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Jayhawker and bushwhacker designate the principal warring parties in the Civil War’s guerrilla conflict, although the names were not unique to Arkansas and actually predated the war by many years. While their application and meaning were never precise—a problem compounded by being woven into postwar folklore—they generally bore negative connotations. Originally, “jayhawker” referred to Union sympathizers, “bushwhacker” to Confederate sympathizers, but the distinction lost much of its meaning in the chaos of war.
“Jayhawker” originated in Kansas, and according to some authorities, it came into use in the late 1840s. The name was inspired primarily by the predatory habits of the hawk, but it implied, too, the noisy, mischievous nature of the jay. The combination became the “jayhawk,” a bird unknown to ornithology. The name was widely accepted in Kansas by the late 1850s, when anti-slavery advocates intent on defending Kansas Territory against pro-slavery “border ruffians” from Missouri adopted it. Kansans liked the tough image it conveyed during those bloody days of pre-Civil War violence, and they continued to use it once the war began. Missourians applied the name to Kansans, too, but negatively. They thought it fit the destructive raiders who plundered and destroyed their property before and during the war.
This usage was so widely known by the time of the war that Arkansans called any Kansas troops who entered the state jayhawkers. That happened most often in northwest Arkansas, although several Kansas regiments also served prominently around Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) and in the Camden Expedition. However, so notorious did the destructive behavior of the Kansans become that Confederate Arkansans also used the name as an epithet for any marauder, robber, or thief. This included Union guerrillas from Missouri who raided communities in northern Arkansas. It even applied to rebel guerrillas. Confederates reacted to plundering by their own guerrilla chiefs by chastising them as “jayhawking captains” and decrying their “system of ‘jayhawking.’” A Confederate calvaryman, worried about the ill effect that depredations by rebel guerrillas was having upon public morale in northern Arkansas, declared in October 1862, “I have always opposed these little Jaw Hawker Parties, and now think if men who wanted to do any thing, the army is the place to act.” Indeed, “jayhawk” become a verb implying theft. Even Union soldiers spoke of “jayhawking” the property of Southern civilians.
The origins of “bushwhacker” also date to the late 1840s, when Washington Irving, the New York author, referred to “gallant bush-whackers and hunters of raccoons” in a story for Knickerbocker Magazine. Essentially, bushwhackers were woodsmen who knew how to fend for themselves in rugged terrain. The name was affixed to guerrillas who struck from ambush during the Civil War. It often implied a lone killer who prowled the hills, swamps, or forests and struck without warning, but it applied equally to whole gangs. Whatever the numbers involved, their slinking style put bushwhackers on the fringes of outlawry. They were deemed too cowardly to fight in open combat, and they drew no line between combatants and noncombatants. As with jayhawker, the word could also be used as a verb.
Bushwhackers could be either unionists or rebels, but the Union army gave them official status as a type of illegitimate Confederate guerrilla. Little more than a year into the war, the unionists found themselves stymied in many parts of the South, including Arkansas, by the ferocious resistance of guerrilla fighters. While recognizing the right of a belligerent to use uniformed partisans for scouting purposes, the Union army condemned the broad range of brigands, freebooters, marauders, robbers, and war-rebels that had associated themselves with the Confederate cause. The lowest of all such insurgents was the bushwhacker, whom the Federals dismissed contemptuously as “an armed prowler.” Thus, the name came to embrace any type of skullduggery. For instance, a Union general accused “bushwhackers” of cutting telegraph lines between Fort Smith (Sebastian County) and Fayetteville (Washington County) in 1863. In retaliation, he ordered one bushwhacker hanged from the nearest telegraph pole of every cut wire. Still, Confederates also found the term useful. A Rebel leader at Little Rock (Pulaski County), voicing concern about growing Unionist resistance in February 1863, condemned the activities of “Union bushwhackers.” Among the best known Confederate bushwhackers in Arkansas were James M. Ingram (or Ingraham), Peter “Old Pete” Mankins Jr., and William Martin “Buck” Brown. William Dark and William J. “Wild Bill” Heffington ranked among the best known Union bushwhackers in the state.
The more brutal and senseless their deeds, the more likely men were to be called jayhawkers or bushwhackers. Bushwhacker received more universal usage, since guerrillas could be found everywhere fighting for the Union or the Confederacy. Jayhawkers would always be linked to Kansas, but so notorious had the violence perpetrated by early Kansas raiders become that the nature of the deed, rather than any geographical place, came to define the name. The slippery meanings of both names serve to underscore the bitterness and confusion of all civil wars.
For additional information:
Bailey, Anne J. and Daniel E. Sutherland, eds. Beyond Battles and Leaders: Arkansas in the Civil War. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000.
Howard, Rebecca A. “No Country for Old Men: Patriarchs, Slaves, and Guerrilla War in Northwest Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 75 (Winter 2016): 336–354.
Huff, Leo. “Guerrillas, Jayhawkers and Bushwhackers in Northern Arkansas during the Civil War.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 24 (Summer 1965): 127–148.
Mackey, Robert R. The Uncivil War: Irregular Warfare in the Upper South, 1861–1865. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004.
Prier, Jay A. “Under the Black Flag: The Real War in Washington County, Arkansas, 1861–1865.” MA thesis, University of Arkansas, 1992.
Stith, Matthew M. Extreme Civil War: Guerrilla Warfare, Environment, and Race on the Trans-Mississippi Frontier. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2016.
Sutherland, Daniel E. American Civil War Guerillas: Changing the Rules of Warfare. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2013.
———. “Guerrillas: The Real War in Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 52 (Autumn 1993): 257–286.
Daniel E. Sutherland
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville
Last Updated 2/23/2017
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