Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Wood: "The Civil War Along the Lower Kansas-Missouri Border"

Though the Civil War in the Trans-Mississippi still occupies a relatively small space in the popular imagination, recent years have seen an explosion of new works on a wide variety of subjects dealing with the war beyond the Mississippi. A large portion of these books, most of which are published by small presses, covers the conflict in Missouri. Control of the state of Missouri was vitally important to each side’s war effort, especially in the first two years of the war, and thus this particular region is a richly deserving area of study.

Larry Wood, a writer and retired schoolteacher, has published a new edition of his military history of the often brutal and unforgiving internecine warfare that raged across southeastern Kansas and southwestern Missouri [The Civil War on the Lower Kansas-Missouri Border (Hickory Press, 2003). Pp. 249, $ 17.95, 2nd Edition, completely revised. Paperback, illustrated, map, notes, appendix. ISBN 0-9702829-1-5]. The geographical focus is narrow, purposefully avoiding the better known stories of events such as Wilson’s Creek and the sacking of Lawrence in favor of more obscure but locally important skirmishes and battles. Both sides launched savage raids, leading to the burning of several locally prominent towns such as Osceola, Humboldt, Sherwood, and Nevada. Further military actions at Carthage, Dry Wood Creek, Island Mound, Newtonia, and Germantown are briefly described in the text while the events of the Battle of Mine Creek, Shelby’s 1863 “Great Raid”, and Baxter Springs are recounted in greater detail. Although the writing is a bit unpolished, the comprehensiveness of this fast-paced book is impressive.

Excepting chapters chronicling the depredations of Jim Lane and his Kansas Brigade, much of the book’s focus is on the actions (and atrocities) of pro-Southern Missouri regular and irregular “bushwhacker” forces and the response to these attacks by regular federal forces from several states and pro-Northern Missouri militia. Entire chapters are devoted to the actions of lesser-known guerilla leaders such as Tom Livingston and John Coffee. Unfortunately, this emphasis may lead the unwary reader into having a one-sided view of wartime atrocities in Missouri. While the author provides a balanced account of abuse and property loss, the same cannot be said for the subject of murders and executions. It should have been made more explicitly clear that both sides murdered civilians and performed unlawful executions on a similarly unfortunate scale.

Other flaws include an inadequate number and quality of maps. The single map provided is too general and does not show county boundaries or the location of many towns and landmarks mentioned in the text. On the technical side, an unfortunate printing mistake has led to the omission of headings I through M in the index. Additionally, as a general criticism, along with a more balanced depiction of wartime atrocities, a more in-depth exploration of participant motivations and strategic considerations was needed.

On the positive side, the book is adequately researched. The author makes good use of official records, newspapers, county histories, manuscripts, and select secondary sources. For those not familiar with the area, a useful appendix listing and describing relevant area museums and historical sites to visit is included. Overall, The Civil War on the Lower Kansas-Missouri Border provides the reader with an intriguing regional history that brings to light many little known wartime episodes and personalities. Students of the Trans-Mississippi theater in general and the Missouri brand of guerilla warfare in particular will find a great deal of useful information in this book and many ideas for further study.

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