LEAVENWORTH | A more fitting place for Army officers to come and study insurgencies and counterguerrilla tactics would be hard to find in the United States.
For it was from right here that Union soldiers ventured out to butt heads with the bushwhackers who ruled the nearby Missouri countryside.
Proud of its part in taming the West, Fort Leavenworth offers little evidence, beyond some old graves in the cemetery, of its history in the bloody suppression of revolt next door. No displays about “jayhawkers” or “Red Legs” are in the post museum; no statues of their commanders are to be found.
But in the classrooms at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, chapters of the Civil War are remembered, 150-year-old lessons even taught. Not so much Gettysburg or Chancellorville, either, but of places mostly unheard of back east — bloody places, such as Grinter’s farm, Baxter Springs, Centralia, Lawrence.
In an era of prowling Predator drones, it may seem strange that anything would carry over from the days of black powder, but the past has a way of circling around to surprise us on many fronts, cultural as well as military.
The old war still sneaks into our language: “Shoddy” comes from substandard material used in some Federal uniforms; “deadline” comes quite literally from the specific distance a prisoner of war could venture out before being shot by a guard.
It affected what holidays we observe and how. Even Santa Claus, as we know him today, first showed up in 1862 with gifts for Union soldiers.
Faced with more than 600,000 dead by war’s end — today’s population percentage equivalent would be 6 million — American attitudes toward death underwent wrenching change. The war prompted the invention of national cemeteries and military pensions. Modern funeral practices evolved from the desire to ship home and view one last time the physical remains of a soldier son or husband.
The thousands of crude battlefield amputations likewise led to a new industry in improved prosthetics, somewhat like the high-tech revolution in artificial limbs that has followed from the IED-strewn roads of Iraq and Afghanistan.
But perhaps the loudest echoes seem from our own bitter Missouri-Kansas border stories, where civilians were gunned down by fanatics on both sides and sorties into the hostile countryside often meant ambush, where surrender often was not recognized and atrocities with knives not uncommon.
“I get emails from former students in Iraq and Afghanistan who tell me how they see a lot of similarities between Bloody Kansas and where they are,” said Terry Beckenbaugh, an assistant military history professor at Leavenworth’s U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.
At the college, where officers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan enroll in the 10-month course at what is considered the Army’s grad school, all take H100, “The Western Way of War.” The dozen two-hour lessons cover from about 1400 through the end of World War I.
The Civil War gets just two hours, but Ethan Rafuse, military history professor added: “Part of my pitch to students on the first day of class is … this is as good a place as any to think about the problems presented by counterinsurgencies and nation-building, because much of what we talk about happens right here on the Missouri-Kansas border.
“So often the Federal commanders were facing the same problems: trying to figure out which of these people were friends, who was neutral and how you had to win those people over, how what worked in one village one day may not work in the same village the next.”
Both Rafuse and Beckenbaugh emphasize that their views expressed for this article do not reflect any official policy or position of the military history department, the U.S. Army or its Command and General Staff College, or the Defense Department or federal government.
The decisions to be made by the boots-on-the-ground officers rotating through Fort Leavenworth are often guided by a new doctrine developed at the fort just a few years ago — Field Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency.
Linked most closely with the new doctrine was Gen. David Petraeus, who commanded the fort at that time. Later sent to Iraq to lead the successful troop “surge,” he put in motion many new directives.
Afghanistan was his next and greater challenge, and the doctrine’s effectiveness there is still an open question. Meanwhile, the general is returning to take charge of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Rafuse: “The problems Petraeus addressed would have been very familiar to Gen. Thomas Ewing when he was here on the Missouri-Kansas border.”
Ewing emptied much of four Missouri border counties of residents, loyal or not, to dry up support for the guerrillas.
It hardly won many “hearts and minds,” but then Ewing had no manual.
The actions of Union troopers, especially those from Kansas, often created more enemies in Missouri than they destroyed. This conundrum is a major factor in how we conduct operations today among civilians in Afghanistan.
Any patrols out of U.S. outposts like Kandahar face the same challenge as when 2nd Colorado troops rode out on scouts — what they called patrols back then — and risked deadly ambushes.
“When they go in convoy from Bagram to Kandahar, the guerrillas always have the initiative, and the counterinsurgents have to react,” Beckenbaugh said.
“That dynamic hasn’t changed from biblical times.”
And when the bullets stop flying, life can just get more complicated.
“One problem is that a neutral population helps the insurgents,” he said. “The average person wants to be left alone.
“But just imagine you are on a farm in western Missouri when a group of men comes to your house dressed in Federal uniforms. You feed them and give them what they want. And you don’t want to be saying things like ‘I hope you track down those bushwhackers’ because what if these men are guerrillas?
“So the civilians were terrorized into a neutrality in Missouri. That is kind of what the Taliban are doing, only they are not wearing American uniforms.”
The troopers from Leavenworth were familiar with the Wornall House on what was then the road to Fort Scott. As commander of the 7th Kansas Cavalry, the original jayhawkers, Col. Charles “Doc” Jennison briefly used it as a headquarters early in the war.
The Wornall family living there was terrified, believing John Wornall, a slaveholder, could be taken out and shot at any time. Only when the feared Jennison good-naturedly traded knives with Frank, the little boy of the house, did the family relax.
During the Battle of Westport, Jennison was back, leading a different regiment, the 15th Kansan, charging south on the road. Another of Frank Wornall’s memories was the amputated limbs tossed out a window of his home, used as a field hospital.
The war resulted in perhaps 50,000 amputations and launched a prosthetics industry. In 1866, one-fifth of Mississippi’s state budget went to artificial limbs for its veterans.
While the experts then worked with cast iron, rubber and whittled barrel staves, a new revolution in artificial limbs for today’s wounded features microprocessors, exotic metals and silicone.
A more defining aspect of the current wars are those who return home burdened with personal demons often called post-traumatic stress disorder.
The first evidence that some Civil War veterans suffered this condition as well was contained in the 1997 book “Shook Over Hell” by historian Eric Dean, who examined the case records of 291 Civil War veterans at the Indiana Hospital for the Insane.
The symptoms are familiar: depression, anxiety, “flashbacks,” alcoholism, addiction and suicides. The names for it were more romantic then: “nostalgia” or “soldier’s heart.” Later it was summed up as “shell shock” or “combat fatigue.”
Roger Spiller, a Leavenworth military historian who has written about PTSD, notes that the first professional literature describing the condition did not appear until around the turn of the 20th century.
“There is no question in my mind about it,” Spiller said. “All wars have produced casualties like this, but it just didn’t fit into our frame of references.”
The suffering hardly fit into the frame of reference of the mid 19th century, either.
“The United States embarked on a new relationship with death,” wrote Drew Gilpin Faust in her book “This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War.”
Before, people almost always passed away at home, with gathered loved ones to observe the last breath, wash the body and perform the comforting ceremonies. It did not often occur at a hospital, which were largely for the indigent, much less on a field paved with the bodies of comrades.
Both North and South had expected a quick war; what they got shocked nearly everyone, except William Tecumseh Sherman, who was running a streetcar company in St. Louis when the war broke out. His reaction to Lincoln’s first call for 75,000 soldiers to rally to the Union flag?
“Why, you might as well attempt to put out the flames of a burning house with a squirt-gun.”
Our house divided burned for four long years; Maj. Gen. Sherman did his part in adding to the flames — and the casualty lists, starting with the stunning numbers of dead at Shiloh.
It got worse: Three days at Gettysburg killed more than 6,000.
For context, U.S. forces, fighting for 10 years, have lost just slightly less in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Neither Washington nor Richmond had a system for publishing casualty lists, much less performing the notification functions that American military families take for granted today. Newspaper reporters did much of the collecting of names of the dead and wounded.
Dog tags were not issued, although one could buy metal IDs. Soldiers kept identifying letters or Bibles in their pockets; before battles, some grimly pinned scraps of paper bearing their names to their tunics.
After the fighting at Byram’s Ford on October 23, 1864, Sgt. George Combs wrote home that he had held back from following his unit south so he could keep the body of his dead brother, James, an officer in the 7th Missouri State Militia, out of a mass grave.
“I had him brought to this place (Kansas City?) and put in a metallick coffin and nicely buried. When times gets a little better I will have him brought home.”
So many disappeared nameless into trenches that spiritualism had a heyday as parents and wives tried to contact loved ones “on the other side.”
“The Civil War soldier’s biggest fear is that they would not be remembered,” said Lee Ward of Independence, who maintains his own Museum of Funeral History in his home.
One Southern officer dying in a Kansas City church after the Battle of Westport left a twisted paper containing a lock of his hair.
“Take it, ma’am,” he implored Elizabeth Millet, a volunteer nurse. “Someday someone will come asking for George Lucas. It will be my wife. You can give her that.”
Visitors to Ward’s museum quickly realize that it’s not only the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.
It’s also the 150th anniversary of embalming in America, a practice that had been little seen outside of medical schools before. Chemically preserving corpses for shipment over long distances and a last viewing before burial won wide acceptance.
Ward: “People have to have some way to remember, and embalming contributes to that. It is through viewing that we remember. We have to tangibly see that person, and I speak from 50 years of experience.”
Thomas Holmes of Brooklyn — considered the father of modern embalming — went to Washington and embalmed bodies for free, exhibiting his work in storefronts in Georgetown and Alexandria.
Faust noted the unprecedented and massive Federal program between 1865 and 1871 that found and reburied 300,000 soldiers — Union only. This effort led to 74 more national cemeteries, beyond the five established at battlefields during the war, as well as hard feelings among white Southerners, who then conducted their own private reburials.
‘Nobody is safe’
One of the smaller national cemeteries is in Jefferson City. A stone marker there notes the names of dozens of men who died — many with their hands up in surrender — at a little rail stop called Centralia.
Their remains had been buried beside the tracks, then later relocated more than 50 miles south to a resting place deemed more suitable.
The stone is part of the reason that Beckenbaugh thinks, “A majority of books written on the Civil War are almost uniformly on the eastern theater.
“Americans have this romantic idea of Johnny Reb and Billy Yank. But out here it is a lot nastier, a lot meaner. That makes a lot of people uncomfortable.”
At Fort Leonard Wood, a senior leaders class has looked back at the Civil War. David Chuber, historian at the U.S. Army Chemical School, recalled leading non-commissioned officers to the Wilson’s Creek battlefield near Springfield in 2005.
Interesting, the future platoon leaders said, but this was a conventional battle, not what they were dealing with then in Iraq. U.S. forces had become an occupying army propping up a fragile government in Baghdad and recoiling from sudden, demoralizing insurgent attacks.
So Chuber took the sergeants to Centralia, a hamlet where guerrillas stopped a train and massacred two dozen unarmed Union soldiers on furlough. Then, when a Federal force pursued them, the guerrillas pretty much wiped them out, too.
The students found the Centralia of 1864 instructive.
“We talked about ambush and psychological operations,” said Chuber, “about how the guerrillas came into town on a mission not only to find intelligence but also to intimidate. Stopping that train was like controlling a main road in Iraq or Afghanistan. Troop morale will be affected if supplies can’t go up and down.
“Also, if about 150 guys died in what seemed a matter of minutes, then it seems like these guerrillas can do anything, and nobody is safe.”
While the conflicts of today are vastly more complex, plenty of hard-to-miss similarities cast shadows from the old war that haunt forces today.
“I don’t need to connect the dots for my students,” Beckenbaugh said. “They do it themselves.”