There is no doubt that this letter is one of the most heartbreaking ones I have ever read from the Civil War era. On October 17 and 18, 1862, from the cells of the Palmyra Prison, Captain Thomas A. Sidner of the First Northeast Missouri Cavalry penned a letter to his friends and family, notifying them of his pending execution. In command of the District of Northeast Missouri, Col. John McNeil sentenced to death ten random Confederate prisoners from the Palmyra Prison in retaliation for the supposed murder of a local Union sympathizer. With no ties to the murder, Sidner was told that he was to be executed the next day for a crime he was not guilty of. Later known as the Palmyra Massacre, this act became one of the most infamous war crimes of the entire Civil War.
Back in the summer of 1862, McNeil was ordered by Brig. Gen. John Schofield to eliminate the growing threat of irregulars in northeastern Missouri, including around and near Palmyra. Following their defeat at Kirksville, Col. Joseph C. Porter and his Confederate cavalry brigade captured the town of Palmyra. Not only was their goal to capture and defeat Union occupiers there, but also to liberate Confederate prisoners and clear the region of Union soldiers in order for recruits to reach Rebel lines south of the Missouri River. While they were successful in seizing Palmyra, albeit temporarily before surrendering the town back to McNeil, they captured an old Union sympathizer named Andrew Allsman.
Becoming more of a liability than an asset, Porter ordered a detachment of his men to escort Allsman to Union lines or to Palmyra. Unfortunately, there is no record of what happened to Allsman, but many speculated he was murdered by Porter’s men. Nearly one month after the capture of Palmyra, Allsman was no where to be found. On behalf of McNeil, the Provost Marshal of Northeast Missouri issued a notice to Porter on October 8, stating that “unless said Andrew Allsman is returned unharmed to his family within ten days from date ten men, who have belonged to your band and unlawfully sworn by you to carry arms against the Government of the United States and who are now in custody, will be shot, as a meet reward for their crimes, among which is the illegal restraining of said Allsman his liberty, and, if not returned, presumptively aiding in his murder.”
Porter never received the notice and by October 17, ten Confederate prisoners were ordered to be executed – including Sidner.
In his letter, Sidner took time to reflect upon the injustice of his and his fellow Confederate prisoners’ deaths. He believed in God’s righteousness and everlasting justice that would ultimately prevail in heaven. However, nothing is more revealing in this letter than Sidner’s anger, frustration, and broken heart.
Dear Brothers sisters and Friends I seat my self for the last time to write you a few lines I am in good health but alas tomorrow is the day that is set apart for me to be carried away to another world. Oh I hope I will be received in heaven where Justice is done I have not had a trial and wont give me any chance for my life. Oh I hope God will forgive the unmerciful creatures that commithe this unpardonable act to take innocent men and shoot them for crimes that others have done we are to be shot for one man that J. C. Porter took away from here a man that I never saw in my life Oh is this Justice the Lord in Heaven knows it is not Just Oh can it be helped No Mortal man can do any good by pleading no one but God can do any thing for us. brothers and Sisters try and be good in the future try and lead a pious and religous life Oh do not delay long you know not when you are to be called away like my self. Oh that I could have the few years to live again I would live a different life but alas the moment is drawing near for me to leave you all to never meet again only in Heaven where all righteous people meet to never part again Ellen Oh that I could get to see you once more but as it is impossible for us to meet here on Earth I hope we will in Heaven Sister take care of your self and little boy and kiss him for me and tell him good bye for your brother will be no more on this Earth in a few hours. Oh my mind is so flustrated that I cannot write I cant collect hardly a sentence nor spell a word right but read it the best you can and think it is from your brother. Ellen I want you to have my Valise that I have with me and keep it in rememberance of me Tell Burwell Good bye Noah Mary Mollie Johnie Frankie and Lenah Good bye to you all forever on this Earth Jacob is with me I will tell him good bye my self take good care of your selves and try and get along the best you can through this troublesome world Tell Uncle Thorntons Family good bye and all enquiring friends I have some little money with me divide it to suit your selves for I wont have any more use for it Boys I want you all three to pay my debts if you can I dont any blemish on my character after I am gone Oh little did I think that I would be caught and shot if I had they never would have kept me this long I have had severel chances to get away from them but I thought they would do justice and consequently I stayed and I now see what they are going to do with me Oh that I had only known that they were going to shoot me I would of left them severel days ago Oct the 18th 1862 Good bye this morning to you all brothers Sisters Relations and friends I have to tell all Good bye for the last time I am to be shot at 1 Oclock this evening The federels wont let Jacob come up to see me I got to shake hands with him this morning I [do] not know that I will get to see him any more but if I do [ms illegible] good bye for me I can only say farewell forever on this Earth but have brighter prospects for the future have trust in God and you will reap his reward in Heaven farewell farewell farewell T A Sidner Capt Oct the 18th 1862
In the afternoon of October 18, 1862, the ten prisoners were lined up sitting on their own coffins in front of the firing squad of thirty Missouri State Militiamen. All but two refused bandages over their eyes. They awaited their doomed fate.
According to the Palmyra Courier newspaper, “The most noted of the ten was Capt. Thomas A. Sidner, of Monroe County, whose capture at Shelbyville, in the disguise of a woman, we related several weeks since. He was now elegantly attired in a suit of black broadcloth, with a white vest. A luxurious growth of beautiful hair rolled down upon his shoulders, which, with his fine personal appearance, could not but bring to mind the handsome but vicious Absalom. There was nothing especially worthy of note in the appearance of the others.”
When the firing squad unleashed their wrath upon them, “Captain Sidner sprang forward and fell with his head toward the soldiers, his face upward, his hands clasped upon his breast and the left leg drawn half way up. He did not move again, but died immediately. He had requested the soldiers to aim at his heart, and they obeyed but too implicitly. The other seven were not killed outright, so the reserves were called in, who dispatched them with their revolvers.”
The events at Palmyra earned McNeil the nickname – “The Butcher of Palmyra” – a name that would mark his role in one of the most infamous massacres in American memory. Though a tragic incident for the Confederates, the massacre reveals the complex nature of civil war in northeastern Missouri, particularly between Federal authorities and irregular Confederate bands. Many times, as we see here, authorities punished those who would have an ultimate effect on the perpetrators. Today, you can still visit Palmyra, Missouri, where there is a large monument dedicated to the ten victims on the grounds of the Marion County Courthouse. On it are the ten prisoners’ names and a Confederate soldier atop.
Thomas A. Sidner Letter, October 17 – 18, 1862, Manuscript Collection, The State Historical Society of Missouri (Columbia, MO).
“Horrible Federal Outrage — Ten Confederates Murdered,” Palmyra Courier, October 24, 1862.