Giving No Quarter – How the 39th Missouri Lost the Highest Percentage of Men Killed in a Single Engagement of the Civil War

Ever since the guns went silent in 1865, there has always been a debate about casualty rates for Civil War units and battles among historians and enthusiasts alike. The regiments who sustained these enormous casualty rates have been immortalized in the history books: 5th New York at Second Manassas, 1st Minnesota at Gettysburg, 9th Illinois at Shiloh, and many others. The stores of these units exemplify courage and bravery on the battlefield. Some of these units, though, were overlooked in the annals of Civil War history, specifically three companies of the 39th Missouri Infantry (Mounted) Regiment, who sustained the highest percentage killed in a single engagement during the Civil War.

Three officers of the 39th Missouri Infantry are shown in this photograph, with Col. Edward A. Kutzner in the center. Courtesy of The State Historical Society of Missouri.

Mustered in August 1864 in Hannibal, the 39th Missouri was formed as part of the larger Union effort to mobilize mounted infantry units to counter guerrilla activity – a constant issue in such a divided, occupied state. The guerrilla war had continuously worsened, especially as Confederate troops had left the state since 1861. However, concurrent to the formation of the 39th Missouri, Confederate Major General Sterling Price’s 15,000-man Army of Missouri advanced into Missouri to liberate his home state from the Federal grasp. To counter Price’s advance, approximately fifty-thousand Federal volunteers and militia were organized throughout the state, which included the 39th Missouri.

The men who joined the 39th Missouri were from across northeastern Missouri, specifically Adair, Marion, Pike, Ralls, Knox, Shelby, Scotland, and Monroe counties. Under the command of Colonel Edward A. Kutzner, the regiment’s first series of campaigns was against guerrillas around the North Missouri Railroad. The North Missouri Railroad was a key target for guerrillas, because of it being a major supply and communication line. To counter multiple guerrilla forces along this rail line, the regiment split into smaller company detachments. One detachment – Companies A, G, and H – was annihilated by guerrillas along the North Missouri Railroad at the small town of Centralia, Missouri.

Major A.V.E. Johnston commanded the 39th Missouri’s three-company detachment at Centralia. Courtesy of The State Historical Society of Missouri.

On the evening of September 26, 1864, Major Andrew Vern Emen (A.V.E.) Johnston’s three-company detachment (around 155 men) left the town of Paris in Monroe County in pursuit of Captain William “Bloody Bill” Anderson’s 300-man force. They rode south for 25 miles into Boone County, where Anderson was reported to be. Around 7am on September 27, Johnston’s detachment stumbled upon a trail, reportedly used by Anderson’s men, and continued to follow it toward Centralia. At some point along the way, Johnston received word that in Centralia, Anderson’s men had stopped two passenger trains, murdered 24 Iowa and Missouri Union troops, and burned the cars.

Major Johnston knew he and his men needed to stop them.

Luckily, the horrified citizens of Centralia told the Union detachment that Anderson’s men had moved southeast of town. Leaving approximately thirty men in town to guard the train station, the rest immediately began their pursuit. They rode on horseback until they approached a woodlot that followed Young’s Creek when they dismounted and approached. Unbeknownst to the green troops, the guerrillas were experts at surprise attacks and heavily armed with multiple revolvers each. Hiding among the bushes in a concave formation, Anderson’s men had surrounded Johnston and his 125 men.

Map detailing the Battle of Centralia on September 27, 1864. Courtesy of the Centralia Battlefield.

In a matter of minutes, nearly every one of Johnston’s men had been shot and killed, which included their commander himself. The survivors fled toward their horses, but the guerrillas ran them down. The regiment’s adjutant First Lieutenant Thomas C. Tripler reported the losses at 116 killed. Later reports stated that 122 were killed.[1] For Anderson’s guerrillas, three were wounded. According to Lieutenant Colonel Dan Draper of the Ninth Missouri State Militia Cavalry, who arrived on the scene just hours after the battle, “Most of them were beaten over the head, seventeen of them were scalped, and one man had his privates cut off and placed in his mouth. Every man was shot in the head.”[2] The 39th Missouri Infantry’s commander Colonel Ed Kutzner wrote in his report, “Our forces had but time to fire one volley, when the enemy from his great superiority of numbers and arms broke through the line, completely surrounding the troops, giving no quarter and mutilating bodies.”[3] Between 79 and 108 of the men were buried in a mass grave in Centralia, but have since been reinterred at Jefferson City National Cemetery in Cole County, while the others were sent to their homes. The 39th Missouri Infantry had suffered the highest percentage loss of life in a single engagement than any other regiment in the Civil War.

Capt. William “Bloody Bill” Anderson was one of Missouri’s infamous guerrilla commanders. Known for his small-unit, swift tactics on the battlefield, Anderson trapped the 39th Missouri’s detachment outside of Centralia, Missouri. Courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society.

According to William F. Fox’s Regimental Losses in the American Civil War, the 39th Missouri Infantry lost 122 men killed in action at Centralia. Comparing that number to the total of 125 who went with Johnston toward Young’s Creek, the percentage killed was 97.6%. If we look at Fox’s list of “Maximum Percentage of Casualties,” the 1st Minnesota Infantry at Gettysburg took an 82% casualty rate. The 1st Texas Infantry at Antietam had the highest casualty rate out of Confederate units at 82.3%. But that is including the missing, prisoners, and wounded. The 39th Missouri was all killed at just under 98%. An examination of Fox’s list of “Percentages of Killed in Regiments In Particular Engagements,” the highest percentage listed is the 1st Minnesota at Gettysburg with 28%.[4] Even though the 39th Missouri had only three of its companies engaged at Centralia, the percentage killed still reflects the correct ratio between the men engaged and the number of men compared to that total number. To deduct the number killed at Centralia from the number of the entire regiment would be unfair, since the rest of the regiment was deployed elsewhere in northeastern Missouri.

A modern view of the Centralia battlefield, facing the Young’s Creek treeline. Courtesy of the Centralia Battlefield.

Why is the 39th Missouri not listed at all? Fox actually discussed the regiment in his book, saying “The 39th Missouri lost 2 officers and 120 men killed in a massacre at Centralia, Mo., September 27, 1864.”[5] Dr. Jane Johansson wrote about the 39th Missouri on her blog, arguing that “the 39th Missouri Infantry would have ranked as the Union infantry regiment that had lost the most number of men killed or mortally wounded in a single engagement.”[6] Even by total numbers of killed in a particular engagement, the 39th Missouri Infantry lost 122, which is five more killed than the Fifth New York Infantry at Second Manassas. If Fox had listed the 39th Missouri in his list of “Maximum of Regimental Loss in Killed and Died of Wounds in Particular Engagements,” it would have taken the lead in infantry losses. In other words, the unit had lost more men killed by both numbers and percentages in a single engagement than any other Union regiment.

The Jefferson City National Cemetery grave site of many men from the 39th Missouri who were killed at Centralia. Courtesy of Civil War Medicine (and Writing).

From my research, I believe Fox purposely left the unit out for several reasons. First, the 39th Missouri only had three companies engaged at Centralia. Second, Fox referred to Centralia not as a battle, but a “massacre.”[7]In fact, there were two events that day in Centralia, the massacre in the town prior to the 39th’s arrival and the battle in which they were involved. All official reports and the historic site list the 39th Missouri’s engagement as a battle. Third, he may have only looked at units that were engaged with Confederate volunteers, not partisan rangers or guerrillas. We may never know exactly why he did not list the regiment, but we need to know about this forgotten unit’s sacrifice on the battlefield. Just because the Battle of Centralia was unique as a short, massacre-like battle should not diminish the 39th Missouri’s losses. It is paramount we remember them.

In the end, this analysis of the 39th Missouri Infantry’s losses was not written to diminish the sacrifices of other units. In fact, it is to honor another unit who lost 98% of men engaged and 122 of their men killed in a single engagement. What happened at Centralia for the men of the 39th Missouri was horrific and unlike most other battles of the Civil War. Nonetheless, it was still a battle that resulted in enormous casualties.

Sources:

[1] William Fox, Regimental Losses in the American Civil War, 1861-1865 (Albany, NY: Brandow Printing Company, 1898), 522.

[2] Report of Lieut. Col. Daniel M. Draper, September 29, 1864, in The War of the Rebellion: The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (hereafter referred to as OR), ser. 1, v. 41, pt. 1, 440.

[3] Report of Col. Ed. A. Kutzner, September 29, 1864, in OR, ser. 1, v. 41, pt. 1, 443.

[4] Fox, Regimental Losses, 36, 28.

[5] Ibid., 522.

[6] Jane Johansson, “The Forgotten 39th Missouri Infantry,” January 8, 2012, The Trans-Mississippian, http://transmississippian.blogspot.com/2012/01/forgotten-39th-missouri-infantry.html.

[7] Fox, Regimental Losses, 522.

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14 Responses to Giving No Quarter – How the 39th Missouri Lost the Highest Percentage of Men Killed in a Single Engagement of the Civil War

  1. Mike Maxwell says:

    Kristen
    The 6th Mississippi Infantry at Shiloh was so badly mauled by contact with W.T. Sherman’s Division early on 6 April 1862 that at the end of the day the “regiment” consisted of only 60 effectives. On the Union side, the defenders of the Sunken Road line suffered such severe casualties that the remaining men of the 8th Iowa, 12th Iowa, 14th Iowa and 58th Illinois were cobbled together after Shiloh into a less-than-regiment strength outfit called “the Union Brigade,” which then marched on Corinth.
    Thanks for bringing the tragic Story of the 39th Missouri to our attention.
    Mike

    • Thank you for commenting, Mike. There are countless combat units on both sides that suffered horrific losses in battle. I appreciate you sharing even more of them with us.

  2. Paul Blackham says:

    Thank you for honoring the memory of these men.

  3. David Corbett says:

    Interesting read !

  4. JE says:

    This is outstanding stuff. Great article, Kristen!

  5. The idea of giving “no quarter” in battles between guerrillas and Union Army troops did not originate with the guerillas. That was decided by the Union side, who sometimes paid the price. The untold part of this story, however, is the fact that Anderson did in fact, take one prisoner from the day’s earlier action at the train station. He was hoping to trade the Union sergeant for one of his men. When it became obvious his man had been the victim of “no quarter” as well, he did what was almost unthinkable in the situation (and maybe the only time he did this after the no quarter rules were laid down): he told the prisoner that he should just ride away. The prisoner was sure it was a ploy to use him as target practice, but he did ride away, and lived to write a detailed account of the whole day’s activities. BTW, Union authorities imprisoned Anderson’s sister, and several other women in Kansas City in an old building unfit for any use, for no reason other than her brother fighting for the other side. The building collapsed on their heads, killing several of them, including the sister. It is said that Anderson went completely crazy after that, leading him to take scalps from some of those he killed in battle.

    • Had to look up his siter’s name, as I went blank: Josephine.

    • Hi Andrew, thank you for reading and commenting about the massacre and battle. Particularly with the death of his sister and injury of his two other sisters from the prison collapse at Kansas City in 1863, Anderson had a personal war with the Federals. His father was also murdered by a Unionist judge. At Centralia, Sergeant Thomas Goodman was the prisoner taken by Anderson for exchange leverage.

      Since I wanted to tackle the larger question of why the 39th Missouri Infantry has been ‘forgotten’ in Fox’s Regimental Losses, I did not go into the details of the massacre itself. I hope to write more on the massacre and Bloody Bill soon.

  6. Mary Lattin says:

    My gt gt grandfather was killed that day at Centralia, MO. Martin Trail is buried Sst
    Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis, MO.

    • Mary, thank you for commenting about your great-great-grandfather. What an incredible, yet tragic, connection to the Centralia massacre and battle. Do you have a photograph of Trail or any further information about him? I am sure that the folks at the Missouri Civil War Museum at Jefferson Barracks would love to hear more about your grandfather, as well.

  7. Pingback: Giving No Quarter – How the 39th Missouri Lost the Highest Percentage of Men Killed in a Single Engagement of the Civil War | My Eclectic Writings

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