mayhem

Personal bitterness and political anger made a combustible mixture. In 1866, it exploded in a year-long firestorm. Violence first erupted in Liberty, at the Clay County Savings Association.

Missouri Governor Thomas C. Fletcher. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The fate of this bank shows how the war transformed western Missouri at the grassroots. Originally a branch of the Farmer’s Bank of Missouri, owned by wealthy slaveholders, it went bankrupt as part of the aforementioned secessionist fraud. It was taken over by Radical Unionists, many of whom were former militia officers and current public officials, sworn in under the Iron-Clad Oath.

On January 29, 1866, these men held a mass meeting of the Republican Party in Liberty. The first such rally in county history, it would have been inconceivable as recently as 1861. But the savagery of the war had radicalized the Unionists. They held power for now, but their enemies were armed and angry.

On February 13, 1866, exactly two weeks after this rally, the Savings Association suffered the first armed, daylight bank robbery during peacetime in American history. The bandits were bushwhackers led by Archie Clement, the guerrilla who had never surrendered.

Republican Governor Thomas C. Fletcher launched an offensive against the guerrilla outlaws, gathering intelligence and deploying sheriffs, posses, and militiamen. But his campaign played out against the backdrop of a bitter congressional election, which would decide the future of Reconstruction and, by extension, postwar America.

Republicans claimed there was no difference between secessionists and loyal Conservatives, who wanted leniency for the rebels. Radical mobs attacked or intimidated Democratic meetings and leaders. In this context, it was (and is) difficult to separate crime or law-enforcement actions from political violence—especially in the case of Clement and his gang.

On March 12, Governor Fletcher proclaimed a $300 reward for Clement’s capture. On March 13, he signed an emergency bill allowing him to call out the militia to aid county sheriffs, and ordered a general enrollment in the militia.

Local Republicans pleaded for army protection, writing, “Every Union man will be driven out of the county or murdered.”

But Clement’s gang struck again, mixing crime with political intimidation. They were suspected of more robberies. They harassed and threatened registration officials in Lafayette County. They ordered Radicals to leave Clay County, where more than 100 secessionists resisted the sheriff during an arrest. Local Republicans pleaded for army protection, writing, “Every Union man will be driven out of the county or murdered.”

Meanwhile Republican harassment of Democrats continued across western Missouri. It was said that a mob of 100 Radicals was driving Conservatives out of Daviess County; in Caldwell County, one man wrote, “There is a complete reign of terror” at the hands of Republican legislator Daniel Proctor. Rumors circulated that conservative ministers were gunned down in their pulpits.

"Have we not good reason to apprehend another civil war?” mused a secessionist in Missouri City. A Unionist Democrat could have written the same thing. Radical mobs, registration officials, and sweeps by posses and the militia made them feel that they were all targets of the Republican regime.

One militiaman heard Clement say, as he bled to death, “I’ve done what I always said I’d do - die before I’d surrender.”

The mayhem reached a climax on election day, when Clement and his men occupied Lexington. Democrats won as terrified Republicans hid. Having lost a major town to Confederate guerrillas a year and a half after the end of the Civil War, Governor Fletcher ordered in the militia. The state troops ambushed Clement, killing him in a running gunfight through the streets. One militiaman heard Clement say, as he bled to death, “I’ve done what I always said I’d do - die before I’d surrender.”

Radical Victory, Confederate Opportunity

Republicans won the state (and national) election. They sought to align Missouri with the North and embraced the influx of Yankees. “Which would you prefer,” asked one Republican, “to have Missouri filled with men from [the Confederate] armies, or with loyal men from Ohio, New York, and New England?”

How different it was just across the border in Kansas: There, the late 1860s and early ‘70s were the era of Hickok and Custer, Cheyennes and Sheridan, railroad construction, cowtowns, and newly tilled grassland.

Missourians, by contrast, continued to fight the Civil War. Former guerrillas carried out more bank robberies in 1867, and Governor Fletcher continued his counterattack. He personally orchestrated arrests and ambushes. Angry mobs lynched jailed suspects. One by one, the senior members of Clement’s gang disappeared.

Missouri’s Republicans triumphed on all fronts. With victory, though, they splintered. In 1870, a break-away faction formed the Liberal Republican Party. It elected B. Gratz Brown as governor, with Democratic help. The Liberals also put a measure on the ballot to allow old Confederates to vote again. It passed easily. The voting ranks of the Republicans’ opponents effectively doubled.

A long-awaited opportunity opened for Confederates. But they had to overcome their numerical inferiority. They were a minority in the state, and made up only about half (if that) of the Democratic Party. To win control of the party—and thus the state—they would have to fight a cultural campaign. They would have to make Missouri Southern.

That was the strategy of a long-bearded, hot-blooded, and often drunk former Confederate named John Newman Edwards.

The Political Power of Memory

Listen to a recording of historian Karen L. Cox explaining the evolution of American views of the South in popular culture, at the Kansas City Public Library.

No one loved the South more than Edwards. In the 1850s, he worked for a Missouri newspaper that was wrecked by a raiding party of Free-Soil Kansans. He served as adjutant to Missouri’s most famous Confederate cavalryman, General Jo Shelby. Afterward they led their troops to Mexico rather than surrender.

In 1867 they returned. The next year Edwards helped found the Kansas City Times. As editor, he embarked on a project, quixotic at first, but increasingly central to the political fate of former Confederates. He set out to convince Missourians that they were Southerners - that they lived in the South.

He pursued several narratives in doing so. He depicted Missouri as the victim of an invading, oppressive federal government, aided by local traitors and collaborators. He put Missouri’s experience in a national context, arguing that it shared the fate of the South. And he glorified the state’s secessionist fighters, especially the guerrillas.

General Joseph Orville Shelby, painted by George Caleb Bingham. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

He began with a book, serialized in the Kansas City Times, titled Shelby and His Men. There and elsewhere, he praised the guerrillas’ extreme brutality. In Edwards’s writings, their savagery proved them “ultra-Confederate,” to use historian Matthew Hulbert’s term. Edwards cast them as the truest Missourians, the state’s heart and soul. “There are men in Jackson, Cass, and Clay [counties]—a few there are left—who learned to dare when there was no such word as quarter in the dictionary of the border,” Edwards wrote in 1872. The Radicals? They wrought nothing but “tyranny and oppression ... a destruction of the old order of things.”

In 1869, Edwards found a face for his campaign. That December, a former guerrilla named Jesse James shot a bank cashier in Gallatin, Missouri, in a botched attempt at revenge on the man who killed Bloody Bill Anderson during the war. It made James notorious for the first time. It was the kind of notoriety Edwards liked.

Soon the two became friends. James, like Edwards, was highly partisan, and cooperated with the newspaper editor. In editorials and letters from James himself, Edwards cast the outlaw as the embodiment of western Missouri’s Southernness. He depicted James as a martyr to the Radical oppression - and as an avenger, a man who refused to hand in his guns and buckle to the new order.

Edwards was not the only Southern mythologizer. Peter Donan, founder and editor of the tellingly named Lexington Caucasian, followed an explicitly Confederate (and racist) editorial line. He wrote, “We are and have been Southern in our sympathies, and opposed to a mongrel breed, or a mongrel government.” (Mongrel meant mixed-race.) His paper railed against the Constitution’s “Yankonigger bayonet amendments” (a reference to the 13th, 14th, and 15th, Constitutional Amendments, which had granted freedom and civil rights to African Americans). Donan, too, praised Confederate guerrillas, and hailed the James-Younger outlaws as “pet institutions of Missouri.”

This campaign raised the pride of former secessionists. It also influenced Unionist Democrats on the border. They, too, had suffered disfranchisement and intimidation under Republican rule. The national struggle over Reconstruction gave them common cause as well. Conservative Unionists disliked emancipation, civil rights, and enfranchisement for African Americans, and the upending of border society.

Edwards eventually moved to St. Louis. There he edited the explicitly Confederate St. Louis Dispatch and continued his campaign. The constant propaganda gained force from such incidents as the Pinkerton detectives’ attack on the home of the family of Jesse and Frank James in 1875, in which their mother was maimed by an exploding incendiary device. Edwards and others depicted the raid as vindictive retribution for the James brothers’ Confederate allegiance by ruthless, invading Yankees.

In response, the Missouri State Assembly voted to grant amnesty to the bandits, in a remarkably pro-Confederate resolution apparently written by Edwards. During the war, it proclaimed, the James and Younger brothers had “gallantly periled their lives and their all in the defence [sic] of their principles.” The resolution ultimately failed, but the rebel tide in politics and culture was unmistakable.

“Is there, then, a scheme to make the [Democratic] party in this state, too, a Confederate party?” asked a Unionist newspaper. Yes, there was. Walter B. Stevens, city editor of the St. Louis Dispatch, recalled “the dominant way in which [ex-Confederates] were coming to the front.”

Confederate General John S. Marmaduke served as Governor of Missouri from 1885-1887. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

By 1879, both of the state’s U.S. senators were former secessionists, as were many of its U.S. representatives. In 1884, Confederate general John Sappington Marmaduke took office as governor. And when Edwards died in 1889, the Blue Springs Herald declared it a “great loss to the Democratic Party.” The Jefferson City Tribune wrote that the “prince of journalism was dead.”

History is rarely clear-cut. Unionists still shared power. Wartime divisions receded in time. Furthermore, many residents and parts of western Missouri never identified with the South. And those who did often had real family or personal connections to the Confederate cause. But old rebels clearly regained prominence, thanks in part to this cultural campaign. Their restoration reinforced that identity in turn.

The Final Twist

Perhaps Truman’s family story of stolen silver was true. Kansans did raid western Missouri, after all. But the tale reflects a final twist in the evolving memory of the border. Increasingly, Missourians recalled the Civil War as a struggle against outsiders. It was more comforting to put all the emphasis on rampaging jayhawkers and none on internal divisions. It was more uniting to depict a state that stood together against invasion. The myth became so deeply rooted that it would appear in scholarly histories well into the twentieth century.

Missourians recalled the Civil War as a struggle against outsiders. It was more comforting to put all the emphasis on rampaging jayhawkers and none on internal divisions.

The irony is that, economically and demographically, postwar Missouri followed in the wake of Kansas. Migration meant fewer Missourians were descended from Southerners, and fewer were black. The slave-based agriculture of hemp and tobacco faded behind corn and wheat, classic Kansas crops. Steamboats that once ran to New Orleans disappeared, replaced by railroads linked to Chicago. Kansas City had been a small town before the Civil War, but afterward it rapidly rose to become the economic capital of western Missouri. Rails and stockyards integrated it into the Kansas economy.

Yet economics is not destiny. Culture and memory still diverged, in part because of deliberate efforts by mythmakers such as Edwards. And so, decades after the Civil War ended, two presidents from contiguous states, serving consecutive terms, looked back and recalled two very different pasts.

Suggested Reading: 

Astor, Aaron. Rebels on the Border: Civil War, Emancipation, and the Reconstruction of Kentucky and Missouri. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2012.

Blight, David W. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2001.

Fellman, Michael. Inside War: The Guerrilla Conflict in Missouri During the Civil War. Oxford New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Geiger, Mark W. Financial Fraud and Guerrilla Violence in Missouri's Civil War, 1861–1865. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

Hulbert, Matthew. "Constructing Guerrilla Memory: John Newman Edwards and Missouri's Irregular Lost Cause," The Journal of the Civil War Era. March 2012.

Phillips, Christopher. The Making of a Southerner: William Barclay Napton's Private Civil War. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 2008.

Stiles, T.J. Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.

Cite this page: 
Stiles, T.J.. "The Border of Memory: The Divided Legacy of the Civil War (Page 2 of 2)" Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. The Kansas City Public Library. Accessed Feb, 17, 2019 at


I think there may be a lot of

I think there may be a lot of truth in the claim that Missouri became southern in memory. My paternal lineage great-great-grandfather was a Union soldier from Iowa who emigrated to southwest Missouri in the early 1870s. And, I would argue that many attitudes in his descendants are southern.

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