Mark Geiger's new book, Financial Fraud and Guerrilla Violence in Missouri's Civil War, 1861-1865, Yale University Press, 2010, is the typical Northern-oriented history of the Civil War, with all the usual trappings, like anachronistic references to "Bushwhackers," i.e., guerrillas, and "Border Ruffians," i.e., Missouri elites, loaded words steeped in more-than-century-old propaganda--telltale inclusions that show the writer's bias.
But Geiger's book is original in many respects and opens up a new and different chapter in the history of the Border War. Unfortunately, from the beginning, with his title mentioning "financial fraud" and "guerrilla violence," you know where he's headed. There is no inference in the title that the "fraud" might be one precipitated on the Missourians by their powerful, ruthless Northern foes or that “fraud” has a different meaning for a state at war than it does for one at peace or that the "guerrilla violence" was fomented by vicious attacks across the border into Missouri by Kansas guerrillas, James Montgomery and Charles Jennison, as early as 1858 and was continued till 1862 by the same men under the command of Jayhawker General James Lane. Geiger’s title is meant to signal to conventional historians whose side he is on, thus avoiding any possibility of alienating his leftist brethren in academia.
What Geiger inadvertently (perhaps unknowingly) describes in his book is an economic "total war" that coincided with the total war military operations of the Union Army when it invaded Missouri in 1861 and overthrew its elected government, driving it out of the state into Arkansas and Texas. "Total War" describes an army’s attempt to kill its enemies and destroy their resources totally: money, homes, farms, banks, economy—everything. That's why western Missouri was called the "burnt district" after the Civil War. The Yankees succeeded in this military-financial holocaust.
In 1861, the Union Army invaded Missouri, and Gov. Claiborne Jackson was forced to rapidly mobilize Missouri's banks to support the Missouri State Guard in its defense of the state. Attacked by a large Federal army commanded by Gen. Nathaniel Lyon, the Missourians, with their backs to the wall, had to act quickly. Through a network of bankers, planters, and their wealthy extended families, Jackson began a frantic and desperate attempt to centralize the money in the Missouri banks before the Yankees confiscated their holdings. Opposing Jackson were Lincoln, Union General Lyon; Frank Blair, Jr., a close friend of Lincoln's; and General John Frémont, one of the main architects of total war in Missouri. The Union Army eventually overwhelmed Jackson, but he fought back defiantly and tenaciously with the Missouri State Guard.
Frémont, Lyon, and the U.S. Army in Missouri systematically seized all the money in the Missouri banks, divesting pro-Southerners of much of their financial resources. After Lyon’s death at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek in 1861, the Union Army, in military operations in Western Missouri under James Lane, seized many of the planters’ monies, homes, farms, businesses--even their clothes--all the means they had to sustain themselves. When Frémont “freed” Missouri’s valuable slave assets illegally in 1861; Lincoln forced him to rescind the order, fearing they had gone too far threatening a general uprising. By this time, Lyon and Frémont had seized control of most of the monies in the St. Louis, Chillicothe, Osceola, and St. Genevieve banks, and made an aborted attempt on the Lexington bank, but were thwarted by Gen. Sterling Price.
Gov. Jackson, now desperate for money to help him fend off the invading Union Army, had the remaining Missouri banks send him their monies and create promissory notes and bonds to cover the loans, signed by most of the leading pro-Southern planters residing in the Little Dixie area along the Missouri River and elsewhere. This enabled Jackson, without adequate financial support from the Confederacy, to finance his defense of Missouri against the Yankee onslaughts. Obviously, extreme situations demand drastic measures. Meanwhile, systematically and with armed force, the Union Army seized the remaining Pro-Southern banks and the monies in them, especially focusing on the gold and silver. The army also removed virtually all Pro-Southern bankers and their officers from their positions at these banks, replacing them with their own people, who hereafter called all the shots, and they weren’t to be Southern ones. The judges, courts, even Missouri’s Supreme Court were “Unionized” also. So they had the pro-Southern Missourians where they wanted them.
Now it was time for the Yankees to exact total revenge on Southern partisans, bringing them to their knees by calling in their promissory notes for prompt payments. If the payments were not made, as they certainly could not be in most cases, the Army’s bank agents could seize the planter’s collateral (a word Geiger seldom uses), i.e., their farms (plantations), which the Federal lawyers, bankers, and judges did, forcing 500,000 acres of the best, fertile land in Missouri to go on the auction block, bankrupting the elite planters--“Border Ruffians” in Geiger’s parlance--class of Missourians. It was a catastrophic, economic "Total War" that ruined this class forever. As Geiger admits, most of these men and their families left Missouri, had to after the war, going West and even to South America, Central America, and Mexico to live in colonies of ex-Southerners.
So Geiger's work is just one more Yankee history with that old, predictable Yankee twist. More like reassuring “comic book” history these books never see historic events from the Southerners' desperate side. The authors always start from the premise that the Southerners are scoundrels and frauds and their actions despicable and immoral. Geiger, moreover, pictures the guerrillas, the sons of the Southern planters and bankers, as devious, violent "Bushwhackers," the latter word loaded with negative affective connotations that present these valiant fighters in an unfavorable light. That's why Geiger's cover photo reveals guerrillas (no bushes in sight, no brave defenders either!) murdering Kansans at Lawrence. Geiger never refers to the mountain of reasons the Missourians had for their vengeful sacking of the town; in fact, the image of the sacking of that town was irrelevant to his study.
In Geiger's book, Gov. Jackson and his colleagues are frauds; the guerrillas are murderers--the usual, slanted, unfair, and incomplete Yankee interpretation. It's a shame Geiger couldn't have broadened his perspective in his generally excellent book to take in the plight of Missourians during the Civil War and examine the economic and military situation from both a Yankee and Southern viewpoint. Geiger admits, “legality is a matter of perspective in a time of Civil War.” Regrettably, he fails to follow up on this insight. Instead, Geiger’s analysis and explanation of Lincoln’s and the Union Army’s Total War on Missouri’s beleaguered banks and planters is simplistic.
Mr. Gilmore is a military historian, novelist, and lecturer.
Buy Donald Gilmore’s book: Civil War on the Missouri Kansas Border
Read a review of Donald Gilmore’s novel: Riding Vengeance with the James Gang
Gilmore essay about politics: Can the United States Sustain Itself