NEWTONIA, Mo. — His long black hair having thinned and gone white, Joseph Orville Shelby no longer looked the part of the dashing Confederate cavalry commander he had once been. And as the 19th century drew to a close, he no longer gave voice to that part, either.
Shelby had ridden with those bands of Missourians inflamed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act. He counted among his allies David Rice Atchison, Missouri’s U.S. senator, and Claiborne Fox Jackson, Missouri’s governor at the outbreak of the Civil War.
The three incited and led armed Missouri men in the 1850s to hijack Kansas territorial elections “at the point of a Bowie knife and the revolver,” as was said at the time.
When war came, Shelby saddled up for the South, commanding cavalry at almost every major battle in the region, including both battles at Newtonia, and riding thousands of miles in some of the most ambitious raids of the war.
But around 1897, as his life drew to a close, Shelby reflected with a Kansas historian on all he had done. His words had none of the buckshot or bravado of the Bleeding Kansas era. Shelby, instead, spoke of his remorse, his regret, for the role he played then, and for what it wrought for the country.
“I am now ashamed of myself for having done so,” Shelby said. “But then times were different from what they are now.
“I had no business there,” Shelby said of Kansas. “No Missourian had any business there with arms in his hands. The policy that sent us there was damnable and the trouble we started on the border bore fruit for 10 years.”
For a generation, the Missouri Compromise kept the peace between North and South. With its passage in 1820, Missouri and Maine entered the Union together. The former was a slave state; the latter a free one. But by the 1850s, with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the ill-fated Dred Scott decision, the center no longer held.