Remembering the Confederate dead

Next year marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. As state and local planning committees gear up for a host of events, a quiet spot in western Missouri has been commemorating the war for more than a century.

The Confederate Memorial State Historic Site in Higginsville, 53 miles east of Kansas City, opened as a retirement home for Confederate veterans in 1891. More than 1,600 former soldiers and their families lived amid quiet forests and placid lakes. Remarkably, the last one didn’t die until 1950. John T. Graves was a veteran of General J.O. Shelby’s Iron Brigade, the best cavalry raiders west of the Mississippi. The Iron Brigade saw countless battles throughout the war but Graves survived them all, to die in the modern world at the age of 108.

Today the Confederate Memorial is still a peaceful spot. You can stroll through the woods where old men once hobbled along swapping war stories, or fish in lakes that fed more than a regiment of veterans. The chapel is open to visitors, as is the cemetery, where the tombstones preserve the names of some of the best, and worst, men who fought for the South.

The most notorious rebel to be buried here is William Quantrill. A bandit turned Confederate guerrilla, Quantrill was the terror of the border states, looting and burning civilian homes as much as he fought Union troops. A young Frank James, brother of Jesse James, rode with Quantrill and participated in his biggest atrocity–the burning of Lawrence, Kansas, where Quantrill’s band killed about 200 mostly unarmed men and boys. Quantrill was killed in the last days of the war in Kentucky. Part of his body is buried in Louisville, some of his remains are interred in his hometown of Dover, Ohio, and the Higginsville memorial has three arm bones, two leg bones, and a lock of hair.

More honorable soldiers are also here, including several from the Iron Brigade as well as other units that saw action in every theater of the war. In fact, every Confederate state but one is represented here. Many veterans moved to Missouri after the war to farm its rich, underpopulated land, so a wide cross-section of the Confederacy ended their days at the home.

So if you’re driving through Missouri on I-70, take a quick detour and check out a piece of history. And keep an eye out next year for lots of Civil War articles here on Gadling to mark the 150th anniversary.


Jesse James robs his first bank

The Civil War was over. In Missouri, defeated Confederate soldiers trudged home and tried to pick up their lives. This was harder in Missouri than many states. Many discovered their land had been seized during the war for nonpayment of taxes, and now Union veterans farmed their fields. New Missouri laws forbade ex-Confederates from voting, holding public office, teaching, or even preaching. Former rebels were left bitter and marginalized.

Former guerrillas like Frank and Jesse James felt even more bitter. Their war had been more brutal than most people’s, and adjusting to defeat and peacetime wasn’t in their nature. Jesse bore at least three wounds from the war. The tip of the middle finger of his left hand had been shot off. The most accepted story of how this happened was that he shot it off himself while loading a pistol. Being a good Baptist, Jesse wouldn’t swear even in this situation, and shouted out “Dingus!”, which became his nickname for the rest of his life. The second injury was a bullet through the chest courtesy of a German immigrant who objected to having his saddle stolen.

The third injury is a source of mystery. In 1865, as the war was winding down, Jesse got shot through the lung. Some reports say he got this in a gunfight, but Jesse himself later spread the story that he was shot by Union troops while trying to surrender at the end of the war. This story served two purposes: it made him look like the victim of Yankee oppression, and it acted as an alibi for the first daylight bank robbery in the United States in peacetime.

At 2pm on February 13, 1866, it was snowing in Liberty, Missouri. The Clay County Savings Association was open as usual. The bank’s cashier, Greenup Bird, sat at his desk. His son William sat at another desk to his left. Nobody else was in the bank when two men wearing Union army overcoats walked in and warmed their hands by the stove. After a moment one went up to the counter and asked for change for a ten-dollar bill. William got up to help the customer and was greeted with a pistol pointed at his face. The other man also drew his revolver and both leapt over the counter, telling the astonished father and son that they better be quiet or else.

%Gallery-108291%One robber gave William a smack with his gun and pushed him into the vault, demanding the money. Meanwhile the second robber told Greenup to give him the cash on his desk. Once they’d taken all the money, the robbers pushed the two bank workers into the vault and shut the door. They neglected to lock it, however, and after a few tense moments Greenup and William came out, opened a window, and shouted that the bank had been robbed.

At that moment a group of about a dozen mounted men galloped past. One fired at a pedestrian who was also sounding the alarm. This was George Wymore, a student at Liberty College. Ironically, one of the founders of this college was none other than Robert Sallee James, Frank and Jesse’s father. The bullet tore through George’s body and he fell to the sidewalk dead.

Townspeople quickly formed a posse, but the robbers got away. Back at the bank, Greenup and William tallied their losses: almost $60,000, more than $3.5 million in today’s value. There was no insurance in those days, no FDIC. Many farmers and merchants lost their life savings. Greenup and William lost their jobs when the bank failed.

Everyone thought that ex-guerrillas had done the deed. The robbers’ trail led to a crossing of the Missouri River frequently used by bushwhackers during the war. Plus everyone knew the guerrillas rode fine horses and carried revolvers just like the robbers had. Several suspects were named, all former members of the bushwhacker band of Bloody Bill Anderson. Frank and Jesse were part of that band too. Most scholars of the James gang are convinced that Frank helped rob the bank that day, but did Jesse? The two leading James biographers disagree. Ted Yeatman, author of Frank and Jesse James: The Story Behind the Legend, thinks Jesse was still bedridden from his lung wound. T.J. Stiles, author of Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, thinks Jesse exaggerated the seriousness of his injury in order to have an alibi for his early crimes.

Whatever the truth, the robbery has become part of the Jesse James legend. The Jesse James Bank Museum in Liberty has restored the bank to what it was like in 1866, complete with the original vault and safe. An easy day trip from Kansas City and the Jesse James farm at Kearney, it offers a glimpse into a time when the wounds of the Civil War were still raw.

So what was the war like for Frank and Jesse James? We’ve already looked at Jesse James in the Civil War, but what was it like for his older brother Frank, who was in the war from the very beginning? Come back tomorrow for that part of the story.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: On the trail of Jesse James.

Coming up next: Frank James: the war years!

Four forgotten Civil War battlefields

Civil War battlefields are some of the most popular tourist destinations in the U.S. The most famous battlefields, such as Gettysburg and Shiloh, attract hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. But there are many other battlefields that are just as interesting but little-known outside their local area. Here are four that any history buff will enjoy. You’ll notice all of them are west of the Mississippi River. After the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg fell on July 4, 1863, the Union gained control of the Mississippi, cutting the Confederacy in half. From then on the fight in the West was practically a separate war. It gets little press in comparison to the war in the East, but it’s just as interesting.

Lexington (September 13-20, 1861): September 1861 was a hopeful time for the Confederacy. General Sterling Price had defeated a large Union force at Wilson’s Creek in southwest Missouri and now marched through central Missouri gathering recruits. At the river town of Lexington he found a Union force under Col. James Mulligan defending the stone building of the Masonic College on a hill overlooking town. Mulligan had built earthworks all around the hill. Price’s inexperienced troops had trouble taking this tough position until they hit on the idea of lining up bales of hemp, the local cash crop, and rolling them uphill as a mobile wall. Bales of weed are apparently bulletproof and as the fort became hemmed in Mulligan had no choice but to surrender. This early rebel victory proved short lived, and soon Price had to retreat to Arkansas in the face of superior forces.

The Battle of Lexington State Historic Site has a good museum and remnants of the original earthworks. The town has many interesting old buildings. The courthouse has a cannonball lodged in one of its pillars!

Fort Davidson (September 27, 1864): By the autumn of 1864 the war was going badly for the Confederacy, especially in the West. Other than some raids and constant guerrilla activity, the rebels had been pushed out of Missouri and northern Arkansas. General Sterling Price hit upon a bold plan to march north out of Arkansas and take St. Louis just before the presidential election. This, he hoped, would make Lincoln lose, or at least take pressure off the beleaguered Confederates east of the Mississippi.

His first stop was Fort Davidson in the Arcadia Valley in southern Missouri. While some of his officers recommended bypassing the fort, Price wanted to give his troops an early boost in morale and capture supplies. The rebels charged across an open plain into withering musket fire and blasts of grapeshot. By the end of the day almost a thousand men lay dead around the fort, and the Union troops still held their ground. That night the defenders snuck out under cover of darkness, blew up the fort’s magazine, and slipped away into the night. This disastrous defeat so weakened and delayed Price’s army that he gave up trying to take St. Louis. His invasion became just another raid as he made a long loop through the state, ending in defeat at the Battle of Westport near Kansas City. Price’s invasion was the last major Confederate campaign west of the Mississippi.

Fort Davidson State Historic Site preserves the fort’s earthen ramparts and has an excellent museum about Price’s Raid.


Glorieta Pass (March 26-28, 1862): Throughout the war the Confederacy suffered from a naval blockade. The rebel army in Texas hoped that if they could take the sparsely defended Southwest they could march all the way to California. There they could exploit California’s gold mines and trade with the world with little interference from the Union. An army of about 2,500 hardy Texans and New Mexicans headed out. At first all went well and they captured several Union forts and towns, but waiting for them at Glorieta Pass in New Mexico was a determined force of local Unionists and soldiers from Colorado. The pass was narrow and restricted on both sides by steep slopes. The fighting raged over rugged terrain and the Confederates looked like they were going to finally force their way through the pass when they discovered all of their supply wagons and horses had been destroyed by some Colorado troops who had climbed over the mountains and snuck behind the rebel position. The Confederates had no choice but to retreat in a grueling, thirsty slog back to Texas. The dreams of a Confederacy stretching from sea to shining sea died at the “Gettysburg of the West.”

The battlefield is part of the Pecos National Historical Park and can only be visited as part of a park ranger guided tour. That’s a good thing, because the rangers really know their stuff and will point all the important spots.

Picacho Pass (April 15, 1862): During the Confederate campaign in New Mexico a small detachment of 54 Texans rode to Tucson and claimed it for the Confederacy. A Union column of 2,350 cavalry set out from California to take it back along with the rest of the Southwest. As they approached Tucson, a dozen cavalrymen and a scout ranged ahead to see what the rebels were doing. Fifty miles northwest of town they came across ten rebels camped at Picacho Pass, a towering mesa overlooking the northwestern approach to Tucson. There was a brief firefight in which three Union soldiers were killed and three wounded. Three rebels were captured and two were wounded. Considering the small size of the forces involved, in terms of percentages this was one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War! The rebels hurried back to Tucson to tell their commander that the Union army was on the way, and they retreated to Texas. The Battle of Picacho Pass is considered by many to be the westernmost battle of the Civil War.

Picacho Peak State Park is a fun day trip from Tucson or Phoenix. There’s nothing to see from the actual battle, but you can clamber up the peak and look out over a sweeping view of the Arizona desert, marred by the nearby Central Arizona Project and Interstate 10. The park has an annual reenactment.

Do you have a favorite, lesser-known battlefield? Tell us about it in the comments section!

Are looters saving Civil War history or destroying it?

“This button is from the coat of a Confederate soldier–or a Union soldier” is something one might hear at a Civil War relic trade show and sale.

Or perhaps you might hear this at county historical society museum. Civil War relics are often among those items passed down through generations. At a museum, they are displayed in a case for everyone to enjoy instead of being tucked in a box in a bedroom closet.

Guns, cannonballs, swords, bullets, uniforms–if it’s from the Civil War, and you have it, someone wants it. Increasingly, that’s what the U.S. National Park Service is finding out. Yesterday there was a story on NPR about the looting problem in National Parks. People loot the parks then sell their catch to collectors.

Here’s a case in point. At the Fredericksburgh & Spotsylvania National Military Park, a ranger found 467 holes dug in the ground where a battle took place when the Union soldiers led by Grant tried to flank the Confederates.

When the guys who were doing the looting were caught, they had 200 relics with them. Naughty guys.

Although digging holes in national property to steal loot seems like an obvious wrong, there are some who think, dig away. I’m pretty sure those who are pro digging think that digging should be more methodically conducted than destroying the land. They don’t think that relics should be left underground to rot away forever.

Those who say dig it up believe that if the relics are removed, they can be displayed and preserved for everyone to learn from and enjoy. The National Park Service, at least the ranger interviewed in the story, disagrees with the dig it up mentality. He believes the relics belong where they are since they are part of the battlefield, thus part of history as is.

Regardless of the ranger’s desires, it is hard to stop looters in National Parks because there is only one ranger per every 56,000 acres. This means that treasures like petroglyphs, plants and other relics are also in danger of being taken.

Personally, I’m intrigued that under the ground of Civil War battlefields there are still buttons that soldiers once wore. It makes their presence seem more real. [To listen to NPR story, click here.]

By the way, all relics you see are not stolen. This is a problem with some relics.