Despite some flaws, a recommended book

Thursday, March 9, 2006

Donald L. Gilmore serves notice up front: His roots are just about as Darnyankee as they come, and numbers of his forebears "wore Union blue." While his family's been in Missouri for over a century, he's "at opposite poles from the stereotypical Southerner." "This book, therefore," he points out, "is not a personal vendetta meant to settle the score for some real or imagined wrong inflicted by Northerners." This caveat is needed to account for Gilmore's persuasive brief for the Missouri cause in the Border Wars and the Civil War.

It's tempting to think just that he dispassionately examined the evidence and reached the conclusion any reasonable person must reach. Still, if his ancestry doesn't explain his refreshing "Crevisionist" approach, his life experience may be at least a contributory factor.

While Gilmore has degrees in English from UMKC, and has taught that subject, it seems he's not just another pretty academic face. I just may be making too much of a single biographical snippet: "worked for seventeen years at the U. S. Army's Combat Studies Institute." Still, in that often suffocatingly liberalist air of the Ivory Tower that most professional historians seem to breathe, it does come as a welcome bit of realworld breeze.

Just what the world needs, I've said, ironically, on more than one occasion: another book on the "that war." And yet, "Civil War on the Missouri-Kansas Border" (Gretna LA: Pelican Publishing Co., 2006) is indeed just what the world needs: still another book on a topic you'd think had been written to death, yet unlike any other of those previous writings.

As Gilmore notes, most of what's been written, even recently, has been "victor's history," more or less, merely echoing and reechoing the dogmas laid down during the war itself, as propaganda, and in the first years after it, by the winners, eager to justify and consolidate their often ill-gotten gains, whether of political power or just "boodle." A few writers, over the years, have nibbled around the theme's edges, timidly questioning those articles of politically-correct faith; but none has dissected and disproved the whole dogma, item by item, beginning to end, quite as Gilmore has done.

In listing the popular misconceptions Gilmore sets out to dispel, one hardly knows where to begin. In the popular mind, the subject's simply a mass of misconceptions.

Most of the time, Gilmore is no more than confirming what any thoughtful, well-read person already has come to suspect. Missourians active in the 1850s Border War, for example, were not "white trash" or "Border Ruffians," as portrayed at the time in the press (and consequently even in history). Far from it: they were cultured, well-off people, their society's leaders, trying hard to uphold law and order in the face of what can only be termed terrorism.

Like today's terrorists, the radical abolitionists in the 1850s were convinced that the end justified the means. Early on, such fanatics hijacked Kansas territory from ordinary settlers and filled it with rapacious criminal gangs. It's not even the case that one side was just as bad as the other. The Kansans were "worse" throughout, as Gilmore convincingly shows.

And when the war came, it brought with it one of history most tragic ironies. The horsethieves and psychotics of territorial days suddenly found themselves bluecoated "patriots" with carte blanche (often straight from the sainted President Lincoln himself) to settle old scores and "steal themselves rich in the name of liberty" at the expense of their Missouri neighbors. Those neighbors, lately the "law and order" party, the "best people," those with the most to steal, were officially declared fair game. The state government they'd elected was driven out of office by Federal bayonets and replaced with a facade of puppets, disguising a military despotism, which proceeded, by flagrantly illegal measures, and what would today be called "war crimes," to help the invaders from Kansas harass, despoil, and kill its own people.

Those notorious, much-reviled folk, the Bushwhackers, were the very opposite of riffraff, the dregs of society, as commonly portrayed. Careful analysis of the census of 1860 reveals that, rather, they were the sons of the "ruling class," young men of cultured background, the "natural leaders" of the coming generation, who found themselves suddenly frozen out by the literal social revolution wrought in Missouri early in the war, as throughout the South after it. The Younger brothers, for example, were sons of Jackson County's presiding judge and one of its most well-to-do men. Their father's robbery and murder by men in blue, and the lack of any legal recourse, drove them into their lives of violence. Nearly every Southern partisan was similarly motivated, by "raw memories of a father murdered, a brother waylaid and shot, a house pillaged." For it must be remembered, the Bushwhackers were latecomers, a reaction to what had gone before, since 1854. Bushwhackers weren't even heard of till 1862, years after the Kansas Jayhawkers began their own "bushwhacking" from the other direction.

This book deserved to be read by anybody even remotely interested in Missouri's Civil War ordeal, and concerned with getting at the truth of it.

That said, distressingly it must be noted that the reader is distracted from appreciating the book's message by its many little factual errors and misrepresentations. This was particularly so for the present writer in Gilmore's account of John Brown's slave-stealing raid on northwestern Vernon County in December, 1858. Gilmore does nothing to counter the common false portrayal of Brown's victims as "planters," living on "plantations." He treats two leading Brown followers, John Henry Kagi and Aaron Stevens, as if they were one man, and has them burning down David Cruise's house, one outrage they really didn't commit. And so on.

Gilmore admits, in correspondence with this writer, that he's no "detail" man; he regards details as of less importance than the "big picture." And one can only agree. Those details, however, have a pesky habit of getting in the way of that big picture.

Ordinary grammatical mistakes, for instance, (such as confusing "lie" and "lay" or "flout" and flaunt") may seem minor matters, but put enough of them together and you end up with prose whose meaning may be relentlessly obscured, if not lost altogether.

Recommended all the same, "Civil War on the Missouri-Kansas Border," a 384-page hardbound volume containing 40 photos, is available from booksellers for $29.95.