10 of the Most Heinous Forgotten War Crimes of the American Civil War

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Centralia Massacre, Missouri 1864

By the summer of 1864 the Confederacy was in decline on all fronts, its armies weakened by the ongoing war and the ever increasing strength of the Union forces. One hope maintained by the Confederacy was that the Union, tired of the long struggle and shocked by the casualty figures endured by the Union army, would refuse to re-elect Abraham Lincoln in November, allowing new leaders to reach a negotiated peace. Southern leaders planned several military strikes in an attempt to influence Northern voters.

In September, General Sterling Price attacked Northern Missouri using troops of the Missouri Militia, with the aim of capturing St. Louis and disrupting Mississippi river traffic. Among his troops was a well established group of guerrilla fighters led by William Anderson, who was known by the nickname “Bloody Bill.” Among his guerrillas was a pair of southern Missouri brothers named Frank and Jesse James. Anderson planned to destroy railroad infrastructure at Centralia, Missouri.

When Anderson’s troops arrived at Centralia on September 27 they encountered a train which carried among its passengers 23 Union soldiers on leave after the battles around Atlanta. After separating the civilian passengers from the soldiers, Anderson’s men shot and scalped the Union troops, retaining one sergeant as a hostage. Anderson’s men kept the Union uniforms; they often raided in Missouri disguised as Union troops. They then destroyed the depot and fled the scene.

By late afternoon inexperienced Union troops were in pursuit, newly recruited men armed with muzzle loading single shot rifles. By contrast Anderson’s men were mostly armed with repeating rifles and revolvers. When the Union troops caught up with Anderson they were no match for the raiders, and of the 147 who took part in the skirmish, 100 were killed. Only one was wounded.

The high ratio of killed to wounded suggests that the raiders executed wounded men as they lay. Frank James later claimed this to be the case, and also claimed that his brother Jesse killed the Union commander, Major A V Johnston. The second phase of the so called Battle of Centralia was an open fight between armed troops, but the first phase, the execution of disarmed prisoners, was simply murder.

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