Think today’s political climate is bad? Look at Civil War Missouri, where atrocities between neighbors were commonplace
Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’s famous phrase, “War is Hell,” was never more true than along the Missouri/Kansas border during the American Civil War.
Certainly, the battlefield slaughter and destruction in the eastern part of the country was brutal. But the savage guerrilla war fought in western Missouri took violence and inhumanity to a new level—even by today’s standards.
Pre-war hatred a way of life
During the antebellum period, the counties bordering the Missouri River, with its rich bottom-land, were home to the majority of the state’s slave population. Hemp, a valuable commodity, was grown on plantations there and shipped east to St. Louis for transit via the Mississippi River down to New Orleans.
Decades of bloody conflict between pro- and anti-slavery factions were prevalent along the Missouri/Kansas border, which meant bad blood was already at the boiling point, waiting only for secession to touch off an explosion.
And explode it did.
Prior to the war, anti-slavery Kansas Jayhawkers and pro-slavery Missouri Rowdies raided each other back and forth across the border, spreading killing and destruction. (As part of this conflict, anti-slavery martyr, John Brown, became infamous for massacring pro-slavery civilians in Kansas.)
After the Confederates were defeated at the Battle of Pea Ridge, many returned to their western Missouri homes. But Kansas Jayhawker raids stirred them to action again. In retaliation, the Confederates became guerrillas, called bushwhackers, and an escalating cycle of horrors, pitting neighbor against neighbor, was born.
How bad was the violence? As nasty as it gets.
Both the Confederate guerrillas and the Union guerrilla-hunters carried out scalpings and displayed the trophies on their horses’ pommels. Yes, Americans actually did this to other Americans. Civilians were robbed and murdered; homes, farms, and towns were burned.
On Aug. 21, 1863, Quantrill’s Confederate guerrillas raided Lawrence, Kansas, burning the town, massacring its men and boys. To clear out western Missouri, the base of most of the guerrilla activity, the Union issued General Order No. 11. Under Order No. 11, the Union army destroyed four entire Missouri border counties, burning the farms of loyal Unionists and Confederate sympathizers alike. The whole area became known as “the burnt district,” and that, in fact, is what it was.