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.
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.”
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.