I was inspired to write this when I read yesterday’s diary, KKK begins recruitment drive in Missouri. That diary recounts recent events in Lexington, in central Missouri. I could summarize those events here, but the only summary really needed is in the title. I recommend reading it. Anyway, it made me think about how much has changed, how much has not, and how much the actions of a very few individuals can make a difference, even if the world largely ignores them at the time. And it did all that because it's talking about race relations in Missouri, a state I've never visited but have spent some time learning something about.
I do have a fleeting but real ancestral connection to that part of Missouri. Between 1850 and 1860, four of my 3x great grandparents had moved to central Missouri, settling in the Boonville area (about 74 miles east of Lexington and roughly midway between Kansas City and St. Louis), part of a huge wave of German immigrants. One of my 2x great grandparents was born in Boonville and she and her future husband both grew to adulthood there, before moving to Kansas.
It is through the line of these German forebears that I have direct ancestors who fought in the Civil War. Three direct ancestors who lived in Boonville fought for the Union (Georg Groh, Stephen Leer, and Adolph Sandrock), plus near relatives who did the same. However, the focus of this diary is not on them, although they do play an extremely small part. Instead, the main focus is on a story I discovered while researching their military service, a story that I think deserves a wider audience, the true and practically unknown story and import of the Second Battle of Boonville in the Civil War.
If you follow me over the fold, I'll show you why this should matter to other Americans, even ones whose families never went anywhere near Missouri.
Two of the Civil War soldiers I mentioned above, Adolph Sandrock and Jacob Groh (son of Georg), both served in the Boonville Home Guard, which was a Union unit. The Boonville Home Guard wasn't very big and later got folded into other units (which included the units holding the other relations named), but it did fight a few battles before that time. Such as the Second Battle of Boonville. Now, unless you are a devoted Civil War buff, this requires at least a little bit of background. The Second Battle of Boonville cannot be explained without brief mention of the First. And why anyone should care about either of them at this juncture may not be immediately clear. Neither battle had casualties in any way comparable to the much more famous battles of the Civil War, such as First Bull Run, Second Bull Run, Antietam, Cold Harbor, Gettysburg, the Battle of the Wilderness, and too many others. So, without going into exhaustive detail, I’ll show why both the Boonville battles were important, more so even than people who are Civil War buffs might appreciate.
The First Battle of Boonville (AKA the Battle of Boonville) took place on June 17, 1861. This makes it one of the very first land battles of the Civil War, occurring before the First Battle of Bull Run, which took place the following month. The Federal troops, numbering about 1400 men (who were NOT from Boonville), easily routed the approximately 500 completely unprepared members of the Missouri State Guard. As the Wikipedia article for the Battle of Boonville states (bolding added by me):
Although casualties were extremely light, the battle's strategic impact was far greater than one might assume from its limited nature. The Union victory established what would become an unbroken Federal control of the Missouri River, and helped to thwart efforts to bring Missouri into the Confederacy.Also:
The real impact of the Battle of Boonville was strategic, far out of proportion to the minimal loss of life. The Battle of Boonville effectively ejected the secessionist forces from the center of Missouri, and secured the state for the Union. Price realized he could not hold Lexington and retreated, though he would return three months later to re-take the city. Secessionist communications to the strongly pro-Confederate Missouri River valley were effectively cut, and would-be recruits from slave-owning regions north of the Missouri River found it difficult to join the Southern army. Provisions and supplies also could no longer be obtained from this section of the state.All true, or almost so (I’ll explain the caveat in a bit). And to this day, the importance of this particular battle is recognized. But what about the second Battle of Boonville? It does not have its own Wikipedia page, being relegated to “Other battles at Boonville” on the same page as its more celebrated predecessor. Here is what is said about it there (and what is said on the Wikipedia site is very typical of what is said in other venues):
A second result of the battle was demoralization. While the Missouri State Guard would fight and win on other days (most notably at Wilson's Creek and Lexington just two and three months later, respectively), it was badly dispirited by this early defeat. Lyon's victory gave the Union forces time to consolidate their hold on the state…
Following the battle of June 17, Boonville would serve as the scene for three other Civil War engagements, all of extremely minor importance:A nothing battle, just a footnote. Or…maybe not. It is at least possible that it was there that a handful of former slaves changed the course of the war. Because that bit about how the First Battle of Boonville “effectively ejected the secessionist forces from the center of Missouri, and secured the state for the Union” wasn’t really quite true, was it? In fact, what we see even in the text above is that the Confederacy-sympathizing Missouri State Guard, far from being a “demoralized” and “dispirited” force in fact in this engagement numbered 800 men (more than in the first battle that had “effectively ejected” them from the center of Missouri) and were at this time facing Union troops (part of a "home guard") numbering only 140, one tenth the number in the two Federal volunteer regiments, a company of U.S. regulars and a battery of artillery that had defeated them before. As it happens, the plan of the Confederate sympathizers wasn’t simply to defeat the home guard troops, but to capture a large amount of arms and ammunition. It was fortunate indeed that the Union troops were not taken by surprise and that the commander of the State Guard troops was taken out of action early in the engagement, or, who knows, Missouri might have contributed far more to the rebel cause than it did. So, exactly how did surprise fail and how did that commander die?
Second Battle of Boonville
The Second Battle of Boonville was fought on September 13, 1861, when Colonel William Brown of the Missouri State Guard led 800 men in an attack on 140 pro-Union Boonville Home Guardsmen while the Union soldiers were eating breakfast. Due to rain, the Confederates wrapped their flags in black sheathing, which the Home Guard mistook as a sign of no quarter. Highly motivated by a perception that the fight was one of "victory or death", the Home Guardsmen managed to defeat the State Guard troops, killing Colonel Brown in the process.
I am going to quote here (with permission) from The Negro Soldier in the Second Battle of Boonville: The Earliest Combat Soldier, written and contributed to the Cooper County, Missouri Genealogical Web Site by James F. Thoma (I did add links to the relevant letters).
September 15, 1861, SundayOkay, first, that last letter writer Isaac P. Jones comes off as a truly massive prick. However, he was hardly unique for his time in his awfulness, so I’ll leave him be, mostly. I should thank him, really, because he makes a wonderful demonstration of my frequent contention that bigotry had just as comfortable a home in the North as it did in the South. He's as much the ideological ancestor of the modern KKK as Nathan Bedford Forrest. Also, he makes me kinda proud of my ancestors, the ones in that unit. Sure, they were part of that “rudest portion of the German population” he so disdained, in that they were farmers with accents and little money (although Jones may have been also thinking of the name Eppstein and cramming in some anti-Semitism as well; I can’t say). And sure, they were part of that group of German lower class immigrants who were feared and scorned by the Know Nothing Party and the other nativists of the day—the insulting term (because there's always an insulting term) for them was, for some reason, to call them “dutch”—but there in central Missouri it was they who were on the right side of history. And they knew, appreciated, and protected the people who had helped protect and save them. It wasn’t Mr. Isaac P. Jones, sorta-kinda proud Connecticut Yankee (not too proud to threaten a government official with potential treason if his prejudices weren’t pandered to) who had risked his life to come to give them warning of a vastly superior force about to attack their position and who took up arms alongside them. No. It was a small group of ex-slaves who did that, and damned if they were going to give them up to be sent back to bondage and death, whatever authority said about it.
Nancy Jones and her husband, Caleb, were strong southern sympathizers living several miles west of Boonville. In a letter written to her daughter in San Antonio, Texas only days after the Second Battle of Boonville, she sheds a different light on some of the events of that battle. She recounts to her daughter,
I send you an account of the last “Boonville battle” which is nearer the truth then any thing I have seen published. The writer, however, neglected to mention, that three runaway negro’s joined the home gaurd and told them of Colonel [William B.] Browns plans, which was the cause of citizens being arrested as hostages. These negroes were in the entrenchments during the fight, they had guns given them, and are said by the prisnors who saw them, to have fought bravely, one of then is a splendid shot, he knew the Browns, and claims the killing of them. Colonel Eppstein retains those negroes, and refuses to give them up to their masters; you can well imagine what a corrupting effect that has on others.This is the first recorded account of Negro soldiers in the Second Battle of Boonville. It explains the source of information that Joseph Eppstein relied upon in believing that his garrison would come under attack. Never knowing whether a white man was a Union man or a Confederate sympathizer was always a problem. A Negro could be trusted to provide honest information as they understood the information. Additionally, this account places Negro soldiers as combatants in the engagement and credits one of them with the killing of the Confederate commander.
September 17, 1861, Monday [LVP: actually Tuesday]
Michael Fellman in his book “Inside War: The Guerrilla Conflict in Missouri During the American Civil War” quotes a letter from Daniel R. Smith to his parents. The letter written September 17, 1861 states:Five negroes brought the news of the intended attack and were inside the entrenchment during the engagement. Among them was a slave of Col. Brown’s. Whilst fighting he took hold of a gun and shot his master who fell and soon after expired. The darky is tickled almost to death.This letter again explains from whom Colonel Joseph Eppstein, on September 5, 1861, received his information that rebel forces would attack Boonville. The information would have even more credibility to Eppstein, considering that a slave of Colonel William B. Brown provided the information. Finally this account also places the Negroes as active participants in the fight and again credits a Negro as killing the leader of the Confederate forces.
October 6, 1861, Sunday
Letters concerning the Negro involvement in the Second Battle of Boonville and written when the event occurred is certainly credible evidence. However, more evidence can be gleaned from the official records of events of the Civil War. At this stage in the War of the Rebellion, the slaves had not been freed. The question now in the mind of Joseph Eppstein was how to protect the slaves who had aided him. The dilemma was eventually addressed to the Adjutant General of the Army of the West in this missive sent by John C. Kelton.HDQRS. SECOND Brigadier, SECOND DIV., ARMY OF THE WEST,While not acknowledging the Negroes direct involvement as combatants in the Second Battle of Boonville, this communiqué further confirms and supports the unofficial records. It does acknowledge that the information provided to Eppstein was important and saved his command.
Boonville, Mo., October 6, 1861.
Headquarters Army of the West, Jefferson City.
SIR: I send by the Northerner in charge of Captain Renfro, Ninth Regiment Missouri Volunteers, several slaves who having given important information to Major Eppstein while in command of this post which saved his command from surprise now seek protection from their masters who threaten to kill them. Major Eppstein cannot longer protect them. I therefore send them to Jefferson City where they can work on the fortifications.
JNO C. KELTON,
November 30, 1861, Saturday
The final article presented as proof of negro combatants in the Second Battle of Boonville also comes from the official government records. In this record, Isaac P. Jones wrote to Major General Henry Wager Halleck, to inform him of a situation that existed in Boonville.DEAR SIR: I am a native of East Hartford, Conn., and am now visiting this State to induce a widowed sister and her family to return to that vicinity where our parents, much advanced in years, reside; that my sister and her family now residing in a disturbed locality (being in Johnson County) may escape troubles and dangers growing out of the sad condition of affairs in Western Missouri and relieve us at home of great uneasiness on her account. Being detained in this neighborhood several days expecting a friend who per appointment was to meet me here I have become somewhat informed as to local matters which as a good and loyal citizen I briefly make known to you. I do not do this obstrusively nor expect that my advice is of great importance but simply as a witness, from the fact that it is impossible for you to enforce obedience and punish willful disobedience and contempt or disregard of your authority unless you are specifically made acquainted with abuses in the localities under your military command where they abound.
Much will never reach you for the simple reason that resident inhabitants are afraid to complain, and it [is] as a precaution in my own behalf proper for me to say to you that I am in personal danger of the Boonville Home Guards could they identify me as the author of the inclosed communication. Every one who ventures to complain or dissent from their malpractices is denounced as a secessionist in league with the enemy. They are composed mainly of the rudest portion of the German population, and there is no reasoning with them allowed on the part or in behalf of abused civilians. The captains of the two companies were recently keepers of drinking houses and one of them still keeps his “doggery.” I mention this merely to show you the kind of material U. S. captains are made of in this locality.
I have had a good opportunity of forming an opinion of the temper of the people of Missouri having made two protracted visits to the State within the last twelvemonth, and it is my candid opinion from a loyal standpoint that the mismanagement of Federal advisers in this State has made more enmity to the Government than any influence to be attributed to Jeff. Davis, Governor Jackson or all the secessionists combined for three-fourths of those now in arms and hostile to the Government disavow belief in the dogma of the “right of secession.”
Your recent orders published in the Saint Louis daily papers concerning the harboring of runaway of fugitive slaves within the lines or within the camp and prohibition against the unauthorized seizure of persons and arbitrary appropriation and destruction of private property (evils or I may say barbarities practiced by the so-called “home guards” in this county to a serious extent) promise security and would do much to restore confidence among the people did they believe that they would be obeyed. If rigidly enforced they would go far to tranquilize the State and put a “damper” on successful recruiting for Price’s army.
But your orders are not obeyed here, and the reply to me when I have cited your orders to prove that this war is neither an abolition war nor a sectional war to devastate the South is that “the orders will not be enforced by subordinates,” and “if General Halleck should enforce them the immediate advisers of the President in this State will have him displaced.” They invariably ask, “How are General Halleck's orders enforced here since published?” And I say with shame to that subordination which should exist that I can afford no satisfactory answer beyond the only presumption that you are not advised of such abuses.
It is known as a fact not disputed here by any one that sundry runaway slaves, three or four at least, are now openly harbored in the camp of the home guards at the fair-grounds at this post and all efforts of their owners to recover them have proven fruitless. These same slaves often appear in U. S. uniform and on one occasion at least had U. S. arms placed in their hands and acted the part of U. S. soldiers inside of the intrenchments here. Surely the Government is not so hard off for soldiers that we have to arm negroes to sustain it. If so I am for peace. When it comes to arming negroes to shoot down and slay our rebellious Southern kindred I, a loyal Connecticut Yankee and proud of the name, will have no hand in it unless I turn rebel against such an infamous policy; but I am for the Union as our fathers fashioned it and all righteous efforts to preserve the same.
Several weeks ago a Mr. Marr, a citizen of Saline County, called upon Colonel Barnes, in command of this post, to recover a negro man belonging to him named Jim. Colonel Barnes (as I learned) upon the advice of Judge George W. Miller, judge of the circuit court (and a prominent Union man), gave Marr an order for his negro then in camp addressed to Major Eppstein,* of the home guards. Major Eppstein said the negro was not in his possession but Captain Biehle had him. The order was then amended addressed to Captain Biehle. Captain Biehle told Mr. Marr to look for his negro but when Marr attempted to do so he was followed by home guards and assailed with clubs and stones until he was compelled to flee for personal safety. Upon a representation of these facts to Colonel Barnes (who has no sufficient force to enforce obedience on the part of home guards) he was advised by Colonel Barnes to go home and offer $100 reward for his negro. This Marr did not do and his negro is still in camp here harbored by home guards.
Hence it is that people here say that your orders in reference to fugitive slaves forbidding them in camp will not be obeyed by subordinates out of your sight, and they cite existing facts here and the recent conduct of Lane and Jennison in evidence of such a belief. To put a correction to this flagrant abuse will I believe require nothing less than the presence of a resolute regular U. S. officer with competent skill, will and authority (and it might be force) to right matters. No such officer is here now it is evident or your instructions would be rigidly enforced.
* * * *
For the facts which I have communicated I refer you to Judge George W. Miller (of circuit court), Judge Lionberger (of county court), Judge Smith (of probate court), and Doctor Trigg, banker, all Union men avowed of position and property. If you dispatch an officer to investigate matters here it will be of great service to the Union cause, if he diligently and with determination does his duty.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
ISAAC P. JONES.
Is it plausible that it wouldn’t have made any difference at all to the length, difficulty, or outcome of the Civil War if those black men (or men and women) with names unrecorded by history hadn’t done what they did? Yes, it's plausible. Maybe the Union forces in Boonville would have won anyway, despite surprise and inferior numbers. Maybe any possible loss would not have mattered. “What if” games are easy to play, but scoring them is hard. But knowing all the facts, isn’t it also plausible to imagine a potential pivot point there, right near the beginning of the war?
I wish I knew what happened to those brave ex-slaves. I hope their descendants, if any, preserved for at least a time what their ancestors had done. Regardless, I'll honor them. If they didn't save the Union (an untestable assertion), they at a minimum did a lot to save my relatives, and got no credit in the history books for doing so, either.
* * * *
Postscript: regarding my relatives mentioned above, the war for the most part did not treat them as well as they’d treated it. My 3x great grandfather Stephen Leer died near the end of the war in June 1864 from a self-inflicted but completely accidental gunshot wound. He was on stable duty and running after an escaped horse when he slipped in some mud and his holstered revolver discharged and shot him in the side of the stomach. It took him two weeks to die. Fortunately, accidental gunshot wounds never happen any more.
His father in law, my 4x great grandfather Adolph Sandrock, was on scouting duty when his scouting column crossed a rotten bridge that collapsed under his horse. When the horse fell, it fell on him, leaving him crippled for the remainder of the conflict and with a limp to the end of his days. He died, sick and alone, in 1897 in a Soldiers’ Home, in Orting, Washington, mooching off the government. Fortunately, illness and financial insecurity late in life are likewise things we never have to worry about any more.
My 2x great granduncle Jacob Groh lived through the war and was kept on for Indian-fighting duty, but was insubordinate and appears to have deserted and either died or changed his name, as he completely disappears after the last record of military service ordering he be located for discipline.
His father, my 3x great grandfather Georg Groh, whose son (named after him but Anglicized to George, my 2x great grandfather) later married the daughter of Stephen Leer, was the only one I can say lived to a reasonably happy old age, although he too needed more medical help than he could afford in his later years. In addition to his son George, he had several other descendants who were named after him, including but not limited to my great grandfather George Groh, a businessman and mayor in Emporia, Kansas, my granduncle George Groh, a journalist who covered the Felix Longoria controversy in 1949 as well as an author who wrote a number of books, including one in 1972 entitled The Black Migration: The Journey to Urban America, and my father, George Groh Sheridan, whose story isn’t over yet but who was a union organizer for about eight years with the UFW under César Chávez and is now a teacher on the national board of the NEA.
I’m proud of all of them, and would spit in the eye of anyone who says that the immigration of “the rudest portion” (or words to the same effect) of any people or group is bad for this country. On the contrary—it has given this country whatever greatness it can claim to have had.