Bloody Bill Anderson: The Short, Savage Life of a Civil War Guerrilla, by Albert Castel and Thomas Goodrich, Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, 800-732-3669, 192 pages, $24.95.
Americans like to think of their Civil War as a gentlemen’s disagreement, remarkably free from the barbarity and senseless killing that characterized revolutions in other parts of the world. Such a naive interpretation supports the comforting but distorted view of the American Civil War as a conflict between brothers, kindred spirits torn apart by blundering politicians. If anything, Northerners and Southerners saw each other as two distinct and antagonistic races by 1861. Any lingering spirit of a shared Americanism vanished as soon as the first Union soldier touched Southern soil. Reconciliation came long after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, when the nation participated in the highly nationalistic Spanish American War. Postwar images of Confederate and Union veterans shaking hands made for a sentimental conclusion to Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary (with the appropriate folksy music playing in the background), but those images obscure the vengeful spirit that motivated both sides to commit heinous war crimes.
Of late, historians have made a concerted effort to strip away the romantic veneer of the Civil War. In Bloody Bill Anderson: The Short, Savage Life of a Civil War Guerrilla, Albert Castel and Thomas Goodrich fit into this recent trend to resurrect the “real war.” They offer a gritty, brutally realistic portrait of William Anderson, the ruffians who followed him, and their seemingly wanton acts of destruction and murder in Missouri and Kansas.
Anderson learned the bloody trade of bushwhacking under the notorious William Clarke Quantrill. He probably would have remained a shadowy, secondary figure in the partisan wars of Missouri if Federal authorities had not arrested two of his sisters as Confederate spies. In the summer of 1863, the sisters were incarcerated in Kansas City when the prison collapsed, crushing one of them. The other was disfigured and crippled for life. As an act of revenge, on October 21, Anderson attacked Unionist Lawrence, Kansas, with some 450 guerrillas under Quantrill. They killed at least 150 unarmed men and boys. Anderson slaughtered 14 people, more than any of the other guerrilla leaders.
The tragic death of Anderson’s sister and the subsequent destruction of Lawrence, Castel and Goodrich argue, marked the emergence of the legendary “Bloody Bill” Anderson. From that moment forward, he ruthlessly hunted down and murdered Northern soldiers and Union sympathizers. He responded to every plea of mercy with a bullet. Killing enemy soldiers, the authors argue, “became an end in itself, one driven by a bloodlust so strong that sometimes Anderson would foam at the mouth and sob because he could not continue pumping bullets into still more blue-uniformed victims.” Despite the stylistic excesses of this passage, which suggests that Anderson was truly a rabid Confederate, Castel and Goodrich have correctly pinpointed the origin of “Bloody Bill’s” rage.
Unfortunately, Castel and Goodrich’s emphasis on revenge results in a one-dimensional portrait of Anderson. He resembles a serial killer, more than a soldier. They do not see the complex motivations behind his savagery and how his actions fit within the context of the unorganized conflict between Unionist and secessionist partisans who fought for control of Missouri.
Although no one could deny that Anderson was a cold-blooded murderer, his violent acts reflect a consistent and unmistakable pattern of support for slavery and the Confederacy. As the authors admit, Anderson and his fellow bushwhackers had strong family ties to slaveholding families from Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Before the war, they equated free-soilism in Kansas with abolitionism. Anderson’s hatred of anything that smacked of abolitionism influenced his wartime thinking. In almost every instance he purposefully attacked Federal soldiers or Unionists. Lustful rage did not prevent him from carefully selecting his targets. He did not strike indiscriminately. In an 1864 raid on Glasgow, Missouri, for instance, Anderson captured and tortured a Union man because he had freed all of his slaves. After Anderson nearly beat the man to death, he bitterly remarked: “Yes, you damned old coon, you have set all your negroes free.”
To argue that Anderson always acted from higher political purposes would be a ridiculous claim, but not all of his violent acts were mindless. A more balanced view of Anderson is needed, one that would have required the authors to carefully distinguish between military, political, and criminal acts.
Shortly after the Lawrence massacre, Anderson left Quantrill. He then launched his own campaign against Missouri Unionists during the summer of 1864. The most notorious incident occurred at Centralia on September 27, when he slaughtered and mutilated some 150 soldiers, including some 25 unarmed men who were dragged off a train and executed along the tracks. Later that fall, Anderson’s men served as scouts for Confederate Generals Sterling Price and Joseph O. Shelby. The Federals ambushed his men on October 24, and Anderson fell while charging the enemy. He died instantly, not in some tortuous execution like most of his victims. His death was celebrated by his enemies, who exhibited a photo of his dead body.
Castel and Goodrich deserve high praise for offering an honest portrait of partisan warfare in Missouri and Kansas. But in the end, their overall interpretation of “Bloody Bill” Anderson falls short. While fighting for the Confederacy, Anderson could act like a criminal, a military officer, or a political leader. Like many other bushwhackers and partisan leaders who roamed the mountains of eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina, and northern Georgia, Anderson should not be viewed simply as a bandit or villain. Despite their barbarous conduct, men like “Bloody Bill” fought for a community and a way of life that was inextricably tied to ideology and politics.
Peter S. Carmichael
Western Carolina University