It was 1864 in Northern Missouri. The Civil War in the United States had been raging since 1861. Originally the Civil War had been about states rights to succeed from the Union. But, it had soon migrated into an issue concerning slavery in the United States. Missouri had been admitted into the Union in 1821 as a "slave state". This was only possible due to what was called The Missouri Compromise. This compromise stated that citizens in Missouri could have slaves, but no other state north of the southern Missouri state border could be a slave state. This means that when Kansas entered the Union, it would be anti-slavery. Bands of guerrilla terrorists roamed the borders between Kansas and Missouri. No, guerrilla terrorism did not start in third world countries in the twentieth century. In Missouri, after the war broke out in 1861, armed rebels banded together to terrorize their neighbors who chose a different side in the conflict. Many pro-Union families moved to Kansas to try to escape the terror.
Robert James, the father of Frank and Jesse James, had moved his family from Kentucky to Clay County, in northwest Missouri, in 1842. He was a prosperous hemp farmer, slaveholder and prominent Baptist minister. As a Baptist minister, he stumped the state, raising money for the creation of a Baptist college in Missouri. Through his efforts, William Jewell College was created and began on January 1, 1850, with Robert James as one of its trustees. Later that year, Robert went to California during the gold rush. He died there, leaving Jesse fatherless at the age of 3. When Jesse's older brother, Frank, left in 1861 to fight in General Price's Confederate army, Jesse was only 13. After the Union army pushed General Price out of Missouri and into Arkansas, Frank James, who had been sick with the measles, was captured and released to return home with the promise that he would not fight anymore. In July, 1862, Missouri needed more troops so it formed the EMM, the Enrolled Missouri Militia. All males of military age had to report for duty or be labeled disloyal. Frank then joined the "bushwackers" - the guerrilla terrorists. At age 15, Jesse joined him.
By the summer of 1864, they had joined the group led by "Bloody Bill" Anderson. Anderson had learned to terrorize civilians from William Clarke Quantrill. Quantrill was the most famous terrorist due to his August 21, 1863 raid on Lawrence, Kansas, the abolitionist capital of Kansas. In this raid, Quantrill and his band of 150 men that included Frank James at that time, shot every man and boy that they saw. 182 were butchered while others lingered wounded in the ashes of the town. In Clay County, Jesse and the other bushwackers with their terrorist education spent most of their time slaying Unionist civilians, clashing with troops only when the troops tracked them down.
James Harvey Carothers and the Military
James Harvey Carothers, born November 12, 1825, was one of the four brothers who parents (James and Sarah Forsythe Carothers) brought them from Pennsylvania to Missouri in 1836. In 1850, he crossed the plains to the California gold fields. He came home by the way of the Isthmus of Panama and New York City, stopping by his old home in Pennsylvania on the way back to Missouri.
Little is known of James' military service other than when Company G of the 39th Missouri Infantry, U.S. Volunteers was formed, James already had military experience, and was enlisted as one of the 3 sergeants of the company. The new company, enlisted in Shelby County, Missouri in August, 1864, under Captain William Glover. They organized and mustered into service at Hannibal, Missouri, September 8, 1864. They left Hannibal, September 14, under Major A.V.E.Johnson and marched to Paris, Missouri. They left Paris, on the night of September 26, 1864, in pursuit of the "bushwackers and guerrillas infesting that vicinity, who were under the notorious guerrilla Bill Anderson". This was less than 3 weeks after they had been mustered into service.
Centralia, Missouri - September 27, 1864
On the morning of September 27, Jesse and Frank James were a part of a column of 80 men under Anderson, who rode for Centralia. At that time, Centralia was about a dozen one story buildings, but was blossoming around a new train depot of the North Missouri Railroad. The bushwackers spread out through the streets of Centralia, eager to spread terror. They burst into house after house, demanding cash and plundered for the sake of plundering. After an hour of looting and drinking, they robbed stagecoach passengers that just arrived in town. Next was an approaching train. They looted thousands of dollars of crisp new bills from the baggage car, but it was the 23 Union soldiers on the train that sobered up the bushwackers. As luck would have it, the 23 soldiers surrendered immediately, since they were unarmed. They were returning to their homes in Missouri on furlough from Sherman's army in Georgia. When told to get off the train, two hesitated and Anderson killed them both. He had the others strip off their uniforms (so the bushwackers could use them later) and line up outside the train. With the exception of one sergeant, who they were going to use in a prisoner exchange, the gang then executed the other 20. Once the shooting stopped, the guerrillas walked slowly up and down the line, looking for survivors. They clubbed heads with their carbines, they slit throats, they took scalps. They then robbed the stunned passengers, shooting 2 who were slow to give up their cash.
The 80 guerrillas from the Centralia raid then re-grouped with others nearby for a total force of 200 to 400 bushwackers. A scout arrived telling of an approaching Union army. The guerrillas then set up an ambush for the army. The intended victim of this ambush was Major Andrew Vern Emen Johnston, better known as "Ave" Johnston, and a battalion of the 39th Missouri Infantry.
Although the 39th had only been formed for less than 3 weeks, Major Johnston himself was an experienced guerrilla fighter. When he arrived in Centralia and saw the burned buildings and pile of bodies, he ignored the warnings of the shocked civilians and prepared to track down the marauders. Johnston ordered Captain Adam Theiss to remain in town with 33 men and Johnston led 115 men on a hunt to the south.
A few of the bushwackers were stationed in the open to lure the army into the trap. Johnston waved his men to dismount, with every 4th man leading away the horses of the others. The Union soldiers had the standard weapons, long Minié rifles, deadly at a distance, but slow loading. The inexperienced troops then fell prey to one of the oldest problems in combat - when firing downhill, inexperienced soldiers often aim too high. That happened here. The bushwackers then charged on their horses and caught the troops without time to reload. The guerrillas surrounded the troops who swung their rifles like clubs, jabbed with bayonets or desperately tried to surrender. One Union officer grabbed a bushwacker's horse by the bridle explaining, "I always spare prisoners". The guerrilla responded, "I never do", and shot him dead. The soldiers holding the horses tried to escape back to Centralia with the guerrillas giving chase. The rebels shot them on the road, in bedrooms, even in an outhouse. Only a handful of guerrillas caught a bullet that day. The Union force was annihilated, with only a few escaping to the town of Sturgeon, miles away.
Back at the ambush site, the bushwackers celebrated as if drunk on blood. One danced on a cluster of bodies. They walked among the dead, crushing faces with rifle butts and shoving bayonets through the bodies, pinning them to the ground. They cut off 17 scalps and tied them to their saddles and bridles - their badge of victory that they always took with them. At least one guerrilla carved off the nose of a victim. Others sliced off ears, or sawed off heads and switched the bodies. Other worse acts were performed.
It is hard to imagine that someone such as Major John Newman Edwards actually existed. He was the newspaper editor and voice of the Confederacy who shaped Jesse James public image into cultural preeminence in the 1870's. Because James was a Confederate activist terrorist, Edwards gave his stories the ridiculous political "spin" that made his image popular - still. Hey, Brad Pitt wanted to play this guy.
The most amazing part of this story is that Sergeant James Harvey Carothers of the 39th Missouri Volunteer Infantry was in the hospital on September 27, 1864 and was not with his friends from Shelby County who were annihilated. My great-grandfather lived to have 2 sons by his 2nd wife, including my grandfather and the original compiler of this family history - John Franklin Carothers.
Roster of Company G, 39th Missouri Infantry, in 1864
Captain - William Glover
Killed at Centralia, Missouri, September 27, 1864
Sergeant George W. Miller
Forsythe, Harden and Bell were 3 families who had inter-married with the Carothers family in Shelby County.
Others in Company G
Sources for this material
Jesse James - Last Rebel of the Civil War, by T. J. Stiles - (Should you wish to buy this book, you can obtain it from the link below.)
Memoranda of Company G, 39th Missouri Volunteer Infantry, covering the timeframe August, 1864 through January 29, 1865 - by James Harvey Carothers