- Date: September 27, 1864
- Location: Centralia, Missouri
- Adversaries: William "Bloody Bill" Anderson's bushwhackers vs. furloughed Union soldiers
- Casualties: 22 Union soldiers killed, plus 123 in the ensuing Battle of Centralia
- Result: Massacre of the Union soldiers; Union defeat in the Battle of Centralia
On September 27, 1864, roughly 80 guerrillas under the command of William T. “Bloody Bill” Anderson stopped a train outside of Centralia, Missouri. They then asked for a volunteer from among the Union soldiers on the train. Fully expecting to be executed, Sergeant Thomas M. Goodman stepped forward. Instead of killing the sergeant, however, the guerrillas shot the line of 22 unarmed Union soldiers. They set fire to the train and left the civilian passengers to deal with the mutilated bodies. What became known as the Centralia Massacre stands as a noteworthy example of intense violence directed against noncombatants that periodically characterized the Missouri-Kansas border war.
Sergeant Goodman, the sole military survivor of the Centralia Massacre, declared that the deaths at Centralia were the “most monstrous and inhuman atrocities ever perpetuated by beings wearing the form of man.”
Sergeant Goodman, the sole military survivor of the Centralia Massacre, declared that the deaths at Centralia were the “most monstrous and inhuman atrocities ever perpetuated by beings wearing the form of man.” Goodman witnessed the execution and alleged scalping of his comrades at a time when the people of the Missouri-Kansas region were no strangers to brutality. Proslavery men, such as the forces following William Anderson, as well as Free-Soil guerrilla bands, plundered homesteads. Men raided towns and neighbors murdered neighbors.
This chaotic climate along the Missouri-Kansas border often gave “Bloody Bill” Anderson and his marauding followers a free license to terrorize and kill in Kansas and Missouri. But Anderson’s men would not have been as successful as they were against federal forces without the help of local families and the alliance of the Confederate Army. Some pro-Confederate settlers willingly provided Anderson with supplies and information. Sergeant Goodman, who was held captive by Anderson’s guerillas for 10 days, reported that many Missourians met Anderson and his men with “homage and attention best befitting angels.”
Listen to a clip of archaeologist Douglas D. Scott discuss Civil War battlefields in Missouri, including the Centralia Massacre site.
Anderson’s Centralia Massacre was an informal part of the larger Confederate invasion of Missouri during the fall of 1864. Alarmed at William Tecumseh Sherman’s capture of Atlanta and threatened by General Philip H. Sheridan’s success in the Shenandoah Valley, Confederate Major General Sterling Price wanted to reverse the tide of the war. To accomplish his goal of beating back the Union forces, Price hoped to reclaim Missouri for the South, and he launched a full invasion of the state. Anderson was happy to help Price fight against the federal cause along the Missouri-Kansas border. His guerrillas were on their way to join Price’s military forces when they stopped at Centralia.
The Union Army launched a swift response to the Centralia Massacre. The 39th Missouri Mounted Infantry pursued Anderson’s men the afternoon of the 27th. What began as a retaliation mission quickly became a second bloodbath for the Union. Under the command of Major A.V.E. Johnston, the 155 raw Union recruits were underequipped and inexperienced fighters. Anderson’s followers, joined by additional guerrilla forces gathered in preparation for the invasion of Missouri, numbered close to 400.
For more information about the atrocities committed in the Centralia Massacre and the following skirmish, read this PBS American Experience discussion from a panel of Civil War experts.
These guerrillas, including a young Jesse James, Cole Younger, and Frank James, seized the chance to consolidate their revenge against the federal forces who had occupied various sections of the Missouri-Kansas region since the mid-1850s. At Centralia, proslavery forces finally had the clear advantage over their opponents. Anderson’s proslavery men killed Johnston and all but 32 of his outnumbered men in the Battle of Centralia. Sergeant Goodman called the scene a drunken “carnival of blood,” and the incident became notorious for the torture and mutiliations that Anderson's men inflicted on the survivors of the battle.
The Centralia Massacre is but one, albeit extreme, example of the violence in Missouri and Kansas during the war. It testifies to the intensely personal motivations of the war’s soldiers and civilians. The Civil War had its share of large-scale, army versus army battles, but on the western border, local communities bore the brunt of the conflict.
Goodman, Thomas M. A Thrilling Record, Founded on Facts and Observations Obtained During Ten Days' Experience with Colonel William T. Anderson (the Notorious Guerrilla Chieftain) by Sergeant Thos. M. Goodman, the Only Survivor of the Inhuman Massacre at Centralia, Mo., September 27, 1864, and an Eyewitness of the Brutal and Barbarous Treatment by the Guerrillas of the Dead, Wounded, and Captured of Major Johnston's Command. Hawleyville, Iowa: Goodman, 1868.
Hattaway, Herman and Archer Jones. How the North Won: A Military History of the Civil War. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983.