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Missouri's bloody Civil War battles

The border state was strategic for the Union and Confederacy.

April 10, 2011|By Catherine Watson | Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • A cannon stands as a sentinel at Wilsons Creek Battlefield, where the second major battle of the war took place in 1861 near Springfield, Mo.
A cannon stands as a sentinel at Wilsons Creek Battlefield, where the second… (Catherine Watson )

Reporting from Boonville, Mo. — "Split state" used to sound simple to me, as though it were 50-50, North versus South, nice tidy halves. But Missouri wasn't just split in the Civil War. It was shattered.

Rifts ran through every level of society all over the state — through counties, towns, church congregations, families, right down into individual souls.

Missouri had rich slave owners who wanted to stay in the Union and poor farmers who never saw a slave but fought for the South. Even Julia Grant, wife of the Union general who would win the war, came from a wealthy slave-owning family with a plantation outside St. Louis.

"This is why the border states are so bloody," said Maryellen McVicker, a professor of American history and chairman of the Boonville Civil War Commemorative Commission. "If you're from Michigan, you're going to fight for the North. If you're from Georgia, you're going to fight for the South. But if you're from Missouri — who knows?"

Starting this month, the national focus will be on Civil War anniversaries in the East, where the best-known battles occurred. But fighting started on the Missouri-Kansas border in 1856, nearly five years before Ft. Sumter, S.C., in the vicious struggle over Kansas statehood. And it went on long after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered in 1865 at Appomattox, Va.

Some historians say Missouri's Civil War didn't really end until 1882, when Jesse James, ultimately the state's most famous Confederate guerrilla, was gunned down at his home in St. Joseph. The little farmhouse where he and his brother Frank were born is now a museum in Kearney, Mo., near Kansas City. Displays there suggest that the bank robbers — and the guerillas they had ridden with — belonged to the romantic tradition of Robin Hood.

But the Civil War wasn't romantic. It cost 620,000 American lives, more than this country's other wars combined, from the Revolution through Vietnam. That was about 2% of the population; if it happened now, historians estimate, the equivalent number of dead would total 6 million.

It was particularly bloody in Missouri. The state was too strategic for either side to leave alone. The superhighways of the time converged here: This is where the Missouri and Ohio rivers join the Mississippi and where the Pony Express, the Butterfield Overland Stage and the Santa Fe, Oregon and California trails began.

More than 1,000 battles took place in Missouri, making it the third-most fought-over state of the war, after Virginia and Tennessee. In 1861 alone, the war's first year, 42% of all battles were on Missouri soil. And nobody is sure how many acts of violence were committed by pro-slavery bushwhackers and anti-slavery jayhawkers, just that the hostilities were incessant.

Before I came to Missouri in September, I turned for travel advice to a Civil War expert I've known most of my life: Mark W. Geiger, whose economic and social history, "Financial Fraud and Guerrilla Violence in Missouri's Civil War," was published last summer by Yale University Press.

Mark and I are cousins. We share the same Missouri-born grandmother, as well as the stories she liked to tell about her three uncles who rode with the Confederate cavalry. Mark suggested a range of historic sites to visit; the ones I chose were mainly from the war's first year. Collectively, they kept Missouri in the Union — though not always by direct victories and sometimes just barely.

I was fondest of Boonville, a sweetly prosperous town of 6,800 on the south bank of the Missouri River, one of the few small towns in the country that still has its own daily newspaper. Boonville is proud of that and its history.

Boonville, about midway between Kansas City and St. Louis, is where the Civil War's first significant land battle took place, on June 17, 1861, more than a month before Bull Run (also known as First Manassas) in Virginia. In June, the town expects more than 500 uniformed reenactors and 10,000 spectators at the first of the nation's 150th-anniversary battle reenactments.

The Boonville battlefield is a pasture beside the old Rocheport Road, which Union soldiers followed as they marched toward town. The land is still privately owned, and that makes this reenactment one of the few that can be held on the same spot as the original battle. (The National Park Service doesn't allow reenactments on the battlefields it protects.)

The trouble with battlefields, 150 years after the fact, is that they are so pretty, like the green and peaceful farm fields they once were and, in Boonville's case, still are. On the morning I was here, the only opposing force was a clutch of white-faced cattle peering anxiously out of the woods beyond.

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