Editor’s note: Over the next two weeks, in observance of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, The Joplin Globe will publish a series of stories written by area historians about the events leading up to the attack on black soldiers that occurred at Rader’s farm on May 18, 1863, and the burning of Sherwood the next day by federal soldiers.
In April 1863, while Jasper County guerrilla leader Thomas Livingston was away from home recruiting reinforcements in Indian Territory, Union Lt. Col. Thomas T. Crittenden picked up reports of an imminent attack.
Crittenden, of the Seventh Missouri State Militia Cavalry, was stationed at Carthage at the time. There he learned from Southern sympathizers in the area that Livingston threatened to “sweep over this district like a tornado and ... make the Feds tremble from head to foot.”
Crittenden scoffed at the notion, and when Livingston and his men returned to Jasper County about the second week of May, the Union officer promptly set out to ensure that the threat issued by rebel sympathizers remained no more than wishful braggadocio.
On May 13, Crittenden, now commanding the post at Newtonia, sent Maj. Edward B. Eno and 184 men on a scouting expedition into Jasper County in search of the noted Confederate leader and his guerrillas. At Shoal Creek, Eno detached Capt. Squire Ballew’s cavalry unit of 50 men with orders to proceed to camp that night near Turkey Creek, not far from the village of Sherwood in Jasper County.
The next day, Ballew was to proceed north to Center Creek and move up the creek to form a junction with Eno near French Point.
(Before the outbreak of the Civil War, Livingston had established one of the earliest lead mining operations at French Point, just north of where the Joplin Regional Airport is now located.)
Meanwhile, Eno and his remaining 134 men, scoured the brush along Jones and Jenkins creeks in southern Jasper County. They made camp the night of May 13 on Center Creek, about five miles south of Carthage.
The next morning, Eno divided his men into three columns. Capt. Jacob Cassairt took 40 men and moved down the south side of the creek, Capt. M.C. Henslee passed down the north side with 35 soldiers, while Eno, with the remaining troops, brought up the rear, scouring brush and timber for signs of the guerrillas.
About 3 p.m., the two advance columns discovered Livingston’s sentinels and drove them in. Henslee joined Cassairt on the south side of the creek to give chase, and the combined force soon encountered Livingston’s main body, consisting of about 100 guerrillas hidden by thick brush and behind a log house near Minersville (present-day Oronogo). A severe fight ensued lasting — according to Eno’s estimate — about 15 minutes.
At the first shots, Henslee’s horse spooked and charged through the guerrilla ranks. Amazingly, the captain made it through the enemy line unscathed, but his men were left without a commander. Many of Livingston’s guerrillas were dressed in federal uniforms, and Cassairt’s detachment mistook them at first for Union soldiers. By the time the federals discovered their mistake, they were in the midst of the rebels and fighting hand-to-hand.
In the words of Livingston, the federals were soon “put to rout” and were flying back in the direction they had come.
Eno, trying to put the best face possible on the skirmish, said that his men were “obliged to fall back.” Later, he admitted that Capt. Cassairt had to exert himself “to the utmost” to rally his men and, to motivate them, threatened to shoot any soldier who dared retreat. When Cassairt finally managed to restore a semblance of discipline in the ranks, the federals re-formed at the edge of a nearby prairie and resumed firing. The guerrillas, however, declined to renew the engagement. Gathering up their wounded, they retired from the field.
Eno was almost two miles in the rear when the firing began, and he and his detachment came galloping up to the scene just as the action closed. Surveying the situation, he consolidated his force and pressed on in pursuit of the rebels, forcing them to abandon some of their federal captives.
Eno hoped that by pressing the pursuit, he would be able to trap the guerrillas between his own force and that of Capt. Ballew. When Eno reached French Point, he found that Ballew’s detachment had indeed been there, but, after learning the outcome of the earlier fight from a federal soldier who had escaped from the guerrillas, Ballew and his men merely fired on Livingston’s advance and then retreated, allowing the rebels to withdraw unmolested.
Undeterred, Eno pressed forward on May 14, trailing the guerrillas across a prairie toward Spring River. There, he learned that Livingston had split his guerrillas into squads of about four men each.
Eno and his Union soldiers spent the next several days scouring timber and trails in the area, occasionally flushing out a squad of from four to 10 rebels. However, as quickly as the Union soldiers could fire on them, the guerrillas disappeared into thick brush, making it almost impossible to follow them.
As happened frequently during the Civil War, each side put its spin on the skirmishing along Center Creek and the events immediately following.
In his official report, Eno claimed his total loss was four men killed and two wounded, and he estimated Livingston’s loss at 15 killed and between 15 and 20 wounded.
Livingston, though, reported that none of his men were killed and that only he and two officers were slightly wounded. He placed the federal loss at 13 killed, four mortally wounded, and four taken prisoner.
On May 18, as Eno and his men returned to Newtonia, Livingston received word from his scouts that a federal foraging party, including a large number of black troops from Baxter Springs, Kan., had been spotted on the prairie between Turkey Creek and Center Creek, northwest of present-day Joplin.
In 1863, in the violently divided state of Missouri, many Southern sympathizers resented the recruitment of black men into the Union army, and many Jasper County residents begrudged the proximity of the black soldiers, some of whom may have been escaped slaves from Southwest Missouri.
A Union foraging party of black troops offered Livingston an opportunity for vengeance, and he gathered 67 of his “best mounted men.”
What happened on May 18 and May 19 would make the skirmishing along Center Creek on May 14 look like little more than a training exercise.
This account was compiled from several sources, including the “Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies”; Rowland Diggs’ “Thomas R. Livingston, Partisan Ranger: His Life & Times”; and Wiley Britton’s memoirs of the war in Southwest Missouri in 1863.