Access Type

Open Access Dissertation

Date of Award

January 2015

Degree Type


Degree Name




First Advisor

Kidada E. Williams


Historians have written a great deal about the American Civil War and, until recently, much of that scholarly activity has focused on military battles and the effectiveness of the Union and Confederate armies on the war’s outcome. During the past few decades, social historians have tried to dig beneath that narrative to situate the war in the eyes of American citizens and how that war affected their lives. With this, there has been a focus on the Northern and Southern homefronts, African Americans, and soldiers’ motivations to fight – all rooted in the wartime experience. In this discussion, however, there is very little attention paid to the plight of Southern whites displaced by the war. In “’A Lonely Wandering Refugee’: Displaced Whites in the Trans-Mississippi West During the American Civil War, 1861-1868,” I argue that displaced whites, both during and after the war, were largely pushed off by the armies, the U.S. and Confederate governments, and the Freedmen’s Bureau to local aid organizations in Missouri and Arkansas. Through an analysis of both Union and Confederate army records, Freedmen’s Bureau records, personal correspondence of local citizens, local and national newspapers, and regional aid organizations, I have detailed the treatment of uprooted people in the region.

From the start of the war in 1861, battlefield clashes, guerrilla warfare, hunger, Union, war policies, Confederate conscription, and conflicts over loyalties sent many whites on the run and, almost immediately, they encountered one of the armies in search of help. As it encountered these people in the region, the Union army provided enough rations to support displaced whites until the army transported them to Union-controlled areas where they received aid, most often, from private benevolent aid organizations. While soldiers held a variety of opinions of these people and their situation, the army was vastly unprepared for the number of people who came into their lines seeking support. While there was no clear policy on how to handle the large number of displaced whites, it was not they did not try. Colony farms and other programs were attempted to put displaced people back on their feet but because the army’s lack of consistency, nothing came from these attempts. The Confederate army, on the other hand, did nothing to support those displaced whites who came into their lines. If anything, Confederate soldiers left the ranks because of peopled uprooted by the war because so many of those men, women, and children sent on the run were their own friends and families back home.

Aid organizations in the West, like the Western Sanitary Commission in St. Louis, often filled the void of caring for these displaced whites. While these organizations originated out of the need to care for wounded soldiers, they expanded their mission to include help for displaced whites who came from across Missouri and Arkansas. By the war’s midpoint, they provided temporary shelter, food, and the necessities of life for people on a short and long-term basis. To reduce the numbers of displaced whites dependent upon their care, organizations also provided transportation to these people, often sending them north to be with friends and family. As one would expect, care for these people over the final two years of the war was expensive and, as a result, they held sanitary fairs to raise money for their endeavors. The most prominent such fair was the Mississippi Valley Sanitary Fair held in St. Louis in 1864 that raised a great deal of money for their efforts. The Western Sanitary Commission and like-minded organizations provided care for displaced whites both during the war and into Reconstruction, as the Bureau relied on their continued support of displaced people.

With the dawn of Reconstruction, the Freedmen’s Bureau fanned out across the South to help both freedpeople and displaced whites. The Bureau stepped in to help when local governments could or would not do so. During the early months of Reconstruction, the Bureau placed a number of displaced people on abandoned and confiscated lands throughout the region. This, however, was quickly complicated by debates in Washington between the Radical Congress and President Andrew Johnson. The issue at hand in these debates concerned the fate of former Confederates and their property. While the agency also offered rations, provided transportation, offered schooling, and medical care, it was their placement of displaced people on abandoned lands that proved to be the most successful. Once the president removed this option, the Bureau moved to make displaced, and now destitute, whites to be self-sufficient as quickly as possible. For the Bureau, displaced whites were a hindrance on its primary focus – assisting freedmen. While the Bureau did what it could when it came to aiding displaced people scattered throughout the region at the close of the war, it came undone because of what happened in Washington. This, by 1868, rendered the Bureau ineffective in Arkansas and throughout much of the South.