The Battle of Centralia: A “Carnival of Blood”

ECW welcomes back guest author Tonya McQuade

As described in my previous article on the Centralia Massacre, William “Bloody Bill” Anderson and his band of guerrillas wreaked havoc on the small town of Centralia, Missouri, on September 27, 1864. That morning, Anderson and 80 of his men rode into town, looted local businesses, drank large amounts of whiskey, and robbed a stagecoach. That afternoon, after hearing the North Missouri Railroad train approaching, they blocked the rail line, swarmed the train, robbed the passengers, brutally killed and mutilated 22 soldiers and one civilian, set the train and train depot on fire, sent the burning train down the tracks, and took Union Sergeant Thomas Goodman prisoner.

It would have been bad enough if Anderson and his bushwhackers had stopped with the Centralia Massacre. However, the killing was far from over. By the end of the day, the Battle of Centralia – which took place about three and a half miles southeast of town – saw the highest percentage of men killed in a single engagement of the Civil War. [1]

Anderson and his men knew Federal troops were in the area – they had sought information about them that morning when they rode into town. Later that afternoon, Union Major Andrew Vern Emen Johnston and his 39th Missouri Volunteer Infantry rode into Centralia, drawn by the smoke from the burning train and train depot. Most of Johnson’s troops were operating as mounted infantry and riding farming horses and mules. [2]

The 39th Missouri had been mustered in Hannibal, Missouri, in August 1864. These new recruits were needed to help halt the advance of Confederate Major General Sterling Price and his Army of Missouri as they made their way north. Price sought to liberate his home state from Federal control, and he was encouraging guerrilla bands to help with this campaign by attacking Union supporters and disrupting railroad service, communications, and supply lines. Anderson and his men – en route to join Price’s army – were more than willing to comply.

Union Major Andrew Vern Emen Johnston
(Photo courtesy of The State Historical Society of Missouri)

Johnston – who did not have much military experience – was determined to pursue Anderson and his men despite the town’s warnings that his troops were outgunned and outnumbered. Leaving approximately 30 men to guard the town, Johnson led his remaining soldiers toward the guerrilla encampment.  His men, who had only been in service for two weeks, were armed with muskets and bayonets – none had pistols or revolvers.

There, they found approximately 400 guerrillas – the largest group ever assembled under Anderson’s command – camped along Young’s Creek on the farm of Col. M. G. Singleton, a Confederate officer home on parole and under bond. Johnson then ordered his men to form a battle line and march on foot toward the guerrillas across the field. They soon found themselves surrounded on three sides by guerrillas riding on horseback. Within three minutes, the lopsided battle was over. Anderson’s guerrillas killed 123 of the 125 Union troops, whose outmoded weapons were no match for the guerrillas’ revolvers. [3]

Centralia Battle Site
(Photo by Tonya McQuade, April 2022)

According to one report: “Anderson’s guerrillas, each man well-armed with several six-shot revolvers, burst out of the tree line at a gallop. Johnston’s infantrymen fired one ragged, largely ineffective volley with their single-shot Enfield rifle-muskets but had no time to reload before the guerrillas overran the Union battle line, shooting Johnston’s men down with their rapid-firing pistols. Meanwhile, from the timber to Johnston’s right and left, hundreds more guerrillas charged the disintegrating Union line. Panicked Union soldiers tried to flee but the guerrillas, well-mounted on vastly superior horseflesh, quickly rode them down. Only a handful of Johnston’s men escaped, leaving the mutilated bodies of 123 of their comrades on the battlefield. The battle lasted perhaps three minutes and as few as only three guerrillas were killed.” [4]

At the time, Confederate guerrillas’ principal weapon was the .36 caliber 1851 Navy Colt revolver, named for its inventor, Samuel Colt. As stated in “An Outlaw’s Arsenal” on PBS’s American Experience: “Colt’s gun featured an automatic, revolving chamber that enabled the user to get off six shots in succession…. In the bushwhackers’ hands, the Navy Colt did extensive damage. Though many Union troops also carried revolvers, most militiamen were armed primarily with single-shot Sharpe carbines or Minié rifles; they were more accurate than revolvers and had better range, but they took a long time to reload. Guerrillas like Jesse James and “Bloody Bill” Anderson would carry up to a half-dozen revolvers into battle and get off dozens of shots in the time it took their opponents to fire two. Although the .36 caliber bullets often wounded rather than killed, the bushwhackers would finish off their helpless foes with shots to the head after the skirmish had ended.” [5]

Most of the 123 Union troops killed were shot on the field; others, as they attempted to flee – some from the battlefield, others in town. Many horses lay dead as well. Anderson’s men became notorious for the torture and mutilations they inflicted. The captive Sergeant Goodman, who managed to escape ten days later, called the scene a drunken “carnival of blood.” [6]

According to Lieutenant Colonel Dan Draper of the 9th 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.” [7]

Johnston himself was killed by a 17-year-old ruffian named Jesse James, who reportedly bragged about the killing later. He, his brother Frank, and future gang members Cole and Jim Younger were all part of Anderson’s vicious guerrilla band that day. [8]

According to Tom Goodrich, author of Black Flag: Guerrilla Warfare on the Western Border: “The aftermath of Centralia would have been truly horrific. In the middle of the day, an autumn day, roughly a hundred dead Federals on the ground. They have had their throats slashed and some of them are still being tortured. Many of the guerrillas are drunk. All the emotions are coming out of the guerrillas at this point. This is the chickens of John Brown coming home to roost so to speak. This is one of the ultimate atrocities of the Civil War. There are 100 and some men, helpless, disarmed, murdered in their tracks. And it would have been a very terrible thing to see. Beheadings, disembowelments, torture, fiendish torture, men begging for their lives. This is where the emotions finally come and bear fruit in Missouri. This is the place where every man who has felt the oppression of Federal soldiers for the last three years, can finally have his vengeance.” [9]

After this, the Union was determined to track down Bloody Bill and put an end to his brutal attacks. They put Lieut. Col. Samuel P. Cox, a former army scout, in charge of the effort. Cox finally caught up with Anderson on October 26 near Orrick, Missouri. There, a brief battle erupted between the Union soldiers and Anderson and his approximately 150 men. Anderson was shot in the head and died instantly.

Knowing how anxious Missourians were to see Anderson captured or killed, Union soldiers photographed his dead body, then paraded his body through the streets of Richmond, Missouri, before burying it nearby. One soldier cut off Anderson’s finger to steal his wedding ring. They also decapitated his corpse and displayed his severed head on a post. [10]

Body of “Bloody Bill” Anderson [11]
The same day that Anderson and his bushwhackers achieved their brutal victory in Centralia, Price and his army of 8,000 men suffered significant losses in their attack on Fort Davidson near Pilot Knob. Their attack on the fort resulted in horrific Confederate casualties, and the Union troops – after a day under siege but with few casualties – slipped out during the night, evacuating the fort but blowing up its powder magazine. Later defeats at the Battle of Westport and the Battle of Mine Creek forced Price to give up his idea of retaking Missouri. Guerrilla attacks, however, continued through the end of the war.

A memorial marker near the railroad in Centralia today states: “September 27, 1864, guerrilla forces operating against the U.S. Government captured a passenger train of the North Missouri Railroad (now Wabash Railroad) as part of a program to destroy the railroad, and shot down 22 Federal soldiers. The Depot, all coaches of the train, and a following freight train were set ablaze and destroyed…. Near here, on that same afternoon, a pursuing portion of the 39th Missouri Infantry Volunteers engaged the greatly superior guerilla forces. In a wild and merciless battle the Union troops were almost totally annihilated. In point of fatalities to the vanquished according to Centralia & Boone County historians, this battle was without parallel in the annals of the Civil War.”

Marker Commemorating the Centralia Massacre and Battle [12]
(Photo by Tonya McQuade, April 2022)
One of those who fought the Union soldiers that day was my 2nd great-granduncle, James R. Bryson. Three Union soldiers who escaped from the battlefield were later shot near a corner of his property where the burning train from the Centralia Massacre had stopped earlier in the day. [13] James was still alive – and in attendance – in 1897 when the notorious Frank James returned to Centralia to “revisit the scenes of his exploits thirty-three years [earlier].” [14]

Today, James and many other Bryson family members are buried in Centralia Cemetery, less than a mile from the above Civil War marker. Among them are my 2nd great-grandparents, Francis Marion Traughber and Marnie Bryson Traughber – James’s younger sister. His younger brother Capt. George Washington Bryson, whom I discussed in my previous article on the Centralia Massacre, died and was buried in Texas.

Tonya McQuade is an English Teacher at Los Gatos High School and lives in San Jose, California. She is a great lover of history, frequently visiting museums and historical sites with her husband and children, as well as reading and teaching historical texts, literature, and primary source documents. After acquiring 50 family Civil War letters in 2022, Tonya began researching the American Civil War in Missouri. She is currently working on a book incorporating the letters with historical commentary, titled A State Divided: The Civil War Letters of James Calaway Hale and Benjamin Petree of Andrew County, Missouri. Tonya earned B.A. degrees in English and Communication Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and served there as a writer and editor for the student newspaper, the Daily Nexus, for four years. She also earned her Single Subject Teaching Credential in English at UCSB and later her M.A. in Educational Leadership from San Jose State University.


Works Cited

  1. Trout, Kristen M. “Giving No Quarter – How the 39th Missouri Lost the Highest Percentage of Men Killed in a Single Engagement of the Civil War.” Emerging Civil War, 29 April 2019,
  2. Morelock, Jerry. “For Your Civil War Buff’s Bucket List: Centralia, Mo.” HistoryNet, 29 April 2020,
  3. Thiessen, Thomas D., Douglas D. Scott, and Steven J. Dasovich. “This Work of Fiends”: Historical and Archaeological Perspectives on the Confederate Guerrilla Actions at Centralia, Missouri, September 27, 1864,”, March 2008,
  4. Morelock, Jerry. “For Your Civil War Buff’s Bucket List: Centralia, Mo.” HistoryNet, 29 April 2020,
  5. “An Outlaw’s Arsenal | American Experience | Official Site.” PBS,
  6. Wolnisty, Claire. “Centralia Massacre.” Civil War on the Western Border,
  7. 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, ser. 1, v. 41, pt. 1, 440.
  8. Trout, Carlynn, and Jillian Hartke. “Jesse James – SHSMO Historic Missourians.” SHSMO Historic Missourians,
  9. Goodrich, Thomas. Black Flag: Guerrilla Warfare on the Western Border, 1861–1865. Indiana University Press, 1999.
  10. Stanley, Matthew E., and Robert B. Kice. “Anderson, William “Bloody Bill.”” Civil War on the Western Border,
  11. Kice, Robert B. “File:William T Anderson dead.jpg.” Wikimedia Commons,
  12. Photo by Tonya McQuade, Centralia, MO, 12 Apr 2022. The marker, which commemorates both the Centralia Massacre and Battle, was presented on June 12, 1957, during the Centralia Centennial by Wabash Railroad Company President Arthur K. Atkinson.
  13. Thiessen, Thomas D., Douglas D. Scott, and Steven J. Dasovich. “This Work of Fiends”: Historical and Archaeological Perspectives on the Confederate Guerrilla Actions at Centralia, Missouri, September 27, 1864,”, March 2008,
  14. “Frank James Revisits the Scene After Thirty Years.” Telegraph, Macon, Georgia, September 26, 1897.

11 Responses to The Battle of Centralia: A “Carnival of Blood”

  1. Tonya, thanks for sharing all of this information about Centralia and your family. Always love it when connections between events of the past and people today can be made. They are great teachable moments to show that our past as a nation or world happened because of individuals and their actions.

    1. Thanks, Neil. it’s been quite a learning journey this past year as I’ve explored lots of family connections through 50 family Civil War letters I recently acquired!

  2. It does not get more brutal and more not-following-the-rules-of-war than that. But, the Federals took Anderson’s sisters as hostages, put them in a house where the roof fell and killed one of his sisters. And, apparently the Federals had their own no-quarter policy in Missouri. War can become very personal.

    1. Yes, both sides did some very brutal things. The book I’ve been working on about the war in Missouri includes information about the prison collapse and how that played a crucial role in motivating Anderson’s actions during the attack on Lawrence, Kansas. I found it interesting to learn that George Caleb Bingham, the artist who later painted “Order No. 11” as a criticism of Gen. Ewing’s order, actually owned the building that collapsed. It was being used as a prison, and evidence suggests that guards had removed some of the lower support columns to make more room below, thus undermining the building’s structural integrity.

  3. Thank you for sharing your family history which is very rich. After reading of this, my thoughts ask, sure this was pretty rough, but which side acted most heartlessly during the war? Custer hanging Mosby’s partisans? Sheridan burning up the valley? Sherman firing on Atlanta? Elmira POW camp? Fort Pillow? The Crater? Warren’s Stoney Creek Raid? There are plenty of choices for each pan of the scale. And then to ease my mind of the tragedies, tertiarily I wonder, where was Rooster Cogburn during all this?

    1. Yes – so many brutal actions and heartless killings. I’m glad I was not there to witness any of those events firsthand. What I have wondered about a lot, however, as I’ve read through these family letters I acquired and learned more about family members on both sides of the war, is how these families, neighborhoods, and towns came back together after the war. After the surrenders, after everyone was sent home, how did they all handle that on a more personal level? Did they sit back down to a Thanksgiving meal with the brothers, uncles, cousins, who fought on the other side? In Missouri, there was a lot of that kind of division. In St. Joseph, near where my GGG-Grandfather who wrote most of the letters lived in Andrew County, Missouri, about 2,000 men fought for the Union, 2,000 for the Confederacy. After seeing the brutality they did, I wonder how many returned to their old homes, their old towns, and “patched it up” with their neighbors, versus how many decided to move elsewhere.

  4. You have to wonder about Maj. Johnston dismounting and having his men advance across an open field against a force he had to know were mounted cavalry. Its near suicide for even the best infantry to do that in an open field. He may have had his own anger thing going. Surely he did not know he faced the entire guerilla band. But, even ten mounted guerillas would have caused him much havoc. The biggest danger to dismounted Infantry has always been cavalry – even a band of guerillas.

    1. There’s an interesting article about Frank James returning to Centralia in 1897 in which he recalls the battle and speaks to Johnston’s bad decision. Here’s an excerpt:

      For the First Time Since the Battle He Visits the Field, the Scene of the Most Terrible Conflict of the Civil War
      (printed in Columbia Missouri Herald, Columbia, Missouri, September 24, 1897)

      The sharp, piercing eyes of James flashed. “I can see them now yonder on that ridge. On they come…. The Yankees stopped near the rise of the hill. Both sides were in full view of each other, though nearly a half mile distant. The Yankees dismounted, gave their horses into charge of a detail of men and prepared to fight.

      “John Koger, a funny fellow in our ranks, watched the Yankees get down from their horses and said: `Why the fools are going to fight us on foot!’ And then added in seriousness: `God help ’em.’

      “We dismounted to tighten the belts on the horses and then at the word of command started on our charge. The ground, you will notice, rises sharply and we moved slowly. Our line was nearly a quarter of a mile long, theirs much closer together. We were still some 600 yards away, our speed increasing and our ranks closing up when they fired their first and only time. They nearly all fired over our heads. We were laying low on our horses a trick that Comanche Indians practice and which saved our lives many a time. Only two of our men were killed….

      “But we couldn’t stop in that terrible charge for anything. Up the hill we went yelling like wild Indians. Such shrieks, young man, you will never hear as broke the stillness of that September afternoon now nearly thirty-three years ago….On we went up the hill. Almost in the twinkling of an eye we were on the Yankee line. They seemed terrorized. Hypnotized might be a better word though I reckon nobody knew anything about hypnotism then, though George Todd, by the way, looked like Svengali. Some of the Yankees were at `fix bayonets,’ some were biting off their cartridges, preparing to reload. Yelling, shooting our pistols, upon them we went. Not a single man of the line escaped. Every one was shot through the head.”

      1. Hard to believe. That account indicates Maj. Johnston knew he faced a large body of mounted men ready to charge. Yet, he dismounted his soldiers anyway. He had the high ground, which meant a lot at the time. But, nothing can overcome a mounted charge. James explains what happens at moments like that. Many of the foot soldiers just become frozen in fear at the approaching charge. During the Napoleon wars, such charges were the dream of every commander. Most young men of the time seem to have been very familiar with the Napoleonic wars. Apparently, not one young Maj Johnston.

  5. As best I know, Robert E. Lee was the best general on the field in the Civil War – for the Federalists or the Confederates – an avid student of Napoleon’s battle tactics. Personally, I lost two members of my family on each side of the Civil War. My family was of German decendency – they seemingly couldn’t speak English; however, when in front of enlistment officers, verbally gave their names. The enlistment officers phoenitcally spelled the names on enlistment documents, thus the reason for so many spellings of my surname that are still in existence today. Tonya, you have found a new forte – congrats.
    Ron Cassel

    1. Thanks, Ron. I appreciate your words of support! Yes, lots of names got spelled in many different ways in both the military records and census records, as I’ve discovered in my historical research. The last name “Traughber” that is mentioned in my first article, I’ve seen spelled 8-10 different ways (it started off as Trarbach in Germany).

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