The Border of Memory: The Divided Legacy of the Civil War

An essay by

If you look at any national map of the Civil War, you will see no contrast between Kansas and Missouri. Both are shaded alike as Union states. Were we to map the memory of the war, on the other hand, the border between them would be bright and stark. Kansas would still be Northern. But much of western Missouri would go with the South.

The war’s legacy in Missouri’s borderlands presents something of a mystery. Consider the example of Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower. They had a lot in common. They served consecutive terms as president. They grew up only 160 miles apart in the late-19th century – Truman in Independence, Missouri, and Eisenhower in Abilene, Kansas. Local history mattered to both of them. Yet very different versions of the past lived in their imaginations.

Divergent Views

Truman was steeped in the Civil War - in particular, his own family’s suffering at the hands of jayhawkers.

Eisenhower grew up with Wild West lore: cattle drives, cowboys, and the man he called “our marshal,” Wild Bill Hickok. Just over the border, Truman was steeped in the Civil War - in particular, his own family’s suffering at the hands of jayhawkers. When he came home from his first trip to Kansas, his mother asked if he had found his grandmother’s silver, supposedly stolen by Kansans wearing Union army blue.

These tales were more closely linked than either man might have realized. Hickok had fought for the Union in Missouri. His first town-square man-to-man gunfight took place in 1865, in Springfield, Missouri, against former Confederate Dave Tutt. And Truman built his political career in Kansas City, a town that grew in prominence after the Civil War and became closely linked to the Kansas economy.

If Kansas and Missouri were intertwined, why was the Civil War central to Truman’s identity, but not Eisenhower’s? If both were Union states, why did Truman see himself as a Southerner, while Eisenhower considered himself a Westerner?

Missouri’s guerrilla conflict tore the state apart. Neighbors fought neighbors and then struggled for dominance afterward.

The legacy of the Civil War diverged because Missouri experienced the conflict—and its aftermath—quite differently than did Kansas or indeed most Union states. After the “Bleeding Kansas” conflict ended, Kansas enjoyed relative unity. Its soldiers mostly went off to fight rebels in Missouri or distant theaters. When the armies demobilized, Kansans returned from afar, and the state’s attention turned to new things, especially westward expansion.

But Missouri’s guerrilla conflict tore the state apart. Neighbors fought neighbors and then struggled for dominance afterward. The key to postwar power was memory and identity. In the Civil War’s long shadow, a few mythmakers on the western border worked to convince Missourians that they lived in the South.

The War that Wouldn’t End

On April 12, 1865, three days after General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia disbanded. That day, Sarah Harlan composed a letter in Haynesville, Clinton County, in western Missouri. “We hear great talk of peace,” she wrote, “but the bushwhackers are plenty.”

More than a month after Appomattox, guerrilla Archie Clement demanded the surrender of the town of Lexington. Image courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library.

Two weeks later, Union General Clinton B. Fisk wrote to a Platte County politician, “Organize! Organize! All volunteer troops are being withdrawn from North Missouri; martial law will soon be abrogated; civil law will be supreme. Spencer rifles must aid in the good work.”

Harlan and Fisk feared that violence would rage on in western Missouri, and for good reason. Combatants on each side were from the same communities. The front line had often been the threshold of the front door. With “peace,” Confederate guerrillas did not demobilize—they came out of hiding. Fear of retribution hung in the air.

One sign of the war’s intensity is the fact that some Confederates refused to admit it was over. On May 11, more than a month after Appomattox, guerrilla Archie Clement actually demanded the surrender of the town of Lexington, in Missouri’s Lafayette County. As the Confederacy’s collapse struck home, the bushwhackers debated their course of action and finally broke into two parties. The larger group, led by Dave Pool, surrendered peacefully. The other, led by Clement, remained at large, armed, defiant, and very dangerous.

A Land of Bitterness

Clement was not the only angry Missourian. The guerrilla war had inflicted widespread suffering on civilians; it upended the border region’s economy and society. Even in peace, turmoil prevailed.

“Most all of the families that used to live here moved away,” Amanda Savery wrote to her husband in 1865, from Liberty, Clay County: “The Eatons are all banished and many others.... There has been a great many deaths among your friends.” Families exiled under martial law took months to return, if they did at all. The Samuels of Clay County—family of guerrillas Frank and Jesse James—did not come home until August 1865.

Emancipation was the war’s moral triumph, but it angered former slaveholders, who lost much of their “property.” By contrast, it had little impact on Kansas, where few were enslaved when the war began. Western Missouri’s labor force also declined as the freed people fled, even before slavery was abolished in the state. For example, Clay County’s black population fell by half from 1860 to 1864.

Citing "unpaid taxes," the Unionist authorities in Missouri auctioned off numerous farms of those who had gone to fight for the South. Often buyers came from outside the state - though few from the South.

Victims and perpetrators often knew each other. "Peace" meant an opportunity to get even.

Bank failures also reduced the economic power of the old elite, the large slaveholders of the Missouri River Valley. In 1861, these men had used the banks to arm local Confederate recruits through a kind of check-kiting scheme. They counted on repayment from the victorious Confederacy. Instead, the banks folded and were bought by Unionists.

Finally, there was the hunger for revenge. The war had been brutal: ambushes with short-range pistols, torture, summary executions, house- and farm-burning. Victims and perpetrators often knew each other. “Peace” meant an opportunity to get even.

Amanda Savery wrote to her husband on July 1, 1865, that returning Southern fighters “were shot as fast as they came, as civil war is in force.” Five months later, Jackson County bushwhacker Bill Runnells called out two Unionists and killed them. On June 15, 1866, Lass Easton ran into guerrilla Jim Green in a grocery store in Clinton County. Easton accused Green of helping to burn his father’s house; Green shot him dead. Sarah Harlan wrote, “One of Easton’s brothers says he intends to kill Jim if he follows him to the end of the world.”

As late as October 1866, army Lieutenant James Burbank investigated reports of “an armed pistol company” in St. Clair County. It was like searching for a needle in a needle factory. “Nearly every man I saw . . . carried army revolvers, even men at work in their fields, and boys riding about town,” he reported. He called it “a habit which grew out of the unsettled condition of the country since the war.”

The New Order

For all of the tensions, secessionists remained a distinct minority in Missouri. So how did a Southern identity emerge on the western border? How did the state’s internal war come to be remembered as a battle against outsiders?

Much of the answer lies in the collapse of wartime alliances. Even before the peace, Missouri Unionists broke into two camps, Radicals and Conservatives. These Radicals should not be confused with Radical Republicans in Congress. The local variety were driven by a desire to punish secessionists, not by humanitarianism toward the slaves. Radicals on the western border were particularly vociferous. They wanted to penalize their “traitor” neighbors, with whom they had traded atrocities; they wanted to keep the rebels out of power, forever. They embraced emancipation to eliminate secessionists’ economic strength.

Conservatives, by contrast, wanted to heal the state quickly. They liked Missouri the way it was, and were reluctant to free the slaves and grant them civil rights.

Charles D. Drake drafted a new Missouri state constitution that imposed strict restrictions on secessionists. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In 1864, the Radicals won the state election. Voters also approved a state convention on emancipation, which terminated slavery in January 1865. But the convention went further. Led by Charles D. Drake, an articulate, bullying Radical from St. Louis, it drafted a new state constitution, approved by voters on June 6, 1865.

Most of the “Drake Constitution” was unremarkable. But it imposed tight restrictions on secessionists - indeed, on anyone who could not take the Iron-Clad Oath. That oath was a declaration that one had not committed any of 86 acts, ranging from armed rebellion to expressing sympathy for an individual secessionist. Those who could not swear to it were barred from voting, running for office, sitting on juries, teaching, preaching the gospel, or serving as lawyers or corporate officers. County registration boards and supervisors—all Radicals—would have the power to bar anyone from voting whom they suspected of disloyalty.

Conservatives hated the new constitution. Politician William F. Switzler said it was written “in a spirit of malice and revenge.” Border Radicals felt otherwise. “I would rather today see a rebel with a musket in his hand than with a ballot,” wrote Robert T. Van Horn, the editor of the Kansas City Journal of Commerce, Union veteran, Kansas City mayor, and newly elected congressman. “If he outvotes me, I must take my musket and support the law or policy which he may impose.... Is Missouri never to have peace? Is treason to become a virtue and loyalty a crime?”

“I could see much bitterness and opposition expressed, one to the other, in the countenances of the citizens,” a traveler wrote, after visiting Lexington in early 1866. He quoted a resident on local politics. “We have here three papers, and three parties: —Democracy [i.e. Democrats], Radicalism, and Southern.” (At the time, Conservatives were taking the Democratic Party label, and Radicals the Republican, though the older terms continued to be used.)

Ironically, the Drake Constitution prepared the way for an alliance of Unionist Conservatives and secessionists. The heavy-handed use of the Iron-Clad Oath and openly partisan registration boards disfranchised even some loyal Democrats, who began to feel that they had much in common with their secessionist neighbors. In a grave political error, the Radicals essentially pushed their opponents together.

Suggested Reading: 

Astor, Aaron. Rebels on the Border: Civil War, Emancipation, and the Reconstruction of Kentucky and Missouri. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2012.

Blight, David W. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2001.

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

Geiger, Mark W. Financial Fraud and Guerrilla Violence in Missouri's Civil War, 1861–1865. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

Hulbert, Matthew. "Constructing Guerrilla Memory: John Newman Edwards and Missouri's Irregular Lost Cause," The Journal of the Civil War Era. March 2012.

Phillips, Christopher. The Making of a Southerner: William Barclay Napton's Private Civil War. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 2008.

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

Cite this page: 
Stiles, T.J.. "The Border of Memory: The Divided Legacy of the Civil War" Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. The Kansas City Public Library. Accessed Jun, 20, 2019 at


I think there may be a lot of

I think there may be a lot of truth in the claim that Missouri became southern in memory. My paternal lineage great-great-grandfather was a Union soldier from Iowa who emigrated to southwest Missouri in the early 1870s. And, I would argue that many attitudes in his descendants are southern.

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