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General Jo Shelby’s March

by Anthony Arthur; Random House

Confederate General Jo Shelby refused to surrender when the Civil War ended— which led him and his men down a twisting road unusual even in America’s many strange annals.

The proud, stubborn but capable Missouri cavalry commander persuaded several hundred of his troops to leave their defeated South for Mexico. Why? Ironically, most of these “bitter-enders,” adamantly opposed to the South’s capitulation and living under Northern rule, believed in European-style monarchy. Since Mexico owed money to France, Napoleon III engaged in a bit of New World imperialism while America was preoccupied with the War Between the States and installed Maximilian, a lesser Hapsburg, as Mexico’s puppet leader. That fueled a civil war between republicans and monarchists.

The ex-Confederates confronted numerous obstacles from the outset. Union commanders wanted to see Shelby punished. Indian ambushes plagued both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Their wives and children did not want to be left behind. They lacked supplies and cash. Still, they crossed the border and hoped for the best as they set out on a 1,200-mile trail. Maximilian’s response was lukewarm. Defections, illness and combat casualties diminished their number, but for the most part their fighting capability remained intact. So between 1865 and 1867, Shelby and some of his troops received land and favors from the erstwhile emperor, until his overthrow and execution.

How did Joseph Orville Shelby get here? Born in 1830, the patrician Shelby made the surprising transformation “from privileged youth to border ruffian,” as Arthur puts it. His father married into money, twice, and left a substantial trust fund for Jo, who used his inheritance to open several businesses in Waverly, Mo. But defending states’ rights and slavery led him to violence. He took up Bleeding Kansas marauding with irregulars like the James Boys; once war commenced, he accepted a commission and fought skillfully in the field.

Forced to leave Mexico after Maximilian’s demise, Shelby returned to Missouri, where he farmed, reentered social life and testified on Frank James’ behalf, getting him off charges of railroad robbery. Finally, in 1892, despite opposition from Easterners, President Grover Cleveland appointed the 62- year-old U.S. Marshal for Western Missouri—and Shelby unveiled yet another side. He hired a black deputy, praised John Brown and embraced the Progressive Era. His eccentric journey ended in 1897, with a rare across-the-divide outpouring of esteem and affection.


Originally published in the October 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here