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.
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.
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.
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. 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.” 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.” 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.
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%. 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.
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.” 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.” 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.
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.”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.
 William Fox, Regimental Losses in the American Civil War, 1861-1865 (Albany, NY: Brandow Printing Company, 1898), 522.
 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.
 Report of Col. Ed. A. Kutzner, September 29, 1864, in OR, ser. 1, v. 41, pt. 1, 443.
 Fox, Regimental Losses, 36, 28.
 Ibid., 522.
 Jane Johansson, “The Forgotten 39th Missouri Infantry,” January 8, 2012, The Trans-Mississippian, http://transmississippian.blogspot.com/2012/01/forgotten-39th-missouri-infantry.html.
 Fox, Regimental Losses, 522.