The Conundrum of Missouri Guerrilla Flicks

Gettysburg, Gone with the Wind, Lincoln, Shenandoah, and Glory are some of the quintessential flicks we tend to think of when picturing famous Civil War films. We see the large-scale, bloody engagements that we learn about in history class, witness pivotal events, and meet the famed leaders of the North and South in those classic movies. They resonate deeply with the public about the legacy and memory of this important conflict.

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Screenshot of Ride with the Devil, showing Quantrill’s Raiders about to launch their raid on Lawrence, Kansas in August 1863. Courtesy of IMDB.

With my interest in the Civil War west of the mighty Mississippi River—particularly in Missouri—I had to take a look at all the movies that try to tackle this state’s contentious and brutal guerrilla war. Ride with the Devil, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Kansas Raiders, Jesse James Rides Again, Dark Command, and Quantrill’s Raiders are just a few of these Missouri guerrilla movies. However, I came to find that most of these films are not so much considered “Civil War” flicks. In fact, most are categorized as “Westerns.”

Gunfights, outlawry, destruction of the home and hearth, revenge, and irregular tactics are central to the “Western” genre, as seen consistently in these films. In essence, these films—like the war in Missouri—are borderlands of their own. They cannot resonate in one specific category and thus straddle those lines. As historian Matthew Hulbert argues in his study of guerrilla memory, “the Civil War had been a vast sequence of home invasions and a general breakdown of law and order.” He subsequently refers to this phenomenon as “the westernization of guerrilla memory.”

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Clint Eastwood starred as Josey Wales in the Outlaw Josey Wales. Courtesy of IMFDB.

In reality, though, the war in Missouri was at the geopolitical center of a country at warnorth, south, east, and west. Within her borders, there were over one thousand engagements, defined by both regular and irregular warfare. The results of the violent continuation of antebellum conflict over Kansas and Federal occupation within the state by 1862 all contributed to the statewide outbreak of resistance and irregular warfare.

Each character—in both film and history – from Missouri’s guerrilla war was directly impacted by the larger war. Based on the stories of many guerrillas, Josey Wales became an outlaw and guerrilla after his family and farm were destroyed by Kansas Jayhawkers. The one-eyed Rooster Cogburn of True Grit was a former guerrilla under William Quantrill and took up a career as a U.S. Marshal. The German-born Jake Roedel in Ride with the Devil lost his father to Jayhawkers, joins Quantrill to seek revenge, yet faced suspicion by his comrades over his German heritage. Though a small sampling, these characters and their stories can be placed into context within the larger scope of the Civil War.

So, when you are trying to decide on a Civil War movie to watch this weekend, consider some of these movies on the war in Missouri. They tell the largely-forgotten and misunderstood stories of the war west of the Mississippi River. They are not just “Westerns,” they are true Civil War movies, too.

18 Responses to The Conundrum of Missouri Guerrilla Flicks

  1. My father’s family resided in Northwest Arkansas at that time. A very different, more brutal dynamic than occurred further east. You are so right about the odd categories of the guerilla movies. Josie Wales is very much a civil war and post war movie. Yet it ignored the standard modern fixation on slavery to focus on the concept of vendetta and personal loss. Is there a more villainous Union leader than the Senator Lane clone in that movie? Even SHERMAN in Gone With the Wind I’d a nonpersonalized nemesis. I think the rawness and starkness of these movies make them fit into the same category of Westerns as The Seekers and Red Over. Great Post!

    1. Thanks for reading, John! Slavery obviously is central for the Civil War along Missouri’s Western Border, particularly as it was a literal and figurative extension of Bleeding Kansas. We see that issue discussed in Ride with the Devil. However, mid 20th century films, like Outlaw Josey Wales, Dark Command, and Jesse James Rides Again, are focused on that “westernized” history of the Civil War west of the Mississippi. They were more attentive to the revenge-seeking outlawry that fit the “western” genre. These films are like Missouri; they are on the fringe of what is Civil War versus western. When grouping Civil War films, many of these films that are set in Civil War Missouri should most definitely be included. The war in Missouri, though vastly different than the war eastward, is still a part of the Civil War.

      1. Very true! I believe the Gettysburg symposium had a speaker from the University of Cincinnati who talked about this issue on his conversation on Rosecrans.See you in August!

  2. I had ancestors in the Union Mo State Militia and the Enrolled Mo Militia in the Ozarks, the “Paw Paw Militia” up by St. Joe, and the regular Mo CSA regiments down in Ark. I also had ancestors in an area east of the Miss River that experienced similar guerrilla warfare as Mo – the Cumberland Plateau of East Tenn & Ky. The stories of Bloody Bill, Wm Monks et al in Mo have their parallels in Champ Ferguson & “Tinker Dave” Beatty back in old Fentress Co. Tenn. My ancestors back there were Union folks who knew firsthand of guerrilla war. They moved west in 1865 from one ravaged area to another – Wright Co, Mo. Internecine, irregular warfare was brutal in the West, no question – but it existed in places east of the River, also.

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting, Tony! You are so right about irregular warfare east of the river, as well. The rampant guerrilla war in Tennessee and Kentucky, for example, needs to be studied more. think the ferocity and brutality of the guerrilla war in Missouri, as well as the continuation of lawlessness in the post-war era (i.e. Jesse James and the Younger brothers) also contribute to why Missouri’s irregular war gets more attention than TN and KY. However, the guerrilla war also dominates the narrative of the war in Missouri, when in fact it was one part of the war experience for Missourians.

  3. I think these movies also do a great job of showing how messy and complicated the Civil War was. It wasn’t just big sweeping troop movements across open battlefields–it was irregular, confusing, gritty, and at times etherial. People who lived in areas where guerrilla warfare took place lived in constant terror: if you took one side, the other was apt to burn and pillage and bushwhack you in retaliation; if you took no side, either was apt to burn and pillage and bushwhack you as punishment for not taking their side. It was terrorism, plain and simple.

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting, Chris! While there were some conventional battles fought in Missouri, small-scale irregular engagements were most common. For Missourians in particular, the war engulfed nearly everyone in the state. While some wanted to stay neutral, events forced them to choose a side. As Henry Halleck stated in early 1862 while commanding the Dept of Missouri: “those who are not for us will be regarded as against us … there can be no individual neutrality in Missouri.”

  4. “Ride with the Devil,” captured the speech, the pace of 19th century ( slower), and the sentiment. The first viewing seemed slow; subsequent viewings seemed perfect for the period.

    1. James, I am familiar with his work! I actually have a copy and have listened to a few of his presentations on Jesse James; however, I have not had the chance to read the book yet. It is definitely one I am going to read soon.

  5. Am working on a presentation for my CWRT on Quantrill, the man. Later will do one on Border War. Just too much for one program.
    Am learning so much that I was not aware of, even though I have read on Jesse James and the Youngers for years but didn’t know just how complicated the whole situation was.
    Ironically those movies that you mentioned have been showing up on the Starz Westerns Channel since the summer.

    1. Bobbi, thanks for reading and commenting! I am glad to hear you are working on a presentation on Quantrill and other Missouri guerrillas. Best of luck with your presentation.

      I have also seen Outlaw Josey Wales appear on TCM at prime time, once again noted as a “Western” film. I would like to see this be classified more as a “Civil War” film, though. It gives historians a chance to place the story in context with the war in Missouri and the country as a whole for viewers.

  6. Probably a tangent from this thread but I find the “Free State of Jones” story fascinating. Ellisville the county town where Jones raised the U.S. flag ,has a Confederate statue but no mention of the revolt? As a Brit I love the speech James Stewart gives to the Confederate officer in Shenandoah.

  7. I am also partial to the films Jesse James (1939) and The Return of Frank James (1940). In particular, pay attention in the latter film to the segment regarding the character testimony of Col. Breckinridge C. Jackson in favor of Frank James at his trial, and the reaction of the judge, clerk and jury to certain phrases used to describe the Late Unpleasantness Between the States. Major Rufus Cobb is a grandiose stand in for Major John Newman Edwards in both of these films.

  8. Most people have absolutely no idea how vicious the Civil War in Missouri was, even those from Missouri. Anything that differs from the accepted narrative can, and often is, viewed as lies from the losing side. I’ve met quite a few well educated people who know nothing of Order No. 11 and the Burnt District; loyal Union supporters being forced to take “the oath”; roving bands of men who may be Union, Confederate or criminal….and you better answer correctly if they come to your door; that neither side of the border had a monopoly on the moral high ground, Jennison and Lane were every bit as horrific as Quantrill and Anderson. As a native of Callaway County I’ve read some scary things involving the area.

    1. Probably the closest parallel in American history concerning how bad the war in Missouri was took place a generation earlier in South Carolina in the summer and fall of 1780 during the height of the American Revolutionary War’s Southern Campaign when Whigs (Patriots) and Tories (Loyalists) who were neighbors fought each other viciously and mostly to settle old feuds under the guise of “patriotism” to the cause or to the mother country. The stories of the ugliness of that bitter civil war rival those of the Missouri-Kansas border war. Like the war in Missouri after 1861, neither side held a monopoly on morality, or for that matter on cruelty.

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