Burning of Osceola still rankles 150 years later

Friday, July 15, 2011

The worst day in Osceola history began with the clangorous approach of former U.S. Sen. Jim Lane of Kansas and 1,500 Union soldiers at 2 a.m. on Sept. 22, 1861.

Two hundred men led by Missouri State Guard Capt. John Weidemeyer met them with rifle and shotgun fire at Cemetery Ridge southwest of town, but the Kansas Brigade's four cannons and numerical superiority scattered the opposition.

Forty-five miles east-northeast of Nevada in St. Clair County, today's Osceola is a town of fewer than 900 people; but in the mid-19th century it was an important settlement of 3,000 prospering on trade from the Osage River and serving as the commercial center of a huge region including North Arkansas.

"If we'd known what damage Lane was going to do, we would have died in our tracks before deserting the doomed city," Weidemeyer said later.

Motivated by rival Sen. Waldo Johnson's having lived there, Lane "had been trying to come here for a long time because he wanted to sack Waldo Johnson's town," said Osceola historian Richard Sunderwirth.

"Johnson was one of (Confederacy President) Jefferson Davis' advisors and had done so much to stop the war. We had nobody here but old men, old women and children. All the soldiers had gone with Gen. Sterling Price to fight in the Battle of Lexington.

"Lane, who had been appointed a brigadier general by Abraham Lincoln, also did stuff like this at Morristown, where he made seven Confederates dig their own graves, and then at Papinsville."

Sunderwirth said a dozen armed men took refuge in the bank, from which more than $100,000 in deposits had already been moved and hidden, and that Lane "fired the first shot" when the men were convicted of being traitors and lined up to be executed.

Author of "The Burning of Osceola, Missouri," the historian has learned since his book was published in 2007 that three men feigned death -- one named Berry, who died the next day, Champion Guinn, who lived for two months, and Maciah Dark, who rode in William Clarke Quantrill's Raid on Lawrence, Kan., in August 1863.

Sunderwirth is trying to ascertain the identities of the other nine.

He said Dark was the justice of the peace at Chalk Level Township when, in 1874, Jayhawkers taking revenge for Lawrence "ran him into the Osage River and shot him off his horse."

Sunderwirth said Lane left Osceola with over 200 slaves, many of whom were sold in Louisiana, and a wagontrain loaded with boots, shoes, clothing, tons of lead, powder kegs, percussion caps, 3,000 sacks of flour, bacon slabs, sugar, molasses, furniture, 350 horses and 400 cattle.

He said many of the Jayhawkers were so intoxicated that, unable to ride their horses, they left in wagons.

Escaping at Lawrence two years later by running through a cornfield in his nightshirt, Lane had just been re-elected to the Senate when he jumped from a buggy and shot himself in the head in 1866.

A man who had heard him speak, quoted in Thomas Goodrich's "Black Flag: Guerilla Warfare on the Western Border, 1861-65," said the Red Leg's oratory "was voluble and incessant, without logic, learning, rhetoric or grace, from the broken screams of a maniac to the hoarse, rasping gutterals of a butcher in the last gasp of inebriation.

"His sentences were loose and disjointed, his diction a pudding of slang, profanity and solecism (grammatical absurdities); and yet the electric shock of his extraordinary eloquence thrilled like the blast of a trumpet."

Missouri State History Professor William Garret Piston of Springfield said the fight had been brewing for most of a decade. "What Kansas saw in the Kansas-Nebraska Act election of 1854 was absolutely unwarranted inteference by Missourians," Dr. Piston said.

"Lane wanted to be a military hero and after the Battle of Wilson's Creek, the Kansans were afraid the Missourians were going to overrun them, and vice versa. They were all up in arms.

"There has never been a war with a shortage of scoundrels. The absence of large armies in Missouri and Kansas afforded more opportunities for people with that sort of personality to blend personal gain with patriotism."

Piston said while Osceola wasn't the only trigger for the Raid on Lawrence, where 164 men and boys were killed, it greatly embittered the Missourians. "A large number were now dedicated to revenge because Lane ruined livelihoods in Osceola and destroyed 80 percent of the buildings," the professor said.

"It was one of the markers on the road of violence, underlining that the Confederate government couldn't protect Missourians and if they were going to be protected, they had to do it themselves. That meant staying in your own neighborhood as a guerilla rather than going off to join Robert E. Lee."

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