The Civil War wasn’t fought in the border states like it was in Virginia. It was a no-holds-barred, no quarter given guerrilla war where the leading two Confederate commanders, William Quantrill and William “Bloody Bill” Anderson weren’t even acknowledged by the Confederates. However, these guerrilla fighters did the bloody work for the Confederacy in Missouri and they were the key players in some of the most heinous war crimes that took place during the bloodiest conflict in American history.
Unlike the war in the east which was fought with the standing armies of the North and South, the war in Missouri and Kansas was frequently conducted by quasi-military partisans including the bloody “red legs” of Kansas who likewise were not part of the Union Army but equally as bloodthirsty as their Confederate enemies.
Anderson and his men which numbered close to 400, closed in on the Missouri town of Centralia in the early morning hours of September 27 with about 80 men. Anderson’s men included the brothers Frank and Jesse James as well as Cole and Jim Younger. They would become famous after the war as outlaws in the James-Younger gang.
Some of Anderson’s men were wearing captured Federal uniforms. The guerrilla fighters of Anderson had the same basic outfit. A horse, saddle and bridle and a minimum of four Dragoon pistols. Very few guerrillas carried shotguns or carbines, opting for the firepower of several pistols which meant they didn’t have to reload often. That close-in firepower would prove itself later that day. The basic kit of the guerrilla fighter was shown in the film “The Outlaw Josey Wales” where Clint Eastwood as one of Anderson’s guerrillas carried a slew of pistols.
The Raid Begins: Anderson’s men, on horseback, entered the town at a brisk trot about 10 a.m. on the morning of the 27th. Many of them wore blue uniforms so the majority of the townspeople thought them Federal militia. They approached from the southeast and quickly took up positions in the center of town.
Anderson’s men, “the Bushwhackers” as they called themselves, pillaged the stores in town taking everything with them, including even women’s and children’s clothing. The guerrillas were distracted briefly by the discovery of a barrel of whiskey which all of the members sampled, including Anderson. The guerrillas then tried to come up with a way to transport the contents back to their base of operations, a farm outside of town.
Around 11 the stage arrived and all of the passengers were summarily robbed of anything of value. But shortly after that, the train was pulling into the station.
Anderson’s men surrounded the train and fired a fusillade of bullets into the cars getting the engineer to stop.
Among the train’s passengers were 23 unarmed Union soldiers, they were granted leave after the Battle of Atlanta and had no way of defending themselves. They were quickly rounded up and separated from the other passengers outside the train and were ordered to strip.
Anderson led a group of men into the express car and Frank James had found over $3000 which added to the loot that the guerrillas had robbed from the passengers. Turning his attention back to the soldiers Anderson approached and asked if any of them were a sergeant. Sergeant Thomas Goodwin stepped out, thinking that he was going to be executed. Goodman was removed to the back of the train and put in a position of safety. Anderson had decided that he would trade Goodman for one of his own men who was being held, prisoner. He turned to one of his men, and motioning to the rest of the soldiers, he said, “you take charge of the firing party, and, when I give the word, pour hell into them.”
The guerrillas shot down the remaining Union prisoners with their pistols and a few of the corpses were mutilated to boot. The guerrillas then set fire to the train and released it to go down the tracks on fire. They then retreated back to the farm where they began the raid.
The Union Response: At 3:00 p.m a large force of Union Infantry arrived on horseback, the 39th Missouri Infantry Volunteers, under command of Maj. Andrew V.E. Johnson. Johnson’s command had been in service only two weeks and were green. The men were armed with muskets and bayonets. None of the troops had pistols or revolvers. Something that would also come into play soon.
Despite the townspeople telling Johnson that the Confederates numbered over 400, he discounted their reports, instead, feeling their numbers were closer to the 80 that descended on the town. He left a small detachment in the town and set off for the Rebel encampment.
Anderson suckered Johnson right into a trap. Johnson’s men closely followed a small group of Confederate troops who kept a leisurely pace but just enough to keep their distance while ensuring the Union troops continued to follow. They crossed a large open field. Once Johnson’s troops entered the field, they dismounted and he had them fix bayonets.
The Slaughter: Johnson’s men began the advance and they were attempting to take the guerrillas in a frontal assault. Anderson scanned the Union troops and not seeing a revolver insight had his men stay mounted. They were going to attack.
Anderson’s horseback mounted guerrillas tore into the Union line. Of the 120 men of Johnson’s command, 108 were dead within two minutes as they fired a volley and were enveloped by the charge of the guerrillas who had a huge advantage in firepower.
The men left behind to hold the horses were quickly overtaken and shot out of their saddles Only a man or two were able to make it back into town to warn the troops that the command was wiped out.
The guerrillas returned to the town and routed the remaining Federals and chased them an additional eight miles before returning to Centralia and sacking the town again.
The next morning the townspeople went out to recover the bodies and found them stripped, mutilated and few scalped. The guerrilla losses were slight, only three dead, one mortally wounded, with three severely wounded and others with walking wounds.
The massacre at Centralia was just another bloody footnote in the border states during the Civil War. Other than in those border states, they get scant mention in many of the histories of the conflict. Anderson himself would be killed just months later.
Photo Courtesy: Wikipedia