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Guerrilla warfare and the Civil War in Missouri - Part 1

Updated on July 1, 2010
Nick Burchett profile image

Nick is a US Army veteran, husband and father of three, and has a BA in History. He is a Civil War aficionado and also enjoys genealogy.

Missouri "partisan" soldiers at Fort Davidson in Pilot Knob 2007 Nick Burchett
Missouri "partisan" soldiers at Fort Davidson in Pilot Knob 2007 Nick Burchett

Lets take a look at a topic that has been discussed in Missouri for over 150 years - the Civil War in Missouri, and in particular, guerrilla warfare.

The American Civil War is a period that evokes many perceptions. To most people, the first things that usually come to mind are slavery, Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Most people think the war took place solely east of the Mississippi River and was fought mostly in the eastern portion of the United States.

The state of Missouri, however, saw more battles within its borders than any other US state and was only eclipsed by Virginia and Tennessee in total number of battles fought. And while there were major battles that took place in the state involving regular army units from both the Union and Confederate ranks, a large portion of the conflicts that took place were between the everyday citizens of the state.

These men were usually from rural areas and one could argue that they fought not for slavery (the vast majority of these men did not even own slaves) but over areas of land that had little to no governmental control. Some of these men, however, fought for more insidious reasons which included the murdering of innocent people.

These men, called bushwhackers (the term refers to their guerrilla-like tactics of hiding out in "bushy" areas and then ambushing their victims), were, in general, usually part of the irregular military units of both the Union and the Confederacy and since they were not part of the regular army, both governments struggled with how to deal with these bands of men; should they be treated as legitimate military operations or criminal actions.

Many of the bushwhackers in Missouri used a form of guerrilla warfare known as “People’s war” as their primary means of warfare as opposed to standard, military style operations. This usually included neighbor against neighbor fighting to settle grudges and disputes but on rare occasions would consist of these civilians banding together to fight against opposing troops.

The other type of guerrilla warfare used by the bushwhackers was "Partisan warfare". This type of guerrilla warfare differed in that it was comprised of small forces that were in turn controlled and/or organized by a larger military organization. This ultimately led to these groups of "partisan rangers" being perceived as having more "legitimacy" than their bushwhacker brethren.


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      Carol Moody 5 years ago

      My great-grandmother was bushwhacked near Carthage Missouri- she & her unborn twins were killed. Fortunately my great grandfather lived He lived until he was 90 & died in Carnegie Oklahoma in 1954. I have a family tree book with the story. (the Spilman Family)