Guerrilla Warfare


Bushwhackers and Jayhawkers

Although large scale military campaigns and battles occurred in the Ozarks during the war years, the area today is perhaps best remembered for the brutal guerrilla conflict that raged throughout the region. The essence of guerrilla warfare is to conduct consolidated assaults against opposing forces, followed by swift retreats to prevent heavy casualties. This unorthodox tactic allows for smaller forces to engage larger forces while minimizing the larger forces ability to wage a full scale counterattack.

The roots of guerrilla warfare in the Ozarks can be traced to the 1850s. The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 opened the territory of Kansas to settlement, and a popular vote on allowing slavery in the territory. Many Missouri residents believed they could influence the territorial elections in Kansas by crossing the border and casting pro-slavery votes. Hatred grew along the Missouri/Kansas line as Free-Staters arrived from the North to battle the Missourians. Both sides crossed the border, often committing depredations on the civilian population, in the bloody struggle over the entry of Kansas into the Union. Kansas ultimately became a free state, and the “Bleeding Kansas” era laid the foundation for an even more brutal and vicious guerrilla war in the 1860s.

The emergence of large scale guerrilla warfare in the Ozarks was largely the result of a conventional military campaign in the early months of the Civil War. Defeat at the Battle of Pea Ridge in March 1862 led Confederate commanders to shift forces into Tennessee. General Thomas Hindman, lacking soldiers and military resources, was determined to oppose the Union occupiers. In addition to enforcing conscription, Hindman quickly authorized the formation of guerrilla bands that were ordered to operate against Union forces. These small bands, composed of both legitimate soldiers and those seeking adventure and plunder, conducted raids, “hit and run” type attacks, to weaken the Union forces and their collaborators. Success was not measured in combat, but rather in preventing the Union from gaining further control and forcing them to spend resources in non-combat situations.

The Union army seized local resources to supply their troops throughout Missouri and Arkansas. Civilian hostilities increased as the Federals battled guerrillas and tried to control the civilian population with increasingly harsher measures. Historian Bruce Nichols notes that Northern attempts to quash acts of rebellion were interpreted as “tyranny” by Southern men.1 These acts compelled many Missouri men to join the Confederate army or fight as guerrillas.

Aside from the strategic military tactics of guerrilla warfare, there was another tactic that proved to be very effective for guerrillas. This tactic involved spreading “terror” among the civilians. Much like ghosts, guerrillas had a way of magically appearing out of the darkness or dense woods, usually late at night or in the wee hours of the morning when they were least expected, and they wasted no time in exhibiting their dominance, force, and power over their surprised and helpless victims. After brutalizing or killing the man of the house, the guerrillas would verbally threaten women and children with further acts of violence and destruction of property.

Mr. G got home about 11 oclock Teusday about 2 oclock Wednesday he left for Lebanon on account of the bushwhackers they were in one mile of us the night he stayed at home they robed Sister Helen’s house that night took two fine mares $350 about 25 dollars worth out of the house. Sister was at our house to see Mr. Gilmore Mr. Pridgen was at Lebanon with the train so you see there was no person but the children at home the cruel demons threating to shoot the children’s brains out…
Lizzie Gilmore letter to M. C. Green Dec. 6, 1864

Many civilians chose to leave their homesteads and move to friendlier states or closer to established army forts like Fort Scott, Kansas. Here, many were cared for at government expense. Like fighting guerrillas, the refugees were a burden the Union army struggled with throughout the war.

Guerrilla warfare was not limited to legitimate bushwhackers and rebel sympathizers. In fact, many Missouri men got a taste for violence in the “Bleeding Kansas” era and saw the profit that could be made from pillaging. Some, like “Bloody” Bill Anderson in his early years, did not have a political affiliation. These men were solely in the business for profit, and terrorized both Union and Southern supporters alike.

The unorthodox tactics of guerrilla warfare also included disguises, which made it extremely dangerous for civilians to proclaim their loyalty in hopes of avoiding depredations. Guerrillas often wore blue Union coats so as not to alarm the pro-Union citizens or any scouts they encountered. Union troops also changed their dress to fit their locale as well. They frequently wore civilian dress or butternut uniforms to blend in with the civilian population and obtain intelligence on bushwhackers or Confederate troop movement. Captain Milton Burch of the 8th Missouri State Militia wrote in an official report on October 4, 1863, “I sent Joel P. Hood, my Government scout, and one other man dressed in butternut, to ascertain where their pickets were stationed.”2 While an effective military tactic, the different clothing created a serious and confusing dilemma for citizens who rarely knew for sure who they were dealing with. In addition to the other dangers they faced, Ozarkers knew all too well that a case of mistaken identity could be deadly.

Many soldiers in both the Confederate and Union Armies condoned the looting and destruction of civilian property, but some stood up to their peers. Newton Gotcher, a Lieutenant in Joseph O. Shelby’s command, was accused of burning the property and mill of William, George and John Bowers. Gotcher testified that he was innocent. In fact, he was upset to learn that the mill had been destroyed, because his family, living in that immediate area, depended on the mill for food. Several of his men also testified Gotcher was innocent and noted that he frequently spoke out against his men for looting and destroying civilian property.

Union forces would prove to be just as menacing. They frequently visited homes to gather forage for the army. In some cases, Union troops paid loyal civilians for the property seized. Goods confiscated from rebel families however, were often considered spoils of war.

I was put on guard close by to wach some mans sweet potato pach and come to look throu it. it was full of good mellons so I had a good time thare and when I come off our mess had got all the peaches we wanted and sweet potatoes and a hive of bees we had more honey than we could eat it did not go vary bad with good light bread of our own makeing and what made it still sweeter it all come off of a rich sesesh who had run away and left every thing he had, but when two thousand Cavelry had feasted off of him untill next morning he had not much left the next day
Ephraim Fauquier letter to Margaret Fauguier, Sept 15, 1862

As armies traveled deeper into the Ozarks they depended heavily on their supply train. As supplies ran out, men started to raid the country side for food – depleting the food supplies for civilians and their enemies. Crops were burned by both Union and Confederate forces to prevent civilians from feeding the “other side.” Goods were transported in wagon loads from forts and other commands to replenish exhausted supplies. Mail and other packages containing personal supplies and money traveled over the same artery of roads, along with civilian refugees attempting to escape the region. Bands of guerrilla fighters attacked the Telegraph Road, intercepting these caravans of supplies, thus impeding the Union Army’s ability to wage war while aiding Southern efforts. Thomas Gosnell, of the 3rd Iowa Cavalry, stationed at Lebanon, Missouri, wrote his sister about such an encounter.

the news come in to camp lost wednesday evening that the rebels had captured the stage 19 miles above this place we were ordered to mount our horses and just at dark away we went over hill and dale in pursuit we rode all night and the next day we pushed them so hard they let the stage and two federal officers behind but they kept the mail we pursued them untill our horses could not raise the trot so we had to return with out a fight.
Thomas Gosnell letter to Margaret Fauquier 27 October 1862

The rate of guerrilla warfare in the Ozarks indicates that it was a very lucrative business, with high payoffs and extreme danger. That type of adventure and life style appealed to some, and after the war men like Jesse James continued to fight their personal vendetta. For others it was more of a military tactic, the only way they saw to fight northern aggression in a war in which their forces were neither recognized nor supported by their chosen government. Regardless of their motives for the violence, the damage guerrillas caused and the terror they spread plagued the civilians of the Ozarks for over ten years. Not knowing whom to trust and literally living day-to-day, the people of the Ozarks persevered.

Browse all collections in Guerrilla Warfare

  1. Bruce Nichols, Guerrilla Warfare in Civil War Missouri Volume II 1863 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc.), 9.
  2. U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 128 Vols. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901), Series I, Volume 22, Part 1, 685.