A Bullet Doesn't Care
Joe Johnston is a guest contributor who is writing articles related to the Civil War. To read others in the series, click here. His latest book, The Mack Marsden Murder Mystery, was published by the Missouri History Museum in 2011 and received a 2012 National Indie Excellence Award (True Crime category).
Gettysburg, Bull Run, Shiloh—these names epitomize the Civil War icons for the American public. But Fort Davidson, Lone Jack, and Newtonia are places where Missouri men fought, bled, and died in obscurity. While the 10 Civil War battles with the most casualties were all fought east of the Mississippi, thousands of men fell in Missouri with little impact on the outcome of the war. And yet courage, fear, agony, and death are the same everywhere. A bullet doesn’t care who it kills.
What was the war like in Missouri? Although it was critical to both Federal and Confederate governments to move supplies on the Mississippi River, the land west of the river wasn’t terribly important to either side. They were fighting about secession, not land. The Union had a substantial navy commanded by Admiral David Farragut, while the South had virtually no navy, so for the majority of the war the Union controlled most of the river. Neither government was willing to commit major resources to the west. Instead, they took the sons of Missouri away to fight and die far from home. And the war they left in Missouri was a dirty affair fought by a mix of patriots and cutthroats, in and out of uniform.
Missouri had been settled mostly by Southerners, but there were no huge plantations and few slaves. Since before becoming a state in 1921, Missouri had been fought over by abolitionists and slave-staters, yielding a mixture of divided loyalties like no other state. Oddly, some slave owners favored the Union, and some opposed to slavery favored secession. By the time the first shots of the war were fired at Fort Sumter, people along the Missouri-Kansas border had already endured years of fear, hatred, and violence. Kansas free-staters like John Brown stole Missouri slaves, threatening, beating, and killing their owners, and burning their homes. Missouri “border ruffians” rode into Kansas, brought the slaves back, and returned the violence.
Governor Claiborne Jackson took office in January 1861, and his new pro-Union legislature decided not to secede, but also not to supply troops to either side. As tensions grew, the legislature removed Jackson’s administration from office, and replaced them with appointees, who then had to be protected by troops. For the duration of the war, the state was under martial law and ruled by a government the people didn’t elect. Jackson tried to maintain some hold on the state, including rallying the militia, the Missouri State Guard, under former governor Sterling Price.
The Ray family of Greene County hid in the basement as the first battle in Missouri, Wilson’s Creek, raged in their front yard. The fight would come to rank seventh among all the war’s battles in percentage of casualties, with the Union losing 24 percent of its troops. George W. D. Kirkland was the son of a white farmer and his neighbor woman, a former slave. George enlisted in the 1st Missouri Artillery on April 24, 1861, in St. Louis, and died in the Rays’ cornfield just four months later. For him, the battle at Wilson’s Creek was every bit as important as Gettysburg. His mother lost a child, the same loss suffered by the mothers of all the boys who died at Bull Run.
After Wilson’s Creek, Union troops chased the State Guard into Arkansas, where they continued fighting. Despite pleas from Jackson and Price, the Confederacy refused to send help. They needed every man and bullet east of the Mississippi.
Bitterness exploded across Missouri when commanding Union general John C. Fremont issued an emancipation proclamation freeing Missouri’s slaves, and ordered his troops to seize the property of Southern sympathizers. Families began to suffer in Missouri like nowhere else in the nation. Armies made war on civilians, and civilians made war on each other. Some fights were among the most brutal and unruly in the war, simply because one or both sides were likely to include guerrillas, untrained recruits, men bent on revenge, and militiamen on the prowl without officers.
While men in top hats and ladies with their parasols rode out in carriages to picnic and watch Eastern battles, the people of Missouri had to look over their shoulders as they worked in the fields, knowing guerrillas could come thundering up at any moment. Citizens were uprooted from their homes, threatened, and assaulted by regular and irregular soldiers, both in blue and gray uniforms. The state’s cause was championed by guerrillas like William Quantrill, Jesse James, and Bloody Bill Anderson. Guerrillas would ride into a farm and take everything of value. Redlegs from Kansas stopped at the Missouri home of future president Harry Truman’s grandmother and forced her to make biscuits for them until her wrists bled from rubbing against the dough bowl. Nobody knew whom to trust.
The Missouri State Militia Cavalry (Union), were legal, uniformed, and equipped, but they had little discipline, generally riding in details of 5 to 20 men under the command of a sergeant. They roamed the state with only the broadest of orders to chase guerrillas. Of course, as guerrillas and cavalry saw more brutality, both became more violent. Civilians were shot in their doorways because they were suspected of loyalty to one side or the other. A favorite technique for getting information was to hang a man until he almost strangled, then let him down. If he didn’t talk, they’d pull him back up and repeat that until he talked or died. One double hanging in Iron County took the lives of one man who had shod guerrillas’ horses and another who let those horses graze in his fields.
In a misguided effort to stem the border violence, Union general Thomas Ewing issued Order No. 11, which forced everyone in four border counties to leave their homes. Of course, Order No. 11 quieted the violence, but it also brought untold suffering. Families with children suddenly had no food, home, or way to make a living. The area became a no-man’s land patrolled by thieves and murderers. Virtually every house and barn was burned, and for four years not one new building was erected.
County courthouses were favorite targets of both sides. General Jo Shelby’s Confederate troops burned the Dallas County courthouse. After the Union won a victory at Salem in Dent County and then abandoned the town, Southern guerrillas torched the courthouse. Before the Texas County courthouse was burned, quick-thinking citizens hid the county records in a cave. John T. Birdseye was a veteran of the Ohio infantry who came to Nevada, the seat of Vernon County, after the war to start a new life and a land title company. The courthouse was still in ashes, but he was able to build his business because the county records had been taken from the courthouse and hidden.
Men signed up and deserted with regularity. John Ulrich and Thomas H. Wood, both of St. Louis, were among the first to enlist in the Union army in 1861. By spring 1863, Ulrich was sick of it and deserted. Wood did the same a year later. George Hudson didn’t do as well. He signed up in Rolla during the summer of 1863 and must have shown promise, because he was promoted to sergeant just a month later. Then he deserted.
Seventeen-year-old John L. Weaver, of Cape Girardeau, joined Col. Jeff Thompson’s hastily assembled “Swamp Rats” of the State Guard. They boldly burned the railroad bridge over Big River near Blackwell. Then Yankees pursued and defeated them, and Thompson escaped to Arkansas with a few men. But after the disorderly retreat, many, including Weaver, simply went home. It all happened so fast that they weren’t properly mustered in anyway.
For some, the war led to prison. Union soldier G. J. Thomas survived a Louisiana prison to be paroled after the war’s end. Confederate David Dennis, of the 5th Missouri Cavalry, died in a temporary St. Louis prison. Richard A. Dunkle was captured in 1863 and died in the horrific Camp Douglas in Chicago.
Throughout the war, Southern sympathizers continued hoping for a savior who would wrest control of the state from the Federals, reinstate the duly elected government, and kick the Yankees out of Missouri. The man they looked to was Major General Sterling Price. He and his men longed to help their home state, but they were serving the Confederacy in Mississippi, fighting against armies that included Union men from Missouri. At the far-away siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi, Union private Michael McGuire, from St. Louis, was disabled, and Confederate brigadier general Martin Green from Lewis County was killed. Thousands like them fought to the end of the war in North Carolina.
It was September of 1864 when Price was finally commissioned to return to Missouri without his men and raise a new army to retake the state. He made his move with 12,000 cavalry, mostly new recruits from Arkansas. Price’s plan was to seize St. Louis, then St. Joseph. But first, he thought, the Union stronghold at Fort Davidson, some 80 miles south of St. Louis, offered an opportunity for a possible easy victory with his overwhelming numbers against a fort held by under 1,000 men. But he was wrong.
Price had to fight his way through multiple lines of pickets, entrenched troops, and artillery on the approach to the fort. At a cost of 1,500 men, they made it to the fort, but were unable to take it. Then, that night, the Union troops quietly slipped away, leaving an empty fort. Price had accomplished little, and lost a great deal.
Right away, Maj. C. C. Fletcher’s 80th Enrolled Missouri Militia (Union), from Jefferson County, was called out to guard the railroad bridges north of Mineral Point, so that Price could neither pass, nor burn the bridges. The 80th was typical of units being mobilized all across the state. In 1863, the Exemption Act had been passed, requiring every man to enlist in a state militia unit or pay a tax and be labeled a Southern sympathizer. So after Price hit Fort Davidson, farmers and store clerks, young men and old, throughout the state, were called to action.
Price had to turn west, to the only remaining significant objective, Westport, the future Kansas City. He lost more men in fighting along the way, then sent his depleted army against some 10,000 Yankees at Westport, and lost another 1,500 men. There was nothing to do except run south through Kansas, with 2,600 Union infantry and cavalry on his tail, and the cold plains of Kansas became the final resting place for many an Arkansas volunteer who came to fight for Missouri.
While Price was fighting his losing cause, a new apathy had grown in Missouri. Those who cared deeply about the war’s outcome had enlisted long ago. Families who had lost sons and fathers were determined not to lose anyone else. Everybody had suffered, and yet the suffering continued. People were tired of being afraid in their own homes. They were sick of the kind of violence that fell on a German immigrant who had been operating a ceramics factory in St. Francois County for several years. He employed many fine European artists, and they all stayed out of the war, except one. A foreman became involved in delivering contraband to Union troops, so Confederate guerrillas rode to his house one night, took him away and killed him, then burned the factory—a thing of beauty destroyed forever.
That’s what the war was like in Missouri: ugly, undisciplined, and indecisive. The aftermath was bad too. Civilians were displaced, many veterans of both sides had no home to return to, and they watched waves of Unionists move in from the east and north. Freed slaves could vote, but Confederate veterans could not. Former guerrillas were hunted as outlaws. Old grudges colored business, government, and courts of law. Vigilante justice was common. The pride of serving was strong on both sides, and the sad and bitter feelings were a long time healing.
But the state was also filling with people from around the world who held no grudges, but rather hoped for opportunity, rich farmland, schools, and good railroads. They cared about healing, building, and shared good fortune. It was up to future generations to view it all with the eyes of time, and see that the Civil War was one of the many hands that molded Missouri.
—Joe Johnston, Guest Contributor