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What is a Bushwacker?

By Ally Colby
Updated May 17, 2024
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Bushwacking, also spelled bushwhacking, generally is a form of guerrilla warfare. Bushwackers operate outside of the official chain of command of whatever army, faction, or cause that they support — though they may at times work in conjunction with or at least under the unofficial auspices of conventional military authority. For the most part, however, bushwackers belong to small, self-regulated squads of civilians who take it upon themselves to conduct raids, ambushes, and other mobile tactics against a larger, formally organized foe. In United States history, bushwackers played a role in the American Revolution, but are perhaps most famous for their exploits in Missouri and Kansas during the American Civil War.

The name bushwacker most likely stems from the facts that a bushwacker hides out in the bushes and that a bushwacker typically ambushes enemies rather than engaging them in formal combat. Bushwacking tactics may not seem so innovative or unusual in modern times where many combatants employ similar strategies and methods. During the time of the American Revolution and the American Civil War, however, it was generally more common for opposing armies to meet on an open field of battle. Surprise attacks and raids went against the conventional rules of warfare espoused in those eras and quickly earned the bushwackers notoriety and a fearsome reputation. American bushwackers modeled much of their combat style on that of the Native Americans.

Advantages a bushwacker typically has over a conventional combatant include mobility, heightened familiarity with the terrain, and the element of surprise. A bushwacker and his comrades often employ such tactics as luring enemy troops into difficult, unsuitable terrain or sneaking into enemy camps. Also, a bushwacker is likely to undertake stealth and reconnaissance missions.

The Missouri-Kansas border is one of the more famous sites of bushwacking in American history. Strife smoldered on the border between Missouri, a "slave-state," and Kansas, a "free-state," long before the first shots were fired in the American Civil War. When the war began, Missouri was technically still a part of the Union; federal troops promptly marched into the state capitol to ensure it remained that way. Officially, Missouri would maintain neutrality throughout the war, but the intense guerrilla warfare that ravaged the state told a different tale.

Bushwackers sided with the Confederacy during the war. In some cases, the Confederate army did authorize these insurgents by giving them commissions as "partisan rangers." A jayhawker was the Union-loyal equivalent of a bushwacker and used similar guerrilla tactics; many jayhawkers were Kansans who ran raids across the Missouri-Kansas border to burn or pillage western Missourian towns or farmland. The fierce fighting between these two factions is often referred to as a "civil war within the civil war," as neighbors sometimes battled against neighbors. In some cases, entire families were banished from Missouri by Unionist militiamen — future US President Harry Truman's grandparents were among those exiled.

One of the most famous of American bushwackers is William Clarke Quantrill — a legendary figure whose escapades are often as romanticized as they are infamous, depending on who tells the story. Quantrill’s band of guerrilla soldiers, known as Quantrill’s Raiders, formed in 1861 as a group of about a dozen men and quickly became a force to be reckoned with. Jesse James was a bushwacker in Quantrill’s squad, as was his brother, Frank, and his future partner in crime, Coleman Younger. These men would later turn the hit-and-run tactics they learned from Quantrill into one of the American West’s most famous bank- and train-robbery sprees.

The Lawrence Massacre, one of the bloodiest events in the history of Kansas, was a significant bushwacking attack authored by Quantrill and his Raiders. On 21 August 1863, at least 300 bushwackers descended on the city of Lawrence — an epicenter of Union activism and a base of operations for the jayhawkers. The bushwackers sacked Lawrence, looting and pillaging banks and stores and setting fire to the city and killing at least a hundred men. In retaliation, Union General Thomas Ewing evicted thousands of Missourians living in towns on the Kansas-Missouri border from their homes, and then systematically burning the border towns to the ground.

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Discussion Comments
By barelybear — On Apr 15, 2011

Though it often gets a bad rap, I think that if you cannot win a stand up fight it makes a lot of sense to ambush or raid an enemy. Whatever name you call it by, bushwhacking, guerilla warfare, unconventional warfare, whatever -- it's all about keeping the larger enemy off balance.

For example, in the Revolutionary War, especially at Concord, the colonials decided to ambush the British forces from hiding places rather than line up against them on traditional European style battlefields. Bushwhacking worked. It kept the British off balance and gave General Washington to create a more powerful traditional army.

By aggie1991 — On Apr 12, 2011

In the movie “The Patriot” Mel Gibson played a Colonel who created his own band of bushwhackers. Of course those bushwhackers where portrayed as glorious heroes. Quantrill’s men are of course portrayed negatively because their side lost the war. I guess it is true what they say: history is written by the winners.

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