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.
It is ironic then that two men — one from Maine, the other from Missouri — would embody the nation’s inability to compromise any longer on the question of slavery.
James Blunt was the Maine man, born there six years after the Missouri Compromise. He made his way via Ohio to the Kansas frontier about 1857.
“He was a dedicated abolitionist,” said Robert Collins, author of “General James G. Blunt, Tarnished Glory.”
Blunt claims to have ridden with John Brown and to have even had Brown as a guest at his house, said Collins. What’s more, Blunt, after the war, also claimed that he had even helped hide the 11 slaves Brown liberated from Vernon County, Mo., in 1858 before Brown smuggled them to Canada. Blunt’s actual role in all that is still a matter of debate, but Collins doesn’t rule it out.
“Blunt’s settlement near Greeley, Kan., in Anderson County was just down Pottawattomie Creek from where Brown’s family was. It’s logical he might have known Brown and the Brown family, they were living so close,” he said.
That’s the same Pottawattomie Creek where Brown and his followers hacked to death five pro-slavery men in 1856 with broadswords, ratcheting up the violence of the era.
What’s not in dispute is that Blunt, a prominent frontier physician, was elected a delegate to the Wyandotte Constitutional Convention in 1859.
“This is going to be a Free State Constitution,” said Collins. “Blunt ends up being one of the more active delegates. He was eighth or ninth among people who spoke the most at the convention. He is a vocal player.”
The other man — the Missouri man — was Shelby.
Shelby was “a blue-chip stockholder” in the slave-holding South, according to his biographer. He also was among the wealthiest slave owners in Missouri. Born in Kentucky 10 years after the Missouri Compromise, Shelby made his fortune in Waverly, Mo., on the Missouri River, and by the 1850s was an unapologetic agitator of border strife.
He led Missouri men into Kansas in 1855 to vote illegally and rode back later that year for what is remembered as the Wakarusa War, when Free-Soil and Pro-Slavery men bared their teeth and poised for battle a full five years before Fort Sumter in South Carolina or First Manassas in Virginia. Only last-minute negotiations averted bloodshed.
Shelby, by his own admission, may have been among the most violent men of the times.
“I went there to kill Free State men. I did kill them,” he said in that last interview he gave just before his death.
With the outbreak of war in 1861, Blunt and Shelby rose quickly through the ranks. Blunt became the first major general from Kansas; Shelby became a Confederate cavalry general. Over the next four years, the war threw the two uncompromising men at each other time and again.
Fighting erupted in Missouri at Boonville in June and at Carthage in July 1861, with both Shelby and Gov. Jackson on the field at Carthage. Following their victory at Wilson’s Creek in August, Confederates controlled Southwest Missouri.
Having been driven out of Jefferson City, Jackson and pro-Southern members of the Missouri legislature shifted to Neosho in November and passed an ordinance of secession. Meanwhile, pro-Union Missouri legislators continued to meet in Jefferson City and voted to stay loyal to the Union. Missouri at the time sent representatives to both the U.S. Congress and Confederate Congress, reflecting the divided loyalties that led to so much bloodshed in the state.
A Union victory just across the state line at Pea Ridge, Ark., in March 1862 secured Missouri for the Union, but Southern leaders never abandoned their dream of bringing Missouri into the Confederacy.
Through the late summer of 1862, Confederate units began gathering at a number of sites in Northwest Arkansas and Southwest Missouri. Among them was Shelby with at least 1,500 men camped at the head of Indian Creek, south of the village of Newtonia.
Using that area as a base, Shelby’s cavalry fought a number of minor actions, including one at Newtonia on Sept. 13, 1862, in which Upton Hays was killed. He was a grandson of Daniel Boone and a Confederate cavalry colonel at the time. Shelby’s men also routed a Union brigade near Carthage and skirmished with Union soldiers near Mount Vernon.
All of this drew the attention of the Union commanders, including Blunt, who was in Fort Scott, Kan., at that time.
On the eve of the Civil War, according to Joplin author Larry Wood, Newtonia was a small, pastoral village with a mill, a few streets and probably fewer than a hundred residents. A New York journalist traveling the Old Wire Road by stagecoach from Springfield to Fayetteville, Ark., took a detour at Cassville that swung through Newtonia on his way to Granby in 1859.
“He wanted to go to Granby and see the lead mines. It was one of the biggest if not the biggest lead mine in the country,” said Wood, author of “The Two Civil War Battles of Newtonia.”
The New Yorker left one of the few pre-war descriptions of Newtonia, calling it a “neat village” with “tasteful buildings” in a fertile valley.
One of those buildings was the brick home of Matthew Ritchey, built along a spring branch.
Ritchey, founder of Newtonia, reflects some of the divisions that existed in the country at the time. He was a staunch Union man before and during the war. He also was a slave owner, and his “neat” two-story brick house with its pine floors, his nearby stone-and-timber barn and a stacked stone wall, all were built by the sweat of slaves.
That mill, the nearby mines, as well as water and forage, combined to put Newtonia in the path of history.
As fall came on, Southern troops under the command of Col. Douglas Cooper linked up with Shelby at his camp. On Sept. 27, 1862, Cooper, the senior commander, sent a patrol to Newtonia. Those soldiers reported back that the mill was in working order. Cooper sent an artillery battery there to reinforce them.
Blunt, meanwhile, alarmed by the growing Confederate activity, sent two brigades of Union troops commanded by Gen. Frederick Salomon into Southwest Missouri, though Blunt personally was delayed a few days at Fort Scott.
‘Grand and terrific’
On Sept. 29, a Union force estimated at 150 men ran into the Confederates just north of Newtonia, fired off a few artillery rounds, and pulled back when they learned of the Confederate strength, Wood explained.
The next morning, despite orders not to bring on a battle, Col. Arthur Jacobi, leading Wisconsin men, pressed forward and began to shell the Confederates, some of whom fought from behind those slave-built stone walls and brick buildings.
Southern reinforcements soon arrived, including mounted Choctaw and Chickasaw warriors, who ran down many of the Wisconsin soldiers.
During the back-and-forth fighting that day, some of Shelby’s riders also arrived, although Shelby himself remained at the camp sending reinforcements, according to Wood.
During the fighting, Choctaw and Chickasaw units battled “Pin” or pro-Union Cherokee troops, making Newtonia the first Civil War battle in which organized Native American units fought on both sides, according to Connie Langum, historian at Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield at Republic.
“The battle was now raging in all parts of the field,” Cooper later wrote in his official report. “Their masses of infantry could be plainly seen advancing in perfect order, with guns and bayonets glittering in the sun. The booming of cannon, the bursting of shells, the air filled with missiles of every description, the rattling crash of small-arms, the cheering of our men and the war-whoop of our Indian allies, all combined to render the scene both grand and terrific.”
In the end, Confederate strength proved too much for the Union, which pulled back and left Newtonia in Southern hands.
“Four whole companies of the Ninth Wisconsin, except about 10 men, are killed, wounded or captured,” one of the Union colonels, William Weer, noted in his report to Blunt. “The enemy’s force is estimated at 5,000 to 11,000. They evidently outnumbered us largely and have six pieces of cannon, which they managed admirably.”
The Confederate victory was brief, however.
Blunt, supplied with more troops from Fort Scott, headed for the area, as did Union forces out of Springfield commanded by Maj. Gen. John Schofield. The Confederates opted not to fight the larger, combined force. They pulled out of Newtonia and it fell to Shelby to delay the Union advance while the main body of Confederates retreated to Arkansas.
Southwest Missouri was once more under Union control.
By the standards of the time — the battle took place about two weeks after Antietam — casualties were light. The Union lost 245 men, the Confederates 100.
Ritchey’s “neat” brick mansion doubled as a hospital after the battle, with wounded and dying men staining those pine floors of his with blood.
Rise and fall
As winter came on, Shelby reported that his men were feeling the strain of their hard-riding, hard-fighting ways. They had been in a number of battles, large and small, leaving their ranks diminished.
“Our men, from being so poorly clad, and owing to the excessive duties that they have been compelled to perform, are rapidly becoming unfit for service,” he wrote.
Many of his riders lacked blankets, coats and shoes, and were reporting sick at up to 100 per day.
“Our horses are beginning to die pretty fast,” Shelby also noted.
Yet, there was no relief.
Shelby and Blunt collided again that December, at Cane Hill and Prairie Grove, near Fayetteville, Ark., where federal victories secured the far Northwest corner of that state for the Union, but not before Shelby had four horses shot out from under him in a single day of combat.
In 1863, Shelby was sent to Arkansas, where he joined an unsuccessful Confederate attack on Helena that was part of an attempt to relieve the pressure that Ulysses Grant was bringing to bear on Vicksburg, Miss. Shelby had two more horses shot out from under him and also got shot in the arm.
Blunt that same summer was successful in a series of battles in Indian Territory, including Honey Springs, and cleared the way for the Union to take command in Fort Smith, Ark.
Blunt was transferring his headquarters to Fort Smith when William Clarke Quantrill’s band, which was on its way to Texas for the winter, ambushed Blunt’s detachment and slaughtered nearly 100 soldiers traveling with him near Baxter Springs, Kan., on Oct. 6, 1863.
Blunt narrowly escaped, but Quantrill famously boasted: “Shelby could not whip Blunt … I whipped him.”
Shelby, meanwhile, provoked by Blunt’s victories in the west, headed north with hundreds of men into Missouri at about the same time Blunt was heading south. On Oct. 4, 1863 — two days before Blunt was hit at Baxter Springs — Shelby attacked and captured a federal garrison at the courthouse in Neosho. In fact, it was initially rumored that Shelby, not Quantrill, hit Blunt’s column near Baxter Springs, Wood said.
In six weeks, Shelby’s men rode 1,500 miles, swinging as far north as Marshall, Mo., before returning to Arkansas. By then, they had killed or wounded 600 Union men, by their estimate. Shelby also calculated that his riders had destroyed nearly $2 million worth of military and public property, ranging from bridges to telegraph lines.
Shelby’s raid added luster to his already growing reputation and resulted in his promotion to brigadier general. Blunt, however, found his reputation “tarnished,” according to Collins, not only by the attack at Baxter Springs but also by mounting evidence that he may have been involved in stealing from federal supply lines.
In the fall of 1864, another former Missouri governor and Confederate general, Sterling Price, organized one of the most ambitious cavalry raids of the war, aiming 12,000 men toward St. Louis. He wanted to relieve pressure building on Confederate forces in the East, and undermine Abraham Lincoln’s chances for re-election by accomplishing what he and others had dreamed of since 1861 — bringing Missouri into the Confederacy. Shelby and his men rode with him.
The first battle, which occurred at Pilot Knob in September, was a Confederate defeat, and that — coupled with reinforcements arriving in St. Louis — forced Price to shift from his original goal and ride north and west. That resulted in a number of battles and skirmishes, including several near Kansas City.
Maj. Gen. Samuel Curtis, whose son was among those Union men killed with Blunt at Baxter Springs, commanded the Union forces. He sent Blunt to block Price’s advance, which had grown to 20,000 men.
At the Battle of Little Blue, and at the Battle of Westport — the latter the largest ever fought west of the Mississippi — Blunt and Shelby met again. The Union victory at Westport forced Price, Shelby and their men to turn south.
During their retreat, on Oct. 28, 1864, Shelby’s men attacked the federal units stationed at Newtonia, Wood said. That same day Blunt and federal cavalry arrived and surprised the Confederate forces just south of town. Shelby ordered his men to dismount and fought another delaying action while the rest of the Confederates made good their exit from Missouri. Shelby’s men initially drove Blunt back toward the town until reinforcements came up and then Shelby rejoined the rest of Price’s fleeing Confederate army.
“In this engagement, the disparity in numbers made the contest unequal, and the fighting on the part of my command was the most heroic I ever witnessed,” Blunt said. “Near one-eighth of my force engaged were killed or wounded, while the enemy’s loss was at least three times greater than ours.”
An estimated 650 men died in the second battle of Newtonia, according to reports, although Wood thinks that number may be high.
Either way, the residents of the town were left once again to care for the wounded and bury the dead.
The second battle of Newtonia was the last battle fought in Missouri, and one of the last fought west of the Mississippi River.
‘John Brown was right’
For most of a decade, Shelby and Blunt had been on intersecting paths, but after the Civil War, they diverged. There’s no evidence the two ever met again.
Blunt — the man from Maine — ended the war with a largely successful military record. Despite the debacle at Baxter Springs in 1863, he had numerous victories to his credit.
“His (military) record is actually very good. He didn’t really suffer a battlefield defeat,” said Collins, his biographer.
But his career after the war was marked by scandals and corruption, and in 1873 he was indicted by the federal government and charged with conspiring to defraud it, although the case was later dismissed.
In 1879, he was committed to an insane asylum, where he died alone two years later of what was called “softening of the brain.”
“It appears to be the old term for the final stage of syphilis,” Collins said.
Shelby — the man from Missouri — never surrendered after the Civil War, but rather, led hundreds of men toward Texas and then Mexico, where he drowned his battle flag in the Rio Grande rather than hand it over to the Union. He offered his services to the government of Mexico during their civil war but was declined.
He eventually returned to Missouri, where he was venerated as a hero. His biographer says Shelby was every bit the icon in Missouri after the war that Robert E. Lee was throughout the rest of the South.
Union Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasanton, who had once led the Cavalry Corps for the Army of the Potomac, fought J.E.B. Stuart back East, and who faced Shelby in 1864, called Shelby the “best cavalry general in the South.”
The same federal government that had indicted Blunt named Shelby a U.S. Marshal for the Western District of Missouri, and when he died in 1897, thousands of people turned out for his funeral.
But in the end, Shelby acknowledged he — not Blunt — was on the wrong side of history. He and other border raiders had attempted to steal Kansas elections with violence. They fought to rip the nation apart, and had the South succeeded, slavery would have spread West and lasted for decades.
“I say John Brown was right,” Shelby acknowledged in that last interview of his life.
“Those were the days when slavery was in the balance, and the violence engendered made men irresponsible,” Shelby said. “I now see I was so myself.”
Source note: The narrative was reconstructed after numerous interviews with members of the Newtonia Battlefields Protection Association, including Kay Hively, Russell Hively, Russ Hively, Larry James, Tom Higdon and David Weems; Connie Langum, historian at Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield; Robert Collins, author of “General James G. Blunt, Tarnished Glory,” and Larry Wood, author of “The Two Civil War Battles of Newtonia.” Multiple published sources also were used, including “Civil War on the Western Border” by Jay Monaghan; “General Jo Shelby, Undefeated Rebel,” by Daniel O’Flaherty; “The Army of the Frontier’s First Campaign: The Confederates Win at Newtonia,” by Edwin Bearss in the Missouri Historical Review; “The Civil War Battlefield Guide”; and the Official Records of the War of Rebellion.