The fearsome Missouri guerrilla ‘Bloody Bill’ Anderson more than merited his chilling nickname.
By Richard F. Welch
The guerrilla war that raged in Kansas and Missouri between 1861 and 1865 has always received more attention than its marginal effect on the outcome of the Civil War would seem to warrant. This derives partly from the post-war fame of many outlaws who learned their deadly craft in pro-Confederate bands during the conflict. The partisan warfare in Missouri was characterized by a savagery that far exceeded the war’s larger and more decisive battles, and the relatively small number of combatants allowed the struggle to assume a more personal character, resulting in the almost mythic reputations of such men as William Clarke Quantrill, Cole Younger and Jesse James.
Now Albert Castel, author of several works on the war in Kansas and Missouri, has joined fellow historian Thomas Goodrich to examine the murderous career of William “Bloody Bill” Anderson, the partisan leader who supplanted Quantrill as the leading bushwhacker chieftain and unleashed the most atrocity-laden campaigns in a region notorious for its brutality. The result of their labors, Bloody Bill Anderson: The Short, Savage Life of a Civil War Guerrilla (Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, Pa., 1998, $24.95), makes it clear that Anderson certainly deserved his gory nickname.
The book begins in September 1864. By then, Anderson was on track to become one of the leading Confederate guerrillas. Twenty-five years old, with long hair and a full beard, Anderson had already received a lengthy education in irregular warfare. Typical of the pro-Confederate bushwhackers, Anderson and his men were young, mostly in their 20s, and overwhelmingly from nonslaveholding families. Frequently, they had been driven to partisan commands by the depredations of the various Unionist forces that scourged pro-Southern sections of the state. Their success in harrying their Northern tormentors made them folk heroes among the pro-Confederate citizenry. But, as Castel and Goodrich point out, they paid a price for mastering an unusually vicious type of warfare. By the middle of 1864, bushwhacking was no longer a means to an end for Anderson and his followers. It had become an end unto itself.
Like Quantrill, Anderson was born into a Missouri family that was living in eastern Kansas when the war began. A family feud drove Anderson into Missouri, where his Southern sympathies led him to join Confederate guerrilla units already in operation. His first contact with Quantrill occurred when the partisan leader had Anderson’s horses taken from him as a punishment for robbing secessionist families, and their relationship remained strained thereafter.
By mid-1863, the guerrillas had virtually forced Regular Federal troops to hole up for safety inside towns, while the counties on both sides of the border were drastically depopulated due to the actions of the guerrillas and their pro-Union counterparts, the Redlegs. Unable to defeat the guerrillas in the field, Federal Brig. Gen. Thomas Ewing initiated increasingly harsh measures against the bushwhackers’ families in a vain attempt to bring them to heel.
Relatives of notorious guerrillas, including three of Anderson’s sisters, were placed under arrest in Federal-controlled Kansas City. In August 1863, the building in which they were confined collapsed, killing one sister and maiming and disfiguring the others. Anderson, who was then leading a band of 30 or 40 men, mentally snapped. Shortly thereafter he stormed into Lawrence, Kan., with Quantrill and singlehandedly killed 14 men and boys, more than any other guerrilla that day. “I’m here for revenge and I have got it,” he yelled on his way out of the burning town. But as Castel and Goodrich demonstrate in chilling detail, he never got enough revenge.
In the summer of 1864, Anderson, commanding about 100 men, set off on a summer raid that took him across 300 miles, cut the state’s only eastwest railroad and repeatedly severed telegraph communications. Towns were looted, Unionist civilians robbed or murdered, and pursuing Federal troops defeated, butchered or eluded. The violence took an increasingly depraved turn, as bodies of dead Federal soldiers were often scalped, skinned and castrated. The Federal commander in the area exhorted his men to exterminate Anderson, while newspaper editors now condemned him as an even greater fiend than Quantrill. One Missourian commented that Anderson resembled “the rider of the ‘pale horse’ in the Book of Revelation, death and hell literally followed in his train.” Anderson himself found his infamy satisfying. “I have killed Union soldiers until I have got sick of killing them,” he commented.
The most gripping part of the book relates the infamous Centralia, Mo., massacre, which was both Anderson’s greatest victory and worst atrocity. Drawing on firsthand accounts, Castel and Goodrich present the events in an almost hour-by-hour chronicle, drawing the reader deep into the blood-soaked nightmare. On September 27, 1864, a train laden with Federal troops going home on furlough was halted by Anderson’s men at Centralia, a stop on the North Missouri Railroad. Civilians were sent to one side of the train and solders were lined up on the other. After being forced to strip, the Union troops were brutally gunned down.
That afternoon Anderson ambushed a militia force that had been tracking him. Totally unnerved, most of the Union troops surrendered. The lucky ones were killed outright. Some of the dead were decapitated, their heads placed on their chests with their hands wrapped around them as if they were holding them. Some heads were put on different bodies. Altogether, 146 soldiers and three civilians were murdered at Centralia.
Shortly after the Centralia massacre, Anderson was finally killed in an ambush by Union militia. He was 26 years old. The pictures taken of him after death, holding three revolvers, with long, wild hair and a crazed expression on his face, help explain the horror he evoked in all those who had the misfortune to cross his path. In light of the one-man reign of terror he conducted, the authors conclude that Anderson’s death was a greater victory for the Union cause in Missouri than Maj. Gen. Sterling Price’s defeat at Westport. From a strategic standpoint that may be an exaggeration, but as Castel and Goodrich make abundantly clear, there is no way to exaggerate the murderous impact that Bloody Bill Anderson had on his home state. He, not William Quantrill, was the pure essence of Missouri’s 10-year-long guerrilla war.