The struggle for Missouri was one of the most prolonged and violent conflicts of nineteenth-century America, extending beyond the boundaries of the Civil War. In fact, Missouri was the very seedbed of the Civil War. Events in Missouri prior to 1861 triggered the national debate over the westward expansion of slavery, and the Kansas-Missouri Border War of the 1850s heralded the larger conflict. Yet, Missouri is marginalized in Civil War history, and its war continues to be treated as a “sideshow” because it defied notions of acceptable nineteenth-century warfare and continues to challenge our paradigm of a civil war. Claimed by both North and South, Missouri held a liminal status between Union and Confederate, with combatants fighting conventional battles as well as a guerrilla war. Over the course of the war, the guerrilla war predominated and shifted the struggle from the battlefield to the home front, blurring the line between combatant and noncombatant, drawing civilians into the conflict.
The struggle for Missouri was one of the most prolonged and violent conflicts of nineteenth-century America, extending beyond the boundaries of the Civil War. In fact, Missouri was the very seedbed of the Civil War. Events in Missouri prior to 1861 triggered the national debate over the westward expansion of slavery, and the Kansas-Missouri Border War of the 1850s heralded the larger conflict. Yet, Missouri is marginalized in Civil War history, and its war continues to be treated as a “sideshow” because it defied notions of acceptable nineteenth-century warfare and continues to challenge our paradigm of a civil war. Claimed by both North and South, Missouri held a liminal status between Union and Confederate, with combatants fighting conventional battles as well as a guerrilla war. Over the course of the war, the guerrilla war predominated and shifted the struggle from the battlefield to the home front, blurring the line between combatant and noncombatant, drawing civilians into the conflict. 
On the eve of the Civil War, Missouri had a distinctive southern character, which was established with the earliest immigration to the Missouri territory after its incorporation in 1812. Most settlers hailed from the Upper South, especially Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia and brought with them their southern culture and way of life, including the southern agricultural practice of farming tobacco and hemp. Missouri came to closely resemble the Upper South: it was more agriculturally diversified than the Deep South, with many settlers also planting fruit trees and corn and domesticating cattle and pigs, and it was a “small-scale slaveholding” society, with the majority of farmers owning a small number of slaves. The majority of slaveholders and slaves concentrated in the fertile region along the Missouri River, a region later nicknamed “Little Dixie” for its preponderance of southern cultural traits.
The issue of slavery in Missouri triggered the national debate over the expansion of slavery into new western territories. Throughout the mid-nineteenth century, the acquisition of new territory repeatedly triggered conflicts, but politicians managed to contain the issue periodically through political compromises. The first of these compromises was the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which admitted Missouri to the Union as a slave state but prohibited slavery in all territories to the west of Missouri that lay north of the 36°30′ latitude line. Americans recognized the problems inherent in the Missouri Compromise, none more so than Thomas Jefferson, who called it “a fire bell in the night” and the “knell of the Union.” The Compromise did in fact spark the sectional controversy over slavery’s expansion that would eventually lead the nation into war.
By the 1850s, the slavery issue dominated United States politics more than ever before as politicians debated whether slavery would be extended into several newly acquired territories. California, New Mexico, and Utah entered the Union after being acquired through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American war in 1848. The Compromise of 1850 settled the boundaries of Texas, admitted California as a free state, and allowed people living in the New Mexico and Utah territories to decide the status of their states as free or slave, a policy known as popular sovereignty. One provision in this compromise required runaway slaves to be returned to their masters regardless of whether they were captured in a free state or a slave state, which strengthened the Fugitive Slave Law and became a major point of contention between Northerners and Southerners in the years leading up to the Civil War.
Missouri was the site of one of the most crucial legal battles regarding slavery of the nineteenth century: The Dred Scott case. In 1846, Dred Scott, an African American slave residing in Missouri, sued for his freedom and that of his family based on the fact that their owner had taken them to Wisconsin territory and several free states where laws prohibited slavery and revoked citizens’ rights to own slaves. After nearly ten years of trials, in 1857, Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney ruled Congress’ prohibition of slavery in western territories was unconstitutional and declared African Americans, whether free or slave, were not citizens of the United States and, thus, had no right to bring suits to court. The ruling of this case had broader implications as it denied Congress the power to free a person’s slaves or to outlaw slavery in the territories.
However, in the midst of the Dred Scott trials, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 had already rescinded Congress’s power to outlaw slavery in new territories. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, created and introduced to Congress by Senator Stephen A. Douglas, organized the Nebraska territory into two separate regions—Kansas and Nebraska—for the purposes of statehood. Rather than allowing Congress to decide whether these territories would become free or slave states, the act gave this privilege to the settlers (white males only) to decide the issue by popular sovereignty. By allowing citizens to possibly decide in favor of slavery in these northern territories, the act effectively repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had prohibited slavery north of latitude 36°30′. Douglas and other politicians believed that if the people—as opposed to Congress—were allowed to decide, their decision would be uncontestable. Despite Douglas’ optimism, the act angered many northerners and shifted the struggle from a political debate to a war on the Kansas-Missouri border.
Permitting residents to decide the status of Kansas triggered a mass migration of both proslavery and antislavery settlers into the territory. As New Englanders organized Emigrant Aid Societies to facilitate the settlement of antislavery supporters to the Kansas territory, Missourians and other southerners encouraged the settlement of proslavery supporters. Some proslavery Missourians earned the moniker “border ruffians” because they crossed the border in order to vote fraudulently and prevent antislavery Kansans from voting. Antislavery Kansans responded by organizing militant forces, known as Jayhawkers, for defensive as well as offensive initiatives against Missourians. The ensuing violent and bloody encounters between antislavery Kansans and proslavery became known as Bleeding Kansas or the Border War. In one of the most infamous events of the war, abolitionist John Brown and his sons, Frederick, Owen, Salmon, and Oliver, attacked and killed five proslavery men with broadswords on the banks of the Pottawattamie Creek in Kansas. The conflict ultimately resulted in a free-state constitution for Kansas, much to the chagrin of proslavery Missourians, who feared the prohibition of slavery in a neighboring state would, at the very least, provide runaway slaves with a place of refuge and could lead to the end of slavery in Missouri and other southern states. Militant antislavery and proslavery forces on both sides of the border stood ready to engage one another if hostilities over the slavery issue should re-emerge. But, between 1860 and 1861, an eerie calm descended over the border region.
In the winter of 1861, when South Carolina seceded in response to the election of Abraham Lincoln, most Missourians opposed the secession of their state from the Union, favoring continued loyalty loyal to the United States. Most citizens were conditional Unionists, meaning they opposed secession for Missouri, but believed the Federal government could not lawfully force states to stay in the Union. Even many slaveholders in the state opposed secession because they believed the U.S. government best guaranteed the protection of their property—slaves included—more so than any new government could. Furthermore, Missourians believed Lincoln when he said he had no intention of freeing the slaves or outlawing slavery.
In February, Missourians elected delegates to a state convention in Jefferson City to decide the state’s future. The delegates voted 89 to 1 to remain in the Union. The delegates’ decision would stand as long as the Federal government did not “employ force against the seceding states,” but they also warned the seceded states not to “assail the government.” In the eyes of Missourians, the Federal government had no right to force states to stay in the Union, and especially had no right to use force against them, since they voted to stay in the Union. Despite an initial Federal policy of conciliation toward the South, in which “southern noncombatants were to be spared confiscation, intimidation, and physical abuse in hope of winning their confidence,” in Missouri, Federal troops responded with force to the “armed neutrality” of the populace, ultimately eroding the Missourians’ neutrality. 
Shortly after Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s call for troops to force southern states to stay in the Union, exactly what Missouri convention delegates cautioned against, Missourians armed themselves for war. On April 12, 1861, Confederate forces opened fire on the Union-held Fort Sumter in South Carolina. In response, Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to put down the southern rebellion, 4,000 of whom were to come from Missouri. Missouri Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson was outraged by the order, which he deemed “illegal, unconstitutional and revolutionary, in its object inhuman and diabolical.” He refused to comply and prepared the state for war. Many southern sympathizing and pro-secession men in Missouri joined Jackson’s Missouri State Guard in order to defend the state against Federal incursion. The governor’s opponents in St. Louis, including Francis Preston Blair and Union Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon, likewise amassed local troops to defend the state for the Union. 
The two forces met at Camp Jackson outside St. Louis in early May. Fearing an imminent Confederate attack on the Union arsenal in the city, General Lyon surrounded and captured the entire Confederate force as they trained under Brigadier General Daniel Marsh Frost in what became known as the Camp Jackson Affair. Union troops marched the prisoners through St. Louis where civilians with southern sympathies began shouting and throwing rocks at the mostly German American troops. Eventually, shots rang out. A Union soldier was shot and killed. The commander of the troops ordered his men to return fire, leaving twenty-eight civilians dead, including two women and one child. The soldiers’ violent actions enraged Missourians, and, similar to Lincoln’s call for troops, drove many to sympathize more with the South.
Following the Camp Jackson Affair, both sides mobilized and prepared for war. The state legislature, incensed by the display of Union aggression at Camp Jackson, hastily passed an act, known as the military bill that allowed Jackson to continue mobilizing by dividing the state into military districts, appointing military commanders, and recruiting troops. The U.S. Commander in St. Louis, Brigadier General William Selby Harney, declared the act “an indirect secession ordinance” and considered it null and void. The Commander still hoped to maintain peace in the state, however, so on May 20, Harney met with Sterling Price, the man Governor Jackson had appointed major general of the Missouri State Guard a few days earlier. The two men agreed to keep the peace. Some historians insist the Price-Harney Agreement was essentially an initiative pursued by both sides in order to gain time to prepare for war. Neither Blair nor Lyon acknowledged the legitimacy of the Price-Harney agreement; therefore, nearly ten days after the agreement, Blair removed General Harney from his position and appointed Lyon as Brigadier General in command of the Department of the West.
In a final attempt to prevent further military encounters between Jackson’s forces and Federal troops, Lyon and Blair met with Jackson and Price at the Planters House Hotel in St. Louis on June 10, 1861. Negotiations failed, ending with Lyon shouting, “Rather than concede to the state of Missouri for one single instant the right to dictate to my government in any matter however important, I would see you, and you, and you, and every man, woman, and child in the State, dead and buried. This means war.” Jackson responded to Lyon’s threat with a proclamation to the people of Missouri that claimed Lyon had refused to accept his terms of peace and called for fifty thousand men to defend the state. 
This time, the breakdown in peace negotiations led directly to military conflict. While Federal officials solidified control over St. Louis, Jackson and Price moved to secure the rest of Missouri for the Confederacy. Jackson abandoned the state capital at Jefferson City and ordered his State Guard to move northwest along the Missouri River to the city of Boonville to gather troops from this pro-secessionist region. Jackson also hoped to defend his position at Boonville and gain control of central Missouri and the Missouri River. Lyon left St. Louis with his men to confront Jackson’s force, and on June 17, the two sides clashed in the Battle of Boonville. The battle only lasted for twenty minutes and resulted in few casualties and a complete Union victory. A lithograph published in Cincinnati after the battle played on the names of the battle’s commanders, depicting Jackson as a jackass and Lyon as a lion and stating, “a mischievous JACK who was Frightened and run away from his Leader by the sudden appearance of a Lion. He is of no value whatever and only a low PRICE can be given for his capture.”
After the Guards’ defeat at Boonville, Jackson and Price moved their men south, shifting the primary military theater to the southwest corner of the state. However, Lyon had previously sent Union troops to South Missouri for the express purpose of blocking Ben McCulloch’s Confederate forces from coming up from Arkansas and combining with Price’s force in Missouri. The Union forces took control of major towns in the center of the state, effectively cutting off the Missouri Guard in the Missouri Valley from the Confederate forces in Southern Missouri and Northern Arkansas. Nevertheless, the Missouri State Guard, under the command of Jackson, successfully routed the Union force under the command of Colonel Franz Sigel at Carthage on July 5, 1861. The victory and the use of Captain Joseph Orville “Jo” Shelby and his partisan rangers inspired Confederate sympathies and encouraged recruitment in the state. The subsequent Confederate victory at Wilson’s Creek in August furthered the Confederate cause in the state. As the first major battle in the trans-Mississippi theater, Wilson’s Creek also coincided with the First Battle of Bull Run in the East, and contributed significantly to the high hopes of the Confederacy at the outset of the Civil War. The Union suffered a great loss in the battle: General Nathaniel Lyon, after being shot twice during the battle, once in the leg and once in the head, was killed instantly by a shot through the lungs and heart.
Between the Battle of Carthage and Wilson’s Creek, the Missouri State Convention removed Jackson from his position as governor, replaced him with provisional governor Hamilton Rowan Gamble, and vacated the office of the Secretary of State. While in exile in southern Missouri, after his removal, Jackson continued to enact policies and initiatives to move the state toward secession. In early August, just days before the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, Jackson, still believing himself the rightful governor, declared Missouri a free republic and continued petitioning with the Confederate government for military aid.
Simultaneously, Union forces in the state attempted to solidify control. On August 30, 1861, John C. Frémont, the newly appointed commander of the Western Department, responded to the preponderance of Confederate guerrilla and Jayhawker violence in the state with his own controversial edict declaring martial law in Missouri and prescribing harsh punishments for treason, including freeing the slaves of disloyal slaveholders, trying civilians found with firearms by court-martial, and penalizing citizens taking up arms against the U.S. with death. President Lincoln feared the edict would only incense Missourians further and drive them to support the Confederate cause. Frémont’s proclamation, along with additional evidence of poor judgment in political and military affairs, eventually led Lincoln to remove him from his position a few months later.
Despite Federal initiatives, by the fall of 1861, Confederate forces clearly possessed the upper hand in the state. Taking advantage of the favorable conditions, Price decided to move his troops north to the Missouri River along the Kansas-Missouri border where they engaged a Kansas Jayhawker force under the command of Brigadier General James Henry Lane. Price also engaged regular Union troops in several skirmishes and pitched battles in the area, including one at Lexington on September 18 and 19, which ended in a Federal surrender. A month later, in late October, Jackson, working with members of the Missouri General Assembly in exile, passed an ordinance of secession for the state of Missouri and ratified the Constitution of the Confederate States of America. As a result, Missouri became at once a Confederate and a Union state, with stars on both flags for the remainder of the war.
Jackson’s ordinance of secession ensured that Confederate and Union forces, both regular and irregular, would spend the remainder of the war struggling to secure the state for their respective governments. While organized fighting continued sporadically throughout the war, in much of the state, especially in the Little Dixie region along the Missouri River, guerrilla warfare predominated. As soon as the war began, Confederate guerrillas, many of them young white men from the wealthy slave-owning families in the state, rose up to combat the Federals as well as the irregular Jayhawker forces from Kansas. In April 1862, the Confederate government officially recognized and commissioned some guerrillas as partisan fighters; nevertheless, many of the guerrillas in Missouri remained non-commissioned and illegitimate according to the laws of war.
The guerrilla war in Missouri was characterized by retaliation and revenge. In late September 1861, James H. Lane commanded his Jayhawkers to destroy the town of Osceola, Missouri in an act of revenge against Missourians who had attacked his men and took refuge in the town.
Lane’s Jayhawkers executed nine men, burned and looted the town, carrying away clothing, silver, and even a grand piano, and left with a large group of slaves. Guerrillas frequently evoked the memory of Osceola as a justification for storming Unionist towns or targeting Unionist supporters. But, the collapse of the Union women’s prison in Kansas City on August 14, 1863 that killed several women related to guerrillas, including Captain William T. “Bloody Bill” Anderson and John McCorkle, sent the guerrillas into a rage. The Union prison collapse sent up a united cry for revenge within guerrilla ranks. Captain William Clarke Quantrill assembled a force of several hundred guerrillas and headed for the abolitionist stronghold of Lawrence, Kansas. In the early morning hours of August 21, 1863, Quantrill's men let out a blood-curdling cry and, galloping at full speed, descended on the unsuspecting townspeople. Quantrill rode roughshod through the streets, “sing[ing] little snatches of song as the gray smoke rolled away from his pistol,” as was said to be his custom. Once the smoke cleared, nearly two hundred men lay dead. In response to the Lawrence Massacre, Union officials, primarily Brigadier General Thomas Ewing, issued the punitive and controversial Order No. 11, which ordered all the residents who could not prove their loyalty to the Union to leave Jackson, Cass, Bates, and northern Vernon counties along the Kansas-Missouri border. 
Missouri Unionists also formed militias or home guard units made up of local men to protect themselves and their communities from guerrillas. These Federal militias were stationed throughout Missouri but struggled to adapt their fighting tactics and strategies to match those of the irregular Confederate forces. But over the course of the war, in order to combat these men on their own terms, Union militias found themselves embracing guerrilla tactics: they engaged in spontaneous cavalry skirmishes and hit-and-run maneuvers, wore disguises to divulge civilian loyalties, and targeted civilians for resources. 
Guerillas depended on civilians for support. Secessionist civilians that supported guerrilla activity, usually family members and close friends, established extensive networks of civilian home supply bases designed to provide guerrillas with food, clothing, horses, and firearms. Women played a crucial role in these supply networks, aiding guerrillas by making clothing and cooking meals, domestic duties now considered war crimes. Some women further aided guerrillas by spying, relating information, and transporting goods.
Federal officials realized early in the war that guerrillas would not last long without their civilian supply bases and support networks and began targeting civilians suspected of aiding guerrillas. But Union officials and soldiers struggled to determine the loyalties of civilians, and aiding guerrillas did not necessarily signify disloyalty, since many civilians were forced to aid combatants on one or both sides. When combatants came to their door, civilians often cooperated in order to survive. However, civilians who cooperated with both sides usually ended up worse off than those who declared their loyalty openly, since interacting with either side brought reprisals from the other, placing Missourians “between fires.”
Union officials pursued “hard war” policies against civilians, including assessments, property confiscations, arrests, banishments, and sometimes death, in an effort to destroy the guerrillas’ support system. In fact, the largest number of civilian arrests for treason, including women, occurred in the state and a significant portion of those proven guilty were banished to the South. Union policies warranted the confiscation or destruction of property of those deemed guilty of aiding the enemy. While guerrillas were to be shot on sight, civilians were supposed to be spared the death penalty unless proven guilty in court. Nevertheless, many Secessionist men died at the hands of Union soldiers without evidence of treason or trial, contrary to nineteenth-century laws of war. For many Missourians, the murder of innocent noncombatants at the hands of Union soldiers proved the injustice of the Union cause, driving many young men to join the guerrilla ranks and many older community members to support them.
Guerrillas’ desires for revenge drove the conflict deeper into a cycle of vengeance. Guerrillas responded to the civilian murders with retaliation in kind, usually murdering those directly involved. But they also targeted loyal Unionist civilians for resources and reprisals, often robbing, threatening, or murdering them at will. Guerrillas especially targeted African Americans and German Americans, often indiscriminately shooting them down in the street, because they aided the Union cause as informants and soldiers. As in other areas of the South, following the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, the deliberate murder of African Americans increased significantly and continued into the Reconstruction era. Acts of guerrilla violence triggered equal responses from Union militants, which meant some blood feuds seemed to go on indefinitely.
After three full years of pitched battles, skirmishes, and retaliatory violence that drew Missouri citizens into an uncivil war, southern sympathizers maintained hope that a large-scale invasion of Missouri could win the state for the Confederacy. In October of 1863, Jo Shelby’s partisan rangers invaded the state rallying Confederate support and striking at Union forces before returning to Arkansas. One year later, in the fall of 1864, General Price, affectionately known by his men as “Old Pap,” led one last campaign to take the state for the Confederacy. Price entered Missouri from Arkansas on September 19 and headed north toward the Missouri River, all the while recruiting men and dispatching guerrilla forces throughout the state. The guerrillas served Price with stunning effectiveness, as is evidenced by the Centralia massacre. On September 27, in Centralia, Missouri, guerrilla leader William “Bloody Bill” Anderson and eighty of his men, Frank and Jesse James among them, damaged the railroad and commanded the passengers of an approaching train to disembark. The guerrillas separated some twenty-eight soldiers from the other passengers, commanded them to take off their uniforms, and summarily shot them, leaving the bodies behind scalped and mutilated. Price continued battling and skirmishing with Federal forces until finally being driven south into Oklahoma and Arkansas.
The war ended in April 1865, but the struggle for Missouri continued as civilians and politicians wrestled over Missouri’s reconstruction. The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and the Thirteenth Amendment of 1865 officially abolished slavery, the very foundation of southern society, forcing Missourians to restructure their social, economic, and political worlds. Newly freed African Americans, while gaining new rights and freedoms in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, continued to be the targets of discriminatory violence at the hands of white men who opposed their newfound status. Many guerrilla fighters pursued the same activities in the era of Reconstruction as they did during the war, continuing their exploits as thieves and murderers. Missourians not only reordered society but also rebuilt their devastated communities in the wake of an exceedingly destructive war. Yet, many of the scars of war lay hidden beneath the surface of postwar society, as survivors privately mourned their relatives, cared for the wounded, and sought consolation in war memorials and commemorative societies and organizations.
The struggle for Missouri, as well as the struggle for slavery and the Union, began with Missouri’s introduction as a state. The controversy surrounding slavery’s westward expansion emerged with the very founding of the state and ignited the flashpoints that drove the nation to war, including the Missouri Compromise, the Dred Scott case, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the Kansas-Missouri Border War. As the epicenter of the issue of slavery’s expansion and the site of a violent and prolonged conflict, Missouri stands as one of the most important regions for understanding the causes of the Civil War. Yet, Missouri’s distance from the primary theater of war, and the irregular, unconventional, and brutal nature of the war in the state drove Missouri’s Civil War into the margins of broader Civil War history; in this way, Missouri’s struggle continues.
Fellman, Michael. Inside War: The Guerrilla Conflict in Missouri During the American Civil War. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Boman, Denis K. Lincoln and Citizens’ Rights in Civil War Missouri. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2011.
Earle, Jonathan and Diane Mutti Burke, eds. Bleeding Kansas, Bleeding Missouri: The Long Civil War on the Border. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2013.
Harvell, Elle. “Cope, Cooperate, Combat: Civilian Responses to Union Occupation in Saline County, Missouri during the Civil War.” Master’s thesis, University of Texas at Tyler, 2012.
Gerteis, Louis. The Civil War in Missouri: A Military History. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2012.
Neely, Jeremy. The Border Between Them: Violence and Reconciliation on the Kansas-Missouri Line. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2007.
Phillips, Christopher. Missouri’s Confederate: Claiborne Fox Jackson and the Creation of Southern Identity in the Border West. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000.
No organizations listed.
The Missouri Digital Heritage Initiative is a collaborative effort that dramatically expands the amount of information available online about Missouri’s past. Through the Missouri Digital Heritage Initiative, the Missouri State Archives and the Missouri State Library, in partnership with the State Historical Society of Missouri, are assisting institutions across the state in digitizing their records and placing them online for easy access.
The State Historical Society of Missouri is the premier research center for the study of Missouri state and local history. Founded in 1898 by the Missouri Press Association and a trustee of the State of Missouri since 1899, the Society preserves and provides access to reference materials and historical collections through research centers located in Cape Girardeau, Columbia, Kansas City, Rolla, St. Louis, and Springfield.
No other sources listed.