Sultana A Case For Sabotage

Sultana: A Case For Sabotage

Sultana: A Case for SabotageFrom the groundbreaking North & South magazine article, featured on The History Channel in Civil War Terror, and in PBS History Detectives.

In print and on Kindle at
The story of Confederate boatburner and spy, Robert Louden, called the “murderer of the age.”

Among the steamboats destroyed on the Mississippi River, the one with the largest single loss of life was the steamer Sultana. The boat had been loaded with over 2000 people, most of them Union POWs returning from Southern prison camps. When the Sultana exploded and burned, as many as 1800 people were killed as many Union soldiers died on the river that night as died on the battlefield of Shiloh. With them died a number of women, children, and civilian men.

Was it an accident? Or sabotage?

Excerpt from Sultana: A Case For Sabotage

Seven miles out of Memphis, at 2:00 a.m. on April 27, 1865, the steamer Sultana chugged northward loaded with over twenty-three hundred people, most of them Union soldiers returning home from southern prison camps. Without warning, an explosion ripped through the boilers, scalding steam burst out, and a shower of flaming coal shot upward into the night, raining down on the crowded boat, which in moments was engulfed in flames. Over seventeen hundred people died, making the destruction of Sultana a maritime disaster worse than the sinking of the Titanic.

This publication also includes the full-length version of the originally published North & South article, with all footnotes and sources.

Gratiot Street Prison Then and Now

Then & Now

Gratiot Street Prison

Picture of Gratiot Street Prison in the 1860s from “Story of a Border City During the Civil War” by Galusha Anderson, published 1908

8th & Gratiot

Site of Gratiot Street Prison today–a parking lot of the headquarters of Ralston Purina Company

The building that became Gratiot Street Prison originally housed McDowell Medical College, owned and operated by Joseph Nash McDowell. The wing north of the tower housed the college, the wing to the south was McDowell’s home.

McDowell's College 1848

This 1848 illustration of McDowells College shows the unfinished building and tower lacking the distinctive dome

Ralston Purina

Ralston Purina’s history on the site of the former Gratiot Street Prison begins well after the building had been demolished.

An article in “Square Talk,” an in-house publication for Ralston Purina employees, from May 1995, discusses the history of the site. Gene McCoskey, Manager of Contract Services and Security, is quoted in the article as saying, “Whenever the grounds crew does any type of digging on the property near the Administration Building, they always come back and mention all the rubble they find after going into the ground just a short distance…I think they are finding rubble of the old prison.”

Ralston Purina has some history of their time at the site on their website.

Ralston Purina Company Historic Information

Gratiot Street Prison Info Sources

Information sources on Gratiot Street Prison

Primary Source books:Grimes, Absalom, Confederate Mail Runner, edited by M. M. Quaife of the Burton Historical Collection, Yale University Press, 1926

Grimes was an agent with the Confederate secret service under General Price, passing back and forth through the Federal lines with letters from families and their relatives in the CSA army. He was in Gratiot St. Prison twice, the first time escaping in a rather dramatic way. Several people have commented that they think Grimes’ amazing story has more than a bit of “old soldiering” to it, but, other than some errors in dating, the book is the truth as can be verified by numerous contemporary sources.

Available from Advanced Book Exchange

Grimes–photo circa 1863 from book

Bio of Absalom Grimes

Excerpts from book:

Campaigning With Mark Twain

Escapes from Gratiot

(these hyperlinks takes you to other sites–use your back button to return here)

Frost, Griffin, Camp and Prison Journal, Press of the Camp Pope Bookshop, reprint edition 1994 (originally printed 1867)

Captain Griffin Frost, of the Missouri State Guard, kept a journal throughout the war and his two stays at Gratiot. Frost writes an interesting story, describing many of the people at Gratiot very well. Some of his racial comments are a bit hard to take but must be viewed in historical context (and that historical context provides a view of the often unseen–and nasty–side of things). Frost’s stated objective in writing was to show that conditions in Union prisons like Gratiot and Alton were as bad as those in Andersonville. In this he fails completely.

Gratiot Street Prison–1876 illustration
Anderson, Galusha, Story of a Border City During the Civil War, Little Brown, 1908Anderson was a pastor in St. Louis just before and during the war. His church was only half a block away from Lynch’s Slave Market. He offered his services as a minister to the Confederate prisoners at Gratiot, but–not surprisingly–none of their accounts mention him. Good, first-hand history by a very priggish sort of writer. A decidedly Union point-of-view. Probably one of the most purely devoted abolitionists in St. Louis, a city of very tangled loyalties.

Available soon on CD-ROM

Galusha Anderson–1861 photo from book

Bio of Galusha Anderson

Galusha Anderson on the 1865 Oath of Loyalty –excerpt from book

Reminiscences of the Women of Missouri During the Sixties, Morningside House, Inc., reprinted 1988

Several excellent accounts of Gratiot and the other St. Louis prisons. (scarce and difficult to find)

Stevens, Harriet, The Graybeards, Letters of Major Lyman Allen, of the 37th Regiment Iowa Volunteer Infantry, The “Graybeards” Including The Diaries of Viola Baldwin His Step-Daughter, Camp Pope Bookshop, 1998Letters by one of the officers in a unit assigned to guard duty at Gratiot. Some references to Gratiot.

Original prison records:National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 109

M598, rolls 72, 98, 145 — Ledgers from the prison.

M345, rolls 90, 91, 92 — Provost Marshal’s files involving people held at Gratiot Street Prison, files on more that one person. These rolls include daily reports from Gratiot plus some additional ledgers.

M345–All rolls on individual civilians, Provost  Marshal reports. These cover all parts of the USA but a solid 60%, maybe even 80%, of the cases and individuals covered are from the Department of Missouri.

A transcription of Missouri residents (only) listed in the Gratiot Street Prison, Myrtle Street Prison, and Alton Prison ledgers is available in “Missouri Prisoners of War” by Joanne Chiles Eakin. Available from the Civil War Lady’s Book Shoppe.

Northfield, Minnesota Robbery

The Northfield, Minnesota Robbery

December 30, 2004: Coming soon: an update/addition with photos of the bank/museum in Northfield, courtesy of the Northfield Historical Society

From a contemporary woodcut from John Jay Lemon’s “Northfield Tragedy, ” 1876

Northfield, Minnesota – First National Bank of Northfield

September 7, 1876

failed robbery attempt – bank clerk murdered, one townsperson killed

from the Northfield


Sept. 14. 1876

The town motto of Northfield, Minnesota is “Cows, colleges, and contentment.” Despite this placid motto, the Scandinavian settlers of this town brought down the most dangerous and successful outlaw bands operating at that time.

On September 7, 1876 three men entered the town of Northfield about 2pm. They were noticed because of the long linen dusters they wore (which concealed their weapons), the exceptionally fine horses they rode (attention paid to their horses had apparently caused them to cancel a robbery attempt shortly before in Mankato, Minnesota), and, some witnesses said, the rather arrogant confidence with which they moved. Several townspeople, some of them former Civil War soldiers, immediately recognized the look of a “guerrilla raid.” One of them is even said to have shouted, “It’s a St. Alban’s raid” (a bank near the Canadian border robbed by Confederate agents during the war).

Much to the outlaws’ surprise, the people of Northfield not only refused to cooperate with the robbery, they shot back. A lot of them shot back. With deadly accuracy. And they organized huge posses that didn’t give up but kept after them for days and weeks. As many as 2000 men chased them for weeks. This just didn’t happen to them in Missouri. The guns the Northfield townspeople grabbed quickly to use may have been old or in poor working order, but they had an advantage of range over the handguns the robbers used. It’s worth noting, though, that despite accounts written at the time mocking the apparent poor marksmenship of the Missouri robbers, the outlaws were very pointedly trying not to kill anyone. Cole Younger later said, “Chadwell, Woods and Jim rode up and joined us, shouting to people in the street to get inside, and firing their pistols to emphasize their commands. I do not believe they killed any one however… Every time I saw any one with a bead on me I would drop off my horse and try to drive the shooter inside…” The townspeople, on the other hand, were shooting to kill.

Fleeing the town under heavy gunfire, with no money, the James brothers, Frank and Jesse (presumably), and the Younger brothers (Cole, Jim, and Bob), along with Charlie Pitts, left behind two dead gang members, and two dead townspeople. Elias Stacy shot Clell Miller with a shotgun loaded with birdshot. A shot from Dr. Henry M. Wheeler killed him. Anselm R. Manning, armed with a finicky breach-loading rifle killed Chadwell/Stiles. Cole Younger was shot in the thigh; Bob Younger had his right elbow shattered.

Northfield, Minnesota 1869

Dead in Northfield was Nicholas Gustafson, a Swedish immigrant who apparently didn’t understand the shouts in English for him to get off the street. He was killed in the crossfire. Though Cole Younger pleaded guilty as the primary killer in his death, he claimed he wasn’t the one who actually fired the lethal shot. “I have always believed that the man Nicholas Gustafson… was hit by a glancing shot from Manning’s or Wheeler’s rifle. If any of our party shot him it must have been Woods,” said Cole Younger later.

Also dead, in the bank, was Joseph Lee Heywood, the bank clerk who refused to open the safe. He is, to this day, honored as a local hero in Northfield. For a long time it was believed it was Jesse James who killed him. But Cole Younger, on his deathbed, is said  to have told Jesse James’ son and Harry Hoffman (a relative) that it was Frank James who fired the shot that killed Heywood.

Among the dead outlaws was, unfortunately for the gang, the one man who knew his way around the swamps and forests of Minnesota. Most suffering gunshot wounds, lost, hungry, and relentlessly pursued, the gang split up, with the James brothers (with, it is believed, Frank seriously injured) going west where, after 400 miles of pursuit, they got away.

The Youngers were surrounded by a posse in a swamp near Madelia (pron. ma-dee-lee-uh). They did not consider surrendering as they thoroughly believed that they’d be lynched on the spot, so they came out shooting and were all shot again, with Charlie Pitts killed.

To their surprise, they weren’t lynched but, as Cole Younger commented upon with surprise and gratitude many times, were treated as kindly as circumstances allowed.

The Youngers pleaded guilty to the murder charges against them which, under Minnesota law, saved them from hanging. They were sentenced to life in prison and sent to the penitentiary at Stillwater, Minnesota. “The excitement that followed our sentence to state prison, which was popularly called ‘cheating the gallows,’ resulted in the change of the law in that respect,” Cole Younger said. Bob Younger died in prison in 1889 of consumption, but Cole and Jim Younger were paroled and released after twenty-five years. Despite their wild outlaw reputations, they behaved in prison at all times as obedient, model prisoners, never causing trouble or attempting to escape.

The Youngers in 1889, shortly before Bob’s death. Shown with sister Henrietta.

“Come with me to the prison, where for a quarter of a century I have occupied a lonely cell. When the door swings in on you there, the world does not hear your muffled wail. There is little to inspire mirth in prison. For a man who has lived close to the heart of nature, in the forest, in the saddle, to imprison him is like caging a wild bird.”

(Cole Younger in “What My Life Has Taught Me”)

“…imprisonment has brought out the excellencies of many men. I have learned many things in the lonely hours there. I have learned that hope is a divinity; I have learned that a surplus of determination conquers every weakness…” (Cole Younger in “What My Life Has Taught Me”) “A man has plenty of time to think in prison, and I might add that it is an ideal place for a man to study law, religion, Shakespeare, not forgetting the president’s messages. However, I would advise you not try to get into prison just to find an ideal place for these particular studies.”  (Cole Younger in “What My Life Has Taught Me”) “When the iron doors shut behind us at the Stillwater prison I submitted to the prison discipline with the same unquestioning obedience that I had exacted during my military service.” (Cole Younger, regarding the 25 years he spent in prison for the Northfield robbery and murders)

The surviving Younger brothers, Cole and Jim, were paroled to within the borders of Minnesota in 1901, having served 25 years of their life sentences in prison. October 19, 1902 Jim Younger killed himself in St. Paul, Minnesota, apparently despondent over the limitations of his parole that not only prevented him from returning home to Missouri, but prevented him from marrying. Early in 1903 Cole Younger was pardoned on the condition, among others, that he leave Minnesota and never return. That condition he doesn’t seem to have found a hardship.

The dead outlaws in Northfield, picture from the Northfield newspaper, 1876,

Clell Miller & Bill Chadwell

“The Northfield Tragedy,” written in 1876 by John Jay Lemon, a journalist who investigated the robbery and interviewed the Youngers immediately after their capture, gives the following descriptions of the two outlaws killed in Northfield:

Chadwell/Stiles – 6′ 4½” tall, face elongated oval with sharply cut features, high cheekbones, well arched brow, deep-set blue eyes, hair dark reddish auburn inclined to curl, 23-25 years old

Miller – 5′ 8″ tall, hair same as Chadwell’s, stouter, face rounder, blue eyes

He gives the descriptions of those in the bank thus:

The man shut in the vault door – slim, dark complexioned, black moustasche, slight but tall

Second man – sandy side-whiskers, shaved chin, blue eyes

Third man – heavy-set, curly brown hair, week’s growth of beard

Bank employee, A. E. Bunker, identified those in the bank as one of the James, Charlie Pitts, and Bob Younger.

Further Reading:Younger, Thomas Coleman, The Story of Cole Younger by Himself: An Autobiography of the Missouri Guerrilla, Confederate Cavalry Officer, and Western Outlaw, original publication 1903 – The ultimate primary source on the Northfield robbery written by one of the robbers, Cole Younger. He does give a reasonably full account of the robbery from his perspective, and of their capture and imprisonment. Cole is less than totally forthcoming in his information and is trying very hard to provide a sympathetic front–he was trying to get a full pardon at the time he wrote–yet still provides some fascinating personal insights into the Northfield raid. He also gives his war-time history, much of which is lifted pretty much verbatim from Edward’s “Noted Guerrillas,” a book of which he thought highly. Cole Younger’s book is especially interesting to read for what he doesn’t say as what he does, and for the careful dance of semantics he goes through to avoid outright lies.

Koblas, John, The Jesse James Northfield Raid: Confessions of the Ninth Man, North Star Press of St. Cloud, Inc., 1999 – just a dandy book in every regard. This is a purely Minnesota-centric history of the James and Youngers unfortunate visit to Minnesota in 1876. The author begins with the story of a man who claimed that Chadwell and Stiles were two separate people and that he was “the ninth man” at the Northfield robbery. Koblas tracks the James and Youngers progress and movements across Minnesota in minute, exacting detail (yet still very good reading!) and gives credence, or not, to Stiles claim. Lots of photos and good writing.

See alsoCivil War St. Louis Reviews: “When the Heavens Fell: The Youngers in Stillwater Prison” by John Koblas and “The Great Cole Younger & Frank James Historical Wild West Show” by John Koblas

Huntington, George, Robber and Hero: The Story of the Northfield Bank Raid, Northfield Historical Society, originally published 1895 – Probably the best and most accurate account of the robbery attempt in Northfield, Minnesota. This book was written less than twenty years after the event and so had considerable first-hand imput by still-living witnesses and participants.

More book sources

Possibilities and unanswered questions…

Were Frank and Jesse James at Northfield?

Cole Younger says: Every blood-and-thunder history of the Younger brothers declares that Frank and Jesse James were the two members of the band that entered Northfield who escaped arrest or death.

They were not, however. One of those two men was killed afterward in Arizona and the other died from fever some years afterward.

There were reasons why the James and the Younger brothers could not take part in any such project as that at Northfield. (he goes on to describe an incident that illustrated his intense dislike of Jesse James, though he remained friends with Frank James until his death) He says two other men “whose names on the expedition” were Woods and Howard were the two who got away. Jesse and Frank James around this time, and for several years after, used the names Woodson and Howard. Cole Younger was, however, careful never to implicate the James in the Northfield robbery in any substantive way, though such testimony may well have gotten them shorter sentences (they were denied parole several times because they refused to name the two who got away).

The day after their capture, in a hotel where they were treated for their numerous bullet wounds, a reporter interviewed Cole Younger. John Jay Lemon in “The Northfield Tragedy” says:

The writer mentioned to them that the other two, the James Brothers, were captured, one dead and the other dying. This seemed to affect them. Cole asking who was dead, the smaller one or larger of the two, adding the caution, “mind I don’t say they are the James brothers.” When the writer said that they had acknowledged who they were Cole then asked, “Did they say anything of us?” When answered in the negative he replied, “Good boys to the last.”

When Sheriff Glispin asked Cole to name the two who escaped capture, Cole responded by handing him a note saying, “Be true to your friends if the Heavens fall.” He never named the James in the robbery except in the apparent deathbed admission. Jim Younger, in letters written from prison, did apparently name both the James as the other two participants, however.

Another possibility that has occasionally been suggested is that Frank James was at Northfield, but not Jesse.

Cole Younger’s statement, “One of those two men was killed afterward in Arizona and the other died from fever some years afterward,” I believe is trying to suggest that the other two were John Jarrette–who is later placed in Arizona by Edwards in Noted Guerrillas–and Arthur McCoy–who is said to have died of fever or pneumonia in Texas. This is a purely speculative observation but may be the direction Younger was trying to shift credit away from the James. Jarrette and McCoy would fit the descriptions of the other two at Northfield reasonably well.

Was there a ninth man at Northfield?

This is an occasional theory. In 1913 a man named Bill Stiles claimed that Bill Chadwell was not an alias for Stiles; that they were two separate people and that he-Stiles-was the ninth man at Northfield, covering their exit from town. Other suggested as the “ninth man” include Jim Cummins (who really, really wanted to be as notorious as his dime novel legend but never was) and various others of the gang.

At the time of the robbery there was a statement from witnesses that nine strangers had been seen riding toward the town. Other stray bits of information support the idea, but even more information does not. It’s certainly possible that there was a ninth, or even tenth or eleventh, man involved in the Northfield robbery, but solid evidence to support the idea does not seem to exist.

Was the bank targeted because of Ben Butler?

Cole Younger claimed they chose the bank at Northfield because it was owned by the hated Union General Benjamin Butler. If so, it was a last-minute choice. After roaming around half of southern Minnesota, they had apparently planned to rob a bank in Mankato. That plan was aborted when they attracted too much attention from a crowd near the first bank. They thought they’d been discovered, but it was apparently just admiration of their fine horses that caused the attention. The gang was reported to have scouted numerous banks in various towns in Minnesota and, in their roamings, had been as far north as St. Paul. Had Northfield been their original target such roaming would not have been necessary.

Cole Younger said: “Butler…had a lot of money invested, we were told, in the First National Bank at Northfield, as also had J. T. Ames, Butler’s son-in-law, who had been the ‘carpet-bag’ governor of Mississippi after the war.” Cole Younger wrote this in 1903, after having had time to consider it. I haven’t found this claim being made at the time of the robbery. Indeed, an article in the St. Peter Tribune in an interview with Bob Younger given soon after their capture says: We also asked why they had selected Northfield in preference to any of the other banks, and he said they thought there was much more money to be had there. He said that in Mankato there were three banks and the money was too much divided. In St. Peter they thought they wouldn’t have gotten much.

Did Butler actually own, or invest in, the bank at Northfield, Minnesota? It does not appear to be so. Benjamin Butler’s daughter Blanche married Adelbert Ames, son of Jesse Ames. Maj.-Gen. Adelbert Ames had served during the war under General Butler and was later a ‘carpetbagger’ governor of Mississippi (not J. T. Ames as Cole Younger said). His father Jesse Ames, after retiring as a sea captain, was an owner of the flour mill in Northfield. They bought the mill in Northfield in 1864, building a new mill in 1870. He was retired by 1876 with his son John T. Ames then owning the mill. Gen. Benjamin Butler had visited Minnesota a number of times (he lived in Massachusetts), including visits to Northfield, home of his daughter’s in-laws. The officers of the First National Bank of Northfield do include Jesse Ames as Vice-President, and Jesse Ames and J. T. Ames as two of the directors. There does not appear, however, to be any direct link to Benjamin Butler or direct participation by his son-in-law Adelbert Ames. The “J. T. Ames” Cole Younger names above was John Thomas Ames, a brother to Adelbert, not related to Butler.

Adelbert Ames is said by some sources to have been in Northfield at the time of the robbery and was recognized by the robbers. J. T. Ames was one of the organizers of the pursuit of the robbers. It is, however, not impossible that Adelbert Ames was there visiting family at the time (he did not live in Minnesota). John Koblas in “The Jesse James Northfield Raid” cites Adelbert Ames’ presence to the “Northfield News,” a 1929 article, with a second source from a Faribault newspaper in 1876. Koblas say Adelbert Ames was near Wheeler during the shooting.

About three years after the Northfield robbery Ames appears to have leased some interest in his mill to Benjamin Butler. Cole Younger’s attributing the robbery to Benjamin Butler is, at best, stretching the inaccurate thread of connections and is more likely what it is usually taken to be—a convenient excuse rather than a primary motivation. Invoking Butler’s name, as Younger did, would cause an immediate, visceral reaction on the part of most Southerners in sympathy to the robbers, whether justified or not. It was, if nothing else, a shrewd publicity move. Whether to take the Butler story seriously as a motivation for the robbery depends, too, on what the outlaws believed at the time–at present the only claim I’ve found that Butler was their motivation comes from Cole Younger nearly 25 years after the fact.

Officers of the bank at the time of the robbery were:

J. C. Nutting, President

Jesse Ames, Vice-President

G. M. Phillips, Cashier


J. C. Nutting

Jesse Ames

J. T. Ames

M. Wilson

E. T. Archibald

H. Thoreson

C. S. Hulbert

W. M. Norton

G. M. Phillips

(sources: Rice County Journal, Sept. 14, 1876, Northfield Newspaper headline index, various genealogical source records, Minnesota cemetery records and newspaper indexes, 1880 US Census, The Union Army A History of Military Affairs in the Loyal States 1861-65, “Frank and Jesse James” by Ted P. Yeatman, autobiography of Cole Younger, “Robber and Hero” by George Huntington)

Was Northfield Cole Younger’s first and only robbery?

So he claimed. Interestingly, George Sheperd backed Cole in that claim in a quite forthright statement (as opposed to a vague denial). Sheperd, in an interview with J. W. Buel, said, “Speaking of Cole Younger, I have no hesitancy in saying that, outside of the affair at Northfield, I don’t believe he was ever connected with the James Boys, or that he ever participated in any of the robberies.” All things considered it seems extremely improbable, but decide for yourself. The Robberies chart does suggest Cole Younger was probably guilty of far fewer things than is generally thought. George Sheperd and Cole Younger were not on good terms and Sheperd had no reason to defend Younger or his reputation, yet, as a reliable witness, Sheperd has some serious credibility problems.

Bob Younger also said it was his first robbery. If not his first, it may have been very near to it.

In the case of Jim Younger, a number of people then and now think it may have been, in fact, his first and last robbery. When he was greeted by his sister, Retta, in jail, she is reported to have said, “Oh! Jim, this is too bad. If it had not been for Cole and Bob you would never have been here. They enticed you to do this.” – from “The Northfield Tragedy” 1876

The Citizens & Heroes of Northfield…

Joseph Lee Heywood – killed in the bank, refused to open the vault:A man modest, true, gentle; diligent in business; conscientious in duty; a citizen benevolent and honorable; towards God reverent and loyal; who, while defending his trust as a bank officer, fearlessly met death at the hands of armed robbers, in Northfield, Sept. 7, 1876

This tablet is inscribed by his friends as a tribute to heroic fidelity.


(Carlton College memorial plaque–Heywood has served as college treasurer)

Joseph Lee Heywood, was born August 12, 1837 in Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire of a farming family. He joined the Union army August 21, 1862 as a member of the 127th Illinois Regiment, Co. B. Participated in the siege of Vicksburg and the capture of Arkansas Post. He enlisted as a private and was discharged as a corporal. Heywood moved to Northfield, Minnesota in the fall of 1867. He worked for five years as a bookkeeper in a lumberyard. In 1872 he became bookkeeper of the First National Bank of Northfield, in service of which he was murdered.

Heywood was married first to Martha R. (Mattie) Buffum (she died May 3, 1873) and, after her death, to Lizzie Adams. One daughter, Lizzie May (born April 25, 1871), by his first marriage, age five at his death, survived him. Lizzie May later graduated from Carlton College and became a music teacher (she died Dec. 1947, wife of Rev. Edwin Carlton Dean). Banks in the United States and Canada donated $12,000 to the support of Heywood’s family after his death.

At the time of his death, Heywood was both City Treasurer and treasurer of Carlton College.

“Mr. Heywood was, beyond most men, modest and timid. He shrank from the public gaze; and, considering his high gifts and his standing in the community, he was retiring almost to a fault. He set a low estimate upon himself. He would not own to himself, did not even seem to know, that he was lovable and well-beloved. He courted no praise and sought no reward. Honors must come to him unsought if they came at all. He would be easily content to toil on, out of sight and with services unrecognized, but in every transaction he must be conscientious through and through, and do each hour to the full the duties of the hour.” –Funeral Discourse on Joseph Lee Heywood

The President has been inspecting the new time lock which had just been placed upon the door of the vault. The circumstance recalled to his mind the famous St. Albans bank-raid, which had especially interested him through his personal acquaintance with the victimized cashier. Having spoken of the course pursued by the raiders in that case, he said, in mere playfulness, to Mr. Heywood, “Now if robbers should come in here and order you to open this vault, would you do it?” With a quiet smile, and in his own modest way, Mr. Heywood answered, “I think not.”

–Robber and Hero by George Huntington, 1895

quoting James Woodward Strong, Carlton College President

Alonzo E. Bunker – bank teller, ran from bank and was shot by Pitts:“The part taken by Mr. Bunker in the encounter with the robbers in the bank… shows him to be a man of nerve, cool and self-collected in danger, and capable of bold action. Though not subjected to the brutal treatment inflicted upon Mr. Heywood, he was subjected to a similar temptation to secure his own safety by yielding to the demands of the robbers; and he kept such possession of his faculties; mental and physical, as to seize the first opportunity–an opportunity not afforded to Heywood–to break from his captors and escape under fire. The wound he received at that time was a dangerous one, and narrowly missed being fatal…”

–Robber and Hero by George Huntington, 1895

Bunker also tried to get a hold of a derringer kept on a shelf below the teller’s window but was spotted. The small gun was later found on Pitt’s body.

A. E. Bunker was the second son of Enos A. and Martha M. Bunker of Littleton, New Hampshire, where he was born March 29, 1849. He came to Minnesota in 1855. In 1869 he graduated from St. Paul Business College. In 1871 he studied for two years at Carlton College in Northfield. In 1873 he began working for the First National Bank of Northfield. Bunker married Nettie L. Smith in 1875. After the robbery, Bunker remained with the bank for two more years. In 1880 he left Northfield, moved several times, in connection with the Western Newspaper Union. In 1890 he was a manager in Des Moines, Iowa.

Frank J. Wilcox – assistant bookkeeper of the bankFrank J. Wilcox was the son of Baptist minister James F. Wilcox. Frank was born September 8, 1848 in Taunton, Massachusetts. The family moved to Northfield when he was ten years old. He attended Carleton College in Northfield, followed by Chicago University. After returning to Northfield he worked numerous temporary jobs, one of which landed him as assistant bookkeeper in the First National Bank on the day of the robbery. Though his role in the robbery was largely passive, he was praised for his support of his co-workers refusal to cooperate with the robbers even at risk of their lives. After the robbery his job was made permanent and he remained at the bank for at least twenty more years. In 1879 he married Jennie M. Blake and with her was an active member of the Northfield community.

A number of Northfield citizens immediately moved to defend their town but were either unarmed or poorly armed. Elias Hobbs and Justice Streater resorted to throwing rocks at the bank robbers. Elias Stacy shot Clell Miller in the face with bird shot. J. B. Hyde, Ross Phillips, and James Gregg also used shotguns that weren’t powerful enough to do much damage. The two men with rifles, Wheeler and Manning, were credited with routing the bank robbers from their town.

Henry M. Wheeler, killed Clell Miller and wounded Bob Younger. At the time of the raid he was a 22 year old medical student. He was home on summer vacation from college when the bank robbery occurred. From his father’s pharmacy he saw the suspicious strangers. He gave an alarm then was driven from the street by the armed robbers. With an old army carbine and three cartridges, he fired from a window of the Dampier Hotel. Wheeler moved to Grand Forks, North Dakota in 1881 where he worked as a doctor. Anselm R. Manning, killed Bill Chadwell and wounded Cole Younger. Manning was 43 years old at the time of the robbery. He was carpenter and blacksmith from Canada who had lived in Northfield since 1856. His first shot was standing in the open on the street and killed one of the robber’s horses. Then his breech-loading rifle jammed and he had to go back to his store to fix it. Coming back to the fight he fired more carefully, from better cover, wounding Cole Younger. He reloaded and killed Chadwell. Manning died in 1909.

Link: Jesse James and the Northfield Bank Raid

Excepts from the dime novel “The James Boys in Minnesota,” published in 1882…

The cold steel-like glitter which had been indelibly stamped in their eyes, on that summer day in 1861, when Jesse’s back smarted under blows, and he swore to wipe out the indignity with blood, seemed to become colder and harder, as they reflected on what the night might bring forth.

“Jesse, we are in a nest of robbers,” said Frank.

“Yes, and murderers,” replied Jesse. “We must teach them a lesson.”

“I think so.”

“We must wipe the entire bloodthirsty set from the face of existence!”

“It’s a duty we owe society,” said Jesse, with a light laugh. “We are working now wholly for the benefit of society.”

“Yes,” replied Frank, without the least bit of humor in his voice.

“It may be that by ridding the world of such wretches, Frank, that we may kind a balance accounts for some of our own missteps.” [subplot, fictitious, I believe, about their trip to Minnesota]

“The James Boys and the Youngers. The noted Missouri train robbers and highwaymen will make an attack upon the town today.!”

One of the bandits now placed a revolver at Mr. Heywood’s head and fired. The man who had been so faithful to his duty fell to the floor and expired without a groan.

Jesse mounted his horse with the reins in his teeth and a revolver in each hand, old guerrilla fashion, charged again and again up the street, clearing it each time.

Three more men came out of the bank and joined the other bandits in the fight. Through the shifting clouds of battle smoke which hovered above the field of carnage, the eager eyes of Eva Leigh pierced. Now her heart leaped wild with fear as she thought or feared she recognized a familiar form.

The bandits are mounted, their tall commanding chieftain, the Bandit King orders the retreat.  [subplot of the dime novel was a romance between this girl and Cole Younger]

Bob Younger was almost disabled from the start, and when the besiegers closed in upon the little camp, they found Cole Younger down with seven wounds, Jim Younger with his jaw shattered, Bob with his right arm hanging useless and with two fresh wounds, and Clell Miller with his hands still clutched, and a hard look upon his dead face. [Charlie Pitts, actually]

They were now prisoners, but captives among a Christian people. Their wounds were dressed, they were moved as gently as the situation allowed, and at Madelia, where they rested for a time, were treated with kindness.

Frank and Jesse James were the only outlaws of the eight who had gone on the disastrous expedition to Northfield, Minnesota, who escaped.

They were pursued vigilantly to the very border lines and far beyond; but no man can yet boast that he has ever captured one of the wonderful James Boys. A price was set upon their heads, and they seemed never to forget it, as their atrocious acts since bear witness.

Another Dime Novel “Jesse James, The Outlaw” on-line from Stanford University

More information on the Northfield robbery will be forthcoming.

Ste Genevieve Robbery

The Ste. Genevieve, Missouri Robbery

Ste. Genevieve, Missouri – Ste. Genevieve Savings Association

May 27, 1873

about $4000 taken

“Ste. Genevieve is an old French town situated upon one of the gently sloping bluffs of the Mississippi River. Built under the French regime it still retains the distinguishing characteristics of that race. Its people and institutions are generally Catholic, and there is a strange rest and dreamy quiet pervading even the atmosphere, and widely at variance with the rush and bustle of the unadulterated American. Quaint, gabled houses, surrounded with spacious gardens, where roses and honey-suckles perfume the mild May air, one can almost fancy one’s self in some outlying province of sunny France.

Genial, hospitable people meet with a lingering cordiality, at least of words, unknown to the more dashing American citizen. Neighbor languidly chats with neighbor from adjoining gardens, and chatter in their Creole French as volubly as the saucy sparrows which are adjusting their quarrels and love affairs just without the window, upon its narrow ledge.

On this this particular May morning [May 27, 1873], however, these dreamy people are doomed to be rudely awakened by a terrifying incident…

The Life, Times & Treacherous Death of Jesse James

by Frank Triplett, 1882

From a St. Louis newspaper account of the robbery:

St. Louis Weekly Globe May 30, 1873:

Sublime Audacity

One of the boldest Bank Robberies on Record

Thieves enter a bank in the day time

Flight of the robbers and their pursuit by citizens armed with shot-guns

If there is any operation in which the audaciousness of pure deviltry ever be displayed, it is in the exercise of robbing a bank in broad daylight. …

Situated upon the corner of Merchant street and Main stands a two-story brick house, formerly occupied as  dwelling but now used as a banking-house by the Ste. Genevieve Saving Association; General F. A. Rosier is President and O. D. Harris, Esq..,, Cashier

Rozier bank in Ste. Genevieve

This may not be the bank that was robbed May 27, 1873, but instead may have been one later purchased by F. A. Rozier, previous owner of the Ste. Genevieve Savings Association. The above building was built in 1820. From the location description it appears to be on the same street, but a block away, from the bank that was robbed.

…When halfway in the room the Cashier happened to turn his head and was startled at sight of two pistols pointed at his temples, and was most thoroughly aroused to the delicacy of the situation, as he felt the cold muzzles  quickly pressed to them. The force used by the robbers was so great that for houses afterwards one of his temples showed the mark of the pistol barrel. Before he could remonstrate he was saluted with a stirring command, “open the safe or I’ll blow your d—d brains out.’’ Mr. Harris hesitated about opening the safe, which being observed, cause the robbers to level their pistols at Rozier, threatening to shoot him if he should run.

But Rozier broke away and was confronted by the two other men on horseback, who were concealed from observation.

…The robbers speedily released Mr. Harris, mounted their horses, and the four commenced firing in all directions in intimidate pursuers. Above the report of shots was heard a wild “Hurrah! For Sam Hildebrand, catch the horse-thieves if you can,” and the rapid hoofbeats of the retreating horses showed that the “job” was finished..

…Two of the robbers slept the night before at a farm house two miles out. They knew that General Rozier, the President, whose room was on the same floor with the bank room, was absent…

The robbery, one of the boldest on record,, did not pan out very handsomely, as the booty amounted to only $3600.

From the Ste. Genevieve Fair Play, May 29, 1873:

Daring Robbery!

A Four Thousand Dollar Haul!

Four Men Walk into the Merchants Bank of Ste. Genevieve in Open Daylight and Rob the Safe of it Contents and Escape!!

Tuesday morning at 10 o’clock… Four men rode into town on horseback and hitched their horses in the vicinity of Mr. Anderson’s store, they walked leisurely up to the bank; two of them stopped outside and two of them started into the bark…

…each one drew a pistol and presented it to Mr. Harris’ head and said, “Open the safe, damn you, or I will blow your brains out.”

From a St. Louis newspaper following the Adair County, Iowa train robbery:

Information was received yesterday at the police headquarters which taken with facts before known, leave not the shadow of doubt but that several members of the party who robbed the train on the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad near Adair, Iowa, on Monday night, were the gang who robbed the Ste. Genevieve Bank last May and have been connected with other villainies of a similar character, perpetrated during the past three or four years.

[Arthur McCoy] was the one who held the pistol to the head of the Cashier of the bank… More on Arthur McCoy

“Branded as Rebels” by Joanne Chiles Eakins says Arthur McCoy led this robbery with a couple of the Youngers with him.

From my research into McCoy’s background and movements it became clear McCoy knew Ste. Genevieve intimately, having numerous relatives there, many of whom owned the bank or were major contributors until, at least, shortly before this robbery. McCoy had also lived in Ste. Genevieve for several years after the war.

Russellville, Kentucky Robbery

The Russellville, Kentucky Robbery

Illustration from “The Border Outlaws,” 1882, by J. W. Buel

Russellville, Kentucky – Nimrod & Co. Bank

March 20, 1868

about $12,000 taken

Named as participants by various sources:

  1. George Sheperd
  2. Oll Sheperd
  3. John Jarrette
  4. Arthur C. McCoy
  5. Cole Younger
  6. Jim White
  7. Dick Little
  8. ___ Saunders
  9. Frank James
  10. Jesse James

Of these, between five and eight were actually there.

George Sheperd initiated this robbery, bringing in his cousin Oll. George invited his wife’s first-cousin, and his war-time comrade, John Jarrette. Alternately, it may have been a joint venture between the three from the start with the original idea coming from any of the three. Jarrette, in an account published after the Northfield robbery, is blamed for having led Cole Younger into crime by bringing him into this robbery. A family member confirms it (see Settle, pg 97). Jarrette is also the connection that brought in Arthur McCoy–both had been captains under Shelby and knew each other well.

Were Jesse and Frank James involved? It is possible but, as with many of the robberies attributed to them, their involvement seems to have come up as an afterthought–after the “legend” is established their names are attached in retrospect to robberies that they weren’t connected with initially. This is the case in Russellville. Detective Bligh, from whom most of the identifications of the robbers comes, later decided Frank and Jesse James were involved. If Frank and Jesse James did take part it was through the Sheperds that they would have been brought in. During the war, when Frank James followed Quantrill into Kentucky, Jesse James stayed in Missouri with the Sheperds.

Looking at the realities of the people involved, certain factors regarding the famous Jesse James are impossible to ignore. Even if involved, he was not the leader, not in this nor several following robberies. In 1868 Jesse James was 20 years old and had seen war-time service only toward the end of the war. The Sheperds were 27 and 26 years old. John Jarrette was 32 and had extensive war experience; had been a leader of men. Arthur McCoy was 38. He’d been a leader during the war and even before. He’d led raids and commanded men. There is no way these men would be taking orders from a relatively inexperienced boy like Jesse James.

If Jesse and Frank James were involved, it does, however, provide the connecting link between them and McCoy that gives credence to their later associations.

Description of the robbers who were in the bank from a contemporary newspaper account:

26 years old, black hair and whiskers, florid complexion, 5’8″ tall, weighs about 140 pounds… [This is probably John Jarrette]

5’7″ in height, short curly, sand hair, round bull-dog head, prominent eyes, red face, weights about 160 pounds. [Oll Sheperd? A bit short to be taken for Younger, or either of the James. Maybe Jesse James?]

5’6″ high, thin visage, 32 or 33 years old, shabbily dressed in light clothes, defect in one eye, light hair and whiskers, weighs about 150 pounds… [This is George Sheperd. He had one eye. Also, witnesses later identified him, leading to his conviction for the robbery.]

6′ high, weighs 140 pounds, 33 or 34 years old, light hair, inclined to curl, thin whiskers… [This is may be Arthur McCoy. McCoy’s description would match that of Frank James reasonably well, except at this time Frank James was no more than 25 years old and McCoy was 37 or 38.] More on Arthur McCoy.

This leaves Oll Sheperd and, possibly, Cole Younger covering the outside. If the James brothers are worked into the scenario, they may have been covering their escape from town further out from the bank–unseen by any witnesses.

“At the time of the Russellville bank robbery I was gathering cattle in Ellis county, Texas: cattle that I bought from Pleas Taylor and Rector. This can be proved by both of them; also by Sheriff Barkley and fifty other respectable men of that county. I brought the cattle to Kansas that fall and remained in St. Clair county until February.”–Cole Younger, November 15, 1874

From the Nashville Banner, March 22, 1868

About ten days ago, a man calling himself Colburn, and claiming to be a cattle dealer, offered to sell to Mr. Long a 7-30 note of the denomination of $500. As none of the coupons had been cut off, and the stranger, who pretended to be from Louisville, where the notes were worth a premium, offered it at par and allowed interest, Mr. Long became suspicious and refused to take it. On the 18th he returned again and asked Mr. Long to change him a $100 bill. He was accompanied by a man of forbidding aspect, and suspecting the note to be counterfeit, Mr. Long declined changing it. On the 20th, about 2 P. M., as Mr. Long, Mr. Barclay, clerk in the bank, and Mr. T. H. Simmons, a farmer living near Russellville, were sitting behind the counter, Colburn and another man rode up to the door, hitched their horses and entered the bank, three companions remaining outside. They asked for change for a $50 note. Mr. Long pronounced it counterfeit, but was about making a more careful examination, when Colburn drew a revolver, placed its muzzle against his head, and cried out, ‘Surrender!’ Mr. Long wheeled around and sprang toward the door leading into a room in the rear of the banking office. He hoped thus to make his exit from the building and give the alarm. He was, however, anticipated by one of the robbers, who intercepted him at the door already mentioned, placed a pistol within six or eight inches of his head and fired, without having uttered a word. The ball did no greater injury than grazing Mr. Long’s scalp for about two inches, tearing away the hair and flesh, but not fracturing the skull. Mr. L. seized hold of the weapon, and made an effort to wrench it from his assailant, but the robber succeeded in regaining possession of his pistol. He immediately commenced to beat Mr. Long over the head with the butt, and, after a few furiously dealt blows, felled him to the floor. The latter, however, sprang to his feet and again got hold of the pistol, just as the robber was about to cock it for the purpose of giving him the finishing touch. During the scuffle which now took place, Mr. Long managed to reach the back door of the rear room. Here he concentrated his almost exhausted strength into a final effort, freed himself from the clutches of the robber, sprang through the door and closed it after him. He then ran around toward the front part of the building, shouting for assistance. When he reached the street, he found two men sitting on their horses before the entrance to the bank. They were all armed with Spencer’s rifles and pistols, and were shooting up and down the street at all citizens who came within range. As Mr. Long ran by, they also fired twelve or fifteen shots at him, but, fortunately, without effect.

Inside the bank, while Mr. Long was struggling with the fellow above mentioned, and before Messrs. Barclay and Simmons could rise from their seats, the latter were confronted by Colburn and his companion with cocked revolvers and threats of instant death in case the least show of resistance was made. Neither of the gentlemen was armed and they had to accept the situation with the best grace they could command. As soon as Mr. Long made his retreat by the lack door, his antagonist returned to the banking office and assisted in the work of plunder. One of the robbers stood guard over Messrs. Barclay and Simmons, while Colburn and the other proceeded to clean out the establishment. They appeared to have an exact knowledge of its resources. As was afterward ascertained, Colburn had made some cautious inquiries as to its capital, deposits, etc., and we have already shown that his previous visits had enabled him to make a thorough inspection of the interior. In the cash drawer they found over nine thousand dollars in currency. From the vault, the door of which was standing open, they took several bags of gold and silver. This specie consisted principally of dollars, half-dollars and quarters, and had been placed in the bank on special deposit by several of the neighboring farmers. The amount has never been ascertained, but it will’ not, we understand, exceed five thousand dollars. Several private boxes which were on a shelf in the vault and contained bonds were broken open, but none of the bonds were carried off-doubtless because of a fear that they had been registered and would lead to the detection of the robbers. Two robbers kept guard outside while the work of pillaging was going on, and, though the alarm had spread, kept the citizens at bay until a Mr. Owens had the courage to begin firing upon them with a pistol. He was seriously but not dangerously wounded. Finally the sentinels became alarmed and called for their accomplices inside to come out. They quickly complied, bringing with them saddle-bags crammed with gold and greenbacks.

” They were greeted with a heavy volley by a squad of citizens who were advancing up the street. All were soon in their saddles, and, at a signal from Colburn, the party dashed at full speed out of town by the Gallatin pike. Many a leaden missile was sent after them, but beyond the report that one had his arm broken, there is no ground for supposing that any of the shots took effect. Ten minutes later, some forty citizens, mounted on such animals as they could collect from buggies, wagons and hitchingposts, started in hot pursuit. All the advantage, except in point of numbers, was with the robbers. They rode splendid horses, and were as completely armed and equipped as the most daring and accomplished highwayman could desire. Five miles from Russellville the trail was lost in the woods, nor was anything heard of Colburn and his men until the 21st, when a dispatch was received here stating that they had crossed the Louisville and Nashville Railroad early in the morning, near Mitchellsville.

“The bank at Russellville, Ky., was raided March 20, 1868, and among the raiders was a man who gave his name as Colburn, who the detectives have endeavored to make it appear was Cole Younger…”

-Cole Younger “The Story of Cole Younger,” 1903

Memorial Day

memorialday1Memorial Day began as a remembrance
of the Civil War dead often called
“Decoration Day”. It may have come
from women in the Mississippi River
area decorating the graves of
Confederate dead.

May 5, 1868: Gen. John Logan of the
Grand Army of the Republic proclaimed
May 30 as Memorial Day.

May 30, 1868: Flowers were placed
on the graves of both Union and
Confederate soldiers at Arlington Cemetery.

Guide to Missouri Confederate Units 1861-1865 – REVIEW

April 28, 2008

Civil War St. Louis Reviews…

Guide to Missouri Confederate Units, 1861-1865 By James E. McGhee

Guide to Missouri Confederate Units, 1861-1865

Guide to Missouri Confederate Units, 1861-1865
by James E. McGhee

Now available from

Guide to Missouri Confederate Units, 1861-1865

By James E. McGhee


Hardcover: 314 pages, 22 photos
Publisher: University of Arkansas Press (April, 2008)
Price: $34.95
ISBN: 1557288704
Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6 x 1.3 inches

Reviewed by G. E. Rule

It sucks mightily to lose a civil war, and in a host of ways. The obvious result, of course, is that the cause you were willing to spend your blood and treasure on is lost. Less obvious, but even longer lasting, are some of the ancillary consequences. For instance, you might have a little thing called “Reconstruction” if you lived in a state that the victors were kind enough to concede was officially (by their definition) “in rebellion”. What happened to you in a state that was not “official” in the victor’s eyes (see: A Minirant on the Number of Confederate States) was arguably even nastier (see: Oath of Loyalty). And aside from official consequences, one could read in local newspapers for years after of the sad and unofficial results of night riders thundering down a farm lane after dark to call out an ex-rebel to his final moments on a country porch in front of his wife and family.

Then, of course, is one of the hoariest truisms in all of historiography –“the victors write the history”. This means that learned gentlemen shall come behind your bleeding corpse and explain to generations yet unborn why your defeat was inevitable, justified, and really quite to the benefit of all, often with an air of dispassionate smugness that explicitly or implicitly gives the impression that they’d have done much better than the actual actors had history chosen them to land its sledgehammer of unhappiness upon.

But here’s another terribly important thing to consider about why the victors typically get to write the history on a civil war –in general, the victors have much, much better record keeping.

Certainly this was true about the losing side of the American Civil War as it played out in Missouri from the years 1861-1865. Driven from the state in the early days of the war, such bureaucracy as the Confederate government-in-exile that the Missourians had was harried, underfunded, and barely functional. Such recruiting as the Confederacy was able to do in Missouri was typically done under the noses of the Union forces who kinda-sorta controlled the state, more-or-less, for most of the war. Confederate recruiting efforts were ongoing for most of that period, though typically in identifiable waves. Add to this amazingly higgledy-piggledy situation the fact that often there were as many as four levels of pro-Confederate recruiting going on –that for official Confederate forces; those for the pro-Confederate Missouri State Guard; those for unofficial local pro-Confederate militias (these typically in the early days of the war – see Ab Grimes’ hilarious account of his and Mark Twain’s early experiences for an example); and those for the infamous pro-Confederate guerrilla groups such as those led by Bill Quantrill and William Anderson. Any way you look at it, trying to recreate even the basic records that good history writing requires in such a situation is obviously quite a challenge.

As we get in range of the sesquicentennial of the beginning of the American Civil War, a new book by James E. McGhee and the University of Arkansas Press addresses at least part of the problem –official Confederate units from Missouri.

First, a word about the University of Arkansas Press “Civil War in the West” series of which the current title is part. The word is a simple “Bravo”. As anyone reading these words can reliably be assumed to be a devotee of the Civil War in Missouri, we can not provide a stronger recommendation than the one we do for the University of Arkansas’ series.

As for the author, Jim McGhee, we must first admit a partiality. Jim is a friend of the site (see: First Missouri Confederate Brigade by James E. McGhee). But then Jim is a friend of anyone who toils seriously to shed illumination on the less well-lit corners of the civil war in Missouri (see: The Fight at Jackson Fairgrounds) and has been for more years than he might like to be reminded of (see: U.S. Grant and the Belmont Campaign by James E. McGhee).

At any rate, we cannot imagine anyone better qualified to have written Guide to Missouri Confederate Units, 1861-1865, and the book he has produced does not disappoint. Separated into three sections, one each for Artillery (20 batteries), Cavalry (26 regiments, 7 battalions, and 3 squadrons), and Infantry (12 regiments and 1 battalion), he has produced the definitive guide to official Confederate units from Missouri. Each unit receives a biographical sketch of its composition and career from its inception by one of the leading authorities of the war in Missouri. Just as lovely, if you are even half the geek that we are, is the bibliography of sources given for each unit’s history.

It’s not often that we feel a need to quote someone else’s opinion of a book we’re reviewing. But sometimes, someone else says it at least as well as you can say it yourself. In this case, we tip the cap to series editors Daniel Sutherland and T. Michael Parrish for the best thumbnail description of what McGhee has accomplished with this title: “. . . his expertise is evident on every page of this book. The scope of the work is startling, the depth of detail gratifying, its reliability undeniable, and the unit narratives highly readable”. You can’t ask for more than that from any history book, and while the cause of the Missouri Confederates is still lost, at least it has become a wee bit more possible for their history to be written accurately because of the efforts of James E. McGhee and the University of Arkansas press.

The Neophyte General – US Grant and the Belmont Campaign

The Neophyte General:

U. S. Grant and the Belmont Campaign

by James E. McGhee

Copyright 1973 James E. McGhee. Used with Permission.

This is copyrighted material–the article, the pictures, and the introduction–and may not be copied or reproduced in any form, including on other websites, without permission of the authors.

James E. McGhee is a retired lawyer with an avid interest in the Missouri State Guard and Missouri Confederate units. His latest book is Missouri Confederates: A Guide to Sources for Confederate Soldiers and Units, 1861-1865 (Independence, Mo.: Two Trails Publishing, 2001). McGhee’s titles are available from Camp Pope Bookshop. The article below first appeared in the Missouri Historical Review, Volume 67, Issue 4, July 1973.

In the spring of 1885 Ulysses S. Grant raced against death to complete his memoirs. While suffering from an agonizing throat cancer that greatly impaired his ability to speak, he spent long hours compiling reference notes and quietly assessing his life and accomplishments. The determined general won this last battle, for he completed the reminiscences one week before his death.[1]

A model of military writing, Grant’s Personal Memoirs provided narratives of his experiences in two wars, including a chapter that related the details of his initial Civil War command in the engagement at Belmont, Missouri. Surprisingly, Grant concluded the chapter by attempting to justify his reasons for fighting the battle.[2] After the passage of almost a quarter of a century, it was ironic that the conqueror of Vicksburg and Robert E. Lee still deemed it necessary to offer an explanation of that first and rather minor campaign.

Comments of the press immediately after Belmont, coupled with the political embarrassment caused by the engagement later on, may have motivated Grant to pen a justification of the battle in his memoirs. Initial newspaper reactions, while mixed, tended to be unfavorable. One distant New York editor wrote that the Belmont expedition had been no less than disastrous, while opinion in western papers varied from doubts of the battle’s value to an open pronouncement of defeat.[3] In addition, complaints sprang up from the ranks; one northern officer observed that if Belmont had been a great victory as so many claimed he hoped God would spare them defeat![4] Later, moreover, Grant’s political opponents raised the subject of Belmont during the presidential campaign of 1868.[5] No doubt such criticism lingered with Grant for a long time.

Research suggests that the controversy that surrounded Grant’s actions in the Belmont campaign may well have been justified, and quite probably the battle should never have been fought. Certainly Grant’s stated reasons for entering the engagement were open to argument. Tactically the battle plan Grant followed was extremely risky, and if his opponents had not blundered so badly his entire command could have been captured or destroyed. Finally, far from accomplishing any worthwhile objectives, the campaign lacked strategic effect.

Grant’s first step toward the bloody field of Belmont occurred on September 1, 1861, when he assumed command of the District of Southeast Missouri at Cape Girardeau. His area of responsibility encompassed most of Southeast Missouri and Southern Illinois. Both regions appeared to be threatened by the new Confederacy and were therefore scenes of a substantial military build-up by the federal government. Grant seemed pleased with the assignment, writing later that his district ranked third in importance in the country.[6]

Shortly after taking command Grant moved his headquarters to Cairo, Illinois. In the view of Major General John C. Frémont, commander of the Department of the West and Grant’s immediate superior, Cairo was the key to Union control of the Upper Mississippi Valley. Strategically situated at the junction of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, Frémont considered Cairo a logical control point for area defense and offensive operations as well.[7] Grant assessed the military situation in his district less than a week after he established his new command post. He described an increasing concentration of rebel forces in Kentucky and Missouri and forecasted an enemy attack in the near future.[8]

Grant’s prediction of an early enemy offensive proved groundless, but the Confederate threat along his front was very real indeed. On September 3 regiments belonging to the command of Major General Leonidas Polk entered neutral Kentucky and occupied the important military point of Columbus on the Mississippi River.[9] Polk quickly fortified Columbus by emplacing a large number of guns that commanded the river traffic. He also established an observation post directly opposite Columbus on the Missouri side of the river. The small encampment was situated in a marshy area near a boat landing at the obscure hamlet of Belmont.[10]

Another concern plagued Grant in addition to Polk’s activities, for lurking somewhere in the vast swamps of Southeast Missouri was a bothersome and elusive brigadier of the secessionist Missouri State Guard, M. Jeff Thompson. In recognition of his exploits in the backwaters the effervescent Thompson had earned the sobriquet “Swamp Fox of the Confederacy,” and his Missourians excelled in partisan tactics. While probably more noisy than dangerous, Thompson’s troops had nevertheless been a source of worry to the Federals since midsummer and had successfully evaded all attempts to draw them into battle.[11]

With Polk and Thompson threatening from the south, Grant devoted his efforts to organizing and training his recently enlisted volunteers. In addition to the base at Cairo, the District of Southeast Missouri included garrisons at Paducah, Kentucky, Bird’s Point, Cape Girardeau and Pilot Knob, Missouri, with a combined troop strength that approached seventeen thousand soldiers of all arms.[12] During the early fall months Grant insured that his men were drilled and disciplined in preparation for the fighting that he knew must come.

While the necessity of teaching infantry assault formations to raw Federal troops was time consuming, it did not mean that Grant ignored the enemy along the Mississippi. Much to the contrary, he desired to commence offensive operations, wanting very much to strike the Confederate redoubt at Columbus. In fact, he petitioned department headquarters for permission to move against Polk on no less than three occasions during September.[13] Later he reported that only the lack of essential equipment prohibited him from driving Polk out of his defensive position.[14] Nothing came of this talk, however, and relative quiet prevailed along his front. But in late October a distant campaign in Southwest Missouri changed the situation almost overnight.

On September 27 General Frémont had moved a large army toward Springfield in an attempt to defeat a force of rebels congregated under Major General Sterling Price. Frémont was under extreme pressure to destroy Price, because the latter had greatly embarrassed the Lincoln administration with dramatic victories at Wilson’s Creek and Lexington.[15] Late October found the Federals at Springfield expecting to meet the secessionists in battle. Frémont may have become concerned over possible reinforcements for Price from Polk’s army at this point, for on November 1, Grant received orders to hold his command ready to make demonstrations in the direction of Columbus.[16]

Grant’s instructions called for movements along both sides of the Mississippi River. Points to be threatened were designated as Charleston and Norfolk, Missouri, and Blandville, Kentucky. He was directed to keep his columns moving back and forth against those places without, however, attacking the enemy.[17] Grant started preparations for the expedition, but before he could put his troops in motion orders arrived that substantially expanded his assigned mission.

New orders appeared the next day over the signature of Frémont’s adjutant, Captain Chauncey McKeever. The captain informed Grant that the troublesome Jeff Thompson, along with three thousand rebels, had been located at Indian Ford some twenty miles west of Bloomfield. A Federal detachment had started in pursuit of Thompson from Pilot Knob, and Grant was advised to supplement that force with additional troops from Cape Girardeau and Bird’s Point. These columns would then cooperate in driving Thompson out of Missouri into Arkansas.[18] Grant immediately set about implementing this latest plan.

To Colonel Richard Oglesby, commander at Bird’s Point, went instructions to move units up the Mississippi by transports to Commerce. He would then march to Sikeston and from that point pursue Thompson in any direction necessary. Expanding the original orders somewhat, Grant told Oglesby the purpose of the expedition was to destroy Thompson’s force. Pursuant to orders, Oglesby proceeded to Commerce on November 3 with approximately three thousand men. A similar column departed Cape Girardeau three days later in a march toward Bloomfield. The expedition against the Missourians drew heavily from Grant’s command, but he soon faced even greater demands on his troop resources as once again the situation rapidly changed.[19]

On Tuesday, November 5, Grant received an urgent telegram from headquarters indicating that Polk was reinforcing Price’s army from Columbus. In order to counter that move the message directed Grant to initiate the previously ordered demonstrations. The telegram intimated that like instructions had been dispatched to General C. F. Smith, the Federal commander at Paducah, outlining a similar operation on the Kentucky side of the river.[20] Heavily involved in the attempt to chastise Thompson, Grant now had the added responsibility of preventing reinforcements from leaving Columbus and moving to Price’s assistance. Failure in this threatened serious trouble for Frémont’s campaign in the Missouri Ozark country.

Unfortunately, Federal headquarters relied on erroneous reports. Jeff Thompson, supposedly in strength at Indian Ford, actually occupied Bloomfield, where he quickly learned of the columns advancing to entrap his militiamen. Moreover, Polk had no intention of reinforcing Price or anyone else for that matter. In October Polk had refused Thompson’s request for troops in nearby Southeast Missouri and had been sustained in his decision by his superiors. Furthermore, Price did not solicit help until November 7, the day of the fight at Belmont, when he wired the Confederate commander in the West, General Albert S. Johnson, and suggested cooperation in a march on St. Louis.[21] Federal intelligence in this instance, as so often happened to both sides during the Civil War, seemingly depended on sources of dubious reliability.

Grant, of course, had to act on information supplied by his headquarters regardless of its veracity. He therefore boarded three thousand troops on transports and prepared to move down the Mississippi. In a communication to General Smith he outlined the combined operation in progress against Thompson and described the expedition he was undertaking to “menace” Belmont. Grant suggested that if Smith could make a demonstration toward Columbus, Polk would probably be unable to reinforce the Belmont garrison. And unless the rebels there received support, Grant believed he could drive them out of Missouri.[22]

As a result of the changed circumstances, Grant also sent new orders to Colonel Oglesby that instructed him to march his command in the direction of New Madrid. When Oglesby reached a point on his line of march from which a road led to Columbus, he was to halt and communicate with Grant at Belmont.[23] Entrusting delivery of the somewhat confusing message to a small unit led by Colonel W. H. L. Wallace, and directing him to join Oglesby when the two were near enough, Grant started his army south.[24]

On the night of November 6 the Federal flotilla of four transports and two gunboats anchored nine miles below Cairo. At 2:00 a.m. a courier arrived from Wallace. A “reliable Union man” reported Confederates crossing from Columbus to Belmont with the intention of cutting off the column under Oglesby. Such a movement seemed likely to Grant, and he immediately decided to turn the demonstrations desired by headquarters into an attack on the rebel camp at Belmont. Orders were issued to proceed that morning at first light.[25]

Grant’s convoy suffered a slight delay in getting underway, but by 8:30 a.m. Federal troops disembarked at Hunter’s Farm, a landing area two miles northwest of Belmont that lay out of effective range of the heavy guns at Columbus. While officers attempted to assemble troops in regimental organizations, Grant marched five companies south of the farm on the road to Belmont and deployed them in a ravine. This detachment of two hundred fifty men constituted the transport guard and was the only reserve available if the Federals happened to be repulsed.[26] Grant then returned to the landing area where he prepared his command for combat. The Union brigades moved forward in column for about a mile and took positions on the edge of a cornfield. Soon a skirmish line proceeded across a dry slough that paralleled the battle line to ascertain the enemy positions. Immediate contact with the rebels resulted.[27]

Grant’s men encountered Confederate cavalry elements sent forward to reconnoiter the Federal advance. Polk had been advised of the approach of the convoy at 7:30 a.m. He could scarcely believe the movement against Belmont could be anything other than a feint and thought the main thrust would be directed against the fort at Columbus. Nevertheless, he reluctantly dispatched General Gideon Pillow across the river with four infantry regiments, and an additional regiment followed shortly thereafter.[28]

Colonel James Tappan, commander of the Belmont post, met Pillow on the riverbank. Prior to Pillow’s arrival he had placed the garrison of seven hundred men and available pieces of artillery in position to guard the approaches to the small encampment.[29] Pillow, after a hasty inspection of Tappan’s troop dispositions, redeployed the battery and most of the infantry. At this point Pillow seemed to have the situation well in hand, for his force equaled Grant’s in numbers, and he had the added advantage of selecting a defensive position.[30] Once Pillow completed his line of defense he ordered the cavalry to advance and locate the enemy. The horsemen moved to the front and quickly engaged the Federal skirmishers.

Grant’s small army consisted of two brigades commanded by General John McClernand and Colonel Henry Dougherty, respectively. McClernand led the First Brigade, consisting of the Twenty-seventy, Thirtieth, and Thirty-first Illinois infantry regiments, two companies of cavalry, and Battery B, First Illinois Artillery. Dougherty’s brigade, much inferior to McClernand’s in numbers and firepower, included two regiments of infantry, the Seventh Iowa and Twenty-second Illinois.[31] Grant formed his troops with Dougherty’s brigade holding the left flank and McClernand’s responsible for the right. Battery B unlimbered behind the infantry in the cornfield.[32] Once the formation of his battle line was completed, Grant turned his attention to the engagement along the slough.

A substantial firefight had developed in front of the Union position. Neither side demonstrated any reluctance to engage the enemy even though this was the first time under fire for Federal and Confederate alike.[33] As the exchange of small-arms fire increased in intensity, a heavy but largely ineffective cannonade from the Columbus batteries rained down on the Federal right flank. McClernand, anxious to meet the enemy at close quarter, ordered his brigade forward. The rebel cavalry, unable to withstand the pressure, retreated through the dense woods with the Union forces in cautious pursuit.[34]

Pillow’s chosen defensive line blocked only the main road leading from Hunter’s Farm to Belmont. Two infantry regiments were deployed in a wooded area on the right that provided adequate cover. Inexplicably, the remaining three regiments of infantry and the battery were situated in front of a slight rise in an open field. Pillow’s dispositions could hardly have been worse. In fact one regimental commander complained to General Polk after the battle that a less favorable location for defense was unimaginable.[35]

Grant’s troops had probed through the woods, and when the rebel line came into view the Federals immediately attacked. The Confederates, as a consequence of being placed in an exposed position, found themselves confronted by an enemy protected by heavy timber some eighty yards distant. A thirty minute engagement took place at this point, the viciousness of which threw the Union forces into temporary disorder, while Grant had his horse shot from beneath him.[36]

The Federals soon gained the initiative after repelling two offensive thrusts by the Confederates. Pillow, hard pressed by an enemy that threatened to outflank his position, made a costly decision, ordering a charge across the open terrain against the Union infantry concealed in the distant trees.[37] The rebels gallantly rushed forward but failed to reach the Federal line. Exposed to a withering fire, they retired and attempted to regroup. Shortly thereafter an effort to turn the Federal left also failed. Grant’s army began passing around both Confederate flanks, causing Pillow to order a retreat to the river encampment.[38]

The post of Belmont encompassed seven hundred acres of low, marshy ground surrounded by a flimsy abatis. Pillow’s men hurriedly retired to these crude fortifications and took up new defensive positions.[39] Meanwhile the Federals approached the camp in a formation resembling a widespread arc. Grant’s brigade commanders then closed the long lines so as to threaten three sides of the outpost. After a temporary halt to realign regiments, the Union infantry rushed forward. The ensuing struggle was short but fierce with casualties heavy on both sides. Battery B fired numerous barrages in the rebel ranks, causing Pillow’s soldiers to seek shelter along the embankment bordering the river. Nearly surrounded and badly demoralized, many of the Confederates retreated up the riverbank in a desperate effort to escape capture.[40]

Grant’s troops swept into the nearly deserted camp. A rebel battery, which had been abandoned, was quickly secured and a number of prisoners taken. Federal soldiers shortly turned to gleefully rummaging through tents for souvenirs, while General McClernand, lately an Illinois congressman, led the troops in three cheers for the Union.[41] A regimental band struck up the national anthem and then gave its rendition of “Dixie.” In short, Grant’s victorious army turned into little more than an undisciplined mob. Furthermore, the troops ignored all pleas to stop looting until Grant finally ordered his officers to burn the camp’s tents in the hope of directing attention to Confederate reinforcements crossing from Columbus.[42]

Polk hesitated in sending assistance to Pillow early in the battle. He was preoccupied with the threat posed against Columbus by the troops from Paducah under Smith’s command. But once Polk concluded that he need not fear their activities, he moved to reverse the disaster on the Missouri shore. Seeing that all was lost unless more troops were put across the river, he dispatched two additional regiments of infantry and prepared two more for deployment. The sight of the burning tents verified Federal occupation of Belmont, and Polk ordered the heavy artillery at Columbus to fire into the camp.[43] The bursting shells did much to assist Grant in gaining control over his near riotous soldiers as their elation quickly changed to panic.

While Grant worked to bring organization back into his ranks, someone saw rebels landing above Belmont and spread the word of impending disaster. A number of Grant’s officers informed him that the army was surrounded and urged surrender as the only honorable course of action. Rejecting such pleas, Grant finally succeeded in moving his troops back in the direction of their landing area at Hunter’s Farm. The retreat became a running fight as the rejuvenated Confederates counter-attacked.[44]

General Pillow had gradually restored order in his badly demoralized regiments following their initial rout. He took the newly arrived reinforcements, along with remnants of his original command, and struck Grant’s retreating army on front and flank.[45] Along the road to Hunter’s Farm a series of sharp, bloody encounters between groups of disorganized troops occurred. Casualties were once again heavy, especially among the straggling Federals.[46] Eventually the Unionists cut open an avenue of escape and hurried to their transports and relative safety.

Grant assessed his tactical situation as the soldiers rushed to board the waiting boats. He found that much had gone awry. The transport guard, so badly needed at this point, had already retreated to the landing area.[47] Also, due to the precipitate withdrawal, all of the dead and many of the wounded Federals remained on the field.[48] Another matter of concern was that an entire regiment, the Twenty-seventh Illinois, had become separated from the command when the retreat commenced and still remained unaccounted for.[49] As Grant mulled over the day’s events the Confederates closed in on the transports.

Polk crossed the river at this juncture and personally directed the rebel forces against the rapidly embarking Federals. Between the boats and rebels a lone figure on horseback hurried toward the river. A gangplank was extended from one of the transports and the rider and his horse slid down the bank and crossed onto the boat. The last Union soldier to leave the field, Grant dismounted and went up to the upper deck for one last look at the enemy. He watched as the Confederates rushed to the bank and commenced shooting into the convoy of troopships, only to be driven back by a hail of canister from the gunboats.[50]

En route to Cairo the Federals rested quietly. To the relief of everyone, the Twenty-seventh Illinois was observed some miles up the river and brought safely aboard. Grant noted that each of his men viewed Belmont as a great victory.[51] This apparently impressed Grant very much, and his after battle report indicated that he shared his men’s opinion.

Grant’s report to headquarters tended toward generalizations and contained some inaccuracies. While claiming that the Confederate casualties greatly exceeded his own, he underestimated his losses by over a hundred. He applauded the conduct of both his men and the gunboat crews, but made no mention of the loss of control over the men after the camp had been captured. Grant explained that the message from Wallace had convinced him to strike Belmont and surmised that the attack had prevented Oglesby from being cut off. In addition, he thought that Polk would be forced to refrain from dispatching any reinforcements to Price. Lastly, Grant believed that the experience had inspired confidence in his men that would be invaluable in future engagements.[52]

The Confederates likewise proclaimed a victory at Belmont. Polk told of defeating a vastly superior force that had intended to strike at both Belmont and Columbus. He cited the bravery of his soldiers and reported possession of an enemy flag, over a thousand stand of arms and quantities of military equipment of various types. The Confederate Congress joined in the celebration by addressing a resolution of thanks to the soldiers of Polk’s command.[53]

Ten days after the battle Grant’s medical officer submitted a supplementary report that reflected the final casualty figures for the Union army. The Federals suffered losses of 607 at Belmont, including 120 killed, 383 wounded, and 104 captured or missing.[54] The casualties amounted to about twenty percent of those engaged, a high percentage in the early phases of the war. An estimated five thousand Confederates actively participated in the battle. Polk’s report listed 105 killed, 419 wounded, and 117 missing, for a total of 641, or about thirteen percent of the number that saw action.[55]

Grant learned the results of the other columns involved in the combined operations a few days after returning to Cairo. In Kentucky C. F. Smith followed his orders rather explicitly, conducting a demonstration against Columbus and little more. Two of the three groups that had attempted to ensnare Thompson converged at Bloomfield only to discover that the wily “Swamp Fox” had escaped to the South. The Federals heard of the “defeat” at Belmont while at Bloomfield and returned to their home bases without accomplishing anything of lasting value.[56]

Thus the Belmont campaign ended, and it quickly became the subject of a controversy that was never entirely forgotten by Grant. Oddly enough the criticism emanated from unofficial sources, for apparently neither the administration nor the army ever gave the battle a second thought. Nothing in the public record indicated that Belmont affected Grant’s military career one way or another. His final word on the matter had been his justification of the engagement in his memoirs. Grant noted that critics claimed that the battle had been wholly unnecessary and barren of results. The Confederate threat to Oglesby’s column necessitated his action, Grant maintained, and had he not struck the enemy Oglesby would probably have been captured or destroyed. In his view he had done only what was required to protect his command.[57] Grant possibly believed that his statement settled the issue for all time.

Nevertheless, debate on the campaign continued and for seemingly ample reasons. Grant concluded that he saved Oglesby’s three thousand men from a major disaster by striking Belmont. Logically, since the two Federal commands were almost equal in strength, the danger of capture or annihilation was as real for Grant as it was for his subordinate. Moreover, Polk never sent any troops to threaten Oglesby, for Confederate orders or correspondence mentioned no such movement. Rather than making an effort to check the validity of Wallace’s report, Grant chose to accept the information at face value and ordered the attack. Any supposed danger to Oglesby’s column may have been just a pretext, a convenient one to be sure, to initiate a battle.

It will be recalled that Grant wanted to move against Columbus soon after taking command at Cairo. Despite the refusal of headquarters to permit any attack, he never lost interest in taking the offensive. Perhaps in the demonstrations that were ordered he saw the opportunity for that desired fight. His dispatch to Smith of November 5 suggested that he planned something more aggressive than the mere feints desired by headquarters. Also there was the message he sent to Oglesby that day before the battle telling the latter to communicate with him at Belmont. Moreover while Grant persistently disclaimed any intention of attacking Belmont prior to 2:00 a.m. on November 7, he also described his troops’ elation at the prospect of getting to fight after they started down the Mississippi. He wrote later that if he had not done something to satisfy their demands for action he would have lost their confidence and the ability to maintain discipline.[58] In light of the above, any report of a potential threat from Belmont was probably welcomed.

Grant’s generalship at Belmont dramatized his inexperience in leading an army into battle. His decision to strike a position in such close proximity to the large Columbus garrison was inherently dangerous, especially so with untried troops. In addition, he knew little of the tactical situation around Belmont. Grant moved down the river without knowing where he was going to land or much about the terrain where he would have to fight the battle.[59] The need for a large and reliable reserve force became obvious once the hasty retreat from the camp commenced. Fortunately, for the Federals, Grant’s tactical errors were minimized by Pillow’s rash decision to deploy his troops in an open field and attack instead of taking advantage of the defenses surrounding the camp at Belmont. Tactically, Grant’s battle plan had risked much, and under slightly different circumstances a Federal disaster was always a distinct possibility.

Belmont did not result in any strategic advantage despite Grant’s assertions to the contrary. As previously demonstrated, Grant’s claim that he saved Oglesby and prevented Confederate troops from moving to assist Price had no basis in fact. In reality the strategic balance in the area remained the same. Grant returned to Cairo to await another opportunity. Down river the rebels still occupied Columbus and Belmont, and the Confederate defensive line in the Mississippi Valley stood unbroken.

Grant’s mistakes at Belmont were manifest. A neophyte general had led raw troops into an unnecessary battle and after inflicting damage on the enemy had barely escaped destruction. Certainly Grant’s reputation as a great commander could never stand on his accomplishments at Belmont.

The record indicates, however, that Grant profited from his experience at Belmont, and even in that unfortunate battle he gave evidence of the qualities that would propel him into the front rank of Union generals. Unlike many of his contemporaries Grant displayed the willingness to fight that Lincoln expected of his commanders. Faced with a fluid military situation and changing orders, Grant used his available forces without badgering headquarters for more men and attacked. He led his army to victory initially, and when the tide of battle turned he retired fighting. In his first action Grant seemed to follow what he later claimed was the secret to the art of war, “Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike at him hard as you can, and keep moving on.”[60]

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From a purely military standpoint, Belmont might well be forgotten. It ranks as one of many minor engagements that were of little significance in deciding the final outcome of the Civil War. But as a starting point for studying the development of the military leadership of Grant the battle serves a useful purpose. For at Belmont, Ulysses S. Grant first demonstrated the qualities of aggressiveness, initiative and determination that characterized the man who eventually won the campaigns that saved the Union.

[1] W. E. Woodward, Meet General Grant (n. p., 1928), 495

[2] Ulysses S. Grant, The Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant (New York, 1885) I, 281.

[3] New York Times, November 14, 1861; J. Cutler Andrews, The North Reports the Civil War (Pittsburgh, 1955), 119.

[4] Isabel Wallace, Life and Letters of W. H. L. Wallace (Chicago, 1909), 141

[5] John Fiske, The Mississippi Valley in the Civil War (Cambridge, 1900), 50.

[6] John Simon, ed, The Papers of U. S. Grant (Carbondale, Ill., 1969), II, 163, 214.

[7] Robert J. Johnson and Clarence C. Buel, eds., Battles and Leaders of the Civil War (New York, 1956), I, 280

[8] Simon, Papers, II, 214

[9] U. S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington, 1880-1901), Series I, IV, 179. (Hereafter cited as O. R.; all citations are to Series I.)

[10] Johnson and Buel, Battles and Leaders, I, 348.

[11] Jay Monaghan, Swamp Fox of the Confederacy: The Life and Military Services of M. Jeff Thompson (Tuscaloosa, 1956), 32; Grant, Memoirs, I, 261-263.

[12] Simon, Papers, II, 198; O. R., III, 493.

[13] Simon, Papers, II, 225, 242, 288

[14] Kenneth P. Williams, Lincoln Finds a General (New York, 1952), III, 75.

[15] Ibid., III, 64-65.

[16] O. R., III, 267.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 268.

[19] Ibid., 256, 259, 268.

[20] Ibid., 268-269.

[21] Ibid., III, 260, 724-728, IV, 491.

[22] Ibid., III, 273.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Grant, Memoirs, I, 270-271.

[25] Ibid., 271-272; O. R., III, 269-270.

[26] O. R., III, 294; Williams, Lincoln, III, 94.

[27] Grant, Memoirs, I, 273.

[28] Johnson and Buel, Battles and Leaders, I, 348-349.

[29] O.R., III, 355.

[30] Johnson and Buel, Battles and Leaders, I, 354-355.

[31] Ibid.

[32] O. R., III, 278, 292.

[33] Grant, Memoirs, I, 269, 273; Johnson and Buel, Battles and Leaders, I, 355.

[34] O. R., III, 278; Henry I. Kurtz, “The Battle of Belmont,” Civil War Times Illustrated, II (June, 1963), 20.

[35] O. R., III, 340-341, 355.

[36] Ibid., 278-279

[37] Patricia Bell, “Gideon Pillow—A Personality Profile,” Civil War Times Illustrated, VI (October, 1967), 15.

[38] O. R., III, 355-358.

[39] M. F. Force, From Fort Henry to Corinth (New York, 1963), 20-21

[40] O. R., III, 325, 356-358; Grant, Memoirs, I, 273-274

[41] O. R., III, 280, 284.

[42] Grant, Memoirs, I, 274-276; Bruce Catton, Grant Moves South (Boston, 1960), 76-77

[43] O. R., III, 280-281.

[44] Grant, Memoirs, I, 276; Kurtz, “Belmont,” 21.

[45] William G. Stevenson, Thirteen Months in the Rebel Army (New York, 1959), 54-56.

[46] Harper’s Weekly, December 7, 1861.

[47] Grant, Memoirs, I, 276.

[48] Johnson and Buel, Battles and Leaders, I, 353.

[49] O. R., III, 270.

[50] Grant, Memoirs, I, 280.

[51] Ibid.; O. R., III, 281.

[52] O. R., III, 269-272.

[53] Ibid., 310-312.

[54] New York Times, November 17, 1861

[55] Johnson and Buel, Battles and Leaders, I, 356.

[56] O. R., III, 256-257; Harvey L. Carter and Norma L. Peterson, eds., “William S. Stewart Letters, January 13, 1861 to December 4, 1862,” Part II, Missouri Historical Review, LXI (April, 1967), 309-310.

[57] Grant, Memoirs, I, 281.

[58] Ibid., 271.

[59] Williams, Lincoln, III, 94.

[60] As quoted in David Donald, Lincoln Reconsidered, Essays on the Civil War Era (New York, 1961), 102.

Fight at Jackson Fairgrounds

The Fight at Jackson Fairgrounds:

Confederate Victory Against the Odds


©2003 Kirby Ross

with an Introduction by James E. McGhee, ©2003

The Fight at Jackson Fairgrounds: Confederate Victory Against the Odds

© Kirby Ross

Author’s Note & Introduction
Ch 1 – Lindsay Murdoch Ch 6 – Playing a Squally Game of Marbles
Ch 2 – Chasing Phantoms Ch 7 – Aftermath
Ch 3 – Closing In Ch 8 – Mopping Up
Ch 4 – Hell Breaks Loose Epilogue
Ch 5 – To the Death Bibliography
Return to Civil War St. Louis


In the course of researching the Federal Missouri State Militia and its counter-insurgency operations in Missouri, I ran across the obscure story of the Skirmish at Jackson, Missouri.  The event itself was not unusual for the state—as Missouri historian and writer James E. McGhee mentions in his Introduction that follows this note, over 1000 military engagements took place there during the Civil War.  What is unusual, and even remarkable, is the level of documentation that exists concerning the Jackson affair.  It did not take long for me to see that this was a story waiting to be told—a story that might just be one of the most detailed accounts of a small-unit action existing in regard to the Trans-Mississippi Theater.  So detailed, in fact, that it has even been possible to deduce who killed whom in the fighting.

Despite the fact the number of soldiers that participated in the Jackson Skirmish barely totaled 90 men, no fewer than eight first-person eyewitness accounts relating to it have surfaced—most of which have been gathered through the work of Jim McGhee.  Where one personal anecdote would fade off and leave the reader wondering what happened next or what happened on other parts of the far-flung field of battle, lo and behold, another version would surface, until finally a very comprehensive, all-encompassing picture emerged.  While my efforts in weaving each account into a seamless, cogent, single story was at time quite trying and entailed more than a few rewrites, I believe the final result that is embodied in the story that follows is an accurate depiction of what transpired in and around Jackson, Missouri, on the first days of April in 1862.

Kirby Ross


The True Life Wild West Memoir of a Bush-Popping Cow Waddy

By Charley Hester, Edited by Kirby Ross

available for pre-order at

Also by this author:

James O. Broadhead: Ardent Unionist, Unrepentant Slaveholder by Kirby Ross

Missouri was the scene of over 1,000 engagements during the American civil war, ranking it third behind only Virginia and Tennessee in the number of military encounters that occurred within its boundaries between 1861-1865.  Some of the Missouri battles were large affairs that decided important strategic issues, involved sizeable numbers of troops, and resulted in great loss of life.  The bloody combats at Belmont, Lexington, Pilot Knob, Wilson’s Creek, and Westport fall into that category.  Much of the warfare in the state, however, consisted of little fights between small groups of men simply intent on killing one another.  The skirmish at Jackson in April 1862 is a classic example of the type of fighting that most often happened in Missouri during four years of internecine warfare.

The engagement at Jackson, sometimes referred to as the “Battle at the Fair-Grounds,” was a chance encounter between a small group of Confederate recruits and a Union militia detachment from Cape Girardeau determined on driving them from the area.  Barely mentioned in the official records of the war, it has been nearly forgotten, even by the people of Jackson.  But the skirmish at the fairgrounds was important to local residents in 1862 for at least two reasons.  First, the fight brought home the dreadful reality that war was not necessarily something that occurred elsewhere; the townspeople actually heard the exchange of fire between the contending parties and later viewed the blood and pain of wounded soldiers first hand.  Secondly, the men who fought that day, especially on the Confederate side, were “their” boys, members of the local community that were suddenly seen in the unfamiliar role of soldiers.  Doubtless the war never seemed quite the same to Jackson residents after seeing it so close to home.

After the fight at Jackson the Union troops of the Missouri State Militia that were involved returned to Cape Girardeau.  Their unit would undergo several reorganizations over the succeeding months and spend the remainder of the war fighting local guerrillas and Confederate raiders that occasionally penetrated Missouri.

The center of attraction at the Jackson fight—the small contingent of Confederate recruits commanded by William L. Jeffers—formally organized a company on April 16, merely a few days after leaving Jackson.  It had Jeffers as captain; William E. “Button” McGuire, as first lieutenant; Richard J. Medley, as second lieutenant; and John A. Bennett, as third lieutenant—all of whom figure somewhat prominently in the following story by Kirby Ross.  Operating initially as an independent company, their unit was driven from the state into northeast Arkansas in May.  It eventually was attached to Lieutenant Colonel Charles Matlock’s Arkansas Cavalry Battalion on June 16.  When Matlock’s troopers were dismounted in July, Captain Jeffers resigned his commission.  He returned to southeast Missouri to recruit again, and was soon followed by Lieutenant McGuire and other members of his company.

Jeffers’ recruiting efforts were very successful, aided no doubt by a Federal order commanding all men to enroll in the Missouri (Union) militia.  Unwilling to fight against the South, men flocked to Jeffers’ standard in sufficient numbers to create the 8th Missouri Calvary Regiment.  The balance of the war saw the 8th raiding Missouri with Generals Johns S. Marmaduke and Sterling Price, and vainly contesting the Federals for control of Arkansas.  Throughout, Colonel Jeffers led his men from the front rank during its combat history.  As Luther Jenkins would recall, with Jeffers in command “It was never ‘Go on,’ but ‘Come on, boys.’”  The regiment finally surrendered, with the men receiving their paroles at Shreveport, Louisiana, in June 1865.

Years after the war, when Colonel Jeffers died, survivors of his regiment initiated a campaign to erect a monument in his honor at Jackson.  Although the process was slow, the monument was finally dedicated at the Jackson Homecoming celebration of 1908.  It stands today at the south end of High Street at the entrance to the Old City Cemetery near Jeffers’ final resting place.  In the northwest part of the cemetery is a stone that marks the burial place of William E. McGuire, Jeffers’ lieutenant.  It makes no mention of his Confederate service, or of the fact that he died shortly after being released from the hell that was the military prison at Alton, Illinois.  Remembered on the opposite side of the same stone is John W. McGuire, William’s son, who fell while charging a Federal line at Glasgow, Missouri, on October 16, 1864.  Other troopers of Jeffers’ little recruit command are buried nearby.  And to the southwest, only a short distance away, is the Russell Heights Cemetery, once the fairgrounds, where Jeffers’ squad boldly won their spurs in combat and then rode away into history.

Kirby Ross has rescued the fight at Jackson in 1862 from historical obscurity.  He has diligently researched the official records, various memoirs, muster rolls, and newspapers in a whole-hearted effort to reconstruct the events of the engagement as accurately as possible.  It must be said that he has accomplished his goal in admirable fashion.  The men and events come alive in a fast paced and well written narrative that places the event in its proper historical context.  It is a fine, well balanced battle account, and a fitting tribute to the men in blue and gray that fought at Jackson on a quiet spring day in 1862—for cause, honor and survival during some of the dark days in the history of our great republic.

James E. McGhee