November 1, 1864: “Murder of Three Union Officers” at Greenton, Missouri… hard feelings about hard war

I mentioned yesterday the orders from Washington to move the portions of Major-General A.J. Smith’s Sixteenth Corps involved with the pursuit of Price’s army out of Missouri and then on to Tennessee, where another crisis was emerging.  One of the regiments in Smith’s force was the 89th Indiana.  150 years ago today the regiment was on the march passing the small town of Greenton, Missouri (southwest of Lexington, just north of Odessa).  While at a break, one of the countless tragedies of the war occurred.  Captain William N. Norville provided the official report on November 3, 1864:

I have the honor to report that Maj. Samuel Henry, Asst. Surg. John P. Porter, and Lieut. Harles Ashley, regimental quartermaster, all of the Eighty-ninth Indiana Regiment Infantry, were taken prisoners on the 1st at Greenton, La Fayette County, Mo., by three guerrillas, rapidly taken to the bushes, where their bodies were found yesterday. They were all shot through the head. Their bodies were brought to this post by a citizen who relates as follows: While the Eighty-ninth Regiment was marching through Greenton these three officers rode up to a house and called for dinner. The lady told them that she had nothing cooked, but that if they could wait she would soon have something cooked. They consented to wait; their command marched on. They had gotten their dinner, left the house for their horses hitched at the gate, where, upon going into the house, they had also left their arms. Before they had reached their horses, three men in Federal uniform came dashing up and ordered them to surrender. The officers at first regarded it as a joke, but upon cocked revolvers being presented they surrendered almost within sight of the regiment and were taken to the woods. I have buried them to-day. When brought here they had neither overcoats nor vests on; Major Henry’s saber hung in a tree near his body.

The guerillas were still active in Missouri, though not in the numbers they’d been the previous month.  I don’t want to down play the death of the three officers.  But incidents like this were commonplace – inflicted by partisans from both sides – in Missouri.  Thirty years ago when I was studying Price’s campaign for the focus of a research paper, I simply passed this incident off as “just another.”  And Missouri was filled with “just another” stories.

But a few weeks ago while collecting material in regard to Major-General William T. Sherman’s March (and, I do intend, unless something gets in the way, follow that campaign in the same spirit as some of the other “150 years ago” threads), I ran across a repeat of the story from Greenton.  This appears in the November 23, 1864 edition of the Warcester, Massachusetts Massachusetts Spy, third column, fourth page:

Murder89thIndianaOfficers

As you can see, most of the details, passed along second hand from a St. Louis newspaper, were pulled from Norville’s report.  The story had legs.  It resonated well beyond Missouri and well into the month of November.  I have found similar accounts in more than a dozen newspapers throughout the North in November 1864.  And I’d wager that result was not complete.  Maybe it was “just another.” But it was “just another” seen and repeated across newspapers far and wide… not just Missouri.

When I saw that article, what connected for me was the search string that had brought me to the newspaper to begin with:

Sherman

That is the headline of the story which ran just above the report from Greenton, Missouri.

We often read of “war weariness” as a factor in play for the elections of 1864.  The premise goes that many northerners were simply ready to throw in the towel.  I’m sure some of that existed.  But on the other hand, just reading the papers, you see plenty of examples where “war weariness” translated to just the opposite – a desire to bring the war to a swift, if violent, conclusion.  We have to ask, having seen so many of the “just another” episodes as reported from Greenton, did northerners become tolerant of the measures employed to bring the war to a close.  The hard war had hardened sensitivities.

When Sherman said he’d make Georgia howl, there were many sympathetic ears in the north… a product of so many “just anothers” such as the incident 150 years ago at Greenton, Missouri.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 41, Part I, Serial 83, page 896.)

 

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