The Civil War was a devastating period in our nation’s history. But years after its conclusion, it still bequeathed a legacy of violence that had ramifications in Missouri and the Ozarks of Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma.
Why did this period in our state’s history create so many outlaws? For one thing the Civil War bred violence into the men of that generation. Not only was it kill or be killed on the battlefields, but violence spread between soldiers and non-combatants and between civilians who disagreed on the issues.
Here in southwest Missouri, this area practically became a no-man’s-land during the war. It was alternately ravaged by the armies of both sides and continually savaged by bushwhackers and guerrilla fighters who either fought for neither side or fought outside the constraints of war.
To use a modern metaphor, those guerrilla bands were a training camp for American terrorists who would attack the infrastructure of their own country. Bloody Bill Anderson and William Clarke Quantrill were two of the worst guerrilla leaders, and under their tutelage were such young men from Missouri as Jesse and Frank James and Cole and Bob Younger.
The Civil War also brought dangerous men into this area, men who had cut their teeth on killing. It brought men who had learned to live by the gun and would end up making their living by it—either on the side of the law or outside the law, or both.
Men like James Butler Hickok of Illinois returned to this area after the war. He had served as a scout for the Union Army at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. On the opposite side that day at Wilson’s Creek was Frank James. Hickok came to Springfield after the war to gamble. He argued with a former Confederate from Arkansas named Dave Tutt and in a shootout on the square he killed Tutt with a bullet through the heart.
Hickok would go on to use his gun to enforce the law, at least on those occasions when he was employed as a lawman.
The aftermath of the Civil War in this war-ravaged state also made it a difficult time to make any money or even survive. A few of those war-trained men decided it was easier to do what they had done during the war—take what they needed at the point of a gun.
None of this excuses what these outlaws became. Thousands of other Missourians fought in that terrible war and returned to solid law-abiding lives. For those who turned to the outlaw life, it often led to death — their own as well as the deaths of lawmen and innocent bystanders.
A couple of them, however, managed to get off relatively easy and became celebrities in their later years. This may seem strange, but in those days, there were few celebrities. There was no radio, TV or movies. There were the sensational “dime novels” that provided lurid details of the activities of Wild West gunfighters and outlaws.
And there were the newspapers, which in those days sometimes strayed from the truth in order to make a story more appealing to its readers. Then there was word of mouth, and men and boys alike loved to swap stories about desperadoes and lawmen who settled things with a blazing gun.
This made these outlaws well-known in the sense that their names were
known and feared and their exploits could often be related by most any school boy. They weren’t necessarily admired, but were more an item of curiosity.
And when an outlaw was killed, often a photographer would take advantage of the situation by taking a photo of the corpse and selling souvenir pictures. Even worse, the bodies often were put on display and people would cut swatches from the dead man’s clothing as souvenirs.
A few of the more notorious outlaws who managed to survive their career as such would go on to write books about their so-called “exploits.” When the silent movie era began in California, many of them migrated there to sell their notoriety to film makers. Even lawmen like Wyatt Earp, who started his law career in Lamar, Missouri, ended up there trying to cash in on their name and knowledge of how it once was in the lawless West (which included Missouri, of course).
Several of these gunmen took up the speaking circuit and also made appearances as themselves in plays and Wild West Shows. These included Wild Bill Hickok, who appeared in stage plays with Buffalo Bill Cody, and Frank James and Cole Younger, who had their own Wild West Show for a brief time.
In coming columns we will explore the sordid lives of the James Brothers, the Dalton Brothers, their cousins, the Youngers, Bill Doolin and the Wild Bunch, and the likes of Henry Starr.
We do this not to celebrate their lives, for most of them were murderers and thieves, but to explore this extraordinary period in our Missouri history that they so markedly represented. And we will examine the latter lives of those who survived to become pseudo-celebrities, like Frank James, Cole Younger and Emmett Dalton.
This was a strange and violent time in Missouri and cannot be overlooked if you are examining the history of the MOzarks.