Tuesday, September 29, 2009

If war is hell, 'neutral' Missouri was in the palm of the devil

Officially, neutral Missouri never left the Union.

But the border state was anything but calm before and during the conflict, says Dr. William Piston, a professor and historian at Missouri State University in Springfield.

“Missouri was the worst place to be [in the United States] between 1861 and 1865,” says Piston, who is beginning research on a comprehensive book about Missouri and the Civil War.

The Show Me State sent its sons to both armies, had its star on both flags and engaged in an internal war that left hundreds dead. Guerrilla warfare sprang up and neighbors became vigilantes. A pro-Confederate government was run out of state.

“Sherman burned farms in Georgia. This state eviscerated itself,” says Piston, an author of several books about the war. “Entire towns were burned and destroyed.”

Piston told me he wants his book to answer the “why” this state became so bloody.

Horror stories abound.

Pro-Confederate guerrilla William “Bloody Bill” Anderson (top photo) captured and executed 24 Union soldiers in Centralia in September 1864. In Palmyra, 10 Confederates were put to death in 1862 in reprisal for the abduction and presumed killing of a local Union supporter.

The future of slavery was at the nub of the crisis.

Missouri entered the Union in 1821 as a slave state, following the Missouri Compromise of 1820, in which it was agreed that no state north of Missouri's southern border with Arkansas could enter the Union as a slave state.

Federal law also decreed that if a slave physically entered a free state, he or she was free. Missouri slaveholders worried the state would become part of the Underground Railroad spiriting slaves to free Kansas, according to Wikipedia.

The result was a de facto war between pro-slavery residents of Missouri (called Border Ruffians) and Kansas free staters to influence how Kansas entered the Union.

Missouri’s famous military battles during the war include Pea Ridge (above) and Wilson’s Creek.

Piston (left), a native of Johnson City, Tenn., has been on the faculty at Missouri State University for more than two decades.

His first book, “Lee’s Tarnished Lieutenant,” documented the campaign to discredit James Longstreet and blame him for the Confederate loss at Gettysburg, if not the entire war.

Subsequent books were about the Battle of Wilson’s Creek and two other engagements.

Piston just co-authored “Portraits of Conflict: A Photographic History of Missouri in the Civil War,” which is scheduled to be published by the University of Arkansas Press in December.

Piston says research on his upcoming book will include the roles of women and African-Americans in Missouri.

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