As the Civil War dragged on into the early autumn of 1864, the South’s armies were reeling on all fronts due to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign.
Grant’s forces met stiff resistance from the South’s beleaguered armies. But by September, the North had laid siege to the Confederate capital of Richmond, Va., and the rail center directly south at Petersburg. In the South’s midsection, Tennessee had been taken followed by the capture of Atlanta. All seemed lost for the South, but there still remained a will to survive and continue the fight.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his staff initiated plans to counter the Union advance. As Union Gen. William T. Sherman approached Atlanta, Confederate Gen. Sterling Price embarked upon an aggressive plan to re-enter Missouri with the objective of capturing St. Louis. His army departed from Camden, Ark., on Aug. 28 but advanced slowly and took almost a month before it reached Pilot Knob, Mo., south of St. Louis, on Sept. 26.
Price decided to attack a small Union contingent under the command of Gen. Thomas Ewing and in the process suffered 1,000 casualties he could ill afford, as opposed to going around and proceeding towards his objective. When he approached St. Louis, Price hesitated out of concern it harbored a superior force, turning instead to Jefferson City. Again, he hesitated and ended up at Westport, Mo., on Oct. 23, where his troops were defeated and retreated to Texas.
During Price’s Raid, he had summoned those Missourians still loyal to the Confederacy to join his ranks, with many following his request. He also went looking for the guerrillas, now under the combined command of Bloody Bill Anderson, George Todd and John Thrailkill, after their former leader, William Clarke Quantrill, had been run out of the gang in the early spring. The guerrillas had come back to Missouri after wintering in Texas and started raiding across the state north of the Missouri River.
The guerrillas, too, went looking for Price in hopes of connecting with him. Anderson and Todd approached the little town of Centralia. Several days before, the guerrillas had been outgunned by Union troops at Fayette, losing 13 men. At Centralia, Todd decided to stay behind, but Anderson went ahead in hopes of finding a newspaper in order to locate Price’s whereabouts.
As they swooped into the hamlet, they proceeded on their normal course of action dashing through the streets with guns blazing. Next, they started to loot the townsfolk and the stores. Suddenly, though, they came upon a building full of boots. Also, to their surprise it had a large vat of whiskey. After consuming their fair share of the spirits, they filled the newfound boots with the brew and headed back across town.
After frisking the stage, they heard the train approaching on its way to St. Joseph. They piled timbers on the track to prevent it from steaming by. The guerrillas fired at the train, knocking out the windows and killing two passengers. Frank James along with Anderson broke into the mail car and made off with $13,000.
Unfortunately, 23 unarmed soldiers on furlough from Sherman’s army after the capture of Atlanta were riding in the passenger car. These men were forced to get off the train and strip to their underwear. Anderson called out for a sergeant to be used as a hostage. Only one of the several sergeants stepped forward, Tom Goodman, who was immediately placed on a horse. But within a few minutes, Anderson ordered the execution of the remaining prisoners, even though they had been told they would not be harmed.
Afterwards, come of the bodies were sliced into pieces by the attackers’ swords. Others had their heads bludgeoned with gun butts even though they were dead. Several of the raiders stacked bodies on the railroad tracks and then made the engineer run the train forward and backwards over the remains. Following this mayhem, they burned the depot and set the train on fire, running it in reverse down the tracks. As if things could get any worse, another train entered the town, whereupon it was set on fire, too.
Anderson’s men left Centralia and headed out to rejoin Todd. Shortly after their departure, Maj. A.V.E. Johnson with a band of green recruits entered the town and saw the carnage. Against the advice of many townspeople, he took 120 of his men, while leaving 30 behind, and went off in pursuit of the guerrillas. He and his men would be no match against the hard-core, seasoned guerrillas. None of his men carried revolvers, only Enfield rifles. Their mounts were old with many having been plow horses. On the other hand, their opponents had the best steeds, carried five to six revolvers each, and some possessed repeating rifles.
Anderson, Todd and Thrailkill saw Johnson and his men approaching and quickly devised an ambush. As the guerrillas came into view, the major had his men dismount and take fire at the galloping horde, only to fire too high and miss many. Within a few minutes it was over, with all of Johnson’s men dead or dying. Jesse James, new to Anderson’s gang, killed Johnson by shooting him in the head. Before pulling his trigger, the legendary outlaw purportedly said, “I am the last person you will ever see again!”
What happened next has gone down in American history as probably one of the most sickening and shameful massacres to ever take place. The guerrillas fell upon the fallen like vultures. Immediately, they started carving up the bodies and rearranging the parts with others being scalped and castrated. Many of the heads were severed, placed on spikes and paraded around as trophies. A few of the guerrillas placed the heads on fence posts and reconfigured their mouths, as if conversing with each other. Some of the heads were used in a crude form of kickball. But the worst atrocity occurred when one of the victims, still painfully alive, had his genitals cut off and shoved into his wailing mouth.
In time, Anderson and his men tired of their merriment and retired to sleep off their day’s work. Sgt. Goodman bared witness to the massacre and later described it in detail, thereby giving future generations the actual story.
The year before, Quantrill and his gang had committed a similar attack on Lawrence, Kan., killing upwards of 200 unarmed civilians along with burning the town to the ground. Centralia, resulting in the deaths of 149 men, became known as the worst of the worst as the country became mortified at the sadistic butchering of the victims. For the guerrillas, they lived to fight another day, but not for long. As Price advanced on Westport, Anderson and Todd would be close by and at the battle’s end both would be dead. Anderson would be killed outside Albany, Mo., at what is now known as Orrick. His body would be dragged through the streets of Richmond, Mo., and later the townsfolk would cut off his head.
The sheer madness at Centralia can never be explained with any rationally. Some say it happened because of the alcohol that day, or the raiders’ earlier losses at Fayette. Others say it was due to the nature of the guerrilla war in Missouri. Centralia had been a peaceful little town on Sept. 27, 1864, until suddenly caught in harm’s way. Maybe things might have turned out differently, though, if only Anderson had not gone looking for a newspaper.
Reference and additional reading: Edward E. Leslie,
“The Devil Knows How to Ride.”
Joseph K. Houts Jr. is the chairman of the local Civil War Sesquicentennial Commemoration
Committee established by the St. Joseph Convention & Visitors Bureau. He is the author of two books on the Civil War, “Quantrill’s Thieves”
and “A Darkness Ablaze.”