True Tales of the Tenth Kansas Infantry
Sorrowful Revenge by Firing Squad!
by Howard Mann
Twenty-four year old Michael Zwicky of rural Washington, Missouri walked along St. John’s Creek on October 23, 1864 with four of his neighbors. They were hunting persimmons when suddenly they spied three bodies lying on the ground partially covered by leaves. Two were in federal uniform, one distinguished as an artillerist, and one in civilian clothing. Horrified, the young men saw three more bodies, one with major’s straps on his coat. The other two bodies were “torn to pieces (I suppose the hogs and buzzards tore them and I saw pieces of brown jeans lying around and near the bodies)”. Zwicky and his comrades hastily reburied the bodies since the retreating Confederate invasion force had recently passed through. They quickly notified the local Justice of the Peace and Coroner, Esquire Kleinbeck.
Kleinbeck rounded up another local man, James M. Kitchen, to investigate the suspicious deaths. Kitchen had heard “fourteen or fifteen shots [being fired] in rapid succession” three weeks earlier on a Monday while hiding in the brush from Sterling Price’s invading forces. Kitchen rifled through the dead major’s pockets to try and identify him. He removed two pocket diaries, a receipt for $25, the two shoulder straps, and several sets of orders including one from Brigadier General Thomas Ewing, signed by his aide-de-camp, Captain Charles S. Hills, Tenth Kansas Infantry. In each case the recipient was Major James Wilson. The body with civilian clothing had a $10 Confederate bill and a $5 Federal greenback, and a photograph of a soldier. Kitchen also found a letter dated May 13, 1864 to “Mr. T. Boyd, ever dear and sweet husband. Most of the letter was unreadable. By that time the Rebels had left the area quickly moving to the west and already on the verge of engaging the Kansas militia and Federal forces in front of Kansas City at the battle of Westport. Only a few weeks before (September 26-27) a much stronger Confederate army had broken itself on repeated charges against the self-same Brigadier General Thomas Ewing and a small 1,000-man force at Pilot Knob, Missouri. Among the missing Union men was Major James Wilson, 3rd Missouri State Militia Cavalry.
The Federal authorities were notified and had been looking for the missing Major. The mystery was quickly solved. Captain Hills had provided Major Wilson with orders early in the action when Price’s army converged across the Arcadia valley in front of Fort Davidson, Pilot Knob. He noted that Major Wilson had a minor head injury and was exhausted from regrouping his 3rd Missouri State Militia Cavalry trying to slow the Confederate onslaught. On September 27th, Wilson was captured along with Captain Franz Dinger, 47th Missouri Infantry.
The first Union soldiers to again validate the identity the unfortunate Major Wilson was Lieutenant Colonel Amos W. Maupin of the 47th Missouri Infantry. Not having sufficient wagons he again buried the bodies by October 25th. Finally on October 28th Lieutenant John F. Jacoby and a party from Wilson’s regiment, 3rd Missouri State Militia Cavalry, arrived with wagons to recover the bodies. Jacoby and his companions easily identified Major Wilson, whose eyes were gone and face blackened through decomposition. A wart on his forehead identified one of the other soldiers, Sergeant John W. Shaw, Company I, 3rd M.S.M. Cavalry. Private William C. Grotte, of the same company, was recognized by his red hair and profuse freckles on his face and neck. One soldier recognized another man as Private William Skaggs, Company I. A less positive identification was of Corporal William R. Cowley (Gourley), Company I. The body clad in the artillery jacket may have belonged to Company I or K, 3rd M.S.M Cavalry. These companies originally were recruited as artillery and had kept the red-striped jackets. It was obvious that Sterling Price’s men had executed the dead Federals.
In fact, Major Wilson and the entire 3rd Missouri State Militia Cavalry had bitter and personal enemies among Price’s army. The war in southeastern Missouri was waged between families and neighbors in adjoining counties. The balance of pro-Union supporters and pro-southern families dotted the countryside in the southernmost counties of Missouri along the Mississippi River and next to Arkansas. Opposing much of the area patrolled by the 3rd Missouri State Militia Cavalry were pro-Confederate Home Guard units such as Timothy Reeves Company of Independent Scouts. In 1862 events shaped a consolidation of these independent units into a battalion sized regiment, the 15th Missouri Cavalry Regiment, C.S.A. led by Colonel Timothy Reeves. Reeves, a rural Baptist minister, was targeted by the 3rd M.S.M. under Major James Wilson. Members of Wilson’s family were pro-southern and his loyalty to the Union cost him the relationship with his wife, children, brother and father. Since many of the men from both units had been local farmers in Ripley and Pike counties, the guerrilla aspect of war quickly escalated.
According to Kirby Ross in “Atrocity at Doniphan, Missouri” he describes the ensuing events:
“During the course of the war Wilson’s troops routed Reeves’ command several times. Then on September 19, 1864, under orders from the Union command in St. Louis, Wilson dispatched a small task force consisting of troops from the 3rd M.S.M. and the 47th Missouri Infantry under First Lieutenant Erich Pape, with instructions to burn Doniphan, the seat of Ripley County. After fulfilling their orders the Federal raiders retreated to the northeast, burning several farms along the route. At Ponder’s Mill on the Little Black River a pursuing force of Confederates under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Rector Johnson surrounded them and a sharp skirmish ensued. Several on both sides were killed or wounded, and six Union troops taken prisoner. All of the prisoners were subsequently executed.”
Reeves and Wilson were personal enemies and Wilson along with five hapless men of the 3rd M.S.M. was in General Sterling Price’s power. As Price’s army retreated away from Pilot Knob, let Brigadier General Thomas Ewing and his men slip from their grasp, and saw St. Louis eluding their invasion, Price decided to turn over his prisoners to Colonel Timothy Reeves and the 15th Missouri Cavalry near Union, Missouri.
Reeves men marched Major Wilson and his men near St. John’s Creek in Franklin County, formed up the firing squad, shot and killed the men. The dead were left where they lay. In his study of the executions, Kirby Ross continues:
After the war, three Confederates explained the motives behind the executions. Griffin Frost, who spent time in a military prison with some of Reeves’ men, stated in his diary that Reeves was retaliating for the previous execution of a similar number of his men. Confederate Generals M. Jeff Thompson and Jo Shelby shed light on what may have been the reasons for the acquiescence to the executions by the Confederate senior command and attributed them to the burnings undertaken by Wilson’s men. General Thompson went on to regret that the killings were not “done by such order and form that retaliation would have been avoided…. [B]ut responsibilities of this kind were not to our commander’s liking, and they were turned over to Reeves to guard, with a pretty full knowledge that they would be shot.”
As General Thompson had foreseen, the Federal response was severe. On July 30, 1863, President Lincoln had issued orders “that for every soldier of the United States killed in violation of the laws of war, a rebel soldier shall be executed.” In this spirit and in the cycle of violence alluded to in General Thompson’s statement the U.S. command opened yet another round of reprisals that targeted captured Southern troops held in St. Louis. “[I]f the laws of war and humanity are not sufficient to secure our prisoners from murder I will add to their force the motive of personal interest,” proclaimed Major General William S. Rosecrans. A Union military dispatch goes on to tell the tale: “I have to report to the commanding general that I have this day ordered the slayings of six enlisted rebel prisoners of war, in compliance with his orders to retaliate for the murder of six men of Major Wilson’s command, of the Third Cavalry Missouri State Militia, by the guerrilla, Tim Reves…. Captain Ferguson has been ordered to send a major to Colonel Darr from Independence for the same purpose.” As Rosecrans ordered, six Confederate enlisted men were selected, taken to a public place, and shot.
|Capt. Griffin Frost wrote from Alton, Ill., prison:
“OCT. 28.—The six men who were placed in close confinement on the 9th of this month, were handcuffed and taken to St. Louis this morning, where, it is said they will be shot some time to-day. They are to be executed in retaliation for a Maj. Wilson and six men, who were turned over to Reeves and by him shot, in retaliation for the murder of the same number of his men. When will this thing stop? This game of lex talionis makes sad havoc upon the lives of innocent men.”
The outcry in St. Louis was very loud. Brigadier General Ewing was particularly affected having been Wilson’s commanding officer at Pilot Knob. Ewing was also aware that many of Price’s men would have treated him the same way if he had been captured for promulgating the infamous Order Number 11 that emptied the border counties of Missouri after the burning of Lawrence. Ewing and his commanding officer, General William S. Rosecrans agreed that retribution needed to be made. Rosecrans issued the order for retribution as the body of Major Wilson lay in state in a church in St. Louis.
None of the six condemned privates served in the 15th Missouri Cavalry nor were involved in Price’s battle at Pilot Knob. The hapless men were Harvey H. Blackburn, age 47; George T. Bunch, age unknown; Asa V. Ladd, age 34; Charles W. Minnekin, age 22; George Nichols, age 21 and James W. Gates, age 21. In many ways they were similar to the executed men of the 3rd M.S.M.
James W. Gates was a member of Company H, Captain Dickey’s 3rd Missouri Cavalry. Gates was from Cooper County.
Asa V. Ladd lived in Stoddard County. He was a member of Company A, Jackson’s, in Burbridge’s Missouri Cavalry. Ladd was a farmer and had a wife, Amy, and four children.
Charles W. Minnekin, Independence, Arkansas, was a private in Company A, Crabtree’s Cavalry Regiment.
John Nichols, Company G, 2nd Missouri Cavalry, was from western Cass County, Missouri. Nichols had faced forces containing the Tenth Kansas at Newtonia, Cane Hill and Prairie Grove in the fall of 1862. He would see them again as his executioners.
Harvey H. Blackburn was also from Independence, Arkansas. He was a private in Colonel A. Coleman’s Arkansas Cavalry.
George T. Bunch had been substituted for a teamster, John H. Furgeson. Bunch was a private in Company B, 3rd Missouri Cavalry. They were all captured during the raid.
|Absalom Grimes was in a cell in Gratiot St. Prison across from the condemned men the night before they were executed. He wrote:
“Never, so long as I live, will I be able to forget or cease to hear the cries and pleadings of those men after the death warrant had been read to them. Ministers and priests were allowed to visit them and during the entire night their lamentations were ceaseless.”
The men were housed in the Gratiot Street Prison and not informed until the day slated for the execution, October 29, 1864. A Catholic priest, Father Ward, and an Episcopalian minister, Reverend Phillip McKim, attended the men in their last few hours. They baptized five of the men, and Asa Ladd, who was already baptized, wrote a heart-rending letter to his wife, Amy, and children. Reverend McKim sorrowfully added a personal note to comfort the unknowing widow.
The men were taken in a covered wagon to Fort Number 4, near Lafayette Park at two o’clock on Saturday, October 29th. Their escort was made up of men; at least one of them had faced in battle before. The Tenth Kansas Infantry had drawn this distasteful duty before. Several weeks before a firing squad of Tenth Kansas soldiers had shot a Union deserter, Barney Gibbons, to death. The Tenth Kansas had been posted in St. Louis and at the nearby Alton, Illinois, military prison since January 1864. The veteran soldiers finished out their three-year enlistment as prison guards, provost guard, and posted around St. Louis in administrative capacity. The regiment mustered out a majority of the men and officers on August 19, 1864. The same month saw the court-martial and cashiering of their Colonel, William Weer, for improprieties while in command at Alton. The remaining men were steadfast in their desire to complete their duty and they re-enlisted in the Veteran Tenth Kansas Volunteer Infantry under the temporary command of Captain William C. Jones.
The ensuing scene was filled with tension. The Saint Louis Democrat of October 30th described the events:
“On the west side of the fort six posts had been set in the ground, each with a seat attached, and each tied with a strip of white cotton cloth, afterward used in bandaging the eyes of the prisoners. Fifty-four men were selected as the executioners. Forty-four belonged to the 10th Kansas and ten to the 41st Missouri. Thirty-six of these comprised the front firing party, eighteen being reserved in case they should not do this work effectually.
About three o’clock the prisoners arrived on the ground, and sat down, attached to the posts. They all appeared to be more or less affected, but, considering the circumstances, remained remarkably firm. Father Ward and Rev. Mr. McKim spoke to the men in their last moments, exhorting them to put their trust in God. The row of posts ranged north and south, and at the first on the north was Asa V. Ladd, on his left was George Nichols; next Harvey H. Blackburn, George T. Bunch, Charles W. Minnekin, and James W. Gates. Ladd and Blackburn sat with perfect calmness, with their eyes fixed on the ground, and did not speak. Nichols shed tears, which he wiped away wit a red pocket-handkerchief, and continued to weep until his eyes were bandaged. Nichols gave no sign of emotion at first, but sat with seeming indifference, scraping the ground with his heel. He asked one of the surgeons if there was any hope of a postponement, and being assured that there was none, he looked more serious, and frequently ejaculated, “Lord, have mercy on my poor soul!” Again he said: “O, to think of the news that will go to father and mother!”
After the reading of the sentence by Col. Heinrichs, Minnekin expressed a desire to say a few words. He said:
“Soldiers, and all of you who hear me, take warning from me. I have been a Confederate soldier four years, and have served my country faithfully. I am now to be shot for what other men have done, that I had no hand in, and know nothing about. I never was a guerrilla, and I am sorry to be shot for what I had nothing to do with, and what I am not guilty of. When I took a prisoner, I always treated him kindly and never harmed a man after he surrendered. I hope God will take me to his bosom when I am dead. O, Lord, be with me!”
While the sergeant was bandaging his eyes, Minnekin, said: “Sergeant, I don’t blame you. I hope we will all meet in heaven. Boys, farewell to you all; the Lord have mercy on our poor souls!”
The firing party was about ten paces off. Some of the Kansas men appeared to be reluctant to fire upon the prisoners, but Captain Jones told them it was their duty; that they should have no hesitation, as these men had taken the life of many a Union man who was as innocent as themselves.
At the word, the thirty-six soldiers fired simultaneously, the discharge sounding like a single explosion. The aim of every man was true. One or two of the victims groaned, and Blackburn cried out: “Oh, kill me quick!” In five minutes they were all dead, their heads falling to one side, and their bodies swinging around to the sides of the posts, and being kept from falling by the pinions on their arms. Five of them were shot through the heart, and the sixth received three balls in his breast, dying almost instantly.
The execution was witness by several thousand spectators, most of them soldiers, and it was conducted in a manner highly creditable to those engaged in the performance of the disagreeable duty.
The bodies were placed in plain painted coffins, and interred by Mr. Smithers.”
The Confederate major selected, Major Enoch O. Wolf, Ford’s Battalion was ordered to be shot in November 1864. Major Wolf credited his reprieve to his showing the Mason’s sign to his minister. He claimed that President Lincoln wired an order ending the execution. A second telling by Brigadier General Thomas Fletcher, 47th Missouri Infantry, who had been at Pilot Knob, was slightly different.
“Eleven Confederate Majors in our hands were compelled to draw lots to determine who should be shot in retaliation for the murder of Wilson. The man so selected was in charge, for a time, of Lieut. Col. Charles S. Hills of the 10th Kansas, then on staff duty. Col. Hills became interested in him. The night before the morning fixed for his execution, Col. Hills appealed to Hon. Henry T. Blow, one of the noble-hearted, patriotic men who deservedly stood near to the great generous-hearted Lincoln. He telegraphed Mr. Lincoln and the answer came to stay the execution, and it remains stayed until this day.”
Documentation, letters, diaries, or comments by the men and officers of the Tenth Kansas Infantry have never surfaced. The execution apparently affected the men to the point of wavering in their duty. The veterans would fight against Missourians at Nashville in December 1864 and at the last large land battle of the Civil War, Fort Blakely, April 9, 1865. It does seem that the Kansas grew to respect and connect more with their opponents as the war ground to a halt. During the lulls in siege at Fort Blakely, the Kansas and Missouri men would talk with each other, swap tobacco and coffee, and wish for home.
“The Retaliation: The Murder of Wilson and his Comrades”, St. Louis Democrat. October 31, 1864.
Suderow, Bryce A., Thunder in Arcadia Valley: Price’s Defeat, September 27, 1864. Southeast Missouri State University, 1986. pages 71-72; Peterman, Cyrus A. and Hanson, Joseph Mills, Pilot Knob: The Thermopylae of the West. Two Trails Publishing Company, 2000. pages 95-96.
“Retribution: The Murder of Wilson and his Comrades”, St. Louis Democrat. October 29, 1864.
Ross, Kirby. “Atrocity at Doniphan, Missouri”. Unpublished manuscript used with permission of the author.
Wilson, James Papers. Western Historical Manuscript Collection. “Testimony of Capt. Franz Dinger, the main witness concerning the battle of Pilot Knob, the capture of Maj. Wilson, and treatment after surrender, taken in St. Louis on October 30, 1864.”
 Ross, Atrocity at Doniphan; Donal J. Stanton, Goodwin F. Berquist, and Paul C. Bowers, The Civil War Reminiscences of General M. Jeff Thompson (Dayton, OH.: Morningside 1988) 294; General Joseph Shelby correspondence to Major C.C. Rainwater read before the Southern Historical Association, Ewing Family Papers, Box 213; Letter from Gen. J.O. Shelby, CSA to Maj. C.C. Rainwater, Jan. 5, 1888, Cyrus Peterson Battle of Pilot Knob Research Collection, Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis, MO. See also, Griffin Frost, Camp and Prison Journal (Quincy, Ill.: Quincy Herald Book and Job Office 1867).
 Ross; Roy P. Basler (ed.), The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 vols. (New Brunswick, New Jersey: 1953, VI: p. 357; General Order No. 252, Official Records, Ser. 1, Vol. XXXIII, pp. 866-867; Official Records, Ser. 1, Vol. XLI, Pt. 4, p. 316; Official Records, Ser. 2, Vol. VI, p. 163; Official Records, Ser. 2, Vol. VII, pp. 1118-1119
Thunder in Arcadia Valley, page 151, pages 35 – 36.
Ibid. “The Retaliation”.
St. Louis Democrat. “A Military Execution: Shooting of Six Rebel Soldiers”. October 30, 1863.
Bartels, Carolyn. The Last-Long Mile: Westport to Arkansas October 1864. Two Trails Publishing, 1999. pages 115 – 120.