Though overshadowed by the devastatingly bloody battles waged between large-scale armies, guerrilla warfare tactics were employed by both the Union and the Confederacy throughout the Civil War – particularly in contested areas and Border States.
With its deeply divided loyalties and dueling military presences, Missouri was a hotbed of guerrilla activity early in the war, a situation that only intensified after the Battle of Wilson’s Creek.
In Missouri and other Border States of the Western Theater, guerrilla fighters – regardless of which side they favored – were commonly called “bushwhackers,” although pro-Union partisans were also known as “jayhawkers,” a term that had originated during the pre-war Bleeding Kansas period.
Often, guerrilla fighters could only loosely be called soldiers, as these small partisan bands acted independently and outside the strategic framework of formal armies and command structures. Without official uniforms, they presented challenges for opposing forces when captured – should they be treated as enemy combatants or civilian criminals?
Common tactics used by bushwhackers included ambushing individuals, families, and smaller army detachments, or raiding farms to steal supplies, foodstuffs and anything else of value.
The U.S. Civil War moved into the town of Van Buren, Mo., about two years after Carter County was established. Most of the people in the county were southern sympathizers and supporters of the Confederate States of America. The Union Army of Southeast Missouri was encamped in the area during the winter of 1862-1863, and Carter County saw a number of local skirmishes, but by the war’s end it had suffered only minimal property damage.
On August 12, 1862, the 24th Missouri Infantry (Union) under the command of Colonel Boyd surprised six rebel soldiers near Van Buren. In the ensuing skirmish two of the rebel soldiers were killed and another three captured. In the course of events one mill and three houses were burned. Also taken was a packet of rebel mail that was being sent from the camp of Confederate General James McBride to Potosi, Missouri, telling of his plans to take Greenville.
Later that year, the Union forces under command of Lieutenant Colonel Bazel F. Lazear were sent to Carter County with forces of the 12th Cavalry MSN to drive them out. During the evening of October 22, 1862, Lt. Colonel Bazel F. Lazear’s forces surprised the estimated 450 well-armed Confederate troops under the command of Colonel David C. Boone, driving them through the town of Van Buren.
On October 25, 1862, Boone’s forces were once again discovered, this time near Pike Creek in western Carter County. Attacking the Rebel forces from a nearby hill, the Union forces killed eight and captured 16 of the Rebels. Altogether, the Union forces under Colonel Lazear captured a total of 40 Rebel troops on this expedition, who were sent to military prisons in St. Louis. The Union loss was only one man.
From December 1862 to January 1863, Union General John W. Davidson, en route to the south with a force of about 3000 troops, camped near Van Buren. At the same time, troops from the Confederacy under the command of General Jeff Thompson, camped not far away on top of Barren Hill, not aware of the Union troop’s location.
The next day, the Confederacy discovered the Union troop’s close camp while they were loading supplies that they had purchased from local farms. After a battle that lasted about an hour, the Union soldiers were forced to retreat, leaving their wagons and supplies behind.
One Confederate soldier was killed and about twenty-five wounded. The southern forces retreated westward toward Pike Creek that afternoon. Two Union soldiers died of their wound in this battle.