“Gray Ghosts of the Confederacy” by Richard S. Brownlee


Gray Ghosts of the Confederacy: Guerilla Warfare in the West, 1861 – 1865 by Richard Brownlee is a non-fiction work, containing reliable information on the warfare in Missouri and Kansas during the Civil War. This book is one of the most careful analyses of irregular warfare in the nineteenth century.

Plot description

Brownlee provides the authoritative information, revising his doctoral dissertation into this book. It was published by the Louisianna State University Press in 1958 and numerous reprintings that followed serve the evidence of the book’s significance. Being a fifth-generation Missourian, the historian spent several decades gathering historical data concerning his native state and received a doctoral degree in the field. Notwithstanding the title of the book, the author focused not on the west, but rather on events in Missouri and Kansas. The author’s thesis can be read at the very beginning of his work:

In the years between 1861 and 1865 when the United States was tormented by the Civil War and while massive armies slowly maneuvered and grappled for control of the Eastern Seaboard and the Mississippi Valley, the vast and lightly settled country just west of the Mississippi, the western border, was wracked by insurrection and continuous guerilla warfare (Brownlee 3).

The plot of the book represents the particularization and development of this idea. Brownlee’s main purpose was to demonstrate the differences between the participants of the warfare partisans, Confederate guerrillas, and the cavalry. He aimed to prove that the partisans played an important role in the war in general. These goals were reached successfully, while Brownlee’s research changed the public opinion concerning warfare in the west. Thus, a reasonable reader will be influenced by the information of the book and the attached materials: such as maps, and illustrations.

The book is meant for a wide audience, including both historians, knowledgeable in the events of warfare and the common people without a special degree as well. This fact requires the author’s ability to bring serious historical events in a manner that would make the book acceptable for the unprepared readers at the same time. It is amazing, that the author managed to reconcile contraries – not only to fill the gap in the history of the Civil war, making his significant contribution to the study but describing colorful personalities of the partisans at the same time, that made the book interesting for lots of people.

The fact is that the author himself participated in the military operations of the Second World War and the reader might think that he borrowed the characters from his experience, but the format of the book did not allow him to use fictitious characters or unverified information, as the historical science does not accept inaccuracy. The depicted characters were rather taken from the stories of his compatriots, who did not participate in the Civil War but described their parents’ or grandparents’ experiences.

The language of the book is formal, but it is not overcomplicated with the special terms or notions. For example, writing about the misinterpretation of the Missourian’s intentions in the Civil War Brownlee manages to describe the citizens’ disappointment preserving the formal style of narration: “To their surprise Missourians were on almost any occasion able to read of themselves as ‘slaveocracy, whose only interest in Kansas was based on an unsavory and immoral hunger to expand slavery throughout the entire West” (Brownlee 7). Thus, the historian appeared to be gifted in writing and managed to combine the features of fiction and non-fiction literature in his book, making Gray Ghosts of the Confederacy: Guerilla Warfare in the West, 1861 – 1865 a best-seller in the field.

Brownlee’s book illuminates the difficulty of the question he was researching, choosing the theme of loyalty and disloyalty as one of the key topics. The author demonstrates that none of the positions in the war can be viewed as correct or wrong, but rather the position that was predetermined by certain life circumstances and lifestyles. The Civil War was aimed at breaking the rules according to which several generations lived and got accustomed to living. Naturally, Missourians split over the question of slavery, and, significantly, the author raises the question of the institution of slavery, as it was an integral part of the social and economic system of the state in the nineteenth century.

By 1860 slaves made up only about nine percent of the population of Missouri, but the institution was still an important factor in the agricultural economy and was increasing in the rich farmlands of the central and western portion of the state (Brownlee 47).

Having researched a lot of materials the author admitted that the problems concerning slavery had a psychological basis as well, as owning one or two slaves indicated wealth and could change the citizen’s social status. Brownlee used a new approach for researching the Civil War events, taking into consideration the significance of the institution of slavery and what is the most important, in my opinion, without prejudices representing Missourians as slaveocrats.


Gray Ghosts of the Confederacy: Guerilla Warfare in the West by Richard Brownlee combines authoritative historical data with the captivating manner of presentation, indicating the author’s awareness and love of the native state.


Brownlee, Richard.Gray Ghosts of the Confederacy: Guerilla Warfare in the West, 1861 – 1865. 2003: 274.