When the Missouri Ran Red: A Novel of the Civil War

Image of When the Missouri Ran Red: A Novel of the Civil War
Release Date: 
February 27, 2023
Reviewed by: 

When the Missouri Ran Red is fast-paced and action-packed, and while rich with detail the narrative never bogs down in the specifics.”

Chapter One of When the Missouri Ran Red finds our narrator, Owen Wainwright, in bed. He writes, “The pain of my stitched scalp, the bullet groove in the bone of my head, and the hurt arising from the hoof-clenched, swollen flesh of my trampled thigh persisted like constant toothaches, forcing me to bite my lip to keep from shouting whenever I so much as twitched anywhere.”

Owen is an orphan being raised by an aunt and uncle, keepers of a hotel where he lends a hand at a variety of tasks. The time is 1864, the place Sedalia, Missouri. The Civil War drags on, with bushwhackers running wild through the country. Wainwright’s wounds are the result of an encounter with such renegades visiting the town, one of which is his hateful half-brother Lance, riding with an irregular Confederate raiding party. The war has largely bypassed Owen, at 17, and Sedalia—but Union and Confederate forces are nearby and threatening to fight over the town.

The young man recovers and enrolls in the local militia, loyal to the Union, to help protect the town. He is assigned to serve as courier and horse handler for a captain, an assignment made uncomfortable in that both Owen and the captain are in love with a local girl. But duty calls, and Owen performs his duties well as he struggles to escape the grip of boyhood and strives to comport himself well as a man.

While riding with a scouting party, Owen faces attacking Confederate bushwhackers. “I didn’t waver at the surprise of it and, with aim certain, gently squeezed the trigger. The bushwhacker on the paint pony tumbled backward with the recoil of the Russell Colt Navy. The realization I had undoubtedly killed my first fellow human didn’t register until later, for unseated bushwhackers littered the Georgetown Road, and horses were screaming in pain.”

But Owen’s war would not be the relatively uncomplicated clash of Union forces against Confederates, for not long after the aforementioned battle, rebel soldiers would overrun Sedalia and he would be taken prisoner. His half-brother Lance is a legend among the Confederates, and despite their mutual hatred and Lance’s disapproval, the relationship earns Owen a rare assignment for a prisoner—serving as unarmed aide-de-camp to a rebel officer.

The continual strife of divided loyalties proves challenging, but the young man manages to deal with it. But violence cannot be avoided, and he kills again when stopping renegade Confederates from robbing a bank, and again when outlaws attempt to steal money set aside for the burial of an officer he was assigned to oversee.

Further complications arise when federal troops attack a nighttime scouting party. “I felt that familiar jolt to the side of the head that I’d suffered from the flying bullet on the porch steps of the Wainwright Hotel. I fought blackness that threatened my senses and tumbled from the saddle.” Again, he recovers from the head wound. But Union officers, unsure of his allegiance, send him to Fort Leavenworth for the provost department to deal with. His situation is again upended when a jailer, as part of a plot to help another prisoner escape, ships Owen off to St. Louis, under the other man’s identity, for incarceration at Gratiot Prison.

When rescued from imprisonment by a Union officer and federal marshal who knew him in Sedalia, Owen believes the war is over for him. Instead, the marshal includes him in a posse of sorts on the trail of Confederate bushwhackers and other outlaws decamping for Texas and Mexico to avoid prosecution for their crimes—one of the fugitives being Owen’s half-brother Lance. The scofflaws are run to ground in Texas and Lance is killed in a shootout.   

When the Missouri Ran Red is fast-paced and action-packed, and while rich with detail the narrative never bogs down in the specifics. The author, twice winner of the Western Writers of America Spur Award, does a masterful job of portraying Owen Wainwright’s inner struggles with the ever-changing challenges he encounters. The young man comes to know a lot about himself: “I learned in a few short weeks that I didn’t lack courage when it came to protecting my own life, and the lives of those around me, on short notice. Surprisingly, neither did I find it cowardly to admit that I didn’t have the rare fortitude required to wear a badge, carry a gun, and enforce the law, day by day.”