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Battlefield Dispatches No. 329: 'A war of extermination'

Friday, August 10, 2012

In August of 1862, the Civil War was a little more than a year old and Union officers in Kansas, Missouri and the neighboring states of Iowa and the Nebraska Territory became convinced that this was "a war of extermination" when referring to the Confederate guerrillas/bushwhackers of Missouri.

Neutrality was out of the question. If you were a bushwhacker, your longevity and chances of survival were slim to none in the minds of the blue-bellied billy yanks.

The following after-action report clearly indicates this Yankee opinion and is located on pages 200--201 in Vol. 13, Series I, of the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion.

"Headquarters

Butler, Bates County, Mo., Aug. 4, 1862.

Major: I have the honor to report that a detachment of my command, under Capts. J. W. Caldwell and Heath consisting of 135 men made an attack on a body of 4,000 to 500 guerrillas near Gordon's farm on Cedar Creek, corner of St. Clair County. The rebels were strongly posted on the edge of the timber and were protected by thick brush. Capt. Caldwell made a movement on their front and Capt. Heath on their flank. Capt. Heath, in moving to his position, encountered an ambush and had to run the gauntlet of their entire line.

Not a man was visible and the whole front blazed with the flash of fire and four men were killed and nine were wounded including Capt. Heath. Capt. Caldwell with 60 dismounted men took cover behind a rail fence and engaged them, having changed from the flank to Heath's position and maintained the ground until a firing in his rear alarmed him for the safety of his rear and moved up for a second attack, he found that the enemy had disappeared, taking with them their dead and wounded. On finding them in force and after the first attack, he dispatched an express (courier) to headquarters.

I hastened to their relief with every available man in the camp and reached them at 5 a.m. the next morning when I found the enemy had been in retreat for 18 hours. With my camp here entirely unprotected, I did not deem it prudent to go on in pursuit, but sent Capt. Caldwell with 50 men to follow and hold them in observation and returned myself to Butler.

I made a march of 70 miles in 23 hours, although I had eaten but once in three days. Since I returned an express has come in with information that they were at Montevallo (in Vernon County) and that their force had increased to 700 men. I sent out 100 men immediately to make a forced march and shall follow in the morning with all of my disposable force.

Our loss was two killed and three wounded. Capt. Clarey, a prisoner, who escaped by sawing off the rivet of his ball and chain and was with them, confessed to a loss of 11 killed and 18 wounded. He saved the lives of our wounded and also protected them from being plundered. He said tone of them, whom he knew, "You cut us up like h__l."

Both officers and men behaved with great gallantry, but Capt. Heath's charge was of the "six hundred" style (refers to the to the British charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War), but he received them warmly, in his experiment of running a flank along a double line of shotguns and mine muskets at 30 yards.

The whole country is now in the brush and we need carbines and cannon. Carbines we must have. It is no better than murder to send men into these brush fights with Colt's Navy revolvers, some of my command (140) who I took out had nothing but sabers. There will be a concentration somewhere and a movement north. There are no troops at _and none at Osceola. Murder, plunder and outrage are rife. Half of them have never taken the oath (of allegiance to the U.S.) and given bonds.

Let me now utter an opinion, which I have expressed to my friends ever since I came into this service: It is a war of extermination. There is no half-way house and no neutral position. We are to be driven out and annihilated or they are. It is an inveterate, maligrant hatred, which will last to the end of life.

After chasing and capturing these unmitigated scoundrels, they are being tried by a military commission of some of our best officers, to be fed at the expense of the government and after we are dead and gone some of them may by chance to be found guilty and have a mild punishment, but of that we take chances.

You can get no positive testimony from these butternuts. They tell one story to the judge-advocate in the morning, but when confronted with the prisoners their evidence amounts to nothing. Excuse a peevish temper. I made 70 miles without sleep or food.

I am Major, respectfully, your obedient servant,

Fitz Henry Warren, Colonel First Iowa Cavalry.

To: Major Lucien J. Barnes, Assistant Adjutant General, Jefferson City, Mo."

Now then, Col. Warren was not alone in his opinion of his worthy advisory, the Confederate guerrillas or bushwhackers of Missouri who fought with courage and tenacity. His opinion was shared by almost all of the Union officers serving in Kansas and Missouri throughout the Civil War and, of course, the war went on!

Arnold W. Schofield
Battlefield Dispatches