Bitter Bushwhackers and Jayhawkers – Sidebar: March ’99 America’s Civil War Feature

Guerrilla Mythmaker Exraordinaire

As the years passed by and Bleeding Kansas and the Civil War lost their immediate hold on people’s hearts and minds, a professional journalist and former Confederate cavalryman named John N. Edwards waged a one-man war to refurbish the image of the Missouri guerrillas. How well he succeeded can be seen in his extraordinary influence on subsequent historians of the war in the West.

Edwards, who had served under Brig. Gen. Jo Shelby during the war, set about in the mid-1870s to change the public’s perception of wartimes Bushwhackers from wanton killers to noble–if improbable–knights of a gallant brotherhood. In his book Noted Guerrillas, Edwards concentrated on the much-maligned historical figure of William Clarke Quantrill, portraying his as a “bashful and timid” youth who “knew nothing of the tiger that was in him until death had been dashed against his eyes in numberless and brutal ways, and until the blood of his own kith and kin had been sprinkled plentifully upon things that his hands touched.”

Disregarding Quantrill’s rather unsavory prewar life, Edwards excused the guerrilla leader’s undoubted excesses as mere self-defense and acts of honor. “He lifted the black flag in self-defense,” wrote Edwards, “and fought as became a free man and a hero.”

Other guerrillas also found themselves recast in the heroic mold. Fletch Taylor, a Clay County Bushwhacker, was depicted as “a low massive Hercules…built like a quarterhorse, knowing nature well, seeing equally in darkness and light, rapacious for exercise, having an anatomy like a steam engine, impervious to fatigue like a Cossack, and to hunger like an Apache, he always hunted a fight and always fought for a funeral.”

Quantrill, in Edwards’ recounting, was “a living, breathing, aggressive, all-powerful reality…viligant, merciless, a terror by day and a superhuman if not a supernatural thing when there was upon the earth blackness and darkness.” But even Edwards could not totally refurbish Quantrill’s image. With a notable lack of apology, the writer noted that Quantrill and his men, when faced with captured Union soldiers who “begged for mercy upon their knees, heeded the prayer as a wolf might the bleating of a lamb.”

Despite such lapses, however, Edwards’ book proved influential, making Quantrill the focal point of nearly all subsequent historical accounts of the Kansas-Missouri fighting, at the expense of other, often times more successful guerrillas like “Bloody Bill” Anderson and George Todd. And the whitewashed image of Missouri Bushwhackers as Southern cavaliers, whatever the true historical facts, had proved irresistible to a certain segment of writers and apologists in the 115 years since Edwards’ book.

Cowan Brew

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