When one thinks of the Civil War as fought in Missouri, "bushwhacker" and "guerilla" are almost the first terms that come to mind. If asked to name those who fought for the South, the roster commonly makes a meteoric drop from Major General Sterling Price, to the notorious likes of William Quantrill and "Bloody Bill" Anderson. But while these men achieved mythic infamy by their deeds, they were not the only leaders of the men who fought Missouri's irregular warfare, nor perhaps entirely typical.
John A. Poindexter was born October 12, 1825 in Montgomery County, Kentucky, the fifth child of seven born to David and Elizabeth (Watts) Poindexter. His was an old, genteel Virginia family, who followed the westward surge of migration to Kentucky, settling there about the turn of the century. In Stamping Grounds, Scott County, KY, John is found near his brothers and father, all living quietly as farmers, tradesmen, and family men. John's home was then graced with a wife, Melissa, and an infant daughter, yet that good woman died ere the child was much older. In 1857, he remarried to Martha K. Hayes, and the 1860 census shows a prosperous little family, John named as a "trader" of no small worth.
A man whose later letters reveal keen intelligence and self-possession, he would seem destined to become one of the solid citizens of his community. Yet it was perhaps the way of things that, when fateful cannon belched iron shot upon Fort Sumpter, he should follow his Southern countrymen into the grim storm-clouds of war. Rather than stand with neighbors in Kentucky, however, for reasons known only to the past, John looked to his neighbors further west. Former Missouri governor Sterling Price called troops to the defense of that state, and it was there John answered the martial summons.
In June of 1861 he made his way to Cowskin Prairie, on the Missouri-Arkansas border below Neosho. There he enlisted in the 3rd Division, Missouri State Guard. On the 16th, he was commissioned Captain of an independent company, which would later become Co. A, 1st Regiment Cavalry, 3rd Division MSG. These were the Confederate state militia, organized and commanded by General Sterling Price. The MSG ultimately fell under the auspices of the Arkansas-based Trans-Mississippi Department, with Major General Thomas Carmichael Hindman commanding.
Captain Poindexter's early days were occupied by duty with the MSG, his 3rd Division being included in the battles at Carthage, MO on July 5, and Wilson's Creek, on August 10. His activities at this time remain unknown, but doubtless he shared in the heady satisfaction of these strong Southern victories.
However, it would seem that Poindexter possessed other skills, a persuasiveness of word and manner whose value his superiors recognized. Soon after Wilson's Creek, the Captain was detached on recruiting duty, returning to his home country in and around Randolph County. There his first action of note was on the sultry afternoon of August 28, 1861. Leading a small detachment of Confederate troops, he held up the North Missouri Railroad at Allen. They reportedly came away with three trunks of money, totaling $100,000 in coin, which belonged to the Missouri State Bank in Fayette. A subsequent newspaper article revealed that the money shipment was engineered by a Unionist "committee," in an attempt to spirit the coin out of Missouri, and away from the potential hands of Secessionists. An odd twist to an odd story is that Poindexter's Rebel rabble is subsequently reported as having returned the money to the Fayette bank. Peculiarities aside, this may be the first train robbery in American history.
With some 700 new men, Captain Poindexter rejoined Price at Lexington, Missouri on September 16. Official Records there record him as leading "several independent companies" in the siege of Lexington. Records indicate that the Third Division remained mostly in reserves, but came under frequent fire and returned the same with good effect. After a week-long siege, the final battle was overall a fierce one, lasting three days. Perhaps one of the more unusual incidents of the war was the use of hemp bales, the same used for making rope, from a nearby warehouse. These were taken from their sheds by inventive soldiers and on impulse rolled forward of the Confederate advance, as moveable breastworks. Under this guise the Union fortifications were overwhelmed, and Union General James A. Mulligan soon offered surrender. Also taken by the victorious Rebels were a thousand horses, a hundred wagons, several pieces of artillery, and hundreds of stands of muskets.
On September 24, John Poindexter accepted election and commission to the post of Colonel, 5th Regiment Infantry, 3rd Division, MSG. Yet he would only remain with this command for a couple months, before being called away. His skills as a recruiter were needed once more.
In December he returned north, under orders of General Sterling Price. Persuasive as ever, he again gathered men to his side. Later charges against him indicate that this new command began their career in jolly style, tearing up several miles of the North Missouri Railroad, destroying bridges, and disabling an unspecified number of locomotives and handcars.
On January 8, 1862, he and his busy recruits took a breather at Silver Creek, also called Roan's Tan Yard. There it appears his green troops were rather ingloriously surprised in their camp during a heavy fog, but they put up a stiff fight for thirty to forty minutes. How many men the Federals actually faced varies wildly, with reports from 900 to 2500 men. Despite being a Union victory, however, this action may have drawn enough Federal troops from their posts to allow several hundred other, newly-recruited Confederate troops safe passage through Union lines. Poindexter continued his work, and later states that he rejoined Price, and his 5th Regiment, in the Boston Mountains, again near the Missouri-Arksansas border.
Colonel J. A. Poindexter next appears in March 1862 at the battle of Pea Ridge, or Elkhorn Tavern, Arkansas. Here he led the consolidated 4th and 5th Regiments of the Third Division Missouri State Guard, Colonel John B. Clark, Jr. commanding. Brigadier General Sterling Price then had leadership of the overall contingent of Missouri State Guardsmen, with Major General Earl Van Dorn as commander of the army. Official reports say little of the abysmal circumstances of that fight. Scarce a word is found of the exhausted Southern army being driven at a breakneck pace through blizzard conditions and icy roads, finally reaching the fight already depleted by one-quarter of their strength. Yet it was those neglected details which would shape the battle's outcome.
According to those reports, John Poindexter's part of the battle went as follows. With the light complement of just 500 men, the Third Division began a sweep at Bentonville, Arkansas on March 3 of 1862, where Union troops were found in retreat. They followed with no contact until reaching a place near Elkhorn Tavern, on March 6. There they met the enemy in force, and deployed accordingly. After a brisk artillery duel and a hot exploratory skirmish, the Confederate troops then advanced with little or no resistance. By evening the enemy was once more discovered lying some four hundred yards to their front. Thereupon the soldiers of the Third Division advanced at the double-quick across an open field, against an enemy entrenched behind a fence line and brush. They were met with a withering fire that nearly buckled their line, yet they held their own. Shortly they advanced again with redoubled fury, in thirty bloody minutes driving the Union forces from the field. Of officers and men in Poindexter's own consolidated regiments, they suffered 2 killed, 21 wounded, and 1 missing, with Poindexter also named in the official report as slightly wounded. Total losses of the 500-man Third Division at Pea Ridge amounted to casualties of nearly one-third. Poindexter would later report that losses within his command amounted to fully half.
Yet despite their sacrifice, Pea Ridge would be a Union victory. Inept leadership led to fatal confusion and, ultimately, rout. The resultant retreat could only have been as ghastly as the advance, with near-starvation and bitter cold a much greater enemy than Union bullets. The incompetence of General Van Dorn likely cost the Confederates the fight and, in the final account, the State of Missouri. Was Pea Ridge perhaps the crucible that changed John Poindexter's idea of war?
The Confederacy's grip on Missouri began slipping dreadfully, after that defeat. Price retreated into Arkansas, and there regrouped to lead his battered army to safety in the east. Yet as with other Missourians who were reluctant to leave their homes unprotected, Poindexter would not follow. He tendered his resignation at Van Buren, Arkansas, where it was accepted on March 17, 1862. Having already served three months beyond his agreed-upon six, Colonel Poindexter became Citizen Poindexter, and returned home to Randolph County.
Peace had become a stranger to Missouri, however, and troubled times lay ahead. Now the Confederacy turned her attention to the pool of potential soldiers that lay snarled within the Union lines. Willing men of stout Southern loyalties were there, but how could they be reached and put to use? With the ratification of 1862 Confederate Partisan Ranger Act, the complexion of the war in Missouri would change dramatically.
Evidence of this came in March of 1862, when Union Major-General H. W. Halleck issued General Order Number 2. This order charged General Price with having issued military commissions to "certain bandits" who were being sent to form guerilla organizations in the state of Missouri. It further declared all members of such organizations as outside the rules of warfare. These men would not be treated as prisoners of war, but rather would be summarily hung - or shot, as the case often proved. Commanders of neighboring districts swiftly issued comparably ruthless orders.
Confederate Major General Hindman moved quickly to implement his own resources. On June 17, 1862, he issued General Orders No. 17, calling for the organization of "independent companies." The orders were quite simple, Section Two reading in part,
"When as many as 10 men come together for this purpose they may organize by electing a captain, 1 sergeant, 1 corporal, and will at once commence operations against the enemy without waiting for special instructions. Their duty will be to cut off Federal pickets, scouts, foraging parties, and trains, and to kill pilots and others on gunboats and transports, attacking them day and night, and using the greatest vigor in their movements."
John Poindexter had but to look around his own neighborhood, to see the effects of this order. Men gathered in secret, hiding in the brush, and soon the need for a leader arose. Poindexter's charm apparently suffered not at all, as he again drew followers. On August 8th, John Poindexter was chosen colonel of an irregular band of home-grown cavalry. He reported that from General Price came Captains Singleton, Price, Wells and Mattock, who bore authority to muster Poindexter's new command into Confederate service, north of the Missouri River. Per orders of the Confederate Congress, these units would fall under the immediate command of General Sterling Price. Given the same charge were officers including Joseph C. Porter, Upton Hays, and Joseph "Jo" Shelby. That terms of service could be either 12-month cavalry, who would outfit and equip themselves, or infantry, who would sign on for three years or the duration of the war, to be equipped with arms by the Confederate government. While a key battle had been lost, the fight for Missouri was far from over.
There would be no flags, no guidons, and probably little semblance of uniforms in this assignment. The concept of irregular warfare, at this early date, fell well outside the accepted modes of combat. Federal command would be certain to respond with swift, decisive action. Yet Colonel Poindexter readily embraced the challenge, and moved with sure swiftness through the back-roads and hidden lanes of northeast Missouri. The Confederate cavalry troop he raised would be known simply and collectively as Poindexter's Regiment. Union estimates placed his command at numbers anywhere between 400 and 1200 men, recruited in counties including Green, Howard, and Randolph. The Poindexter Cavalry's main theater of operation lay in the north-central part of Missouri, ranging east from Carroll to Monroe County and even Lincoln, south from Schuyler to Boone County. This area included the soon-to-be consolidated St. Louis and Northeastern Divisions, which came under the command of a Federal colonel named Lewis Merrill. Merrill's resentment of Poindexter's activities in his sector would, in time, take on personal meaning.
Letters of Union high-command reveal their alarm at the mushroom-rate of Southern guerilla organization. A missive by Brigadier General J. M. Schofield reads in part, "I am satisfied that we can restore quiet to North Missouri only by occupying a large number of points, at least one in every county, by cavalry as well as infantry."
Many of the men who now joined irregular service under Poindexter and his fellows were said to be returned Southern soldiers, released from regular duty. They found no peace awaiting them at home, and the guerilla units offered them a ready means to strike back at Federal forces, whom they saw as invading their neighborhoods. In another account, General Schofield plaintively admits, ". . . They have been repeatedly been beaten, [but] their numbers seem to increase faster than we can kill them." Official reports soon speak of Poindexter in the same breath as that nefarious guerilla, William Quantrill, although no evidence has yet surfaced to suggest that he was of Quantrill's ruthless bent. That he led his men in unconventional warfare was black enough. Poindexter's and Porter's men now fought with the desperate certainty that capture meant death.
The guerillas' successes quickly roused the Union forces of Missouri to even more desperate measures. General Order 19, posted in July of 1862, demanded that "every able-bodied man capable of bearing arms and subject to military duty" must enlist in the Union army. The order drove many previously-neutral men into the brush to join the guerillas, rather than face impressment into service which would bring them into conflict with family and neighbors. However, by year's end the order would also raise over fifty thousand men to help regain Union control of Missouri.
On July 28, 1862, Federal forces under Union Colonel Oden Guitar turned the tables on Poindexter's counterpart, Joe Porter, as he tried to reach Arkansas, at a place called Moore's Mill, on Auxvasse Creek in Calloway County. A man whose reports suggest a plain-spoken, no nonsense kind of soldier, Guitar proved to be the right man for the job. Pounded by cannon and superior numbers, Porter's hard-fighting command was finally smashed. Having violated, however boldly, the guerilla precept of never engaging in open battle, Colonel Porter and his survivors were forced to abandon the fight, divide their forces, and flee northward.
Despite this setback, the flame of Southern resistance still burned hot. On August 1, Colonel Poindexter took the town of Carrollton, with a force of 1200 to 1500 men. Although lacking the strength to hold this ground, the fact of Poindexter's accomplishment could be ignored by no one. Yet however beneficial this act was to Confederate morale, it served also to help turn the full weight of Union wrath upon him.