Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Nichols: "Guerrilla Warfare in Civil War Missouri, Vol. II 1863"

[ Guerrilla Warfare in Civil War Missouri, Volume II, 1863 by Bruce Nichols. (McFarland & Co., ph. 800-253-2187, 2007). Hardcover, photos, illustrations, maps, notes. Pp. 397.ISBN: 0-7864-2773-7 $45 ]

Readers interested in the Civil War in Missouri owe a debt of gratitude to researcher Bruce Nichols for his extensive documentation of the guerrilla warfare that raged throughout the state. In 2004, Mr. Nichols’ Guerrilla Warfare in Civil War Missouri, 1862 was published. Books that serve primarily as reference works, no matter how groundbreaking, are not often accorded the level of recognition they deserve, and this book was no exception. Thankfully, through the author’s diligent efforts, Volume II has been completed, providing us with a record of all known guerrilla actions in Missouri through 1863.

Both volumes have the same overall structure. Rather than utilize a traditional narrative format, Nichols has elected to segregate the guerrilla actions he describes regionally by dividing the state into quadrants. Chapters are further divided seasonally. Beyond its logical parallels with the seasonal nature of the guerrilla fighting itself, the structure also works quite well as an organizational tool. On the other hand, this type of compartmentalization can lead the reader to lose sight of the larger picture at times. Also, in terms of enhancing readability, more analysis sections could have been employed to break up the text’s often extensive litany of atrocities.

While much of the literature of the Missouri guerrilla war remains characterized by emotional bluster and frank bias, Nichols is refreshingly evenhanded. His research is thorough, relying on the use of corroborating sources drawn from a range of materials, including official records, newspapers, diaries, letters, and county histories. Not surprisingly, large numbers of Missouri county histories written just before and after the turn of the century carry a significant emphasis on the Civil War years. Well over a hundred maps, illustrations, and photographs also accompany the text. In terms of layout and materials, Guerrilla Warfare in Civil War Missouri, 1863 is an attractive and high quality publication.

Although much of the text focuses on the military conflict between pro-Southern “bushwhackers” and the often confusing network of Unionist militias (Missouri State Militia, Enrolled Missouri Militia, and Provisional Enrolled Missouri Militia units), the civilian experience is recounted in all its horrors. Targeted by both sides, Missourians were murdered on an appalling scale. Certainly the appointment of local militias was a double-edged sword. These men were familiar with the local geography and its residents, but this very intimate knowledge of the sympathies of the population (combined with a general lack of restraint from above) often led to an unending cycle of murder and revenge born from personal vendetta. Although scattered articles exist, this book really underscores the need for a scholarly analysis of the organization, composition, and operations of the Missouri militias. Other subjects associated with the conflict, such as the extensive property losses incurred and the military prison apparatus in St. Louis, are discussed at some length in the book. On the other hand, the struggle between conservatives and radicals in the state government and how this affected the conduct of the anti-guerrilla campaign is a factor I would like to have seen developed further.

By any measure, Guerrilla Warfare in Civil War Missouri, 1863 should be regarded as an important contribution to the historiography of the Civil War in Missouri. Although this book may not be of the kind that all readers will read from cover to cover, it will likely stand the test of time as an invaluable resource for a wide range of interested readers.

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