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Friday, Apr. 18, 2014

Battlefield Dispatches No. 256: 'Express Riders'

Friday, March 11, 2011

Carrying the military mail by "Express" or "Dispatch" riders or couriers during the Civil War was a very dangerous occupation that could result in a short life expectancy and on occasion a very brief longevity. However, even with death staring him in the face on his journey, a successful Dispatch was very well paid, often in the amount of $3-$5 per day plus rations. In the summer of 1862, after he delivered his supply train to Fort Scott from Fort Gibson, Wagon Boss R.M. Peck hired on with the local Quartermaster Department as an express rider to deliver some military mail to Fort Leavenworth. His primary reason to go to Leavenworth was to visit with his family, so he probably figured that he might as well get paid for the trip. The following account of this trip was published in the July 28, 1904 edition of the National Tribune Newspaper in Washington, D. C.

"On drawing my pay at the Quartermaster's office and mentioning my intention to go to Leavenworth, Capt. Insley, the Quartermaster at Fort Scott, offered me the job of carrying some dispatches to that post, which I accepted. Express riders were allowed from $3 -$5 a day and rations and were generally expected to make as quick time as possible, but in this instance, there was no hurrying required and as I was riding my own mule I took it leisurely. I was accompanied by one of my late teamsters, Dan Eckenberger, who was also going home, riding a "Jayhawked" (stolen) mule.

The boundary line between Missouri and Arkansas on the one side, and Kansas and the Indian Nation (present Oklahoma) on the other, was at this time (1862) about the dividing line between the rebels and Federals or Union forces. (Note: These were the southern borders of Missouri and Kansas.) Although there were no large bodies of the enemy along the border, there were numerous small bands of bushwhackers such as Quantrill's, Si Gordon's and Tom Livingston's, making raids over the line whenever the opportunities offered. When they got back into Missouri or Arkansas, they were among sympathizing friends and were comparatively safe.

Bushwhacking, as practiced by those lawless gangs along the border, was a cowardly, barbarous style of warfare, in which gangs of armed and mounted ruffians ranged through the country, acknowledging no law and no military regulations except the orders of their chiefs, attacking small or unprotected parties of our men whenever they could be caught at a disadvantage; hunting down and killing all Union men or those suspected of entertaining friendly sentiments towards the Federal cause; after driving their families out and burning their houses; persuading armed men to surrender to them by promising to respect them as prisoners of war and then mercilessly shooting them down as soon as they were disarmed and helpless. Their motto was "rob, kill and burn and take no prisoners." As the rebels were always on the lookout along the border for these Government Dispatch Bearers (who could be soldiers or civilians) and were anxious to capture or kill them to secure the papers they carried, this express riding was usually a rather dangerous business. But we met with no interruption (to Fort Leavenworth) on this trip and got through safely."

Often, some of the "Bushwhackers" from Missouri and "Redlegs" from Kansas went over to the "darkside" and became "outlaws" who robbed and killed indiscriminately with no alliance to either the Blue or the Gray. Next week's column will address the outlaw career of one Capt. Marshall H. Cleveland, who was a jay hawking Redleg who became an "outlaw" and, of course, the war went on!

Arnold W. Schofield
Battlefield Dispatches