Bushwhackers and Jayhawkers


Bushwhackers and Jayhawkers

William Clark Quantrill, Missouri Bushwhacker; Charles R. Jennison, Kansas Jayhawker
Images courtesy of Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield

Few Civil War terms generate more controversy than “Bushwhacker” and “Jayhawker.” Today, each elicits strong emotions from partisans on both sides, just as they did during the war. Though they were often used interchangeably to describe some men on both sides, the origin of each term is relatively certain. “Bushwhacker” was originally a complimentary term coined by Washington Irving. Writing for Knickerbocker Magazine in the late 1840s, Irving described hearty frontiersmen as “gallant bush-whackers and hunters of raccoons.” The stalking tactics of game hunters were not appreciated when those frontier skills were applied to hunting soldiers. Although it was a favorite term among Union commanders for the numerous roving bands throughout the Ozarks, bushwhacker was soon used for any band, Union or Confederate, who preyed on military and civilian targets.1

“Jayhawker” was a term well known to Missourians during the “Bleeding Kansas” era. Used to describe Kansas Free Staters, Missourians considered it a perfect description of their hated enemy. Though no such bird exists, it recognized the voracious hawk and the pesky jay, who, in the form of Kansas soldiers plundered Missouri farms. Of course to Missourians it was derogatory, but Kansans proudly embraced it. The term was quickly applied to Union troops from other states, and finally to the most notorious looters, regardless of their allegiance. Widespread plundering became such a problem that leaders on both sides condemned the relentless “jayhawking,” that ravaged the Ozarks.2

Significantly, bushwhacker and jayhawker were meant not only to describe the enemy, but to demonize him. Both sides saw their adversaries as social inferiors whose actions were explained by their ancestry. For Union writers like John McElroy, bushwhackers were the worst kind of poor Southerners. Descendants of the lowest elements in English society, they lacked spirit and energy. They lived in crude cabins and farmed only when absolutely necessary, preferring to subsist by hunting. Unionists believed they were unsuited to honorable warfare because they were cowards. Thus, they hid in the brush and fought only when guaranteed of success.3

A Southerner’s description of jayhawkers is surprisingly similar to its bushwhacker counterpart. John Newman Edwards, General Joseph Shelby’s wartime adjutant and author of Noted Guerrillas, wrote jayhawkers traced their ancestry to the Puritans of New England. Here was the source of their awkward appearance and natural laziness. They were not truly concerned about the wrongs of slavery; it just gave them an excuse to steal from their social betters. Edwards also condemned their lack of courage. They fought only when forced to and would not make a heroic stand.4

Of course partisan definitions, especially those penned in the post-war years, were exaggerated. Unionist ideas about the laziness of white Southerners rarely considered the Ozarks infrastructure. Access to markets, an absolute necessity for social mobility, were often unavailable to local farmers. With railroads and rivers either nonexistent or too far away, farming was largely subsistence. Likewise, while New Englanders were among the first, and often most stringent settlers in the Kansas Territory, they were not the majority. Families from the Midwest, whose ancestry was not that different from their pro-slavery counterparts, made Kansas a free state.5

Confederate troops are most closely associated with using irregular warfare in the Ozarks, largely because their conventional forces abandoned the region. Southern commanders shifted most of their troops east of the Mississippi River after the Battle of Pea Ridge in March 1862. General Thomas Hindman was ordered to Little Rock where he assumed command of the Trans-Mississippi District, a vast region that included not only Arkansas and Missouri, but parts of Texas and Louisiana as well.6 Upon arrival in Little Rock, Hindman discovered that Arkansas had been stripped of virtually all war making material and manpower. Undeterred, he went to work immediately. He declared martial law and imposed conscription. Soon a new Confederate army began to take shape. Hindman also ordered men not subject to his conscription order to enroll in a partisan band and make war upon the Union army. These bands wreaked havoc on Union forces in 1862, and as one historian has argued, marks the only example of an organized, popular uprising in the Confederacy.7

Hindman’s guerrillas enjoyed early success and their disruption of Union operations was not limited to Arkansas. New bands sprang up in Missouri throughout 1862, prompting Provisional Governor Hamilton Gamble to authorize the formation of the Enrolled Missouri Militia. Designed for local defense, these and other Missouri militia troops began a long, bloody struggle against the irregulars. Unfortunately, Hindman’s guerrillas were not designed for long term success. No thought was given to their provisions and they were rarely responsible to conventional military authorities. Without strong leadership, many of these bands terrorized Union civilians, stealing what the government did not provide them with. Slowly, some even turned against Southern sympathizers. Ironically, because of their lawlessness, many bands became an enemy to both Union and Confederate troops. What had started with such promise, ended with wholesale plundering that forced most civilians off of their land.8

While Union troops often described all irregular forces they encountered as “bushwhackers,” determining the legitimacy of a particular band was largely dependent on its organization. Simply put, bushwhacker does not adequately describe the various kinds of irregular forces operating in the Ozarks. For Unionists, a bushwhacker was the worst kind of Southern sympathizer, men who were little better than criminals. Though it often went unnoticed by Union soldiers, guerrillas and partisans were more organized and accountable to military authorities, but they still operated outside of the formal army command structure. Hindman’s guerrillas in Arkansas and John S. Mosby’s Partisans in Virginia are good examples of these forces. In the Trans-Mississippi, Shelby’s brigade best combined the merits of military organization with the advantages of irregular warfare. Shelby’s men were legally enrolled in the Confederate army and were subject to the orders of military commanders. Still, Shelby’s men excelled at detached service and their raids often disrupted Union operations and the flow of all important supplies.9

The clothing of an irregular band also determined its status. Bushwhackers and guerrillas rarely, or never, wore Confederate uniforms. Rather they operated in civilian clothes, or often, in captured Union uniforms. This tactic allowed them to get close to the enemy, but it also ensured they would be shown no mercy if captured.

Old animosities and resentments were not forgotten in the post-war years. The violent struggle between jayhawkers and bushwhackers left a bitter legacy throughout the Ozarks. Though their meanings sometimes varied, and were even used by both sides, both words always symbolized the bitter guerrilla war that raged throughout the region.

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  1. Daniel E. Sutherland, “Jayhawkers and Bushwhackers,” Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, http://encyclopediaofarkansas.net/
  2. Sutherland, “Jayhawkers and Bushwhackers.”
  3. “Jayhawkers vs. Bushwhackers,” Civil War St. Louis, www.civilwarstlouis.com
  4. “Jayhawkers vs. Bushwhackers,” Civil War St. Louis.
  5. Jeremy Neely, The Border Between Them: Violence and Reconciliation on the Kansas-Missouri Line (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2007), 64.
  6. Robert R. Mackey, The Uncivil War: Irregular Warfare in the Upper South, 1861-1865 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004), 207-08.
  7. Mackey, Uncivil War, 26.
  8. Mackey, Uncivil War, 49.
  9. Mackey, Uncivil War, 8-9.