As commander of a force of irregular cavalrymen, YOU lead your men against Union troops at Fort Blair.
In October 1863, the American Civil War continued to rage fiercely on bloody battlefields across the country, from the Atlantic coast to far beyond the Mississippi River. Although stunning Union victories at Gettysburg (July 1-3) and Vicksburg (Confederates surrendered July 4) dealt heavy blows to the South’s chances of winning its independence outright on the battlefield, the Confederacy showed little sign of giving up. Union and Confederate forces remained locked in deadly struggles ranging from fullscale battles pitting tens of thousands of Soldiers against one another to sharp engagements involving only a handful of troops on each side.
In addition to the battles fought by the conventional armies, the fighting increasingly was waged by Confederate guerrillas – irregular cavalrymen whose defining tactics were hit-and-run raids on Union outposts, supply bases and towns supporting Northern forces. In the war’s Trans-Mississippi Theater, guerrilla warfare predominated, particularly in Missouri and along the Kansas-Missouri state line. This troubled border region had been the scene of bloody clashes between pro-Northern and pro-Southern forces since 1854, fomenting hatred that only intensified once the Civil War broke out.
Beginning in mid-1861, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln’s extraordinary – and extralegal – political and military efforts to keep the key border state of Missouri in the Union by force created conditions that led to a bitter, ongoing guerrilla war. After Union troops pushed all conventional Confederate forces out of Missouri in early 1862, the war devolved into a protracted conflict characterized by Confederate guerrilla raids followed by brutally ruthless Union reprisals against guerrillas and civilians suspected of aiding them. In the vernacular of the day, it was “War to the knife, and the knife to the hilt!” – a no-quarter, life-or-death struggle between implacable enemies.
Armchair General® takes you back to October 6, 1863, to the Kansas-Missouri border region, where you will play the role of Confederate Colonel William C. Quantrill, commander of a 400-man guerrilla cavalry force. As you are leading your guerrillas through eastern Kansas on a southward journey of more than 200 miles toward safe winter quarters in Texas, you discover a small Union garrison occupying recently constructed Fort Blair. You decide to attack the fort – but then your scouts report the approach of another Union force. You face a critical decision: What action should you take to deal with these two enemy forces?
“NO QUARTER!” WAR
Guerrilla warfare is nothing new to the American military experience. Irregular forces and unconventional tactics characterized the struggle with Native American tribes since the first European settlers came to the continent, and U.S. forces faced Loyalist partisans during the 1775-83 American Revolution and then Mexican irregulars during the 1846-48 War with Mexico. Now, in the American Civil War, Confederate guerrilla bands oppose occupying Union forces in the hotly contested border states of Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee and northwestern Virginia, whose civilian population is bitterly divided between pro-Union and pro-Confederate factions. Typically, it is a “neighbor against neighbor” struggle with little mercy shown by either side.
Union counterguerrilla strategy is uncompromisingly brutal and reflects U.S. forces’ previous experiences fighting Indians, Loyalist partisans and Mexicans – kill guerrillas where they are found and harshly repress civilians who support them. Guerrillas are seldom taken prisoner and are quickly executed even when they are, and civilians suspected of aiding them are shot on the spot or imprisoned without trial. Lincoln has even suspended the writ of habeas corpus for the war’s duration and ignores the Supreme Court’s ruling that his action is unconstitutional.
The most egregious act of brutal Union repression of Missouri civilians suspected of aiding Confederate guerrillas is Order No. 11, an edict that was issued August 25, 1863, by Brigadier General Thomas Ewing, commander of the Union District of the Border (Kansas and western Missouri). Ewing’s order directed the forcible removal of all civilians from five Missouri counties bordering Kanas, except for those few who could prove their Union loyalty. Worse, the order was enforced by“Jayhawkers,” ill-disciplined Kansas militiamen who consider all Missourians “rebels” to be killed or severely chastised. After Jayhawkers finished their devastating forced evacuation, the entire area has aptly been called the “Burnt District.”
In Missouri and along the Kansas-Missouri border, the fighting drags on as a “no quarter!” war of hit-and-run guerrilla raids and ruthless Union reprisals.
UNDER THE BLACK FLAG
You were born in Ohio in 1837 and moved to eastern Kansas near the Missouri border at age 19. Heavily influenced by the pro-Southern friends you made – and incensed at the murderous violence perpetrated against proSouthern Kansas settlers during plunder raids into Missouri by abolitionist fanatic John Brown and Jayhawker James H. Lane – you decided to support the Confederacy when the war broke out. You joined General Sterling Price’s Missouri State Guard and fought against Union forces at the 1861 battles of Wilson’s Creek (August 10) and Lexington (September 13-20). However, by December, you chose to fight a different kind of war. When conventional Confederate forces were driven out of Missouri, you remained behind in the Kansas-Missouri border region as a guerrilla leader. Like most guerrilla leaders, you held a commission in the Confederate Army.
Your initial attempts to fight guerrilla actions while observing the generally accepted “laws of warfare” were callously rebuffed by Union commanders. From the outset, they have treated your men as outlaw bandits, refused to exchange prisoners and summarily executed captured guerrillas. You have retaliated by raising the“Black Flag,”signifying that no quarter would be given or expected.
Although Confederate guerrilla bands typically operate in highly mobile units of only 10 to 20 cavalrymen, on August 21, 1863, you organized and executed one of the largest and most stunning raids of the war when you led 400 guerrillas in a surprise attack on Lawrence, Kan. (See Kansas-Missouri Border map, p. 57.) Situated 40 miles west of Kansas City, Mo., Lawrence is a notorious Union and Jayhawker stronghold whose citizens owe much of their prosperity to the goods, horses and valuables looted from Missourians in early war plunder raids conducted by Kansas militiamen harbored in the town. Your attack caught residents and the Union troop garrison in Lawrence by complete surprise. Once your guerrillas quickly rode down the Union Soldiers, the town was at your mercy. The raid was a brilliant tactical success – but then it turned murderous.
When you arrived in Lawrence, you carried a “death list” with the names of the town’s worst Jayhawker leaders who you had marked for elimination (James Lane’s name was at the top). However, some of your revenge-minded guerrillas had no intention of limiting their killing to only those whose names were on the list. Your fiercest lieutenant, William T. “Bloody Bill” Anderson – in a homicidal rage after learning that one of his sisters was killed and another crippled for life on August 13 while in illegal Union custody – led 40 followers, including Archie Clement and Frank James, on a four-hour killing spree that accounted for many of the 180-200 men and boys murdered during the Lawrence raid. Anderson personally killed 14 of the males.
Many of the “civilians” Anderson and his men shot down were actually members of the town militia responsible for defending Lawrence, but your surprise attack caught them unarmed and virtually defenseless in the face of the enraged guerrillas. When your men left Lawrence, it was looted, burning and littered with bodies.
Despite the fact that Lawrence had been the sanctuary from which numerous deadly Union and Jayhawker raids had been launched into Missouri, Northern newspapers immediately featured headlines screaming“Massacre!” The indiscriminate killing of Lawrence civilians and the destruction of the town evoked widespread public outrage throughout the North, prompting Union commanders to intensify their counterguerrilla efforts in the region. By early October, the area had become “too hot” for effective guerrilla operations. Moreover, you realized that the approaching cold weather would soon denude the brush and trees that concealed your guerrillas’ preferred hiding places, leaving your men dangerously exposed and vulnerable to discovery by Union patrols. You therefore made the decision to lead your force over 200 miles south to Texas.
ON THE ROAD TO BAXTER SPRINGS
Your 400 guerrillas comprise a highly effective irregular cavalry force and are proven masters of hit-and-run raid tactics. They are all superb horsemen and are well armed for the close-quarters combat typical of raids. Each man carries as his primary weapons several six-shot revolvers (some carry as many as six pistols) that allow him to produce a blizzard of fire to quickly overwhelm opposing Union Soldiers principally armed with singleshot, muzzle-loading rifle muskets and carbines. Your light cavalry force has no artillery or long-range weapons and therefore must rely on mobility, surprise, shock action and closein pistol firepower for success in an engagement. Although your guerrillas are brilliantly effective at conducting lightning fast raids against unfortified enemy positions, they are neither organized nor armed for assaults against fixed fortifications.
On October 6, as you near Fort Blair, in Baxter Springs, Kan., your scouts bring in two captured Union wagon teamsters. The prisoners report that the fort consists of a blockhouse and several small cabins surrounded by a log and earth rampart about 4 feet high and 100 feet long on each side. To the west of the fort is the garrison’s tent encampment, and to the south is the cooking area. The teamsters divulge that the fort’s 155-man Union garrison is commanded by Lieutenant James B. Pond. Seventy of the men are African-American infantrymen of Company I, 2d Kansas U.S. Colored Troops, and the rest are part of C and D companies, 3d Wisconsin Cavalry. The infantrymen are armed with single-shot, muzzle-loading rifle muskets, while the cavalrymen carry breechloading carbines. Most troubling is the knowledge that the fort contains a 12-pounder howitzer.
Despite the presence of the rampart and howitzer, you decide to attack the fort. Suddenly, however, your other scouts gallop in and report a second Union force approaching from the north on the military road from Fort Scott to Fort Blair. The scouts had sneaked close enough to determine that the enemy force is made up of 100 troopers of Company I, 3d Wisconsin Cavalry, and Company A, 14th Kansas Cavalry, escorting Union Major General James G. Blunt from Fort Scott to Fort Smith, Ark. Like Fort Blair’s cavalrymen, Blunt’s troopers are armed with breech-loading carbines, but they have no artillery or long-range weapons.
As you process this information, you gather your principal lieutenants to hear three courses of action you are considering.
Course of Action One: TWO ATTACK FORCES
“Boys,” you begin, “the Yanks are in for it now! We’ve not only caught the blue backs at Fort Blair napping, we’ve also got others coming down the road from Fort Scott with no idea they’re about to ride into a hornet’s nest. I propose that we split our men into two forces and simultaneously attack Fort Blair and ambush Blunt’s escort. I’ll lead 200 men and overrun the fort, and Anderson will ambush Blunt’s force with our remaining 200 men. The Yanks won’t know what hit ’em!”
Bill Anderson likes the idea. “That suits me,”he says.“And I want Blunt for myself. He’s been killin’ our folks since he joined up with John Brown and Lane in ’56. I’ll shoot him down like the dog that he is – and kill every last Yank that’s riding with him.”
George Todd, who has been with you since early 1862, is skeptical. “I don’t like splitting us up,” he says. “Why let either of the Yank forces fight only half our men? This just seems too risky to me. We’d better keep our boys all together.”
Course of Action Two: ONE ATTACK FORCE
“George,” you reply, “that’s exactly what my second course of action entails. Since Blunt has no idea we’re here, we can attack the fort first with all our men and then ride north and ambush Blunt’s column.”
“That’s more like it,” says Todd. “Keeping us together gives us the best chance of overrunning the fort and defeating Blunt and his escort. In fact, we may need all of us to surround his force and make damn sure none of them gets away.”
Dave Poole, another trusted lieutenant, is less enthusiastic. “Unless we can overrun Fort Blair before the Yanks get their howitzer in action,” he says,“Blunt is certain to hear the cannon booming away at us. And when he does, he and his men will skedaddle as fast as they can. This plan puts us at risk of losing the element of surprise before attacking Blunt.”
Anderson, with a darkly contemplative look on his face, says to no one in particular,“I just want Blunt. Whichever plan makes sure I get him is fine with me.”
Course of Action Three: DELAYED ASSAULT
“Well, Bill,”you say,“my final option might be the best one to make damn sure we do get Blunt. With this plan, we’ll all lay low until he and his escort reach Fort Blair. Then, once all the Yanks are in one place, we’ll assault and overrun the fort with our entire force.”
Poole, however, doesn’t like this plan either. “If we let all the Yanks congregate in one place,” he says,“and especially if most of them can get behind the fort’s rampart, we may be in big trouble trying to overrun them. Our boys don’t much like to attack fortifications, particularly when the Yanks have a damn howitzer backing ’em up! This plan lets them put up the strongest defense possible and it gives away our boys’ advantages in numbers, speed and possibly even surprise. I say let’s not wait until the Yanks are all together. Let’s hit the enemy forces individually.”
Todd, on the other hand, supports this plan. “Dave,” he says, “you always see the dark side of every situation. This option seems like the one sure way of making certain we get all the Yanks and not just some of ’em. What do you think, Bill?”
Anderson shoots Todd a menacing look and replies,“The only thing that interests me is killin’ Yanks. Just pick a plan and turn me and my boys loose on ’em.”
Whichever course of action you choose must be implemented quickly, as each passing minute brings Blunt and his escort closer to Fort Blair. “All right, boys,” you announce to your subordinates, “you’ve each had your say. Now, here’s what we’re going to do.”
What is your decision, Colonel Quantrill?
Jerry D. Morelock, PhD, “Armchair General” Editor in Chief. “ACG” thanks Missouri “border war” expert Donald L. Gilmore for his help with this article. Gilmore’s must-read book “Civil War on the Kansas-Missouri Border” (Pelican Publishing, 2005) is the best work yet written on the subject.
Originally published in the January 2013 issue of Armchair General.