Born in Randolph County, Missouri in 1839, William T. Anderson would, by his death on October 26, 1864, be known and feared throughout the Union as “Bloody Bill” Anderson, a barbaric, pro-Confederate guerilla leader in the American Civil War. Stories about Anderson’s brutality during the War were legion. Personally responsible for the deaths of over fifty Federal soldiers, it was said that Anderson carried a silk cord on which knots were tied for every Yankee he killed. Some reports had Bloody Bill crying and frothing at the mouth during battle, and there are reliable accounts that he took scalps from some of his prized victims, tying them to his saddle as he rode.
Anderson’s tactics were often compared to the “uncivilized” warfare of Native Americans. Anderson’s goal, in addition to simply killing, was to create a sense of sheer terror in his enemies, and he accomplished this by hit-and-run raids, sneak attacks and ambushes, and the killing of civilians in addition to armed combatants. When Union General Halleck issued an order early in the war declaring that Anderson and other guerillas should be treated as criminals, denied quarter, and executed on the spot, Anderson and his comrades responded in kind, refusing quarter to and executing Union troops, as well.
The Early Years: Bleeding Kansas
If Anderson wasn’t born a cold-blooded killer, he certainly took to it quickly in life. Anderson’s father, William Sr., left the family in 1850 for California, looking for gold. Bill, then 11, and his younger brother Jim were left to provide for their mother and sisters in their father’s absence, and took to horse stealing and other petty crimes to make ends meet. When Bill’s father returned from California in 1857, none the richer, the family pulled up stakes and moved across the border to Agnes City Township, Kansas.
They arrived in the firestorm of what would be known as “Bleeding Kansas,” a vicious struggle over the sovereignty of the newly formed Kansas territory. Under the terms of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, the territory of Kansas had been thrown open to popular vote to determine whether it would enter the Union as a free state or a slave state. Southerners saw this as an opportunity to balance the admission of the Northern, free-soil Nebraska territory, and began to flood the Kansas territory with pro-slavery families, many of whom, like Bill Anderson’s, hailed from Missouri.
The North responded with the New England Emigrant Aid Company (NEAC), whose goal was to encourage abolition-minded people to move to Kansas to vote to make Kansas a free state. The two opposing philosophies led to open conflict in a very short time, and pro-Confederate “border ruffians” from Missouri began clashing with pro-Union Kansas “Jayhawks” on a continual basis. While records for this time are scarce, it is generally believed that Bill, his father, and his brother all took part in the killing on the pro-slavery side. In one of these skirmishes, Anderson’s father, a Southern sympathizer, was shot to death in 1862 by a prominent Unionist, some say for horse-stealing, some say simply for having pro-slavery views. Anderson tracked down and killed the man who had shot his father, along with another pro-Union man. Bloody Bill was 22 at the time.
Anderson Joins Quantrill’s Raiders
Shortly thereafter, Bill and his brother joined up with Quantrill’s Raiders, a notorious Confederate guerilla squad that was running wild in the simmering Kansas-Missouri border conflict. Anderson took to his work with gusto, and rose quickly through the ranks, becoming one of Quantrill’s trusted lieutenants by the spring of 1863. Not even marriage could stop him. Although he married Bush Smith, of Sherman, Texas, on March 2, 1863, Bill Anderson continued his guerilla activities with undiminished intensity.
Later that year, frustrated by their inability to stop Quantrill and his guerillas, Union authorities arrested relatives of the leading members of Quantrill’s group. Two of Anderson’s sisters, Mary and Josephine, along with nine other women, were accused of being Confederate partisans and imprisoned in a building in Kansas City, Missouri. The building was made structurally unsound by Union guards who, while attempting to make more space in a lower room, removed load-bearing partitions and posts that supported the second floor. On August 14, 1863, the building collapsed, killing four of the women, including Bill’s sister, Josephine. Mary was left crippled for life.
One week later, Quantrill, Anderson, and their men launched a brutal raid on Lawrence, Kansas, the hub of Jayhawk activity, in retribution for the deaths of their loved ones. Around 200 civilian men and boys were reported to have been killed, and many homes and businesses were looted and burned to the ground. Soon after, Quantrill and his men left for a winter camp in Texas. There, Quantrill and Anderson disagreed sharply over how to proceed with their raids. Quantrill preferred, as he had done in the Lawrence raid, to observe many of the rules of civilized warfare, such as sparing women and young children. Anderson, thirsty for revenge for the death of his sister, would have none of it, adopting a philosophy of total war that Quantrill just couldn’t abide. When Anderson returned to Missouri in March, 1864, it was at the head of his own guerilla group.
The Centralia Raid
Anderson’s greatest notoriety came as the result of a raid on the central Missouri town of Centralia on September 27, 1864. Anderson, accompanied by approximately 70 men, including 16-year old Jesse James
and his brother Frank, invaded the town of Centralia, systematically raiding homes and stores, raping women and murdering any inhabitant that stood in their way.
At midday, a train passing through town was forced to stop at barricades placed on the tracks by Anderson’s men. All the passengers, including 26 Union soldiers, were rounded up and walked to the depot platform. The soldiers were lined up in an open field, and Anderson, armed with four Navy Colt pistols in his waistband, a saber, and a hatchet, proceeded to walk back and forth in front of the Union captives. Coolly, he asked them:
“Boys, do you have a sergeant in your ranks?”
Thinking that the question meant his men’s lives would be spared, Sgt. Thomas M. Goodman stepped forward and announced his rank. Seeing the sergeant step forward, Anderson responded:
“Fine, we’ll use you to exchange for one of my men them damned Yankees caught.”
Anderson then took two of his pistols and, walking down the line of Union men, proceeded to shoot each of them, reloading until the job was complete. Upon his later escape, Sgt. Goodman reported Anderson’s crime to the authorities, but by then Anderson and his men were long gone.
The same day, Union Major A.V.E. Johnston of the 39th Missouri Infantry Volunteers set off with his men to pursue Anderson's band. Anderson sent out a detachment that lured Johnston into a trap. After discharging their single-shot rifles with little effect, the Union solders retreated in a panic as the guerrillas cut them down. Those who tried to surrender were executed. Around 120 mounted infantrymen were killed in the ambush and pursuit. Bodies of the soldiers were decapitated and mutilated by some of the guerrillas.
Following the Centralia massacre, Union militia Colonel Samuel P. Cox took command of a detachment of Missouri troops, with orders to find and destroy Anderson. On October 26, 1864, he located Anderson's men near Albany, Missouri. Cox used one of Anderson's favorite tactics against him. He sent out a mounted detachment to lure the guerrillas into a trap. The trick worked.
Anderson led his men on a headlong charge after the retreating Union cavalrymen, straight into a firing line. Anderson was shot twice in the head, and fell behind the Union line. Although his men tried to recover his body, Union firepower was simply too much for them. Found on Anderson's body after his death was a silken cord with fifty-three knots. It was believed that this was his way of keeping a record of his killings. Human scalps were also found on the bridle. His body was put on public display and photographed.
- Albert E. Castel, Thomas Goodrich, Bloody Bill Anderson: The Short, Savage Life of a Civil War Guerilla
- Edward E. Leslie, The Devil Knows How To Ride: The True Story of William Clarke Quantrill and his Confederate Raiders
- “Southron Guerillas: William “Bloody Bill” Anderson (http://www.geocities.com/mosouthron/partisans/Anderson.html)
- “Quantrill” (http://www.crimelibrary.com?gangsters_outlaws/outlaws/james/3.html