The cliché “brother against brother” or “neighbor against neighbor” is the often used to describe the Civil War. Like many clichés, this one has an element of truth. Another phrase from the Civil War is attributed to Union General William T. Sherman, who simply said, ”War is Hell.”
Both these phrases are revealed in the history of the Turley family, who lived north of Sedalia only a few miles east of what is now U.S. Highway 65. Dr. Jesse Turley was married, and he and his wife had eight sons and two daughters. According to an article in a Sedalia newspaper in 1875 and reprinted in local historian Betty Singer’s book “Life and Times Along Muddy,” the family was respected, the sons “liked throughout the neighborhood,” and the daughters “accomplished, beautiful, and refined.”
The Turley family, like many wealthy Pettis County residents, owned a large farm and a number of slaves.
In June 1861, just three months after the Civil War started, Dr. Turley took a firm stand for the Union. He emancipated his slaves, being the first man in Pettis County to do so. As the war progressed, four of his sons joined the Union army.
His actions angered his neighbors, who visited his home in June 1861 and attacked. Turley was shot, but managed to wound several of the attackers and drive them away.
Later that same summer, he was shot in the head and severely wounded near Longwood by Tom Woodson’s guerillas. Woodson was one of three Pettis Countians to have been documented as a guerilla leader.
Turley’s favorite son Abner died in the west. Rather than offering comfort and support, the neighbors gloated over his death.
Dr. Turley organized a company of Union volunteers that joined the 37th Missouri Infantry. He was stationed at Georgetown. In the fall of 1861, while scouting along Heath Creek, he encountered the enemy. While lining up his troops and preparing to mount his horse, his gun discharged and he was shot in the abdomen. He died a short time later.
His family was devastated. His fourth son William, a sergeant in the 37th Missouri Infantry, came home to care for his mother and sisters. One night while sleepwalking he mistook his mother’s steps for those of a bushwhacker and shot her.
William never smiled again. He became like one possessed, seeming to court death at every battle. In 1863, William volunteered to spy for one of Jo Shelby’s raiding parties. He never returned; his body was found a few months later in the Osage hills.
One of the daughters became insane and died shortly afterward. The other suffered a stroke in 1874 that rendered her “helpless as a babe.”
Another son, James, joined the Sedalia Police Department, but shot Jack Phemister twice. James moved to Colorado, where he killed a man, was tried for murder, and sent to the penitentiary.
The fifth son, John Turley, moved to western Kansas where was shot in a quarrel with a relative.
Thomas, the sixth son, was shot in Texas in 1875; the newspaper commented that his chances of recovery were about 50-50.
David Turley returned from the war a quarrelsome man. He managed a saloon in Georgetown and often fought with his customers. He moved to California where he was hanged for killing a man.
Whether these tragedies would have happened had the Turley family not seen so much brutality during the war remains questionable. The writer of an 1875 article only noted the “fated family had been scourged in a mysterious manner.”
One of the characters in the M*A*S*H* television series once remarked that “war is not really hell, because there are no innocent bystanders in hell.” Whether Turley’s sons were guilty of any wrongdoing is questionable, but certainly his wife and daughters did not deserve their fates.