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Posted on Nov 5, 2006 in Front Page Features, War College

Lessons from Centralia

By Deb Goodrich

The Battle

Dawn — September 27, 1864

Major Ave Johnston wasn’t stupid. A teacher before the war, he was a thoughtful man, not given to rash decisions. This Missourian was also a Unionist; to be sure, he wasn’t fighting to free the slaves, but to rid Missouri of traitors. He was disgusted by the bushwhackers, their atrocities, their attacks on decent folk. He despised the way their legend grew with each new feat of brutality, how the fear spread through the countryside and caused heretofore reasonable people to exaggerate their numbers and their prowess.

He knew that his Soldiers, raw as they were, could beat the guerrillas in a head-on fight. And that’s exactly what he aimed to have.

The major peered through his field glasses. Through the morning mist he could make out the distant figures of horses. He counted between 50 to 80 bushwhackers, certainly no more than a hundred. His men had been following these ghosts through the night; Johnston had not believed the rumors that there were upwards of 300 and now his eyes confirmed his instincts. He would catch them this day, and there would be hell to pay!



Wearing Union blue, Captain Bill Anderson led his company of 80 irregulars into the hamlet of Centralia. Not much more than a whistle stop on the railroad line, the small town had few businesses to plunder but Anderson’s men made do. Their vengeance had been renewed by the killing and scalping of seven guerrillas at the hands of Yankee troops just days before and they would wreak havoc on the meagre possessions and paltry storehouses available. When a keg of whiskey was discovered in one building, the men began drinking. By the time the train rolled in, many were good and drunk.

The passengers were ordered off the train and summarily robbed. A couple of men were shot. About twenty soldiers, on leave from Gen. William T. Sherman’s army, were segregated from the others and marched to one side of the depot where they were ordered to strip off their uniforms. Some stood in their underwear, some stood naked. Bill Anderson held their lives in his hands. Whatever Anderson had been before the war, his losses had transformed him. No amount of death could fill the dark hole where his soul had been. Anderson gave the order to “parole” the horrified soldiers and his men began firing. All of the federals were killed, save for Sgt. Thomas Goodman who was spared in anticipation of exchange.

The train was torched; when Anderson’s men tired, they mounted and rode toward the south-east.

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