The Missouri BushwhackersSaturday, November 28, 2009
Reader Tom points me to his video of the Bushwhackers, the guerrilla soldiers who fought for Missouri independence. Overall, some of the Bushwhackers had many imperfect political philosophies, indeed, and many of them were petty thieves or criminals. But many of them also had a fierce desire for independence from encroaching federal forces. Guerrilla forces tend to attract the worst sorts, as well as those who honorably serve the greater cause of independence. As time went on, the focus of the Bushwhackers tended to become more self-serving. This is the natural response to aggressive war, especially a war as evil and crushing as Lincoln’s bloody War Against Southern Independence. Many of the actions of these guerrilla fighters – even the misplaced behaviors – originated in response to the endless brutalities suffered at the hands of the Union Army and federal authorities. At the end of the video, Tom states it exactly right: “The Bushwhackers were flawed men fighting for a flawed cause…but they embodied the spirit of resistance against centralized power.”
The clearest, the most refined, version of guerrilla warfare in American history, other than the Indian wars, can be found in the War Between the States–and, specifically, in the war west of the Mississippi. Guerrilla war in the Trans-Mississippi did not begin with Fort Sumter and did not end with Kirby Smith’s surrender. It was a gut-wrenching expression of defiance, courage, and slaughter which defied the rules of conventional nineteenth century views of conflict. Winston Churchill once described the War Between the States as the “last war between gentlemen” and, in the east, even among the Partisan Rangers of John Singleton Mosby’s command, such was usually the case. The most significant violation of the rules of war in that region resulted not from Mosby’s chivalrous version of irregular warfare but from the murderous actions of Union cavalry general George Armstrong Custer who unhesitatingly executed prisoners of war.