In the last posting, I mentioned that the 39th Missouri Infantry may have suffered more men killed and mortally wounded in a single engagement than any Union infantry unit during the war. According to records of the Adjutant General of Missouri, the unlucky 39th lost 123 men at Centralia, Missouri, on September 27, 1864.
Organized in Hannibal, Missouri, in the late summer and early fall of 1864, the unit mostly engaged in scouting duties; some, if not all, of the companies were mounted. For a number of weeks, individual companies of the regiment were dispersed to different locations in Missouri; in January 1865 the regiment served briefly in the Nashville, Tennessee, area but then were quickly returned to Missouri. According to the sketch in Dyer’s Compendium Of The War Of The Rebellion, the 39th “lost during service 2 Officers and 130 Enlisted men killed and mortally wounded and 64 Enlisted men by disease. Total 196” (Dyer, vol. 2, p. 1336).
In the fall of 1864, Confederate General Sterling Price and his men embarked on a raid into Missouri. At the time of the action at Centralia, Price and his men were in the Pilot Knob area south of St. Louis. Before the raid, Price requested that various guerrilla leaders step up their activities, particularly in the area north of the Missouri River. The hope was that the guerrillas would draw Union troops away from pursuing Price’s men. As a result of Price’s call guerrilla activity spiked in August and September north of the Missouri River. The worst episode of guerrilla violence during this period occurred at Centralia, a town on the Northern Missouri Railroad about 120 miles northwest of St. Louis in Boone County.
On September 27, 1864, “Bloody” Bill Anderson, George Todd, and John Thrailkill and about 200 hundred of their men looted and burned much of Centralia. About noon the men attacked an incoming passenger train. Many of the passengers were robbed, and twenty-four unarmed Union soldiers from the train were murdered. Following this the guerrillas headed several miles out of town. Writing two days later, Colonel Edward A. Kutzner, the commander of the 39th Missouri, reported:
“…detachments of Companies A, G, and H of this regiment, under the command of Maj. A. V. E. Johnston, left Paris, Mo., at 10 p.m. on the 26th instant, marched during the night, and about 7 o’clock on the morning of the 27th instant struck a trail which was supposed to be that of Anderson’s guerrillas. The major followed said trail to Centralia….The major determined at once to attack the enemy, and, sending a dispatch to Sturgeon for re-enforcements and leaving Captain Theis with thirty-three men in the town, marched with 125 of his command one mile and a half in a southeasterly direction, when, discovering the guerrillas, formed his line of battle and dismounted his men. About the time the order was executed Anderson charged with his whole force, a part of which had been concealed by a hollow in the prairie. Our forces had but time to fire one volley, when the enemy from his great superiority of numbers and arms broke through the line, completely surrounding the troops, giving no quarter and mutilating bodies. Captain Theis, hearing Major Johnston was killed and his command cut to pieces, ordered a retreat, and succeeded in saving eighteen out of the thirty-three men left in the town.
I have to deplore the loss of the brave and chivalrous Maj. A. V. E. Johnston, Capt. J. A. Smith, an officer of much merit, and the gallant soldiers who fell on this bloody field….” (Official Records, ser. I, vol. 41, pt. 1, p. 443).
Although the Official Records states that the 39th Missouri lost 116 men killed at Centralia, the loss of life was actually higher. W. F. Switzler’s The History of Boone County Missouri (1882) had a list of the killed and mortally wounded provided by J. A. Waddell, the Adjutant General of Missouri. Switzler's book lists 123 killed and mortally wounded from the 39th Missouri at Centralia.
The Jefferson City (Missouri) National Cemetery has a monument memorializing the dead of the 39th Missouri Infantry; 118 of its dead from Centralia are buried in a mass grave at this national cemetery.