Surprisingly, a whole book has never been devoted exclusively to one of the pivotal incidents of the Civil War in western Missouri. Till now, that is. Richard F. Sunderwirth has filled the gap with "The Burning of Osceola, Missouri." It's a timely publishing event for more than one reason. Osceola's fate was of vital significance. The world piously remembers the burning of Lawrence, Kansas, but has churlishly forgotten its forerunner and direct cause. The battle cry of the burners of Lawrence was "Remember Osceola!"
It's an imperative that's belatedly being heeded, at long last. The Civil War Sesquicentennial, starting in mid-2011, will be upon us before we know it. More than one plan is afoot to remember Osceola literally, in time for that commemoration.
The St. Clair County Historical Society and the Col. John T. Coffee Camp No.1934 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans are cooperating to erect a monument to the nine civilians "court martialed" and shot by Jim Lane's rabble Jayhawker "army" during its occupation and destruction of the town in September 1861. Their names have been lost to history, but their fate will be blazoned in stone on the grounds of Osceola's cemetery.
Meantime, one of a series of Civil War plaques is to be placed in the St. Clair County courthouse lawn by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.
Nor must we lose sight of the imposing red granite monument erected several years ago at the Sac-Osage junction overlook, just west of Osceola.
A Sons of Confederate Veterans project, it commemorates "Sauk River Camp," the little known Confederate rallying and recruiting camp in late fall 1861, following the triumphant campaign from Wilson's Creek to Lexington by way of Vernon County's Drywood Creek. As the inscription notes, 12,000 men came and went at the camp in a few months, and 15 famous Southern generals or generals-to-be were on hand.
Reportedly the commander, Gen. Sterling Price, before withdrawing into Arkansas, celebrated Christmas in the Harris-Cox House, the "plantation home" of the Dr. Samuel W. Harris and Dr. Pleasant M. Cox families, still standing just south of Osceola.
Osceola early attained importance as the head of practical steam navigation on the Osage. When war broke out it became a major shipping and warehousing point for the Missouri Confederates, giving Jim Lane his pretext for wiping it out.
The level of his devotion to the Union cause is illustrated by the fact that the Osceola plunder he hauled back to Kansas in stolen wagons included women's ball gowns and grand pianos. He took time out to burn the stately home of his distinguished Senate colleague Waldo P. Johnson, arid personally rode home in the Missouri senator's fancy carriage. The "regimental chaplain" Hugh Fisher stole altar furnishings from an Osceola church to furnish his own unfinished Kansas church. (Missouri Bushwhackers at the burning of Lawrence searched as hard for Fisher as they did for Lane, but unfortunately failed to find either man.)
A further pertinence of the book is that it offers a refutation of disturbing allegations in a recent bio of Jim Lane, by hitherto reliable author Robert Collins. "Jim Lane: Scoundrel, Statesman, Kansan," concludes, "Reports vary as to what actually took place." Tell that to Osceolans! Collins gives too much house to Lane's wild claims that the Confederates burned and pillaged Osceola themselves, that the nine "courtmartialed" townsmen had it coming, they were Southern partisans in disguise and had fired on Lane's "army" as it approached.
Collins seems to go out of his way to avoid the oft-quoted condemnations of that "army," even by Northerners, e.g. "a ragged, half-armed, diseased, mutinous rabble, taking votes whether any troublesome or distasteful order should be obeyed or defied." Osceola's population hovered between 2,000 and 3,000 when the Civil War came on. It was a uniquely cultured community in a frontier world, producing distinguished statesmen, explorers, and scholars right into modern times, most notably the Johnson and Waldo families. Thomas Moore Johnson's respected works on the ancient philosophers were published right in Osceola; he donated his 25,000 books on Neoplatonism to the University of Missouri. A kinsman, a missionary in India, became an authority on the Jam religion. Another became governor of Oregon. The Waldos distinguished themselves on the Santa Fe trail; the Waldo community in south Kansas City commemorates their name. William Waldo piloted the first steamboat up to Papinsville, and opened a pioneer store at Cephas Ford, north of present Nevada, circa 1839.
Such was the cultured, enterprising town whose spirit Jim Lane and his raw Kansans did their damnedest to snuff out as a bastion of Southern barbarism!
They didn't quite succeed, though Osceola's population today is barely 850.
Jim Lane died insane and a suicide. It's a shame it couldn't have happened sooner.
Sunderwirth's 400-page softbound, illustrated book consists of several parts: First, a narrative history takes us from earliest times up to the war and the burning, written by Sunderwirth himself.
Following is a compilation of separate memoirs by various writers, rounding out the story from all angles and viewpoints. Rather than a single book, it's a small library.
"The Burning of Osceola, Missouri" (Two Trails Publishing, 2007) is available locally from the Bushwhacker Museum, or from the author, Richard F. Sunderwirth, P. 0. Box 543, Osceola MO 64776, 417-647-5538, for $23.95.