Sweetgum Notes--Essay: Bloomfield and the War of the Rebellion
Bloomfield and the War of the Rebellion
by Michael I. Hobbs
In the years I spent growing up in and around Bloomfield, Missouri and all the years after, I have been intrigued by the amount of Civil War history associated with this small town in Southeast Missouri. A lot is written about the “Great Civil War” that ravaged our country from 1861 through 1865, but most of what is readily available for reading covers only major events: military, political, economic or the after effects on our country as a whole. To really understand the impact that this terrible event had on the people with family on both sides; those who actually fought the battles and managed to live through it, or those who were the hapless civilians caught up in the conflict and in many cases suffering the most, one has to concentrate the effort to understand on a small sample, a particular isolated area. It is nearly impossible to comprehend if attempting to do so by reviewing literature that covers the war’s vast scope. To really understand the impact of such a catastrophic event, we have to have knowledge of what life was like prior to the war, during it and following it.
Missouri in the years just prior to the “Rebellion,” as the Civil War was referred to by most in the pro Confederacy State, was a booming place. Missouri was by far the most civilized state west of the Mississippi and was truly the “Gateway to the West.” The state almost perfectly mirrored the nation in its divisions of industry versus agriculture. The northern portions were beginning to become industrialized, while the southern portions were farming and light industry, primarily timber. The northern, more densely populated area was deeply engrossed in the politics of the day and the growing importance of the state on the national scene. The southern portion was only just beginning to experience growth and cared little about what was happening outside their own communities, especially on the political scene.
In fact, the final treaty with the Indian inhabitants had only been agreed upon approximately 25 years prior (Houck 235). Though a slave state, not all the inhabitants of the state supported slavery, but most strongly supported the rights of the state citizen and of the state to govern itself without undue influence from Washington. The citizens of all parts of Missouri were aware of the problems that disturbed the national community, but the awareness and concern was in varying degrees. The state’s citizens who resided in the immediate St. Louis area were of course much better informed, and by the same token, much more interested andinvolved. This was certainly not the case farther south in the swamplands of the Bootheel and the Ozark Mountains. “The Ozark Mountains and Mississippi swamplands that lie in the span of 100 miles on either side of the Missouri-Arkansas border, was, in 1860, populated by pioneers whose primary goal was the improvement of their personal lot in life, and who were little interested in slavery and largely unconversant with the political theories of the day concerning state’s rights” (Ingen-thron 5). Even while growing up I had heard my grandfather refer to our area of the state as part of the 100-Mile Swamp and to the part where I was born as being near Panther Swamp. Even though the swamps are about all gone now, and a hundred plus years later, knowledge and recognition of what the geography of the area once was remain. Unfortunately side’s chosen and bitterness acquired by those living more than one hundred years ago also remained. Only a few living then, prior to the war, could possibly have realized what was looming on the horizon and none could have predicted its horror!
Bloomfield, Missouri, the county seat of Stoddard County, was pretty much typical of the communities of this era and location. It was larger than nearby communities due primarily to its central location in the county and its age. The Shawnee Indians established the site that Bloomfield is located on before 1800. The Shawnee maintained a large permanent encampment that was later joined by the Delaware and both tribes welcomed the white settlers from predominantly southern states, though some were from Illinois and Indiana. My own ancestor’s migration to Missouri was exactly in this pattern. The Indians sold their lands and moved on in 1836 but did return to the area occasionally to pay respects to their dead (Forister 7). The reason for the popularity of Bloomfield’s location is that it straddles Crowley’s Ridge, the only high ground through the 100- Mile Swamp. A major thoroughfare of the day passed through the heart of the settlement, the “Old Shawnee Trail.” The trail was later referred to as the “Red, White and Blue Road” due to its use during the Civil War by both sides, and as the Bloomfield Road due to its geography” (Brown, et al 36 & 42). All of this made Bloomfield a very strategic location to Indians and the first white settlers of earlier times, and its military value is obvious.
In the preceding paragraphs I have attempted to present some understanding of the area’s culture prior to the 1ate 1850’s and set the stage for the years of conflict that were fast approaching. Having some knowledge of the culture of the area prior to the war years should lend some understanding to the reasons for the difficulty in putting the Civil War behind after it ended in 1865. Missouri, like no other state, was divided, subdivided, and subdivided again by the Civil War. The state was divided itself with civil war within its own boundaries. Even the settlements and cities within the state were divided in loyalty. On the national scene Missouri was recognized by the Confederacy as Confederate and by the Union as Union, with Missouri being represented by a star on both flags!
The City of Bloomfield, and Stoddard County in general, fit the above described scenario. They were divided, but not equally in their sentiments concerning which side to take. There was a great desire to remain neutral and there was not a strong preference for any one political party as the votes cast in Stoddard County for Presidential candidates in 1860 so amply reflect: Douglas, Northern Democrat, 230; Bell, Union, 385; Breckenridge, Southern Democrat, 198; and Lincoln, Republican, 0 (Ingenthron 31).
There was not a preference for any one candidate or party to take office, but there was obviously no confidence in Lincoln or what his Republican Party represented. Missourians did not realize their state was indirectly responsible for Abraham Lincoln remaining on the political scene. Lincoln once wrote, “I was losing interest in politics until the repeal of the Missouri Compromise” (Mitgang 107). In John McElroy’s “The Struggle for Missouri”, it is clearly revealed that slavery was not an issue and certainly should not be the reason for civil war. In a survey conducted in 1860, prior to the National election, the majority believed that the decision concerning slavery should be left up to the individual and that “all this fuss about the Negro was absurd, criminal and dangerous. It ought to be stopped at once by suppressing, if necessary, by hanging the extremist on both sides …” (qtd in Ingenthron 32). Regardless of these passions, and the desire to avoid conflict, the lines were drawn with the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860.
An already hard life would become much more difficult with the outbreak of war. Missouri was divided, its elected government supporting the Southern cause and in exile. The state was under Union Military Law enforced by Missouri units loyal to the Union as well as troops from Kansas, already a bitter enemy, Iowa and Illinois; military units of regulars and irregulars being formed to support both sides, or just to protect family and property from uncertainty. The state was in chaos!
The area in and around Bloomfield was almost a constant contest between the two sides. Few people realize that of the 10,000 recorded military actions in the U.S. Civil War, approximately 2000 took place in Missouri and Northern Arkansas. Besides the documented encounters involving uniformed soldiers of the Union and Confederacy, there are as many, if not more, undocumented accounts of murder and plundering by guerrilla units. “A harsher kind of guerrilla war conducted by men whose commitment to killing and plundering seemed as strong as their loyalty to a flag” (Flaherty 98). Many of these attacks were committed long before the war and did not subside until well after the war was declared over.
The City of Bloomfield was the headquarters of a Confederate unit under the command of Colonel Jeff Thompson. He was later to be dubbed the “Swamp Fox” by Union soldiers for his uncanny ability to strike and then evade capture in the swamps of Southern Missouri. The commander of the Union forces in the area during the earliest period of the war was even more formidable and a name more familiar to most, General Ulysses S. Grant. Many historians consider Grant’s tenure as Commander of Union activities in this area less than stellar, but it is debatable if his control of Southeast Missouri would have been as harsh as those who followed him.
Bloomfield’s strategic position atop Crowley’s Ridge, the only dry land navigation route north and south, made it a must for occupation. This strategic location being equally recognized by both sides would lead to untold hardships on its inhabitants. The control of the city would change hands many times during the first four years of the war. An interesting note concerns one of these occupations. In 1861 two Union soldiers from Illinois published the first issues of the Armed Forces Newspaper, Stars and Stripes (Forister 89). Only after Bloomfield was burned to the ground in 1864, possibly by retreating Union soldiers, and its population now depleted by 60%, would it begin to see some small semblance of a controlled existence return.
With the reoccupation by Union forces in 1864 there was a large earthen fort constructed in the center of what is now present day downtown Bloomfield and another of almost equal size one mile west and yet a third, but smaller outpost east of town. These three fortified positions controlled the high ground of Crowley’s Ridge and completely blocked the only dry route through Missouri’s Bootheel. With this event, the war moved southeast and southwest of Bloomfield, but there were still plenty of shootings, bushwackings and hangings connected with earlier events, many of which took place before the war, guaranteeing there would not be peaceful coexistence. Even as the war wound down it was evident to resident and non-resident alike that the war would not end in the Bootheel for years, maybe never! The wounds caused by just too much heartbreak and too many hardships were just too deep to heal without leaving scars.
Out of the ashes of war, and it truly was ashes, often referred to as the great burnt borderland, sprang a hatred that would not subside until many of the original inhabitants and their very close kin were deceased. “The wartime policy of ‘Kill ‘em, starve ‘em or burn ‘em out’ had been uncommonly successful in all three categories” (Ingenthron 304). Robert S. Douglas states in his History of Southeast Missouri, “the war left Southeast Missouri in a deplorable condition. Many towns were practically depopulated during the war. This was true of Bloomfield and other places. The inhabitants were either killed in war or in the raids of the bands from either side, or were driven away” (qtd Ingenthron 304). The single largest contributing factor to the war not being allowed to end is that the atrocities committed were done so primarily by neighbors, sometimes even relatives, and only infrequently by invading troops. I read an article that was published in late 1992 by a local newspaper, The Daily American Republic, that did a very good job of summarizing the Civil War in its statement, “Missouri was the scene of a civil war of its own from 1861-1865. At times the U.S. Civil War became an excuse for warring sides to get even. The Union and Confederacy just kind of got in the way of other things that were happening there” (Smith Sec. A: 12). It is with more than a little irony to note that slavery was not an issue before, during or after the war. There were numerous slaves held in Southeast Missouri prior to the war, but these people, for the most part, stayed with their owner families throughout the war. On many occasions they fought with their owner families against Union troops and at the close of the war, long after the Emancipation Proclamation, stayed closely aligned with their previous owners. In essence this supports pre war sentiments that this was not an issue that should divide the state and nation driving them to civil war.
The period immediately following the war was just as harsh as the war itself. Union soldiers and northern sympathizers murdered numerous former Confederate soldiers returning to their homes in Missouri or travelling across the state to reach their homes in other states well after the war had been declared at an end. The area of Southern Missouri and Northern Arkansas is dotted with memorials dedicated to these unjustly murdered veterans. The lawlessness, Carpetbaggers, and corrupt officials and politicians were just as common to this part of the south as they were in the reconstruction states of the Deep South. This lack of law and order was met with the organization of a very large number of vigilante groups: “Honest Men’s League,” more commonly called the “Regulators,” “Citizen’s Committee,” “Law-and –Order League,” “Invisible Empire (Ku Klux Klan),” and finally the “Baldnobbers” as late as 1880. The referenced organizations, as well as others not so infamous, were probably very necessary early on to cleanse the counties of these undesirable elements. In later stages, the organizations decayed and through their own actions voided the original charters of protecting the innocent and downtrodden by focusing their efforts primarily on intimidation and revenge. Revenge begot revenge and in most instances it was allowed to die only very slowly
The City of Bloomfield never fully recovered from the Civil War era. The city, though still a County Seat as it was nearly 150 years ago, until recent years maintained a population almost identical to what it was before 1860. Prior to the 100th anniversary of the “Rebellion” there was very little, if anything, done to preserve the city or county’s Civil War history. I can recall many old buildings, including a large home, said to be the home of a Confederate officer and known to have been used by both sides as a field hospital, were torn down. As a boy I would walk the surrounding hills over, picking up an occasional lead rifle or revolver ball or bullet and always hoping to find something more significant like a cannon ball. I would try to discuss my small discoveries with neighbors or relatives only to find they had little or no knowledge and less interest in anything concerning something that happened so long ago. It wasn’t that long ago!
Things started changing in the 1960’s. After discussing the subject with persons from my old hometown, I have found they look back on this lost and unrecoverable part of their history with chagrin. However, various historical societies that began to form in the sixties have been successful in obtaining numerous artifacts and establishing local museums, and now it is with regularity that all events, battles, etc., pertaining to the Civil War are reenacted. Roads and locations of historical significance are marked with detailed signs that describe the location’s particular contribution. The area continues to remember and celebrate its historical beginnings.
Chronologically it apparently took this part of the United States 100 years to set aside the hate associated with atrocities committed during the Civil War aside. During that 100 years there was an attempt, possibly not intentional, to erase any and every thing that was relative to that period in our history. Only after all the old memories and hatreds, and the people who revived them had succumbed, has proper recognition been given to what transpired in the Bootheel of Missouri those many years ago. It is now with a tremendous amount of pride that Southern Missourians look back on that era. Everything possible, within the limits of available resources, is being done to preserve not only the history of the Civil War, but of all wars and other events of historical significance that have taken place before or after. The citizens of our small part of the world realize that knowledge and preservation of the past is critically important in providing direction for the future.
Brown, McGhee, et al. Stoddard County Missouri 1835 – 1985.
Dexter: Stoddard County Historical Society, 1985
Flaherty, Thomas. Spies, Scouts and Raiders.
Alexandria: Time Life Books, 1985.
Forister, Robert H. History of Stoddard County.
Bloomfield: Stoddard County Historical Society, 1970.
Houck, Louis. A History of Missouri.
Chicago: R. R. Donnelley & Sons Company, 1908.
Ingenthron, Elmo. Borderland Rebellion.
Branson: The Ozark Mountaineer, 1980.
Mitgang, Herbert. Selected Writings of Abraham Lincoln.
Chicago: Chicago Historical Society, 1968.
Smith, Ron. “Battle of Doniphan Reenactment”.
Daily American Republic 25 Oct. 1992, Sunday ed., sec. A: 1 & 12.
Michael I. Hobbs lives in Dexter, Missouri, and is completing a collection of essays. His work has appeared in each issue of Sweetgum Notes and his book, Through Eyes of Stone, a Vietnam memoir, was published by Sweetgum Press. (See Authors, this site.)
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