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Battlefield Dispatches No. 282: 'Dens of Devils'

Friday, September 16, 2011

During the summer of 1861, southern Kansas was in a bit of a turmoil, especially after the Confederate victory at the Battle of Wilson's Creek on Aug. 10, 1861.

The citizens of Fort Scott and southeast Kansas feared an attack by a Confederate force of the Missouri State Guard commanded by Gen. Sterling Price as it moved north from the Wilson's Creek Battlefield toward Lexington and the Missouri River.

This fear was reinforced after another Confederate victory at the Battle of the Drywood or the Battle of the Mules near Deerfield, Mo., on Sept. 2, 1861. It was, however, an unfounded fear because Price's army did not invade Kansas; it bypassed Kansas and continued north to achieve its main objective which was to reach the Missouri River and the town of Lexington.

At the same time Price's army was moving north, a Union brigade was organized in Kansas. This unit was officially named the Kansas Brigade, but its nickname was "Lane's Brigade," after its commanding officer Brig. Gen. James Henry Lane.

The "Grim Chieftain" was Lane's personal nickname, and he was a fiery abolitionist who believed in waging total war against Missouri. He wanted to and made the "Missourians" pay with their own blood for the bloodshed and terror they inflicted on "Kansans in the tumultuous time of Bleeding Kansas from 1856--1860."

Lane's Brigade consisted of the 3rd and 4th Kansas Vol. Infantry and the 5th Kansas Vol. Cavalry regiments with a detachment of artillery. In late September of 1861, Gen. Lane used his brigade to wage total war and wreck havoc in western Missouri.

His official orders were to "pursue and attack Price's army from the southwest and protect Kansas at the same time." He did protect eastern Kansas but never engaged any of Price's army.

Instead, his brigade destroyed many farms by burning the homes and buildings to the ground and burned the towns of Morristown and Osceola to ashes. This was a total war of revenge, retaliation and retribtion.

The following are Gen. Lane's after-action reports of the battles and destruction of Morristown and Osceola, Mo., in September of 1861. Note how brief and concise they are, and they will be followed by a graphic description of each engagement. Both of Lane's reports are located on Page 196 in Series I, Vol. 3 of the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion:

Headquarters Kansas Brigade, West Point, Mo., Sept. 17, 1861.

Capt. W.E. Prince,

First Infantry, Commanding Fort Leavenworth:


The expedition sent out yesterday afternoon, consisting of the cavalry, two mountain howitzers (commanded by Capt. T. Moonlight) and two companies of infantry of the 5th Regiment, in all about 600 men, against an encampment of the enemy at Morristown, in Cass County, five miles from the (Kansas) border, has this moment returned.

They succeeded in routing the enemy, killing seven, capturing their entire camp equipage, tents, wagons, etc., some 100 horses and horse equipments. Our loss is two killed, six wounded -- mere flesh wounds, with the exception of two.

One of the killed, however, is Col. H.P. Johnson, who was connected with Col. Montgomery in command of the expedition. His loss is deemed by every member of the command as of great importance to the service; as a dashing cavalry officer, he had no superior.

He was killed while leading his command by the enemy in ambush. Details will be given you in my next (letter). I hope you will communicate his death tenderly to his wife, and say to her that his body will be forwarded to Leavenworth tomorrow morning as soon as the coffin is prepared.

J. H. Lane, Commanding Kansas Brigade."

The following is Col. Thomas Moonlight's description of the Battle of Morristown that was published on Pages 11 and 12 in the spring of 2003, Arkansas Historical Quarterly.

"The rebels, or at least most of them, had run from (their) camp, crossed the street and hid themselves in a ravine behind some brick buildings.

As we came dashing along the street, we received a crossfire from at least 400 rifles, at a not great distance of 10 steps. Col. Johnson was ahead of the chief bugler and received almost the entire fire.

I came next and just saved myself and my men by seizing the bridle of the lead horse (pulling the howitzer) and dashing them round against the brick walls.

Several of our men were killed and wounded at that moment and, but for the cowardice of the enemy, not one of us would have escaped.

We were huddled together, cavalry and artillery, in the street, and I trembled for the result until we changed our position; it became my duty to attend to this, as after the fall of Col. Johnson I was next in command, and none had seen him fall but myself, as it was still quite early in the morning.

I immediately swung the command out of the street onto clear ground, opened on the ravine and houses with case shot (fragmenting artillery ammunition) and sharps rifles, and in less than 10 minutes the crack of a rebel rifle could not be heard.

We captured the entire camp and garrison equipage of the enemy, as well as horses, mules, wagons, rations and a number of (fire)arms; the loss of such property was immense damage to the enemy as they could not possibly replace their equipage in the country, besides the demoralizing effect such a defeat had on a newly organized regiment, as was the case with this one.

About 40 killed and wounded on our side, among the list of killed was the gallant Col. Johnson, with whom a braver soldier, a truer man and upright Christian never offered up his life a sacrifice on the altar of this country.

After the wounded had been collected together, Col. Montgomery's command came into town, which was thoroughly plundered and afterwards burnt.

Morristown was a den of rebels and a rendezvous for all the bushwhackers who ranged on Kansas soil, and the destroying of it saved Kansas in a manner from their depredations during that fall and winter."

"Destruction of Osceola, Missouri"

"Camp Montgomery, Sept. 24, 1861.


Your dispatch of Sept. 18 is this moment received. My brigade is now marching to this point from Osceola, where I have been on a forced march, expecting to cut off the enemy's (Price's) train of ammunition.

The enemy ambushed the approaches to the town, and, after being driven from them by the advance under Cols. Montgomery and Weer, they took refuge in the buildings of the town to annoy us.

We were compelled to shell them out (with cannon fire), and in doing so the place was burned to ashes, with an immense amount of stores of all descriptions. There were 15 or 20 of them killed, seven wounded; we lost none. Full particulars will be furnished hereafter."

J. H. Lane, Commanding Kansas Brigade."

The following statement of the burning of Osceola was by eyewitness Mr. Thomas D. Hicks and was published on Page 306 in Vol. No. 6 of the Kansas Historical Collections 1897-1900.

"Gen. Lane entered from the southeast and was fired on from the brush by 25 or 35 men and Lane's men immediately fired through the woods, wounding quite a number of persons -- perhaps 7 or 8.

Just after that, Lane fired on the courthouse from about a quarter of a mile distant. Finding no one in the courthouse, Lane was considerate enough to box up all the important records, which he got away with and then fired (burned) the town, including the courthouse.

It (Osceola) was a wealthy place with many storehouses, goods being brought up the Osage River by boats. He must have destroyed fully 100 houses, the larger portion of business houses of all kinds, stores, offices, etc.

I never knew of any abuse of women. The houses spared were occupied by families, some of them Confederate and some of them Union.

Immense quantities of salt, coffee and many other articles were burned, and farmers and others gathered them up in a damaged condition. Nails were burned and melted in masses.

One wholesale house had 150 barrels of whiskey, and it ran down to the Osage River on fire; others had 150 more. This whiskey on fire ran down a ravine 200 yards to the Osage River. (What a waste of perfectly good, probably aged, whiskey!)

After the war, the county sent a man to Lawrence, (Kan.), and got the county records, except two or three books."

Now then, it is believed that Lane ordered his troops to confiscate everything that would be of use to the enemy that could travel from a "Shanghi rooster to a Durham cow," and they did just that. Burning farms, towns and destroying everything the enemy could use in Missouri was Lane's way of waging "total war."

However, the life of Lane's brigade was a brief one, because it was dissolved or mustered out of the Union Army in March of 1862 when all of the Kansas Regiments were reorganized and, of course, the war went on!

Arnold W. Schofield
Battlefield Dispatches