The Guerrilla Household of Lizzie and William Gregg

Taking a feminist lens to the Civil War in Missouri–known for its models of hypermasculinity like William Quantrill, “Bloody Bill” Anderson, Frank and Jesse James, Cole Younger, and William H. Gregg–it becomes readily apparent that white women were as married to the war as their Confederate menfolk. Lizzie Hook, a young woman from a slaveholding family in western Missouri, married Captain Gregg in 1864; after they tied the knot, Lizzie and William Gregg, with two other couples and an escort of forty or fifty guerrillas, started for Texas with the idea that the young women would be safe there behind Confederate lines. Along the way, there were fights with Union militiamen, African American soldiers, and Native Americans allied with the North. Lizzie Gregg proudly remembered one fight, saying, “In the day’s fighting our little band killed forty-five Federals, Negroes and Indians without the loss of a man, either killed or wounded.”1 No shrinking violet in need of transplant to the safety of the Confederate homefront, Lizzie sounded like a Confederate cavalryman.

At night, after marching and fighting, these lady-guerrillas helped make camp, mend socks and shirts, and prepare dinner. Not unlike the men who performed these tasks in a “regular” army, these women were a part of the rank-and-file for this bushwhacking company. Except these women were not acting outside their normal, peacetime roles when they performed these jobs. Lizzie and the other women were significantly more prepared to cook for their mess than the average male soldier and were more qualified to operate as quartermasters than the men who did those jobs in the field for Confederate and Union armies. Indeed, these young women and thousands of others back in Missouri had provided the guerrillas with everything their war required from the very beginning. After a few more days fighting their way southward, the party made it to their destination in Texas. Together, William and Lizzie Gregg waged a war in defense of the institution of slavery and their gendered roles and relations better facilitated their fight.2

Lizzie Gregg and her guerrilla sisters cannot be found in the typical military histories of the Civil War. Military historians tend to focus on the men who were commissioned officers or were officially enrolled in the armies or navies of the period. While the types of men being studied and the analysis used to study them has evolved in important ways, military histories of the Civil War still largely ignore the participation of women who were with the armies – cooks, laundresses, and nurses – and the many others who contributed to the war effort in untold ways. Viewing the military of the past without a feminist lens has created a blindspot in the field.3

The history of guerrilla warfare in Missouri has suffered a great deal from this opaqueness, in no small part because guerrilla skirmishes were fought in and around the households of their participants. It was not a battlefield in the conventional sense. In the guerrilla theater of war, there was no clear geographic delineation between the homefront and the battlefront; there was no partition between women and men. In other words: Lizzie was there alongside William.

If, though, one attempts to render a history of the guerrilla war without the female supporters of the bushwhackers, or shows them to be just passive victims and coerced participants, the war appears chaotic, muddled, irrational, and self-destructive. For example, a couple of prominent histories conclude that the guerrillas must have stolen their supplies; however showing the connections between southern white women and their men reveals how fighters outside of the formal Confederate supply chain provisioned materials. Until very recently, the accepted explanation of the inner workings of the guerrilla war in Missouri and elsewhere was that when the Civil War broke out, young men made war on their own communities, their own households, and their own women.4

To better understand the guerrilla war, we must restore women to the narrative as active participants and how their relationship with their men needed to be reestablished, necessitating a more inclusive frame of analysis: the household. This bulwark of nineteenth-century America that has often been misunderstood as an exclusively domestic, feminine space holds the key to understanding the most prevalent kind of warfare then and now. An antebellum institution that governed life, the household was the site of reproduction and production and it defined the status of its members. Everyone was a member of a household: women, men, children, black, white, slave, free, dependent, and independent, family and non-family.5

For the Greggs, the Civil War was a household war. The cause of the war was embedded in the structure of this institution. While all the members of the household worked together, only some worked willingly. Enslaved, black members of the household were forced to labor to the great benefit of the Gregg family. William was born into a slaveholding family, as was Lizzie, and both were willing to fight to continue this economic system that was threatened by Kansas Jayhawkers, Abraham Lincoln, the Republican Party, and the Union army.6

A woman and children join soldiers of the 31st Pennsylvania Regiment in a Union Army camp near Washington, D.C. during the Civil War. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

The household also made the Greggs’ war work. In parts of the North, industrialization was reducing the productive significance of the household but in the South and across large swaths of the Middle and Trans-Mississippi Wests, the household remained an all-encompassing institution. Using the household to frame historical analysis, therefore, restores some authenticity to the way that all men and women understood themselves, their relationship to each other, their property, their status as free people or slaves, their connection to the land, and their war. Viewing the war through the household returns women to their essential place in the war, emphasizes the connections between women and men, and works to erase the false dichotomy between homefront and battlefield.7

The first thing we notice when we view the guerrilla war as a household is that women “manned” the supply line. Lizzie recalled that a guerrilla “always got something to eat at our house, and if practical, a place to sleep.” Guerrilla women also nursed the wounded. “In the summer of 1863, a sick Confederate came to our house,” and, Lizzie remembered, “My mother had him taken upstairs, had a negro man give him a bath, put clean clothes on him and put him in bed and sent for a physician. In a day or two he was better.” These women took care of the dying and buried the dead. Lizzie remembered that she and some other women found “a southern soldier had been killed in a barnyard, and if not attended to soon would be devoured by the hogs; so five of us girls went and carried the body to the house, placing it on a board, washing the body the best we could, combing his hair, etc.” The next day, with the help of some old men still in the neighborhood, they buried him. Evidently, the guerrilla war began and ended with white southern women.8

Perhaps it is necessary to note that Lizzie did not pull the trigger of a firearm and maim or kill any enemy soldiers. This may be why military histories exclude her and other women. It is worth remembering, though, that few soldiers in modern militaries maim or kill their enemies. Most of the manpower is directed towards supporting a relatively small portion of men on the front lines. It is also worth remembering what Lizzie did do: she fed fighters, sheltered them, nursed them, sat vigil and buried them, set up camp; she rode into combat and was under fire.

After the war, Lizzie attributed her post-war commitment to “the cause” to her proximity to the war’s violence. “My dear sisters, I had bullets whiz about my head that day; do you wonder at me being a United Daughter of the Confederacy,” she proclaimed. Lizzie and countless other women performed the tasks of soldiers and while the nature of their cause must preclude their efforts from commemoration, historians must see them for what they were.9

Notes

  1. Mrs. W. H. Gregg, “Can Forgive, But Never Forget,” in Reminiscences of the Women of Missouri during the Sixties (Jefferson City, MO: Hughs Stephens Print. Co, 1913), 29–30.Return to text.
  2. There are exceptions to be sure, but a quick glance at the list of the award-winning articles published by the Journal of Military History over the last decade or so suggests that military historians of the Civil War era and other time periods do not seem concerned with the experience of women. Return to text.
  3. Michael Fellman, Inside War: The Guerrilla Conflict in Missouri During the American Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1990); Daniel Sutherland, A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, 2009). Return to text.
  4. Elizabeth Fox Genovese, Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1988). Return to text.
  5. 1860 U.S. Federal Census, Slave Schedule, Jackson County, Missouri, 23. Return to text.
  6. More than any other person, LeeAnn Whites deserves credit for developing the household as a frame of analysis best suited to the study of the Civil War. This very year Lisa Tendrich Frank and LeeAnn Whites introduced a collection of essays entitled Household War: How Americans Lived and Fought the Civil War (University of Georgia Press, 2020). In my own book, I tried to show a fully fleshed-out gender system at war and I owe a great deal to the efforts of Whites and Streater. See Joseph M. Beilein, Bushwhackers: Guerrilla Warfare, Manhood, and the Household in Civil War Missouri (Kent State University Press, 2016). Return to text.
  7. Mrs. W. H. Gregg, “Can Forgive, But Never Forget,” 27–28; William H. Gregg, William Gregg’s Civil War: The Battle to Shape the History of Guerrilla Warfare (University of Georgia Press, 2019), 49; Beilein, Bushwhackers, 14–38. Return to text.
  8. Mrs. W. H. Gregg, “Can Forgive, But Never Forget,” 27–28. Return to text.

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