James W Erwin Author and Speaker

How I became interested in the Civil War

I owe it all to a book sale


When I was eight years old, my grandparents owned a farm on the outskirts of Carthage, Missouri. Their house had a very large combination living room and family room with built-in bookshelves. They wanted something to dress up the place and so they bought a few boxes of book at an estate sale. 

I was taken by some hefty illustrated volumes about coal mining and coal mining equipment, but my attention was really drawn to a book with large maps. It was The Battle of Shiloh and the Organizations Engaged by Major D. W. Reed. Reed not only gave an overview of the campaign, but also traced the movements of each brigade. I was hooked.


I started reenacting the battle. My musket was a yardstick and around the Fourth of July I had a cannon – a length of pipe into which I inserted lit cherry bombs. It made an impressive and noisy display. Not as good as the real thing but to an eight-year old boy a thing to be proud of. When the weather was bad and, in the winter, I reenacted the battle with playing cards. The black cards were the Union and the red cards were the Confederates. 

We moved to Springfield, Missouri not long after. I convinced my father to make our Sunday drives (does anyone remember when Sunday drives were a thing?) searches for battlefields. He worked for the Missouri Pacific Railroad, which in those days ran right through the Wilson’s Creek Battlefield. We found the monument to General Nathaniel Lyon and not much else. It would be several years before the battlefield became a National Park. We also went to Pea Ridge and found Elkhorn Tavern (or at least the rebuilt version there today). It became a National Park later as well. An ancestor was mortally wounded near Elkhorn Tavern on the first day of the battle while serving in Company A, Phelps’ Missouri Infantry, fighting fellow Missourians from General Sterling Price’s command. We searched for the location of the Battle of Carthage. And we didn’t even know there was Battle of Springfield (January 1863) right in our hometown!

Why did we have trouble finding these places? Because we could find practically nothing about the Civil War on Missouri -- this in a state that had the third most military engagements of the war. The Civil War in the Trans-Mississippi Theater was – at least for us – practically unknown in the available literature. (Times have fortunately changed.)

And that is why I am pleased to be able to research and write books and articles about this aspect of the Civil War. Please take a look at my Civil War books and the brief articles posted in my blog. 

My next project is another Missouri-related subject, tentatively titled Steamboat Disasters on the Lower Missouri River, written with my wife, Vicki Berger Erwin. (For you Civil War aficionados there will be chapter about the guerrilla attack on the steamer New Sam Gaty on March 28, 1863, near Sibley, Missouri). It will be published by History Press in late 2019 or early 2020. 

 The book that started it all

The book that started it all

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  • During the Civil War, Missouri was in constant turmoil from raids by heavily armed bands of marauders loosely affiliated with the Confederate army. Federal troops fought more than 1,000 battles in Missouri – mostly with guerrillas. But these numbers mask the level of violence because they do not include attacks on civilians. Ordinary persons felt the dread of uncertainty when riders approached their homes. Were they Union soldiers or guerrillas in blue coats taken off soldiers they had ambushed? Sometimes it did not matter. Either side might kill the men, and burn their buildings if dissatisfied with the response to their demands for information, food or horses. Entire counties were reduced to ruins. Guerrilla war is perhaps the most brutal of wars. This was Missouri’s war: a war of revenge, retaliation, scalping and mutilation of the dead, and few prisoners.

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  • The guerrillas who terrorized Missouri during the Civil War were colorful men whose daring and vicious deeds brought them a celebrity never enjoyed by the Federal soldiers who hunted them. Many books have been written about William Quantrill, Bloody Bill Anderson, George Todd, Tom Livingston, and other “noted guerrillas.” 
  • You have not heard of George Wolz, Aaron Caton, John Durnell, Thomas Holston, or Ludwick St. John, They served in Union cavalry regiments in Missouri. It was a hard life, and over three years of the war these boys, for most were in their teens and early twenties, became hard men. Combat, when it came, was often short, sharp, brutal, and unforgiving. In Missouri neither side showed mercy for defeated foes.  
  • They are just five of the anonymous thousands who, in the end, defeated the guerrillas, and who have been forgotten with the passage of time. This is their story.

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  • Missouri was a battleground – over 1,000 engagements were fought in the state (third most during the Civil War) – but it was also a home front where people lived. No one could feel safe there. In the countryside, women who had been left behind when their husbands and sons went to war had to cope with marauders from both sides. Children saw their fathers and brothers beaten, hanged or shot. In the cities a cheer for Jeff Davis could land a young boy in jail, and a letter to a sweetheart in the Confederate army could get a girl banished from the state. Women volunteered to care for the flood of wounded and sick soldiers. Slavery crumbled and created new opportunities for black men to serve in the Union army, but left their families vulnerable to retaliation at home. The turbulence and bitterness of guerrilla war was everywhere.

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  • Louis Blanchette came to Les Petites Côtes – the Little Hills – in 1769. The little village, later dubbed San Carlos del Misury by the Spanish and St. Charles by the Americans, played a major role in the early history of Missouri. It was jumping off point for Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s exploration of the Louisiana Purchase, as well for settlers moving west beyond the Missouri River. St. Charles was the home of important politicians, judges, soldiers, businesspersons, educators and even a saint. It was the first capital of the new state. From a sleepy French village, St. Charles grew into a dynamic city in one of the fastest growing areas of the nation. But it never forgot its history. The heart of the city is its Historic District where one can still experience its heritage.
  • This is the story of St. Charles from Les Petite Côtes to today. 

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