“I had saved from pillage the home of a confederate”: Buffalo Bill and the civilian experience during Price’s campaign

Since I brought up Buffalo Bill’s experiences during Major-General Sterling Price’s 1864 Campaign, let me offer up the second vignette from his autobiography:

Another interesting and I may say exciting episode happened to me a day or two after my unexpected meeting with Wild Bill.  I was riding with the advance guard of our army, and wishing a drink of water, I stopped at a farmhouse.  There were no men about he premises, and no one excepting a very fine and intellectual looking lady and her two daughters.  They seemed to be almost frightened to death at seeing me – a “yank” – appear before them. I quieted their fears somewhat, and the mother then asked me how far back the army was. When I told her it would be along shortly, she expressed her fears that they would take everything on the premises.  They set me out a lunch and treated me rather kindly, so that I really began to sympathize with them; for I knew that the soldier would ransack their house and confiscate everything they could lay their hands on. At last I resolved to do what I could to protect them.

After the generals and staff officers had passed by, I took it upon myself to be a sentry over the house.  When the command came along some of the men rushed up with the intention of entering the place and carrying off all the desirable plunder possible, and then tearing and breaking everything to pieces, as they usually did along the line of march.

“Halt!” I shouted; “I have been placed here by the commanding officer as a guard over this house, and no man must enter it.”

This stopped the first squad; and seeing that my plan was a success, I remained at my post during the passage of the entire command and kept out all intruders.

It seemed as if the ladies could not thank me sufficiently for the protection I had afforded them.  They were perfectly aware of the fact that I had acted without orders and entirely on my own responsibility, and therefore they felt the more grateful.  They urgently invited me to remain a little while longer and partake of an excellent dinner which they said they were preparing for me. I was pretty hungry about that time, as our rations had been rather slim of late, and a good dinner was a temptation I could not withstand, especially as it was to be served up by such elegant ladies. While I was eating the meal, I was most agreeably entertained by the young ladies, and before I had finished it the last of the rear-guard must have been at least two miles from the house.

Suddenly three men entered the room, and I looked up and saw three double-barrel shot-guns leveled straight at me.  Before I could speak, however, the mother and her daughters sprang between the men and me.

“Father! Boys! Lower your guns! You must not shoot this man,” and similar exclamations, were the cry of all three.

The guns were lowered, and the men, who were the father and brothers of the young ladies, were informed of what I had done for them.  It appeared that they had been concealed in the woods near by while the army was passing, and on coming into the house and finding a Yankee there, they determined to shoot him. Upon learning the facts, the old man extended his hand to me, saying:

“I would not harm a hair of your head for the world; but it is best that you stay here no longer, as your command is some distance from here now, and you might be cut off by bushwhackers before reaching it.”

Bidding them all good-bye, and with many thanks from the mother and daughters, I mounted my horse and soon overtook the column, happy in the thought that I had done a good deed, and with no regrets that I had saved from pillage and destruction the home and property of a confederate and his family.

The “home front” in Missouri was the forefront.  There was no rear area.  Nor was there any person who could claim a neutral status with much chance of success.  By 1864, the state had suffered through nearly a full decade of partisan warfare.  The neo-revisionist (or what ever term you chose to apply) spin has been to emphasize the stern, and cruel, nature of the Federals during the war.  But the actions of both sides was equally bad… and at the same time justified by the extremes of the other.

Notice here that Buffalo Bill was able to secure the safety of this particular farm by falsely using the commanders’ name.  The command and staff passed the place almost without mention.  In this case, the commander didn’t have pillage or plunder expressly ordered as part of his operation.  But his men, working behind the commander, had no reservations. With a significant number of Missourians, on both sides, involved with the campaign, many had memories of deprivations inflicted upon their homes or their kin.  Didn’t matter if it were German families in the way of Price’s column, or ‘secesh’ families in the wake of the Federal pursuit.

Yet, the ancestor of this writer, a fine German-born Federal soldier who happened to be home on convalescent leave, lived through that period of the war completely unmolested.  Meteorologists often tell us the nature of tornadoes may destroy one house while leaving others untouched only yards away.  Warfare of this type is like a tornado in that regard.

(Citation from William F. Cody, The Life of Hon. William F. Cody, Known as Buffalo Bill, the Famous Hunter, Scout, and Guide: An Autobiography, Lincoln: U of Nebraska, 1978, pages 137-9.)

 

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