Clawson on Hulbert, 'The Ghosts of Guerrilla Memory: How Bushwhackers Became Gunslingers in the American West'

Author: 
Matthew Christopher Hulbert
Reviewer: 
Jacob S. Clawson

Matthew Christopher Hulbert. The Ghosts of Guerrilla Memory: How Bushwhackers Became Gunslingers in the American West. UnCivil Wars Series. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2016. Illustrations. 344 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8203-5002-8; $84.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8203-5001-1.

Reviewed by Jacob S. Clawson (Auburn University) Published on H-War (November, 2021) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=52128

No subfield of Civil War history has attracted more attention in the past decade than the study of memory. Rather than focusing on the war itself, historians have instead sought to untangle the complex web of postbellum political and social forces that shaped how Americans have understood the sectional conflict. The work of Gaines Foster (Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South, 1865-1913 [1988]), David Blight (Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory [2003]), and Caroline Janney (Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation [2013]) has cast an imposing shadow over this subfield. Indeed, nearly any study of Civil War memory would be incomplete without addressing the motifs that these scholars have popularized in different degrees: the Lost Cause, the nature of sectional reconciliation, and the process of forgetting and then remembering the importance of emancipation. For a study to come out of these works’ shadows and proffer an original examination of Civil War memory is no small feat. Matthew Christopher Hulbert’s The Ghosts of Guerilla Memory: How Civil War Bushwhackers Became Gunslingers in the American West does so by interrogating the spatial and geographic boundaries of Civil War memory.

This is not a book that takes cues from a field dominated by the tropes of reunion and reconciliation insofar as they occurred along a North/South axis. Hulbert’s study instead considers how Americans in general and survivors of the guerrilla war in particular attempted to either easternize or westernize guerrilla memory for a variety of purposes. Desperate for acceptance into the canon of Civil War memory, Hulbert shows, a number of individuals and organizations sought to curate a collective memory of Missouri’s guerrillas as legitimate Confederates. Hulbert leans heavily here on the writings of John Newnan Edwards and his hagiography of Missouri’s pro-southern bushwhackers to demonstrate how Missourians manipulated the memory of the state’s bushwhackers as part of a larger project to strengthen the state’s pro-southern and pro-Democratic credentials after the war.[1] Hulbert demonstrates the power of Edwards’s—largely false—narrative, but he also does well to contextualize Edwardsian guerrilla memory and its discontents. He analyzes an extensive library of autobiographies, records from guerrilla reunions, and the activities of the Missouri United Daughters of the Confederacy to show how a number of self-serving interpretations of the guerrilla conflict sought to integrate guerrilla memory with the Lost Cause and to reimagine wartime Missouri as a bastion of Confederate sympathy.

The spatial dimensions of memory play a prominent role in this study, and nowhere more so than in what Hulbert describes as the exportation of guerrilla memory to the American West. Here, Hulbert does well to rethink the spatial motifs of reunion and reconciliation that dominate most studies of memory. The trans-Mississippi theater and its brutal brand of guerrilla violence have not fit neatly into what Hulbert labels the eastern, male-dominated, and sanitized narrative that grew out of the Virginia theater of the war and that has long had a monopoly on popular conceptions of the conflict. Hulbert posits that in the twentieth century it was far more convenient for the purveyors of popular culture to reimagine bushwhackers such as Jesse James as products of the “Wild West” rather than the sectional conflict. Hulbert’s examination of film is especially useful here as he demonstrates that forgetting the wartime origins of pro-Confederate guerrillas was far more convenient than integrating or reconciling their experiences with popular narratives of the war. Hulbert might have provided a more thorough analysis of film history in these sections—especially whether the process of “westernizing” Confederate guerrillas had more to do with exporting their experiences to the West or instead with the general popularity of western films in post-World War II cinema—but his analysis does more than enough to lend credence to his broader point that guerrillas became convenient creatures of the “Wild West” rather than the Civil War.

Hulbert has a tendency to belabor the point that guerrilla warfare and guerrilla memory have been unfairly omitted from Americans’ understandings of the “real” war. One can argue about what the “real” war was, but in terms of the number of men engaged and the strategic implications of its major operations, the war east of the Mississippi was, at the very least, more significant for the nation writ large. It would make sense, then, that the experiences of those who fought in Virginia and Tennessee were privileged in postwar writings, commemorations, and veteran rallies. Of course, none of this is to suggest that the guerrilla war and guerrilla memory are insignificant. To the contrary, the guerrilla war’s uniqueness and fundamental differences from the “real” war are what make it so interesting. Hulbert rightly notes that the guerrilla theater and the constant struggle to dictate the terms on which it would be remembered speak to how Americans wanted to remember the Civil War: as sanitized, honorable, and defined by great men, such as Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, and Stonewall Jackson. Hulbert, then, does well not just to tell the story of guerilla memory but also to situate it within the larger narrative of Civil War memory. In this way, by focusing on apparently localized memories of violence, and then integrating this into a larger national narrative, Hulbert has produced a work of great value.

Note

[1]. Edwards, a major in the Confederate army and General Joseph O. Shelby’s adjutant during the Civil War, was subsequently a prolific pro-Confederate and anti-Reconstruction journalist in Missouri, promoting the James gang as ex-Confederates getting back at Republican governance and using his book, Noted Guerillas (1877), to burnish the actions of bushwhackers he feared would be left out of Lost Cause histories focused on the eastern theater.

Citation: Jacob S. Clawson. Review of Hulbert, Matthew Christopher, The Ghosts of Guerrilla Memory: How Bushwhackers Became Gunslingers in the American West. H-War, H-Net Reviews. November, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=52128

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