Missouri’s bloody Civil War battles

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Special to the Los Angeles Times

“Split state” used to sound simple to me, as though it were 50-50, North versus South, nice tidy halves. But Missouri wasn’t just split in the Civil War. It was shattered.

Rifts ran through every level of society all over the state — through counties, towns, church congregations, families, right down into individual souls.

Missouri had rich slave owners who wanted to stay in the Union and poor farmers who never saw a slave but fought for the South. Even Julia Grant, wife of the Union general who would win the war, came from a wealthy slave-owning family with a plantation outside St. Louis.

“This is why the border states are so bloody,” said Maryellen McVicker, a professor of American history and chairman of the Boonville Civil War Commemorative Commission. “If you’re from Michigan, you’re going to fight for the North. If you’re from Georgia, you’re going to fight for the South. But if you’re from Missouri — who knows?”

Starting this month, the national focus will be on Civil War anniversaries in the East, where the best-known battles occurred. But fighting started on the Missouri-Kansas border in 1856, nearly five years before Ft. Sumter, S.C., in the vicious struggle over Kansas statehood. And it went on long after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered in 1865 at Appomattox, Va.

Some historians say Missouri’s Civil War didn’t really end until 1882, when Jesse James, ultimately the state’s most famous Confederate guerrilla, was gunned down at his home in St. Joseph. The little farmhouse where he and his brother Frank were born is now a museum in Kearney, Mo., near Kansas City. Displays there suggest that the bank robbers — and the guerillas they had ridden with — belonged to the romantic tradition of Robin Hood.

But the Civil War wasn’t romantic. It cost 620,000 American lives, more than this country’s other wars combined, from the Revolution through Vietnam. That was about 2% of the population; if it happened now, historians estimate, the equivalent number of dead would total 6 million.

It was particularly bloody in Missouri. The state was too strategic for either side to leave alone. The superhighways of the time converged here: This is where the Missouri and Ohio rivers join the Mississippi and where the Pony Express, the Butterfield Overland Stage and the Santa Fe, Oregon and California trails began.

More than 1,000 battles took place in Missouri, making it the third-most fought-over state of the war, after Virginia and Tennessee. In 1861 alone, the war’s first year, 42% of all battles were on Missouri soil. And nobody is sure how many acts of violence were committed by pro-slavery bushwhackers and anti-slavery jayhawkers, just that the hostilities were incessant.

Before I came to Missouri in September, I turned for travel advice to a Civil War expert I’ve known most of my life: Mark W. Geiger, whose economic and social history, “Financial Fraud and Guerrilla Violence in Missouri’s Civil War,” was published last summer by Yale University Press.

Mark and I are cousins. We share the same Missouri-born grandmother, as well as the stories she liked to tell about her three uncles who rode with the Confederate cavalry. Mark suggested a range of historic sites to visit; the ones I chose were mainly from the war’s first year. Collectively, they kept Missouri in the Union — though not always by direct victories and sometimes just barely.

I was fondest of Boonville, a sweetly prosperous town of 6,800 on the south bank of the Missouri River, one of the few small towns in the country that still has its own daily newspaper. Boonville is proud of that and its history.

Boonville, about midway between Kansas City and St. Louis, is where the Civil War’s first significant land battle took place, on June 17, 1861, more than a month before Bull Run (also known as First Manassas) in Virginia. In June, the town expects more than 500 uniformed reenactors and 10,000 spectators at the first of the nation’s 150th-anniversary battle reenactments.

The Boonville battlefield is a pasture beside the old Rocheport Road, which Union soldiers followed as they marched toward town. The land is still privately owned, and that makes this reenactment one of the few that can be held on the same spot as the original battle. (The National Park Service doesn’t allow reenactments on the battlefields it protects.)

The trouble with battlefields, 150 years after the fact, is that they are so pretty, like the green and peaceful farm fields they once were and, in Boonville’s case, still are. On the morning I was here, the only opposing force was a clutch of white-faced cattle peering anxiously out of the woods beyond.

The First Battle of Boonville was an easy Union victory — federal troops versus untrained local militia and so short that the victors dubbed it the “Boonville Races.’’ But it wasn’t the complete rout that historians used to think, McVicker said. A recent archaeological dig uncovered two battle lines, proof that the rebels had regrouped and made a second stand before they were captured.

The second major battle of the war — and the next major Southern victory after Bull Run — happened Aug. 10, 1861, at Wilson’s Creek, near Springfield, in the gentle hills of Missouri’s southwest corner.

Here, Union commander Nathaniel Lyon became the first Northern general killed in the war. His body was laid on a bed in a nearby farmhouse — so nearby that the farmer spent the battle “out on the porch in a rocking chair, watching the show,’’ said John Sutton, chief ranger at Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield. The house is still here, still with a big four-poster in the front room.

Lyon’s death so shocked the North that when the general’s body was sent home to Connecticut, thousands turned out along the route to see his funeral train pass. That was because the war was so new, Sutton said: “People weren’t used to it yet.”

The defeat at Wilson’s Creek made Union leaders in Washington take Missouri more seriously, and they sent more troops to control the fractious state. It was under martial law for the rest of the war.

A larger, longer battle — and another Southern victory — followed Wilson’s Creek by a month: the Siege of Lexington, Sept. 13-20, 1861. I stopped here partly because I believed my grandmother’s uncles had fought in it and partly because of the South’s creative battle strategy: The Confederates used huge bales of hemp as moving breastworks, firing from behind them as they rolled the bales toward Union lines.

I like to feel history, not just read it, but sometimes you can feel too much. I had seen too many battlefields, too fast, and after Lexington, I grew numb. The complexity of the war was exhausting, the numbers of dead and wounded inconceivable. My mind turned away, seeking solace in smaller things:

The zigzag pattern of a split-rail fence at Wilson’s Creek. Timeless shadows of old trees on the country roads near Boonville. A full moon rising over the headstones of both sides in Springfield National Cemetery. I spent a quiet evening there, sitting on the grass among the unknowns, wondering who they’d been and what they’d left behind — and why.

From there, I jumped ahead in Missouri’s war chronology to the Battle of Westport, on Oct. 21-23, 1864, a major Union victory. Counting both sides, nearly 37,000 Americans clashed there. Today, though, you can stand where the battle took place and not know, because much of that land is underneath Kansas City, Mo.

Westport has a 32-mile driving tour, a museum, historical society and dedicated volunteers trying to save what’s left, but most of the original battleground along Brush Creek was altered when posh Country Club Plaza was developed there after World War I.

Country Club Plaza is historic in its own way: It was among the first shopping centers designed for automobile traffic. But I couldn’t picture battle flags and bursting shells amid its Spanish-Moorish-style architecture, upscale boutiques and trendy restaurants. The closest I got to the Civil War there was the history aisle in its Barnes & Noble.

The place that touched me most deeply wasn’t a battlefield, and it wasn’t in Missouri, although it was undeniably part of Missouri’s Civil War. At the end of the trip, I drove 40 miles west to Lawrence, Kan., site of the Civil War’s worst civilian atrocity.

I’ve often heard Southerners insist that the War of Northern Aggression wasn’t about slavery; it was about states’ rights. But what happened in Lawrence proves just the opposite. Only one state’s right was in question here: slave or free?

Lawrence was founded by New England abolitionists in 1854 and was staunchly anti-slavery. In the early morning of Aug. 21, 1863, Missouri bushwhacker William Clarke Quantrill led several hundred pro-slavery guerillas into the orderly little town.

What followed was a well-planned massacre. The raiders went house to house, killing more than 150 men and older boys. Then they torched the place. (The Union retaliated by evicting thousands of residents from four western Missouri counties and burning their farms.)

I intended to follow Quantrill’s route, but I’d managed to hit Lawrence on Band Day — the autumn Saturday when every high school marching band in the region parades down Massachusetts Street, the heart of downtown.

It was also Parent’s Weekend at the University of Kansas, and the Jayhawks were about to play their third football game of the season. Every cross street was blocked by police cars, and the sidewalks were thick with people wearing T-shirts in bright Jayhawk blue. I abandoned Quantrill’s bushwhackers and joined the crowds.

At the far end of Massachusetts, drums throbbed and bands began to march. Soft sunlight flashed from the bells of tubas and trombones and brought out the colors of the cheerleaders’ twirling flags. The scene was festive, but it chilled me: It looked like an advancing army.

I’d felt the entire trip as if I’d been wading in blood and sadness, and now here were hundreds of marchers, all young, all in uniform, and the crowd was cheering and clapping just the way townsfolk did on both sides when their boys marched off to horrors that no one, 150 years ago this month, could possibly have imagined.

Then the band from Lawrence’s own Free State High School marched past, and I fought back tears. Sometimes, you can look so closely at battlefields that you miss the point of the war. Here, it was suddenly unmistakable: These kids were the Civil War’s most important legacy. They were that war’s future. All of us are.

Whether our backgrounds held Confederates or federals or former slaves or immigrants who hadn’t yet arrived, we were all here now — people of different backgrounds, different colors, all together. And all free.

“Before the Civil War,’’ Maryellen McVicker had told me back in Boonville, “people said, ‘the United States are a great country.’ After the Civil War, they said, ‘the United States is a great country.’’’ I watched the beautiful marching teenagers, wiped my eyes and agreed.