Interest in scholarly study of the Ozarks has grown steadily in recent years, and The Ozarks in Missouri History: Discoveries in an American Region will be welcomed by historians and Ozark enthusiasts alike. This lively collection gathers fifteen essays, many of them pioneering efforts in the field, that originally appeared in the Missouri Historical Review, the journal of the State Historical Society.
In his introduction, editor Lynn Morrow gives the reader background on the interest in and the study of the Ozarks. The scope of the collection reflects the diversity of the region. Micro-studies by such well-known contributors as John Bradbury, Roger Grant, Gary Kremer, Stephen Limbaugh Sr., and Milton Rafferty explore the history, culture, and geography of this unique region. They trace the evolution of the Ozarks, examine the sometimes-conflicting influences exerted by St. Louis and Kansas City, and consider the sometimes highly charged struggle by federal, state, and local governments to define conservation and the future of Current River.
“Good Water & Wood but the
Country Is a Miserable Botch”
Flatland Soldiers Confront the Ozarks
John F. Bradbury Jr.
Professor William Shea has examined the image of Arkansas during the Civil War in a perceptive essay entitled “A Semi-Savage State.” After studying hundreds of Yankee accounts, Shea concluded that Arkansas did not meet the standards of volunteers who compared it to their own agricultural homelands in the Midwest. Their largely negative impressions still affect the state’s reputation today. In this essay Shea concerned himself only with Arkansas; however, to get there, Union troops marched through southern Missouri. By geographical extension many of Shea’s observations about Union soldiers in Arkansas, especially regarding their reactions to the landscape, also apply to the Ozarks of Missouri.l
As in Shea’s study, the sources for reactions to the Missouri Ozarks include hundreds of letters, diaries, newspaper accounts, and reminiscences by United States volunteers who served in the hills. The sources prove especially rich for the first two years of the war, when the region was the most strategically critical and both sides committed their greatest efforts to the area. Despite rugged terrain that impeded military operations, thousands of Union soldiers in the Army of Southwest Missouri and the Army of the Frontier marched to the battlefields of Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove. By the time they were drawn off to other theaters, midwestern volunteers in four Union armies ultimately had triangulated all of southwestern Missouri and had reached as far south as Fayetteville and Van Buren, Arkansas. The men traveled nearly all of those miles on foot, giving them plenty of opportunity to study the terrain and express their opinions of the landscape. The men appreciated the extensive oak and pine forests and abundant springs of clear water, but as it did in Arkansas, the novelty of the wilderness hill country soon wore off.
The greatest number of Union troops moved into the Ozark Highland from St. Louis and three railroads ending at Ironton, Rolla, and Sedalia. As the fighting developed along the western flank of the Ozarks between Springfield, Missouri, and Fayetteville, Arkansas, the direct military line from St. Louis through Rolla into southwestern Missouri became the main artery of federal control. The road followed an old path from St. Louis known to geographers as the interior ridge route through the northern Ozarks. In the 1830s it had served as the state road from St. Louis to Springfield and was the northern branch of the Trail of Tears. The Frisco and Burlington Northern Railroads have followed the same corridor across the Ozark Highland, as have Route 66 and Interstate 44. The route passed along the divide between watersheds, through terrain densely covered with oaks, relatively level but poorly watered, and disappointing to travelers who looked for Ozark “mountains.” Southwest of St. Louis, the road crossed stony ridges and unremarkable post oak and prairie flats that did not always present the area in its best light.2
The volunteers spent the first one hundred miles of the journey from St. Louis aboard trains of the Southwest Branch of the Pacific Railroad, following the ridge path to its railhead at Rolla. Before stepping off the
cars at the Rolla depot, the troops had passed through miles of rough and undeveloped country. The rocks along the railroad line impressed one Iowa soldier, who wrote: “Every formation described in geology here has its representative, apparently. There were red, blue, black, gray, yellow, white, green, purple, speckled, brindled, and porphyritic rocks . . . it is an awful mean country, Missouri is.” Other soldiers called it desolate, “rantankerous, half-manufactured” territory “hardly worth fighting for,” with soil “shallow and strong,” and “poor enough to starve a cat.” An Iowa infantryman expressed similar sentiments, “Of all the unearthly, desolated regions, this takes the palm.” Still another Iowan who stepped off the train stated his considered opinion: “I am very much disappointed in Missouri, so far as I have seen it. Of all the God-forsaken countries, this is the worst. The whole section of the country, from St. Louis to here, is not worth the life of a single northern soldier, and were it not for the vital principles involved, would not pay for half an hour’s defense. As our good-natured Major remarked the other day, it is an absolute crime to kill a secesh in this part, for no greater punishment could be inflicted on him, than to compel him to live here.”3
Situated on the ridge route equidistant from St. Louis and Springfield, the railhead town of Rolla was barely old enough to be strategically important. No one had lived in the immediate area prior to 1845, although the Maramec Iron Works had opened in 1829 only a few miles to the east. Railroad construction along the interior ridge route resulted in the creation of Phelps County in 1857, with the designation of Rolla as the county seat. The town’s military significance derived from the fortuitous circumstances that left it as the terminus of the Southwest Branch from 1860 to 1866 and the counterclockwise progression of the first half of the war in the Ozarks. Thousands of Union troops passed through the railhead during the war because of its position on the federal line of communications. But anyone expecting an impressive town at this strategic spot was disappointed, and it was a rare soldier who had a kind word for the place. An Irish volunteer in the Seventh Missouri Infantry, sent as a reinforcement to the railhead, grumbled, “We have been very fortunate in getting good quarters, until we came to this God-forsaken place.” Another Missouri soldier described the location as “a poor post oak ridge, worn bare by soldiers of everything but roots.” A former printer turned infantryman from Bloomington, Illinois, told readers of the hometown newspaper: “Rolla was a Peruvian chieftain who was killed by Pizarro. If Pizarro were here now, Rolla would kill him.”4
The four-year-old town of about six hundred citizens sported a motley collection of seventy-five unpainted buildings scattered along the railroad tracks in what one soldier said resembled “the effects of a recent earthquake.” The new two-story brick courthouse and county jail were the only buildings of any note. Siege guns in an earthen fortification overlooked everything. The army’s log headquarters building was usually awash in a sea of choking dust or churned mud. A newspaper correspondent who stepped off into mud at the depot said, “There was the feeling that the place was a mortar bed and the inhabitants were preparing to make bricks.” Rolla had “miserable” hotel accommodations, mixed with a collection of “oyster shops, eating houses, and other traps for the hard earned wages of the soldier.” Looking closer, the men found it “mean and dirty” and every other door marked “saloon.” The town looked busy enough: freight and forage were stockpiled everywhere, dozens of the army’s quartermaster and commissary warehouses lined the tracks, and hundreds of horses and mules occupied the government’s corrals or pulled ponderous supply wagons through the streets. But it was a warborn flush; the army created the only business. Take away the war, said an Iowa City soldier in 1862, and Rolla was “an exotic without the surrounding to support it.”5
Most of the troops ultimately marched out of Rolla toward Springfield. Initially level, the land becomes increasingly rugged at the crossings of the Little Piney, Big Piney, Roubidoux, and Gasconade, all of which notch through the ridge trail. Marching up and down the Gasconade hills, the soldiers invariably thought it the poorest, roughest country they had ever seen and the spring-fed streams the coldest and clearest they had ever waded. For infantrymen toiling along the primitive road, the Ozarks provided a monotonous panorama of “scrub-oaks, up hill, limestone rocks; down hill, creeks, deserted cabins.” Iowan Nathan King called it “Opossum Country” and claimed that there were not two acres of tillable ground within five miles. On the whole, said an Illinois infantryman, the region was “a miserable, rough, rocky, broken, worthless wilderness” and remarked that “what ever induced these people to locate in this wilderness is more than I can conceive.”6
The troops marched through the “miserable” village of Waynesville, said to be one of those places necessary “for horse racing, quarrels & fights and where bad whiskey and poor tobacco is offered for sale at reasonable prices for approved credit or country produce.” By the middle of 1862, a garrison of federal volunteers and local militia entirely occupied the town’s score of buildings and the brick courthouse. The armies did not linger long, but a few soldiers did take time to explore the springs and “curiosities” in the caves along Roubidoux Creek and the Gasconade River, leaving their names “in haunts never tread by human foot.” The huntsmen found the abundance of wild game impressive, and one Illinois soldier saw his first wild turkeys. West of the Gasconade the country becomes gentler as the road ascends the Springfield Plain. The volunteers reported occasional patches of good land, “seldom interspersed with the beauty given to them by the enterprise of a thriving community of men,” but judged only a tenth of the land fit for agriculture.7
Fifty-five miles west of Rolla the soldiers discovered Lebanon, the seat of Laclede County, a town so alternately plundered by both sides as early as the beginning of 1862 that it was entirely destitute of even the most common domestic goods. According to Iowa captain Henry Ankeny, “Lebanon has been a better town than Rolla was when we first went there, but all now is gone for a generation to come.” Colonel E. A. Carr warned General Samuel Curtis that he and his staff “must not expect the luxuries of Rolla” when they arrived in Lebanon. One of Curtis’s infantrymen found the town especially cheerless in January 1862: “The streets are a gore of mud, the houses mostly dilapidated and scattered, and presenting a dismal and ominous appearance when visited on a cold cheerless, sunless winter day.”8
Nine months later, the other climatological extreme prevailed in the drought-stricken hills. Away from the Gasconade, good water was scarce on the ridge road, and this caused long, dry marches between campsites. Parched soldiers straggling into Lebanon had to skim the scum from the only pond that had not dried up. Finally, twelve miles east of Springfield at Mill Springs, thirsty marchers found plenty of fresh water.9
At Springfield the troops arrived at the gateway to the Southwest and the first town worthy of the designation within two hundred miles on the ridge road from St. Louis. The town developed in the 1830s at the intersection of the St. Louis Road with the all-important avenue (later the Telegraph or “Wire” Road) linking settlements on the Missouri and Arkansas Rivers. Soon, Springfield developed a thriving regional trade based on the agricultural fertility of the Kickapoo and Grand Prairies that border the city to the west and the north. Its trade associations extended through Fayetteville to the Arkansas River at Van Buren and Fort Smith, the White River via Forsyth, and the Missouri River via Bolivar, Warsaw, and Cole Camp. Commercial connections to St. Louis passed through the Missouri River towns until construction of the Southwest Branch Railroad commenced in the mid-1850s. By 1861 Springfield boasted nearly two thousand citizens in several hundred buildings around the Greene County Courthouse, with churches, a female academy, a bank, blacksmith and machine shops, wagon and harness manufactories, and merchants offering the latest variety of goods. The soldiers liked the place; “pretty” is the word most often used in their diaries and letters. Even Major William G. Thompson, who called the country in the Gasconade hills “God-forsaken,” wrote to his wife, “The truth is I would like to live in Springfield.”10