It might be a bit overused as an axiom, that civil wars are the bloodiest – or maybe it just seems that way because it seems to be so terribly personal. This is not some outsider, some foreigner, some alien stranger invading our neighborhood, destroying our towns and slaughtering – but our own countrymen, who speak the same language and usually share a culture and background, if not the same blood.

Just so was our own Civil War. To read of the wanton brutality and the wholesale slaughter and destruction, and the enthusiasm and energy which went into the dismemberment of our own country, and to know that many of those who led the fight had been comrades and allies not fifteen years before is to realize what a monumental tragedy it was. No wonder Abraham Lincoln looks about twenty years older, comparing photographs of him taken in 1861 and 1865. He was a melancholy and sensitive man; one wonders how the weight of the responsibility and the events of those years in office did not crush him utterly. The war over which he was able to exercise control was ghastly enough – the war on the fringes, fought by partisans in Kansas and Missouri – achieved abysmal depths of senseless brutality.

Kansas had been a particularly hot center of strife even before Southern artillery opened fire on Ft. Sumter. In an attempt to kick the can of ‘free state-slave state’ a little farther down the road, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 left the decision of whether those to states be enrolled as free or slave to those who settled there. And from that moment on, each side of the free-soil/slave-state debate enthusiastically aided and abetted the settling of Kansas with settlers who were adherents of one side or the other. The ‘Border Ruffians’, from slave-permitting Missouri, and the free-soil ‘Jayhawkers’ were already at each others’ throats from 1855 on. The first sack of Lawrence, the caning on the floor of the senate by Preston Brooks of South Carolina of Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, John Brown’s raid on Pottawatomie –  the Civil War began to simmer in Kansas. Back east, they needed a while to get up to full speed, when it began to boil in earnest. In Kansas, partisan bands were all ready to ride – and to plunder and exterminate.

The most brutally effective of the pro-Confederate bands in Kansas was led by an Ohio-born former schoolteacher and teamster named William Clark Quantrill. He seems to have had an unsavory reputation even before the war, being associated with a number of unexplained murders and thefts in the Utah territory while working briefly there as a teamster and free-lance gambler. The eventual co-leader of his band, William ‘Bloody Bill’ Anderson had a similar pre-war reputation for horse thievery and murder, and a penchant for scalping his victims. He was reputed to wear a necklace of Yankee scalps into action – most people reading of his antics and behavior today would unhesitatingly call him a  psychopath and a war criminal.

By 1862, Quantrill and his men were considered outlaws by the Union authorities in Kansas – and Confederate commanders in Texas didn’t have all that much higher an opinion, especially after the Sack of Lawrence. Say what you would about Texas Confederates like General Henry McCulloch; he may have been a tough old Texas fighter – of Indians, Mexicans, bandits and whoever else was handy – but he was still a gentleman. Plundering a civilian town, burning it to the ground and executing civilian men and boys wholesale was not Henry McCulloch’s cup of tea. Neither was executing soldiers who had surrendered, as Quantrill’s men did after a fight with Union solders at Baxter Springs – but here was Quantrill and his men, looking for a place to rest and recoup, to purchase horses and generally get a break after a hard year of partisan war-fighting in Kansas. They had made Kansas too hot to hold them, and McCulloch was perennially short of men to guard the far Texas frontier against reoccurring Indian raids and to round up draft evaders and deserters. To the general commanding the Trans-Mississippi Confederacy forces, Quantrill’s appearance was a gift and McCulloch was ordered to make use of him to the fullest.

Although Quantrill and Anderson’s men mostly confined their Texas activities to Grayson and Fannin Counties, they left some bloody fingerprints in the Hill Country, too. Elements of their group were participants in the hangerbande or the ‘hanging-band’ – masked vigilantes who terrorized Gillespie and Kendall Counties by summarily lynching known and suspected pro-Unionists. It was often said bitterly after the war that the hangerbande killed more settlers there than the Indians ever did. Early in the spring of 1864, the hanging-band visited the Grape Creek settlement, a loose community of farms a few miles east of Fredericksburg. A man named Peter Burg, the owner of a fine herd of horses, was shot in the back and his horses confiscated. Three other men; William Feller, John Blank and Henry Kirchner were simply taken from their houses, taken as they sat with their families at the supper table. Kirchner’s house was searched and nearly $200 dollars in silver coin taken by Quantrill’s horse-buyer. It was rumored that Blank had recently received a letter from someone in Mexico.  Feller lived on a tract of land adjoining Kirchners and both had been involved in a land dispute with pro-Confederate sympathizers. These and other atrocities outraged the Hill Country German settlers  – more than that, similar depredations and robberies outraged Henry McCulloch and other Texas military commanders. Still, they were fighting on the Confederate side; perhaps they could go and do so where there weren’t any civilians to plunder and murder? McCulloch tried to send them to Corpus Christi, to stiffen the coastal defense. No luck with that, although McCulloch did his best to be rid of these uncomfortable allies.

Quantrill and Anderson had a falling out, about the time of the Grape Creek murders, and when Anderson indicated to McCulloch that he would testify against Quantrill as regards certain heinous crimes, the old Indian fighter hardly wasted time. He called for Quantrill to come to his HQ for a meeting, asked him to put his weapons on the table and informed him that he was under arrest.  But as soon as McCulloch’s back was turned, Quantrill grabbed his weapons, shouted to his friends that they were all liable to be under arrest and departed at speed and in a cloud of dust, heading north and back to Kansas. One imagines that Henry McCulloch was glad to be rid of them one way or another. Certainly they were not pursued with much enthusiasm, although their savage reputation may have had quite a lot to do with that.

Quantrill came to a sticky end, shortly afterwards – in Kentucky, having added Missouri to the list of places which he had made too hot to hold him. Elements of his wartime band lingered on, in the form of the James gang. But they in turn came to a sticky end in Northfield, Minnesota – the last little drop of blood from Bleeding Kansas.

19. September 2011 · Comments Off on Northfield – Tales of a Citizen Militia · Categories: Old West · Tags: , , , , , ,

It would seem from the history books that most veterans of the Civil War settled down to something resembling a normal 19th century civilian life without too much trouble. One can only suppose that those who survived the experience without suffering incapacitating physical or emotional trauma were enormously grateful to have done so. Union veterans additionally must have been also glad to have won the war, close-run thing that it appeared to have been at times. Confederate veterans had to be content with merely surviving. Not only did they have to cope with the burden of defeat, but also with the physical wreckage of much of the South… as well as the wounds afflicted upon experiencing the severe damage to that  whole Southern chivalry-gracious plantation life-fire eating whip ten Yankees with one arm tied behind my back-anti-abolitionist mindset. But most Confederate soldiers laid down their arms and picked up the plow,  so to speak fairly readily… if with understandable resentment.  In any case, the still-unsettled frontier west of the Mississippi-Missouri basin offered enough of an outlet for the restless, the excitement-seekers and those who wanted to start fresh.

 But the war had been conducted with more than the usual brutality in the mid-west: in Bleeding Kansas and even Bloodier Missouri, where the dividing line between murderous vigilante bandit-gangs and well-disciplined mobile partisan units was considerably more blurred than elsewhere. Some individuals who had participated in warfare on that basis were even more reluctant to shake hands like gentlemen and go back to a peaceable life when it was all over.

 Such were men like the James brothers, Jesse and his older brother Frank, and their friends, Cole and Jim Younger. Jesse and Cole Younger had both ridden with the Confederate partisans led by the notorious William Clarke Quantrill. The Coles and the Youngers were so disinclined to give peace a chance that they hardly waited a year before holding up the Clay County Savings Association in Liberty, Missouri. Over the next decade, they hit banks from Kentucky to Iowa, Kansas and West Virginia, varying the program occasionally with robbing trains. By  July of 1876 they appear to have made Missouri too hot to hold them, even though they had sympathy and  quiet support among kinfolk and local residents who gave them the benefit of the doubt for having fought for the Confederacy.

Casting around for a new and profitable target for robbery which would get them away from Missouri, the James-Younger gang may have taken up the suggestion of one of the gang members: Minnesota. Not only was gang-member Bill Chadwell a native, and presumably familiar with the lay-out… but no one would be expecting such an organized gang so far off their usual turf. And robbing a bank in Minnesota would have the added piquancy of taking money from the hated “Yankees.” 

In August of 1876, eight members of the gang, Frank and Jesse James, Jim, Cole and Bob Younger, Clell Miller, Bill Chadwell  and Charlie Pitts all arrived in Minnesota… by what exact means is not certain. They pretended to be legitimate businessmen, and scouted various locations in southern Minnesota, in groups of two and three. They spent some time shopping for horses and equipment in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and did some gambling, drinking and recreating. Although they gave false names, they wore long linen dusters, to conceal their weaponry, and this had attracted notice. After some weeks of careful consideration, they settled upon robbing the First Commercial Bank in Mankato. On the day of the planned robbery, they noted a large crowd in the vicinity of the bank, and wisely decided on turning their attentions upon their second choice, the First National Bank of Northfield. They split up into two groups, to travel to Northfield, and arrived there on the morning of September 7th…where an alert citizen noticed that two of them had passed through Northfield and cashed a large check at the bank, some ten days earlier.

Three of the gang waited with their horses,  a little way down Division Street from the bank to guard the getaway route. Two more, Clell Miller and  Cole Younger posted themselves directly in front.  At 10 minutes before 2, with everyone in place, Bob Younger, Frank and Jesse James entered the bank and informed Joseph Lee Heywood, the acting cashier, teller Alonzo E. Bunker and bookkeeper Frank J. Wilcox that the bank was being robbed. Unfortunately for the gang, the citizens of Northfield were not as unobservant as had been expected. The owner of the hardware store directly across the street, J.A. Hill came across the street, accompanied by a young medical student named Henry Wheeler and accosted Clell Miller, who was covering the bank entrance and demanded to know what was going on. Miller’s response, which was to shove Hill off the sidewalk and tell him to get out of there only confirmed suspicions among the Northfield townsfolk that all these strangers in long dusters, standing around nervously, or sitting on their horses,  were up to no good. Especially as young Wheeler had looked in through the window, and realized immediately what was going on. Instead of forcing him into the bank, Miller only threatened him, telling to keep his mouth shut and go about his business. Both Wheeler and Allen walked a few steps away, and then began shouting that the bank was being robbed. And then when Clell Miller fired at the fleeing Wheeler and missed… that was the moment when the Northfield bank robbery went pear-shaped.

 Miller and Cole Younger mounted their horses and began riding up and down the street, firing into windows and into the air, and shouting for people to get inside, while the three other robbers joined them in attempting to keep the citizens properly terrorized and off the street long enough for all of them to make their usual getaway.

Inside the bank Joseph Heywood was adamantly refusing to open the bank vault in spite of being punched and threatened with a gun held to the side of his head … which he had been able to slam closed, nearly catching Frank Younger inside. Finally he revealed that there was a time-lock on it:  It could not be re-opened. There was the modern equivalent of nearly a quarter million dollars inside of it, but the James-Younger gang would have to content themselves with the cash in the till. Bob Younger was gathering up loose bills, while Frank James guarded two bank employees and Jesse continued trying to force Heywood to open the vault. While they were distracted, Alonzo Bunker made a dash for the back door, and although clipped in the shoulder by a shot from Bob Younger, began shouting for help, that the bank was being robbed.

But the alarm was already sounded: A.J. Allen had run to his hardware store, and begun loading all the weapons he had in stock and handing them out to all and sundry, while other citizens ran for their own weapons… and a position on a roof, in an upstairs window, or a balcony. The five men riding up and down the street came under a hail of gunfire from all directions, and Cole Younger finally screamed, “They’re killing our men! Let’s get out of here!” Before the three robbers in the bank left with a sack of small cash, one of them shot Joseph Heywood with a bullet through his head. Another Northfield citizen, a Swedish immigrant who probably could not understand English was dead also, caught in the crossfire in the street. Clell Miller and Bill Chadwell— who was supposed to have been their guide —  were also dead in the dust of Division Street. Only Jesse James himself was unscathed. All the other surviving gang-members were wounded, and two of them were doubled up on a single horse. Supposedly as they fled Northfield some of the citizens threw rocks and pitchforks after them.

They escaped with $26.70. Within two weeks, all but the James brothers would be captured, or dead. It is one of those little ironies of history to know that the most notorious bandit outlaws of the decade following the Civil War were taken down… not by lawmen, not by Texas Rangers, or Pinkertons,  a sheriff or marshal… but by citizens and businessmen, responding on their own.

(There was one big movie made about this in the early 1970s, which unfortunately had deeply imbibed the revisionist Koolaid, and felt obliged – in spite of some very good starring performances, including the late Cliff Robertson as Cole Younger – to paint the good citizens of Northfield as corrupt, venial and incompetent.)