By Keith Nobles
I finished ‘Three Years With Quantrill’ last night, it had been a number of years since I had previously read it.
I have read a lot on this topic, two sets of my great-great grandparents were killed in their homes in Missouri, one set by Jayhawkers and the other set by Federal regulars in the Civil War. One of my great great grandfathers allegedly rode with Quantrill.
Beyond family connections here and how the Civil War brought these people into connection with their allies in the war – Stand Watie and the Cherokee – and how that eventually meant a Keith came into being, the lesson of Missouri in the Civil War is one of flipping a moral switch that ought never get flipped. Missouri in the Civil War is about as dystopian as the United States ever became.
McCorkle, the teller of the story and the man who spent three years fighting under the command of Quantrill, was by all accounts a fine young man prior to the Civil War. He joined the Missouri State Guard in 1861 in order to defend his state. Missouri at that time was neither Union nor Confederate but attempting to stay neutral in the war. Trying to stay neutral in the Civil War ended up being a very bad and short-lived strategy and events pulled McCorkle, and the entire Missouri State Guard, into the Confederacy after the United States invaded Missouri – to prevent their neutrality and make sure Missouri came in to the war on the side of the Union.
After the Missouri State Guard was chased from the state by the Union, men who were either enlisted in the Missouri State Guard or whom held sympathies toward the south formed guerrilla warfare outfits and conducted guerrilla war against the Unionist and Union sympathizers for the remainder of the Civil War.
The Unionist conducted a campaign of atrocities against those who sympathized with or were perceived to sympathize with the south. Entire counties were depopulated by Union order – everyone in a county would have to leave. Wives, sisters, mothers, girlfriends were taken hostage by the Union as blackmail for their men to cease the guerrilla campaign. Endless homes and farms were burned, people murdered, etc. by the Union in this effort to defeat the guerrilla insurgency. This is how two sets of my great-great grandparents were killed by Unionist at this time in Missouri.
As for the Missouri Confederate guerrillas – they killed, robbed and murdered anyone of the Union or with Union sympathies as well. One of my great-great grandfathers was killed (there is a painting of him being killed, it was that noteworthy of an event) because he would hide in a place still named after him, Bowlin Rocks and where it was nearly impossible to root him out of, with a rifle and shoot Union soldiers as they traveled down the road. He did that quite effectively for two years. I obviously did not know the man but I am quite confident in declaring that he had no moral issues shooting Yankees in the back from a distance.
That is how deeply and quickly things devolved in Civil War Missouri. There is a lesson in this – what I referred to above as flipping a moral switch that ought never get flipped. The moral switch is one that gets flipped from “I politically disagree with my neighbor” to “I politically disagree with my neighbor hence that makes it acceptable to kill him and burn his house down.” We never want that switch to get flipped, but Howe and Strauss in “The Fourth Turning” make quite the compelling argument that quite consistently every fourth generation in America does indeed flip that moral switch and that we are living with that fourth generation in power. It is not hard to look around and see a considerable number of Americans that are doing their damnedest to flip that moral switch again.
To return to McCorkle, after the Civil War he was again by all accounts a fine upstanding citizen. However, for three years with Quantrill as a guerrilla in Missouri he was as cold-blooded a killer as ever existed. While many of the Missouri guerrillas did return to being upstanding citizens after the war we rarely recall their names. It was the Missouri guerrillas who did not return to being upstanding citizens that we recall – Frank and Jesse James, Cole Younger and Jim Younger and so forth.
The man that history knows as Bloody Bill Anderson went absolutely insane with bloodlust after the female members of his family died at Union hands.
McCorkle obviously shades things in his recollections (he narrated the book in 1913, fifty years after the events he was recalling) in order to diminish the atrocities that Quantrill and his command committed. For example, in recalling the famous raid on Lawrence, he says that no innocent civilians were intended to be killed and he apologized if that occurred. McCorkle draws a moral line for their actions that is quite convenient. He could, fifty years later, morally rationalize meeting Union civilians on a road by happenstance and killing them. Of course the rationalization is that they were involved in atrocities or somehow profited from atrocities committed against southern sympathizers.
That standard for who lives and dies is exactly how that moral switch gets flipped.
At the end of all of this is the reality that Quantrill and the Missouri guerrillas were militarily insignificant. What they did made not a bit of difference in the outcome of the war, they were merely satiating their appetite for revenge and the unwillingness to acknowledge defeat in that particular theater of the war.
That this need to satiate that appetite rained hell down on everyone in the state of Missouri was not something that ever seemed to occur to them. As an interesting aside, because these men who rode with Quantrill were actually remarkably proficient at what they did they have been romanticized to no end. Movies such as “The Outlaw Josie Wales” and “Ride with the Devil” and “The Long Riders” do a fair job of presenting the guerrillas point of view. That the people who sympathized with the south in Missouri did indeed suffer horribly at the hands of the Federal government is not really a point of dispute.
That trying to killing everyone – no matter how proficient they were at doing that -would resolve that is a matter of great dispute. I would imagine that some people will attempt to apply a moral standard to this very blogpost, a standard they have devised that will assure them of their own superiority. That very action of assigning a moral value to history rather than learning from it is the root cause of these types of events and why history rhymes.
There is a pretty obvious corollary with today, where people espouse words and actions not all that different from 1861 that – if carried out as they declare they desire – will rain hell down on everyones heads. That thought seems not to occur for many people today any more than it did to these men in Missouri between 1861-65. Once again, history never repeats but it certainly rhymes.
“I am going to use deadly force to make you do what I want!” and the response of “I will kill you back!” rarely results in happiness and contentment.
Exactly what price are you willing to pay for your side to win?