On Sunday, a lone gunman entered the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas. He opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle and claimed more than two dozen victims, male and female, ranging from 17 months to 72 years old.
Myriad commentators on social media and cable news have suggested that a better-armed congregation might have prevented the assault. Or, that the only remedy for an epidemic of gun violence is for every potential victim to pick up a weapon.
So what does a society look like wherein law and order recedes, the state seems incapable of protecting its citizens and those citizens become responsible for their own protection through sheer force of arms? We can do more than wonder. Historians of Civil War Missouri already know.
It’s not a pretty picture.
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According to most Americans, the Civil War was a vast sequence of pitched battles. The turning point came at Gettysburg in 1863 and the culmination at Appomattox in 1865. Perhaps most important of all, however, is that in this traditional rendition of the conflict, the fighting was done on a battlefront separate from the homefront.
Civil War Missouri doesn’t fit snugly within that narrative. For many Missourians, irregular violence constituted the regular wartime experience. The guerrilla war thrived in civilian spaces: farm roads, fields, hollers, barns, homes and even churches. Neither sex nor age guaranteed safety as women, children and the elderly fought, suffered and died alongside men of martial age. Individual and communal survival by force of arms became the status quo.
As a primary example, consider the plight of a German community in Saline County, Mo. The Germans had no interest in competing against slave labor and spoke out against the institution. This did not endear them to pro-Confederate bushwhackers under the command of William Clarke Quantrill. On Oct. 5, 1862, the guerrillas captured a group of Germans at gunpoint midway through a baptismal service. They lined the parishioners up against the exterior wall of the church and executed them at point-blank range.
Following the church massacre, the Germans lost their faith in the Union government’s ability to protect them. In desperation, they took up arms. Despite their lack of combat training, they attempted to solve the problem for themselves. At the Emma Massacre on Oct. 10, 1864, they were summarily slaughtered by Quantrill’s band. According to an eyewitness, 25 German men were gunned down — each corpse mutilated postmortem, his skull crushed by a club or musket stock.
Americans didn’t — and still don’t — remember events like these as part of the Civil War specifically because they were so ugly. Instead, the earliest histories of the war told tale of men from both sides fighting valiantly and sacrificing greatly on the battlefield. Elements of the conflict like the fighting in Saline County that did not feed directly into this reconciliatory narrative were intentionally sanitized from public commemoration and popular memory.
The fundamental point here is not that we’re doomed to repeat the past if we ignore it. Rather, it’s that every American citizen weighing in on mass shootings has an obligation to understand not simply our national history of violence, but to appreciate how and why that history has been constructed.
As a nation, we purged the real results of an “all-armed” society from our collective memory once already. Owing to that amnesia, some Americans are now determined to rediscover the terrible consequences all over again.
It’s not too late to remember — and we must. Because until we’re willing to take full stock of why our historical consciousness leads us to react to Sutherland Springs as we do, we will fail to find the common ground necessary to prevent similar tragedies in the future.
Matthew C. Hulbert teaches American history at Texas A&M University - Kingsville.