This week marked the 154th anniversary of one of the most notorious atrocities during the Civil War. At Centralia, Missouri, Captain “Bloody Bill” Anderson’s band of approximately 80 guerrilla troops converged on the town, hoping to cause damage to Federal troops, as Confederate Major General Sterling Price and his 12,000-man Army of Missouri moved north towards St. Louis. After looting the town, a train along the North Missouri Railroad line was halted by Anderson’s men. They forced everyone off the train, including roughly 24 Union troops returning home from the campaigns in Georgia. After burning the train, the Union troops were massacred. Three companies of the 39th Missouri Infantry under the command of Major A.V.E. Johnston were deployed to the town and were annihilated by Anderson troops along Young’s Creek. Historians and witnesses alike have described the bloody September day at Centralia, Missouri as “an incredibly brutal day” and one of the “most monstrous and inhuman atrocities ever perpetuated by beings wearing the form of man.”
William F. Switzler, a journalist and historian from Boone County, recalled the horror of that day in the book, History of Boone County:
It was the wildest and the most merciless, and in proportion to the number of the force vanquished, the most destructive of human life. Out of a total force of only about ninety, which was in line of battle, and thirty others detailed to hold horses in the rear, one hundred and eight fell before the remorseless revolvers of Todd’s and Anderson’s men–men who, fresh from the horrible scenes of blood and pillage and fire. at Centralia that morning, were prepared for other scenes of carnage on a larger scale in the afternoon. To such men, with appetites whetted for blood and suffering and death, the carnage at Singleton’s farm was a refreshment and a joy, and perhaps a pleasant memory. The pistol shots, the yells, the shouts and the cheers of the victors, mingled with the screams, groans, and prayers of the vanquished–the exciting spectacle of charging horses, of men waving weapons and firing, of men fleeing and others pursuing, all made a scene without a parallel. No quarter was shown to a single Federal. Capt. Smith caught a guerrilla’s horse by the bridle: “I always spare prisoners,” he called out loudly; “I never do,” cried the guerrilla, fiercely, and shot the officer dead. No quarter would have been shown the guerrillas had they been taken prisoners, or had the fight gone against them, and they expected none. True, they might not have been shot down on the field, but they would in that case have been court-martialed, and probably shot for the cowardly massacre of the morning.
Lieutenant Colonel Dan Drapper of the 39th Missouri Infantry wrote in his official report of that day the sadness he as a commander felt when he arrived on the scene of his dead men:
After the volley they came on and when within 100 yards, the men began to break, many of them not firing the second shot, and none of them more than that. It then became a scene of murder and outrage at which the heart sickens. Most of them were beaten over the head, seventeen of them were scalped, and one man had his privates cut off and placed in his mouth. Every man was shot in the head.
In 1888, E.J. Smith who served in Company B, 1st Iowa Cavalry, reflected on the massacre that day, that took the lives of his fellow comrades:
All in all, the Centralia massacre marks the most brutal episode of the war, unless it is the Lawrence massacre. These two stand out as monuments to prove that the men who were guilty of them were the greatest fiends ever found in this country or any other.
Remembering the Centralia massacre and battle means we remember the brutal nature of war, particularly in the Civil War, not a glorified perspective of war we have typically seen in the narrative of the war. Missouri’s war was messy, inglorious, sad, and devastating. The 39th Missouri Infantry’s three companies lost 98% of their men killed, not just casualties, which is a higher percentage loss than any other unit in a single engagement of the Civil War. It is also important to remember why these atrocities occurred. Revenge was a primary motivating factor by the men of Anderson’s command. Today, you can find several markers noting the locations of the battle and massacre, but there is no preservation work in that area. Centralia is not even listed in the American Battlefield Protection Programs detailed study of important battlefields. Nonetheless, it is important we share these stories, like the ones about, that describe how real and unforgettable such atrocities, like Centralia, were to the veterans, their families, and civilian witnesses.
“Fighting Them Over: What Our Veterans Have to Say About Their Old Campaigns: The Centralia Massacre.” The National Tribune. Washington, DC. August 23, 1888.
Goodman, Thomas M. A Thrilling Record, Founded on Facts and Observations Obtained During Ten Days’ Experience with Colonel William T. Anderson (the Notorious Guerrilla Chieftain) by Sergeant Thos. M. Goodman, the Only Survivor of the Inhuman Massacre at Centralia, Mo., September 27, 1864, and an Eyewitness of the Brutal and Barbarous Treatment by the Guerrillas of the Dead, Wounded, and Captured of Major Johnston’s Command. Hawleyville, Iowa: Goodman, 1868.
Switzler, William F. “The Centralia Massacre: A Complete Account.” The Columbia Daily Tribune. Centralia, Missouri. September 27, 2014.