The Autobiography of Samuel S. Hildebrand: The Renowned Missouri Bushwacker
edited by Kirby Ross
Missouri bushwhacker Samuel Hildebrand found refuge in a dank cavern after an exhausting all-night escape from his Federal pursuers. During the daylight hours, he stayed underground, where he was joined by comrades and sympathetic allies, one of whom informed Hildebrand that Union troops had executed his brother Henry.
News of his brother’s death stunned Hildebrand, who had already lost two other siblings to Union raiders. Even his family farm had suffered from the wrath of Northern vigilante groups; it lay in ruins, leaving his family homeless and destitute.
Feelings of rage did not immediately fill Samuel Hildebrand’s heart, however, nor did thoughts of revenge consume his mind. For some time Hildebrand remained quiet, strangely calm, contemplating the meaning of a Civil War that in his native Missouri had degenerated into indiscriminate butchery and indescribable savagery.
Suddenly he was struck by an epiphany: “I determined to sell my life as dearly as possible,” he recalled in his 1870 memoir titled Autobiography of Samuel S. Hildebrand: The Renowned Missouri Bushwhacker, “and from that moment wage a war of fire and blood against my persecutors, while one should last, or until I was numbered with the dead.”
An inspired Hildebrand ran toward the mouth of the cavern, screaming revenge like a madman, his war cry reverberating throughout the earthen chamber. When he exited the cave, he plunged into a dark world of remorseless killing that resulted in a murderous campaign across Missouri, earning him a reputation second only to that of William C. Quantrill and “Bloody” Bill Anderson.
Hildebrand’s killing spree contributed to a guerrilla war that few Americans today associate with a civil conflict they prefer to view as a noble but tragic event that pitted brother against brother. Images of valor and bravery in battles between organized armies should not obscure the war of terror that engulfed regular soldiers, irregular partisans and civilians in Missouri and neighboring Kansas.
Those bitter confrontations originated in antebellum conflicts within local communities between antislavery and proslavery forces. The battles continued unabated after Fort Sumter under “official” sanction by two warring nations. As Hildebrand freely admitted, he was a soldier wearing gray, but he preyed upon Union troops to settle personal scores against former neighbors, not to advance the policies of Richmond authorities.
Hildebrand’s memoir carefully outlines an endless trail of murderous exploits, remarkable for its brutal honesty and graphic detail. In fact, it is the dry, clinical descriptions of these vengeful operations that make Hildebrand’s writings so disturbing. Nothing better captures the coldblooded impulses of this bushwhacker than the nickname he gave his “faithful” weapon, “Kill-devil.”
There is not a whiff of remorse in his autobiography, but like writers of all memoirs, Hildebrand seeks history’s forgiveness. He insists that neighborhood enemies had declared war on him first and that his ensuing actions were justifiable and even in keeping with standard military practices. He writes: “My enemies say that I am a ‘Bushwacker.’ Very well, what is a ‘Bushwhacker’? He is a man who shoots his enemies. What is a regular army but a conglomerate mass of Bushwhackers? But we frequently conceal ourselves in the woods, and take every advantage! So do the regular armies. But a Bushwhacker will slip up and shoot a man in the night! Certainly, and a regular army will slip up and shoot a thousand.”
Reading the Autobiography of Samuel S. Hildebrand, which has recently been republished by the University of Arkansas Press, raises intriguing moral issues about the nature of war. In the process it reminds us that the United States is not unlike other nations in the world that have endured unspeakable war crimes in the pursuit of democracy.
Originally published in the August 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.