Author Interview--Robert R. Laven (A Burned Land) Part 1

Niels Eichhorn Discussion

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we feature Robert R. Laven to talk about his book A Burned Land: The Trans-Mississippi in the Civil War, published by McFarland in 2019.

Robert R. Laven is a resident of Creve Coeur, Missouri and a U. S. Army veteran. He is also the author of Major General Philip Kearny: A Soldier and His Time in the American Civil War and The Last Troops of Autumn: A Military History of the Seventh Wisconsin Volunteer Regiment.

Robert, to start, how did you become interested in writing a book about the Trans-Mississippi during the Civil War? 

RRL: In April 1999 I was walking through the parade quadrangle of the old Arsenal complex (now NGA West) of St. Louis and came to the realization that little had been written on the American Civil War in Missouri. I had been working on a book on the 7th Wisconsin Regiment and had traveled to a number of Battlefields out east. While doing research for a book on General Philip Kearny, at the Missouri History Museum Library, I began to come across more and more information on the conflict here. I then began to visit numerous sites, here in Missouri and began taking note of the conflict which soon presented itself as the work “A Burned Land”. This title was in reference to the four border counties of Missouri with Kansas that were referred to as the “Burnt Land”. 

I thought it was important to present a work which pointed out that Missouri was vital to both North and South. I also wanted to impart how this War impacted so many people. It is often forgotten that Missouri was the third most fought over State in the Union behind Virginia and Tennessee. 

It is indeed fascinating to think about how much fighting occurred in Missouri. It is reminiscent of the Shenandoah Valley. I wanted to briefly talk about geography and how you define the Trans-Mississippi? What states did you include and why? 

RRL: To understand the geography, one has to understand the contest that evolved between Kansas and Missouri. It was on the Border of those two states that the initial conflict that became the American Civil War occurred and it was on that border where much of the internecine warfare developed and intensified throughout the conflict. With the election of 1860 and secession, the fight for Missouri between both North and South began and it began all over Missouri to the delight of Kansas free- staters.  

 The question of how to define the Trans-Mississippi is a good one and I deferred to Confederate Command Structure in that regard. It was in 1862 that the Confederate Command defined the Trans-Mississippi as containing the states of Arkansas, Texas and the western districts of Louisiana, except southeast Louisiana. This presented a number of problems that came in 1863 when Port Hudson and Vicksburg were targeted by Union forces. 

 Desperate to find a solution to prevent those river ports from falling into Union hands Jefferson Davis sent Edmund Kirby Smith to take control of the Trans-Mississippi Department. It was here, with limited resources in manpower, that Smith set about a strategy to win back Missouri and draw off Union forces; at least that was the idea! The result was less than expected. Smith soon found himself at odds with Richard Taylor who soon took command of Southeast Louisiana and Smith decided to concentrate on Arkansas and Missouri where he eventually sent Sterling Price. Smith’s order to Price was to “make St. Louis your objective” and we know what that outcome would be. I included Missouri as part of the Trans-Mississippi due to the fact that the Southern Command still considered it as part of the Confederacy.  

 As for the Federal Union forces, that command was divided into departments i.e., Dept. of Missouri. It was basically under the nominal command of the General in St. Louis city. But by 1863-1864 the command was somewhat split between a Western Department under Samuel Curtis and the Missouri Department under John Schofield and later William Rosecrans who had nominal command over both.

I do have to smile at the oddity that Missouri was not part of the military district, but a significant amount of fighting took place in Missouri. What stages of military development did you see in the region and how did guerrilla or irregular warfare fit into these different stages? 

RRL: I never saw the war in Missouri in stages it was for me a more fluid development. Once the war began in earnest, in 1861, Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson refused President Lincoln’s call for troops to supply the federal government. At the same time, he called for Missouri’s legislature to secede from the Union. When that happened, the Federal Military authority in St. Louis moved to remove the threat of Southern supporters to occupy the Federal Arsenal at St. Louis. This forced Jackson to abandon Jefferson City and take the State Legislature with him as Union General Nathanial Lyon pursued Jackson and Sterling Price, who had been appointed Commander of the Missouri State Guard. From the time of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek in 1861; all actions in Missouri would be the lead up to the climactic Raid of Price’s Army of Missouri in 1864. These actions included Porter’s Raid on Northeast Missouri, Marmaduke’s raid on Springfield and Cape Girardeau and Jo Shelby’s raid on Central Missouri, all these efforts were sanctioned by Confederate authority in Arkansas.  

 How did guerrilla war fit into these stages? Well, I would have to say that it existed in parallel with Union and Confederate activity and was always ongoing throughout the war. Most Missourians would like to have remained neutral once the conflict started but found them-selves confronted with neighbors and relative's intent on taking sides. Thus, a guerrilla war of revenge blossomed and it spread all over the state as excesses of Union Military Government and Martial Law was forced on unwilling residents. For example, the execution of captured confederate prisoners from Porter’s raid at Palmyra or the burning of farms and homes described in a letter from Lizzie Brannock, from Jackson County one of the Counties put under General Order No. 11 (removing all southern sympathizers from their homes and lands and confiscating their property by Union Military Authority) 

 These actions simply escalated the response creating Guerrilla groups such as James Lane’s Jayhawks, William Quantrill Confederate Raiders and Bloody Bill Anderson. All of whom operated outside the Military authority, let alone the law. The culmination of all this would be Price’s raid of 1864. The Internecine conflict would only intensify when Price brought that army north into Missouri and literally panicked Union Authority. It is ironic that when Price turned from St Louis and headed west, he brought Bill Anderson into his lines, at Boonville, and expressly told him to cease his attacks on civilians and direct it against Union Soldiers and Rail Roads. Anderson simply did both and Price simply acquiesced.  

 In summing up the impact of all this; I take for example the town of Athens, Missouri, which simply disappeared after the war was over. Once a thriving town of nearly 1,000 people of original southern leanings, it was one of the War’s biggest victims having been targeted by pro-unionists and occupied by Union forces in August 1861. When the war was over bitter feelings between neighbors lasted for decades and the town withered away and died. This may be said of a number of towns throughout Missouri and in some ways can still be seen to this day. 

I am glad you bring up Quantrill and Anderson as well as General Order No. 11. I am not sure if you have read Aaron Sheehan-Dean’s recent book The Calculus of Violence. He claims with regard to General Order No. 11 that it was the better option compared to more lethal ways to deal with the guerrilla activities in Missouri and that many people had supported Indian Removal, which was not so different from what happened in western Missouri. What do you think?

RRL: Well I have not read the book you referred to but I can tell you already that there is no comparison. Is there a Calculus for violence? There is no parallel between what happened to the Indian removal and what happened under General Order No. 11. I do not think that it is wise to make historical comparisons, this leads to people believing that history repeats itself or is some kind of formula; it is not. Historical events should be evaluated within their own context. 

This was civil war and with Lincoln’s suspension of Habeas Corpus, military authority could act with impunity. This Order No. 11 resulted in the forced expulsion of all rural residents in Jackson, Cass, Bates, and Vernon counties. It should be remembered that these people, who were forced to leave, had no other place to go. As one Union officer observed “Missouri was neither North nor South; she was simply hell, for her people were cutting one another’s throat and neighboring farmers killed each other and burned each other’s home.”

The better option just did not exist in Missouri during the civil war. As was just referenced and I described in regards to Athens, the resultant acts of the federal authority simply led to neighbor taking advantage of neighbor. There was no action taken on the adjacent Kansas counties bordering those Missouri counties and Kansas guerrillas there continued to act with impunity against Missouri with no consequences. In fact many of those irregulars joined up with Curtis’s Army of the West when Price invaded Missouri in 1864, leading to even more atrocities on both sides.

These actions taken by the authorities were punitive in nature and did not have a specific outcome except to instill terror and fear. There was no better option and guerrilla activity continued unabated even after the war was over. In fact a board of Immigration was set up by Governor Fletcher, after the war, in order to convince people to immigrate or return because the state had been so depopulated. I can say with certainty that many Missourians did not. One only needs to travel to places like Lone Jack to see the results of Order No. 11; it was here that an older gentleman relayed, to me, the events his family went through when Jayhawkers killed one of his descendants. It is with Irony to note that some of those Indian tribes, who had been forcibly removed, actually sided and fought with the Confederates during the American Civil War and they actually had a place they could return to.