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The Blood -Soaked Guerrilla War in Kansas and Missouri 1860-65

Mark Caruthers holds a Bachelor's degree in Geography and History from the University of Arkansas (Fayetteville).

Missouri Red Legs called that because of the red leggings they wore roamed the state killing Confederate sympathizers 1862 through 1865.

Missouri Red Legs called that because of the red leggings they wore roamed the state killing Confederate sympathizers 1862 through 1865.

The Battle of Wilson's Creek

Missouri's fate in the Civil War would be determined on a frozen battlefield in the rugged hills of northwest Arkansas. With volunteer regiments recruited from German immigrants from St. Louis, a newly promoted General Nathaniel Lyon drove the secessionist government, led by Sterling Price's Missouri State Guard, out of Missouri. Price's troops fled into the frontier that bordered southwestern Missouri and northwestern Arkansas. Lyon would not be satisfied as long as Price's state guard remained a threat to Union control of Missouri.

In the summer of 1861, Lyon would lead a small Union army into southwestern Missouri. This time Lyon's aggressive tactics would lead to disaster. With his forces outnumbered two to one by Price's state guard, and General Benjamin McCulloch's Confederate army from Fort Smith Arkansas, Lyon's pro-union forces would be driven from the field at Wilson's Creek on August 10, 1861.

The battle would cost Lyon his life and leave what was left of his army in disarray as it retreated back to the railhead at Rolla. Price would lead his triumphant state guard northward to occupy the Missouri Valley. But the Missouri State Guard marched without their Confederate allies from northwest Arkansas.

McCulloch was unwilling to launch a major invasion of Missouri without more support. McCulloch was shocked to see how poorly Price's troops were equipped, many of them didn't even have a rifle. He believed that an invasion would not succeed with a large number of Federal troops in Missouri and their control of the railroads in the state. Lyon's successor, General John C. Fremont, with an army of over 30,000 soldiers would re-occupy Springfield in late October 1861.

In November 1861 President Lincoln relieved Freemont of his command and disband his army leaving the Missouri Valley once again open to attack. In the winter of 1861, McCulloch left his men bivouacked in the Boston Mountains, south of Fayetteville until he determined what his next steps would be.

On Christmas Day 1861, General Samuel R. Curtis was chosen to command the new Union Military District of Southwest Missouri. Curtis's mission was simply to destroy Price's state guard eliminating the threat to St. Louis and its arsenal.

A reserved Victorian gentleman, Curtis was not the popular image of a dashing military leader. At the age of fifty-six in 1861 he was considered an old man to his younger commanders. After years of waiting for a command, Curtis was tremendously excited about his new assignment. He would quickly establish his command at the railhead in Rolla, to position his troops for a new offensive into southwest Missouri and northwest Arkansas.

With three divisions under his command, Curtis would name his new force the Army of the Southwest. He was immediately challenged by General Franz Sigel for the command of his new army. Sigel fled Germany in 1849 to become director of the public schools in St. Louis. Because of his previous military background, rank, and involvement with the two previous Union advances, Sigel believed he should lead the new Union Army of the Southwest. He was also enormously popular with his fellow German soldiers who would make up most of the Union troops in Rolla. Curtis and Sigel managed to work out their differences after their awkward start but their relationship never became cordial.

The rift between the two highest-ranking officers of the Union Army of the Southwest eventually led to problems. Most of the Union troops from Iowa supported Curtis, and supporters of Sigel were mostly Germans, leaving the Army of the Southwest divided. Curtis didn't help matters by filling his headquarters staff with Iowans, including his son and nephew.

The Guerilla War: Kansas 1861-1865

The battle of Wilson's Creek on August 10, 1861, was the culmination of a campaign that started the previous June, its roots reached back to the "Bleeding of Kansas." A struggle that began in 1854 surrounding the debate as to whether Missouri's western neighbor Kansas would be a free or a slave state.

Six years of bloody intermittent violence along the border of the two states had left the citizens of Missouri and Kansas at the mercy of lawless bands of vigilantes. The conflict involved years of electoral fraud, raids, and assaults carried out in Kansas and neighboring Missouri by pro-slavery "Border Ruffians" and anti-slavery "Free-Staters."

The pro-slavery group was led by guerrilla leader William Clarke Quantrill (July 31,1837-June 6,1865), who roamed the Missouri and Kansas border region apprehending escaped slaves and murdering those who stood against his raiders. This group was best known for its often brutal guerrilla tactics.

His group included the infamous outlaw brothers Jessie James and his older brother Frank James. The James brothers would continue using the same guerrilla tactics over a decade after the war robbing banks and trains in the region. The brothers managed to evade justice under the protection of Confederate sympathizers throughout the region. Quantrill's reign of terror ended after he was mortally wounded by Union troops in Central Kentucky, in one of the last actions of the Civil War in late May 1865.

Most citizens of Missouri hoped to avoid a secession crisis. Their state was western by its geographic location but largely southern in heritage. Yet a tremendous inflow of immigrants, mostly German who lived around St. Louis, and a growing railway system that connected them to the state of Illinois and the North's free-labor economy, led Missouri toward a different future.

Although seven Southern states left the Union to form the Confederacy by February 1861, Missouri delegates meeting in convention the following March rejected secession. Most of Missouri's citizens desired neutrality, but its Governor Claiborne Jackson favored the south.

When Fort Sumter fell to Confederate attack in April 1861, President Abraham Lincoln called on northern states governors to call up 75,000 troops to restore the Union, but Governor Jackson refused to obey his request.

Instead, he allowed several pro-secessionist volunteer militia companies to encamp just outside St. Louis, hoping they would seize the Federal arsenal located in the city. As Claiborne secretly negotiated with Confederate authorities in Richmond, many of the pro-Southern militia brazenly displayed southern flags around St. Louis and its outlying cities.

Nathaniel Lyon, a West Point graduate, who was committed to defending his post at the St. Louis Arsenal wanted Missouri to maintain its allegiance to the national government in Washington DC. With a small force of U.S. Army regulars and a large contingent of volunteers (mostly new German immigrants), he seized the initiative by capturing "Camp Jackson," the encampment of loyal southern Missouri militia, on May 10, 1861.

Captain Lyon followed his bloodless coup by marching his pro-southern captives through the crowded streets of St. Louis, a riot soon erupted. His troops fired on the crowd, killing or wounding over one hundred civilians, including women and children.

The "Camp Jackson Massacre" polarized the citizens of Missouri. Most citizens in the countryside would remain loyal to the slave state mentality of the Confederacy, while the citizens in and surrounding the capital of St Louis would remain loyal to the Federal government.

To defend the state, the previously pro-Union legislature created the Missouri State Guard, a county-based militia divided into nine geographic divisions, each headed by a brigadier general. Jackson named Sterling Price, a Mexican War hero and former governor, as a major general to command the State Guard forces now loyal to the Confederacy. As Missouri's white population between the ages of eighteen to forty-five numbered over 100,000, the military potential of the State Guard was considerable.

Wild Bill would ride with the Union (Anti-Slavery) guerillas known as the Red-Legs. He also spied on Confederate troops disguised as a rebel officer in Northwest Arkansas during the Civil War 1861-1865.

Wild Bill would ride with the Union (Anti-Slavery) guerillas known as the Red-Legs. He also spied on Confederate troops disguised as a rebel officer in Northwest Arkansas during the Civil War 1861-1865.

The Mysterious Life of Wild Bill Hickok

Having been from a family abolitionist, James Hickok, also known as "Wild Bill," was the only member of his family to serve in the Union ranks. Early in the Civil War, he was selected as a scout, because of his great ability to ride a horse.

Hickok spent most of his time behind enemy lines wearing Confederate Uniforms, mainly in Northwest Arkansas after the Union invasion of the state in1862. He fought in the first major action of the American Civil War at the Battle of Wilson's Creek which would be a major Confederate victory.

Wild Bill also fought at the Battle of Pea Ridge in Northwest Arkansas, the largest west of the Mississippi River of the entire war. He would go through four horses on the first day of the battle, one shot out from underneath him, carrying dispatches from Union General Curtis to the front lines.

It was rumored that Hickok was a member of the secret society known as the Red Legs. He was certainly would have qualified for membership in the Red Legs, which included faith in the Union cause, shooting skills, and courage under fire.

Wild Bill graduated from scout to spy from 1862 into 1864. He spied for the Union army, with many of his missions placing him behind rebel lines. Soon after the battle at Pea Ridge, he spent five months traveling with General Price's army of rebels.

Hickok knew of a Confederate soldier named Barnes who had been killed at Pea Ridge, and he convinced a regiment of mounted rangers that he was the dead man's brother. Escaping under a hail of gunfire he would give Union commanders valuable information about Confederate forces in the state of Arkansas.

The truth about Hickok's exploits during the Civil War will never be completely known. His experience in battle during the war gave him an edge over others during his adventures, and the numerous gunfights he participated in after the war ended.


Clavin, Tom. Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier's First Gunfighter. St. Martin's Press. 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY. 10010 2019

Cutrer, Thomas W. Ben McCulloch and the Frontier Military Tradition. University of North Carolina Press., Chapel Hill & London., 116 S Boundary St. Chapel Hill, NC 27514. USA 1993

Hess, Earl J. Wilson's Creek Pea Ridge & Prairie Grove. University of Nebraska Press. Lincoln & London. 1111 Lincoln Mall, Lincoln, NE 68508 . USA 2006

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Mark Caruthers