Bushwhackers

Encyclopedia entry by ,
University of Missouri—Kansas City

Jesse James sought safety in the brush at a young age and grew into the tumultuous and violent life of a warrior bandit. Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The “bushwhackers” were Missourians who fled to the rugged backcountry and forests to live in hiding and resist the Union occupation of the border counties. They fought Union patrols, typically by ambush, in countless small skirmishes, and hit-and-run engagements. These guerrilla fighters harassed, robbed, and sometimes murdered loyal Unionist farmers on both sides of the state line. They interrupted the federal mail and telegraph communications, and (most troublesome to the Union command trying to quell the escalating violence in the border region) the bushwhackers held the popular support of many local farming families.

Men joined with the bushwhackers for a number of reasons. Some, like Frank James, had been paroled from the Missouri State Guard, and upon returning home they were constantly harassed by the “jayhawker” troops garrisoned in the border counties. Others, like his younger brother, Jesse, sought safety in the brush at a young age and thus grew into the tumultuous and violent life of a warrior bandit. Still others, like William Quantrill, were landless drifters, “border ruffians,” or bandits from the border war who sought personal gain from the complete chaos of the Civil War. Before the war, 90 percent of Missourians lived on farms and in small villages, and the majority of bushwhackers came from this broad population of yeoman farmers from the upper South, where individual lives and families were swept up into an endless cycle of violence that all would be fortunate to survive.

Union troops in the border region developed the custom of shooting bushwhackers on sight, and those captured alive were typically executed.

Most of the bushwhackers were illiterate young men in their teens and early twenties. They clung together in bands of 12 to 20, camped out in the brush, let their hair and beards grow long, and  wore fancy hunting shirts that were hand embroidered by their girlfriends and female family members. They gained a reputation as well-armed and ferocious fighters, for riding the fastest horses in the country, and for rarely, if ever, taking prisoners. Even more rarely were they captured alive. Union troops in the border region developed the custom of shooting bushwhackers on sight, and those captured alive were typically executed.

Under the tenants of the Confederate Partisan Ranger Act of 1862, any group of 10 men could organize, elect a captain, sergeant, and corporal, and commence operations against the Union military. Most bushwhacker leaders, including George Todd and William T. “Bloody Bill” Anderson, did not survive the war, and others such as Anderson’s lieutenant, Archie Clement, would die violent deaths not long after the war’s end. After the war, bushwhackers Kit Dalton, Cole Younger, and Frank and Jesse James acquired fame and notoriety as bank robbers and later as fictionalized Western folk heroes in dime store novels of the late 19th century. If they were fortunate to survive the war, most bushwhackers returned to quiet lives as farmers, as did John McCorkle, who would leave behind one of the only published memoirs of a Missouri bushwhacker.

Their tactics were most effective in small squads, where their penchant to carry as many as eight loaded pistols, to use quick-loading Sharps Rifles, and to ride fast horses made them a lethal force against the Union infantry.

Although they were not led by formal military command, the bushwhackers led an insurgency that occupied thousands of Union troops and supplies that could have been utilized elsewhere in the war. Their tactics were most effective in small squads, where their penchant to carry as many as eight loaded pistols, to use quick-loading Sharps Rifles, and to ride fast horses made them a lethal force against the Union infantry. At times, their numbers grew large enough that they organized and fought pitched battles with Union forces, such as the First Battle of Independence and the Battle of Lone Jack. At various times they went on raids into Kansas, attacking, burning, and plundering the towns of Stillwell, Shawnee, Olathe, and most infamously, Lawrence in August 1863.

As the war raged on, the Union command sought increasingly drastic measures to bring the bushwhackers under control. Aware of the support the bushwhackers had among the local communities, the Union command turned their attention and efforts toward the families of the bushwhackers. In August 1862, General John M. Schofield issued General Order No. 9, which permitted Union troops pursuing the guerrillas to take provisions and other property, including slaves, from families perceived to be disloyal to the Union. One year later, General Thomas Ewing issued General Order No. 10, directly targeting for arrest the wives and children in the community who supported the insurrection by spying, making food, tending the wounded, or making clothes for bushwhackers.

View a reenactor of Jesse James, interviewed by R. Crosby Kemper III in a Meet the Past event at the Kansas City Public Library.

The final blow to the bushwhackers and their families came with General Order No. 11, which forcefully removed an estimated 20,000 people in the border counties, including loyal and disloyal families alike. Order No. 11 also detailed that any remaining provisions that might prove useful to the bushwhackers be destroyed or carried away.  The order’s result was theft, widespread arson, and visible scars upon the land that, for years after the war, distinguished Jackson, Cass, Bates, and Vernon counties as “The Burnt District.” Most bushwhackers were displaced from the border region, and without the support of the community, those few who remained were more of a nuisance than a threat to the Union Army’s occupation of the border.

Suggested Reading: 

Fellman, Michael. Inside War: The Guerrilla Conflict in Missouri During the Civil War. Oxford New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Neely, Jeremy. The Border Between Them: Violence and Reconciliation on the Kansas-Missouri Line. Columbia London: University of Missouri Press, 2007.

Stiles, T.J. Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.

Cite this page: 

O’Bryan, Tony. "Bushwhackers" Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. The Kansas City Public Library. Accessed Apr, 24, 2014 at http://www.civilwaronthewesternborder.org/content/bushwhackers

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