Castel, Albert, and Tom Goodrich. Bloody Bill Anderson: The Short, Savage Life
of a Civil War Guerrilla. Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1998.
Missouri has long been considered one of the bloodiest and savage arenas during the Civil War. Men like William Anderson spread fear throughout the land with killing sprees that could make iron spines shake. Albert Castel and Tom Goodrich give an intense, frame by frame account of the bushwhacker band in their book, Bloody Bill Anderson: The Short, Savage Life of a Civil War Guerrilla. This is no ordinary biography, but a detailed account, no less gory than a horror film, and much more disturbing because Bloody Bill was no actor. The author’s focus quite pointedly on September 27, 1864, giving a minute-by-minute account of the notorious Centralia massacre.
Both authors are well versed in the American Civil War. Albert Castel is a respected historian and his book Decision in the West: The Atlanta Campaign of 1864 won the esteemed Lincoln Prize and was named one of the 400 Most Notable Books of the Year by the New York Times Book Review and one of the 100 Best Books on the Civil War by Civil War Magazine. Also by Castel are General Sterling Price and the Civil War in the West and The Presidency of Andrew Johnson. Raised in Kansas and Missouri, Tom Goodrich is a graduate of Washburn University and has written, not only on the Civil War period, but has books on the Indian Wars, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and World War II. Works by Goodrich include Bloody Dawn: The Story of the Lawrence Massacre, Black Flag: Guerrilla Warfare on the Western Border, 1861-1865, Scalp Dance: Indian Warfare on the High Plains, 1865-1879, and he also wrote a telling history of Kansas pre-Civil War, War To the Knife: Bleeding Kansas, 1854-1861.
Castel and Goodrich partnered in writing this book because, in their words, “…why not?” (p. vii) Instead of romanticizing the guerrilla war bands the way other authors and television programs sometimes do, they are straightforward with the information and hold nothing back. They neither praise nor condemn Anderson’s actions and those of his comrades but give the reader enough factual history to decide oneself if they were serial killer monsters, or just men taking advantage of the war. “It is often an ugly story, sometimes a tragic one, but at all times it is dramatic, for nowhere was the Civil War so savage as it was in Missouri, and nowhere did it produce a protagonist more savage than Bloody Bill Anderson.” (p. viii)
Anderson was born in 1839, his tombstone reads 1840, but that is a mistake. His family moved no less than four times before settling in Kansas in 1855. While his father was moderately prosperous in his grocery business. William was not satisfied with the limited means and made extra money selling stolen horses and mules back and forth along the Kansas –Missouri line. His brother Jim also helped William with his shady business. The brothers got into a fight and killed two men in 1862, and that is when they decided to move their business solely to Missouri.
They became known as bushwhackers, which was just another term used for backwoodsman and was applied to Confederate guerrillas who also dabbled in private looting. Even though the brothers and that of their mostly Kansas band, declared themselves Confederates, they plundered both Union civilians and pro-Southern. This caught the attention of the largest chieftain and most successful partisan band in western Missouri, William Clarke Quantrill. A lieutenant of Quantrill, William H. Gregg wrote, “At once he sent forth a detachment that apprehended Bill and Jim, took away their horses, and warned them to be more discriminating henceforth in their depredations or else they would be killed.” (p. 19)
The brothers then shifted their attention to other sections of western Missouri. For over a year they raided into Kansas, terrorizing federal troops and Unionist civilians. Guerrilla warfare was never more frightening as these men killed and pillaged in surprise attacks before eluding their pursuers. “Bushwhacker incursions into Kansas became so frequent and devastating that late in May, Kansas newspapers reported that all the state’s border counties from the Kansas River south to Fort Scott were virtually depopulated.” (p. 23) At this stage of the war, the author’s note, the Federals rarely apprehended a bushwhacker for any reason other than to execute them.
The same day Quantrill’s brigands ambushed Westport with overwhelming results, Brig. Gen. Thomas Ewing Jr assumed command of the District of the Border, which comprised west Missouri and most of Kansas. The author’s tell that the loss of fourteen soldiers at Westport was a demoralizing blow and Ewing decided then that the campaign against bushwhackers must take precedent. He chose similar tactics the guerrillas used, and surprise attacked where they least expected; their families and friends. “Starting in July, per his orders, Union troops arrested nine western Missouri women on charges of spying for and otherwise aiding Confederate partisans.” (p. 26) Among the nine were Mary Ellen and Josephine Anderson along with their ten-year-old sister Janie who had no one else to look after her and decided to go too.
The prisoners were being held in the three-story home of painter George Caleb Bingham’s, which was turned into a prison and guardhouse. Renovations to the guardhouse caused the building to sag and finally collapse onto the prison where Josephine Anderson was killed and her sisters severely maimed and disfigured from lacerations. The bushwhackers were enraged and believed the Union soldiers intended the prisoner’s harm. Where William Anderson had heretofore killed for various reasons, like revenge, plunder, or to harass Union troops, he now had a lethal fixation on enemy soldiers. The collapse of this Kansas City building not only killed and mangled young women but the authors believe “It also sparked the emergence of ‘Bloody Bill’ Anderson, a man who lived for death…” (p. 27 The St. Louis Missouri Daily Democrat ran a story that relates Anderson’s final words as, “I have killed Union soldiers until I have got sick of killing them.” (p. 27)
Quantrill’s first act of revenge was the sacking of Lawrence on August 21, 1863. By March the following year, Anderson, no longer interested in having superiors, broke off from Quantrill’s group and soon also from Todd’s. The authors concur that William Quantrill, George Todd, and other bushwhacker chieftains were coldblooded killers, however, they did not come close to Anderson. One Missourian likened him to “…the rider of the ‘pale horse’ in the Book of Revelation, death and hell literally followed in his train.” (p. 39)
Bloody Bill’s raids eventually climaxed at Centralia, Missouri, September 1864. Anderson’s bushwhacker band captured a passenger train, which was the first time Confederate guerrillas had managed the feat. His men killed twenty-four Union soldiers and later set up an ambush where a hundred more Union militiamen were killed. Not one month later, Anderson was finally killed in an ambush, and his men were either killed or dispersed.
Castel and Goodrich deserve praise for such an honest portrayal of partisan warfare in Missouri and Kansas. At times their emphasis on Anderson’s revenge can paint the man as one dimensional. Though revenge was certainly a ‘Bloody Bill’ calling card, so too was the conflict he and other bushwhackers like him felt between the Unionist and secessionist partisans. In fact, several of Anderson’s vicious acts have a pattern of being proslavery and in support of the Confederacy. Castel and Goodrich write that Anderson and some of his fellow bushwhackers did have sturdy family connections to slaveholding families from Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Anderson’s hatred of slaves and anything remotely akin to abolitionism is nowhere better seen than the episode in Glasgow, Missouri, October 21, 1864. Benjamin Lewis was an extremely wealthy man who owned a tobacco plantation. He was also a staunch Unionist, very good friends with President Lincoln and a supporter of his policies. Lewis had freed all of his slaves in 1863 and either bought them passage to Kansas or paid them excellent wages if they chose to stay and work as freed men. The Confederates made a surprise run at the town and took it from the Union soldiers stationed there. That night, Lewis was confronted with two bushwhackers, one being Anderson, attacking him in his home. The author’s leave none of the gory details out and clearly show the rage that Anderson felt at Lewis for daring to set his slaves free. The horrific beating Lewis received and the rape of his freed, household servants show his lack of regard for African American people and his hatred of those trying to change the system.
Both Castel and Goodrich lament the shortage, or rather the absolute lack of diaries, letters, and reports that an author of histories will access to the fullest. Bushwhackers did not keep diaries or write letters, none that survived at any rate. So admittedly, they had to turn to Federal sources and piece it together from there. At times Bloody Bill Anderson reads a little novella like, with descriptions that seem slightly exaggerated opinion. However, though that may bother some readers, it worked nicely here and only enhanced the tale.
If you enjoyed my review and would like to buy this book please support my site by using the link below!