The Civil War in Missouri was marked by several large battles, but more by small skirmishes that often involved groups of soldiers not enrolled in officially sanctioned units.
These irregulars, sometimes called guerillas or bushwhackers, used stealth and ambush as they ravaged the countryside. A correspondent writing for the Sedalia Advertiser described the war in central Missouri as “the most atrocious and bloodthirsty war carried on by small bands of guerillas who prey upon the rights of personal property and sport with the lives of loyal citizens.”
Although the correspondent’s words imply that the guerilla activity was carried on by pro-Southern forces, irregular forces fighting for both the North and the South brought terror to the countryside. Between August 1864 and February 1865, the Advertised covered the progress of the war, including irregular activity in central Missouri.
Most of the reports are rather vague, sometimes identifying the combatants and describing their actions. In late August 1864, the Advertiser noted that George Watkins from Henry County had been tried by a court martial in St. Louis and found guilty of violating the “Rules of War,” although his exact crime was not described. Watkins was sentenced to hang in September.
Another article, taken from the California News, reported that Captain Park, a member of the Missouri State Militia stationed at Boonville, had crossed the Missouri River with forty-four of his men when he encountered a company of eighty to ninety Confederate troops, believed to be guerillas. In the skirmish that followed, seven men died, fifteen were wounded, and four of Park’s men were missing.
The Warrensburg Tribune contributed a report of a bushwhacker named Johnson from Pettis County who was shot on November 18, 1864, by military order. The Tribune reporter visited Johnson prior to the execution and noted that Johnsons did not want to see a clergyman, and was not as interested in the state of his soul as he was in the possibility that his sentence would be commuted.
According to a letter from “Incognito,” following Confederate Colonel Jeff Thompson’s attack on Sedalia in October 1864, the “notorious Eugene Steger” remained behind and tried to set fire to the depot where a number of unarmed Federal prisoners were being held. By mid-December, Steger was held in a prisoner of war camp while a case against him was being made. Soon, the writer hoped, he and the set of “these nefarious scamps” would be hanged.
One of the most notorious bushwhackers in the area, Tom Woodson, was more a common thug than a passionate soldier. He “prowled around with a few men, occasionally pouncing on a defenseless town or store, and taking what he wants.” He and a group of about fifty men attacked the small northeastern Pettis county town of Longwood, took several citizens prisoner, and robbed them of all their money. County Treasurer Thornton lost $130 to the thieves. The “polite” robbers then pillaged what they wanted from the local stores, then paid the store owners for what they took with money they had just stolen.
Woodson also attacked individuals in their homes. In September 1864, Woodson and his men stormed the home of Captain Eli E. Hammonds, taking $175 in currency, $40 worth of gold, and his clothes.
Southern sympathizers who fed, sheltered, or in any way assisted Southern guerillas could be tried and punished by Union forces. Women were often arrested on such charges and imprisoned in prison camps such as the camp in Alton, Illinois, known for starvation, vermin, filth, and disease. In April 1864, Mollie W. Goggin, of Tipton, Cooper County, boasted of being a rebel and stated that she would aid the southern forces. She was arrested and in September, tried before Major Douglas Dale in Jefferson City. She was found guilty and sentenced to prison in Alton until the war was over.
Eliza J.Haynie, of Saline County, was charged not only with feeding and harboring guerillas, but also with hiding property stolen by the guerillas and with hiding rebel mail. She was tried before Colonel John S. Wolfe in Jefferson City and found guilty of the charge of hiding rebel mail. She, too, was sentenced to Alton.
Loyal residents responded to the threat of Confederate bushwhackers by forming a military company designed to “scour the country… to fight the bushwhackers...and to clean it of these thieves, plunderers and murderers.” Captain Frank Parker created Parker’s Rangers, and called on the young and middle-aged men who complained so much about the bushwhackers, but who were not themselves enlisted in the Federal forces to join. Noting that joining the company would give these men the chance to “show whether they were all gas or true mettle,” Parker encouraged men to enlist quickly.
By February 1865, the Advertiser could report with some satisfaction that “winter has driven the lawless marauders…to a more congenial hiding place” or to resume the guise of respectable citizens until the weather warmed. Apparently, the fearless guerillas or heartless criminals could face gunshots, but could not deal with a Missouri winter.