Butler, Mo. A foot below the grasses of rural Bates County, Ann Raab’s trowel has uncovered scars of a countryside torched by the Union Army.
Burnt wood embedded in rock. Melted glass, scorched ceramics and discolored soil where a flaming wall fell.
As a Ph.D. candidate in archaeology at Kansas University, Raab is less interested in the signs of destruction than in the ordinary remnants of lives ravaged. Buttons, for example, offer clues to the kinds of coveralls western Missourians left behind when forced off their properties in 1863.
“This one says ’Bull Dog,”’ Raab noted of the brand name etched on a dime-size fastener in a zippered bag in her laboratory. “That gives me something to work with.”
Growing up in Clay County, she heard about the War on the Border. An ancestor supposedly galloped into Kansas with Confederate guerrilla William Quantrill, who led the bloody looting of Lawrence.
But what Raab, 42, never heard in history class was how the Union retaliated with General Order No. 11 — reducing to ash the homes and livelihoods of thousands across four Missouri counties.
In Bates County, still a place with only one traffic light, Raab’s digging and the research of others have pried open a chapter known for generations but seldom spoken of.
“What happened here was deeply, deeply personal,” so personal that it has taken nearly 150 years for the county to revisit its Civil War experience without acrimony, said Peggy Buhr, who works in the sprawling Bates County Museum.
“When everything burned, a lot of that history went with it,” Buhr said. “Maybe 40 percent of the people returned. But they returned to nothing.”
Lessons for today
The changes in living, before Order 11 and after, are the focus of Raab’s work. She hopes to find lessons relevant to today’s conflicts: How lasting are the social and economic wounds on civilians whose doorsteps are darkened by war?
Fragments of the Greene family flatware give her hints.
The remains of the prewar homestead of John Greene, who lived on a hilltop, included pieces of ornate plates colorfully decorated. But found in higher dirt — scatterings of the home daughter Sarah occupied after the family reclaimed the land — were bits of plain dinnerware, white and less expensive.
Did tastes change or did the Greenes’ fortunes?
Raab’s findings are preliminary, but they support the belief that Missourians who returned after the war lived poorer than before Union troops kicked them out.
Other economic centers — Kansas City, Independence, Westport — were spared and thrive still. Not true for the town of West Point, Mo., population 700, when its hotels and banks were set aflame by Kansas ruffians before Order 11 finished off what was left of the area. It is one of two sites excavated by Raab, her archaeologist husband and field-school students.
“It was the bustling economic heart of Bates County,” Raab said, “and it never came back.”
The plan to combat Confederate insurgents was ordered by Union Brig. Gen. Thomas Ewing, headquartered in Kansas City.
Much of western Missouri — a more fertile and affluent land than drought-stricken Kansas — had already been looted and torched by Jayhawkers. In return, 400 Missouri bushwhackers led by Quantrill sacked Lawrence in August 1863. That massacre prompted Ewing, under pressure from Kansas politicians, to issue Order 11, depriving the pro-Southern guerrillas shelter from sympathetic Missourians along the border.
Residents of Jackson, Cass and Bates counties, and part of Vernon, had just a couple of weeks to vacate their homes — unless they lived within a mile of a military outpost and could prove loyalty to the Union.
The directive proved most devastating to rural reaches where bushwhackers were known to find comfort.
“With the exception of the hysteria-motivated herding of Japanese-Americans into concentration camps during World War II,” wrote historian Albert Castel, “it stands as the harshest treatment ever imposed on U.S. citizens under the plea of military necessity in our nation’s history.”
In the end, practically all that remained across thousands of square miles of Missouri wilderness were stone chimneys where cabins and businesses once stood. While raids into Kansas quieted, guerrilla activity just shifted east.
Most of the people ordered out of western Missouri were “women, children and the elderly — thrown out in the prairie before winter without any resources,” leaving their livestock and crops behind, Raab said.
With the help of genealogists and history buffs, old-timers in Bates County are learning new things about relatives driven away — some of whom returned, rebuilt and kept the memories to themselves.
Carol Bohl of the Border War Network, composed of historical societies on both sides of the state line, said: “We’re really in the midst of rediscovering a whole history that left this region.
“This was a war on civilians. ... In Iraq, in Afghanistan — guerrilla fighting, counterinsurgencies — it’s the same story over and over. Civilians get caught in the middle.”