On Aug. 21, 1863, William Clarke Quantrill and several hundred Missouri bushwhackers rode into the abolitionist stronghold of Lawrence. Hell had come to breakfast. Quantrill’s men burned huge swaths of the town and left nearly 200 men and boys dead in their wake. The Lawrence Massacre, as the raid was quickly dubbed, made national headlines. It transformed Quantrill into the chief of all guerrilla chieftains.
And it prompted Union Gen. Thomas Ewing to issue General Order No. 11. The order, highly controversial even among Unionists, forcibly evacuated Southern-sympathizing civilians in four Missouri counties (Jackson, Cass, Vernon and part of Bates) known for providing pro-Confederate bushwhackers with food, supplies, munitions and intelligence. Not long after Ewing’s order took effect, guerrilla activity in those areas diminished; minus logistical support from their households, Quantrill’s men (and others) could no longer operate effectively.
This being the case, a general misconception persists among Civil War buffs and armchair generals that Ewing’s Order No. 11 had finally cracked the code for dealing with Missouri’s guerrilla epidemic. In turn, it’s often proposed that Ewing’s example might yield similar results in modern guerrilla wars. But rather than cracking the code, Ewing had simply discovered that a code existed. And rather than actually snuffing out the pro-Confederate insurgencies in those aforementioned counties, Order No. 11 merely shifted the operational orbits of their insurgents to other parts of the state.
Then in spring 1865, the Confederacy collapsed. Without regular Confederate armies in the field to absorb the lion’s share of Union military attention, bushwhackers in western Missouri had little chance of keeping up (or surviving) a prolonged fight. The vast majority surrendered, while others went to Texas, Kentucky and even Mexico.
Because of this timeline, Ewing’s policy never had a long-term trial. Even so, its short-term results yielded important insights that connect the Civil War’s guerrilla conflict to more modern counterinsurgency efforts. Ewing was fundamentally correct to target the households that made the waging of guerrilla warfare possible. These logistical centers were, after all, the one part of the guerrilla equation that wasn’t mobile — the one element of the operation that couldn’t flee into the bush, living to fight another day. Where Ewing’s plan likely would have failed, however, is that it fostered no goodwill with the people who supported guerrillas, nor did it utilize overwhelming, catastrophic force to stamp out the irregulars once and for all. In other words, Ewing knew to look to the people, because without them guerrillas could not exist, but he didn’t understand what to do with that knowledge.
From the perspective of a larger power attempting to eliminate an insurgency or guerrilla movement, there are two choices:
1. Improve the circumstances of the people who support guerrillas so that doing so is no longer in their interest (and then protect them from disgruntled, diehard insurgents), or
2. Treat the enemy as a cancer that must be destroyed entirely or not at all. If the cancer is only partially removed, it will regenerate again and again. In other words, a piecemeal approach will simply create new guerrillas faster than they can be eliminated.
Ewing’s Civil War experience cannot tell us which strategy is more viable in contemporary conflicts. Both would require extensive tolls of blood, money and willpower.
But Ewing’s struggle against guerrillas on the western Missouri front does teach us one very important lesson that American military strategists in the Middle East and Africa appear determined to resist: There is no good in fighting an insurgency on its own terms. This was a lesson Ewing knew all too well — it was taught to him personally by the likes of Quantrill, “Bloody Bill” Anderson, George Todd, Clifton Holtzclaw and myriad other well-known bushwhackers.
Matthew C. Hulbert teaches history at Texas A&M University at Kingsville. His latest book, “The Ghosts of Guerrilla Memory: How Civil War Bushwhackers Became Gunslingers in the American West,” has just been released by the University of Georgia Press.