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The Centralia Massacre was an incident during the American Civil War in which twenty-four unarmed Union soldiers were captured and executed at Centralia, Missouri on September 27, 1864 by the pro-Confederate guerrilla leader William T. Anderson. Future outlaw Jesse James was among the guerrillas.

In the ensuing Battle of Centralia, a large detachment of Union mounted infantry attempted to intercept Anderson, but almost all were killed in combat.


In the fall of 1864, the Confederates, faced with a rapidly deteriorating position, launched an invasion of northern Missouri. It was led by General Sterling Price and his Missouri State Guard. The object was to influence the 1864 presidential election by capturing St. Louis and the state capital at Jefferson City. As part of his strategy, Price encouraged guerrilla warfare, especially the disruption of the railroads. "Bloody Bill" Anderson and his guerrilla company were among those who took part.

On September 23, 1864, Anderson engaged in a skirmish in Boone County, Missouri, seven miles east of Rocheport. His men managed to kill eleven Federal soldiers and three black civilian teamsters. The Federals responded the next day by shooting six of Anderson's men who were captured at a home in Rocheport.

That same day, September 24, Anderson attacked the pro-Union town of Fayette, losing thirteen killed and more than thirty wounded. Only one Union soldier had been killed and two wounded.

The Centralia Massacre[]

At 9:00 a.m. on September 27, Anderson led about 80 guerrillas, some dressed in stolen Union Army uniforms, into Centralia to cut the North Missouri Railroad. The guerrillas looted the town and reportedly drank whiskey from stolen boots. Anderson blocked the rail line, and the engineer of an approaching train failed to realize it until too late, since the men he saw were wearing blue uniforms. The guerrillas swarmed over the train. The 125 passengers were divided between civilians and soldiers. A total of 23 Union soldiers were aboard, all on leave after the Battle of Atlanta and heading to their homes in northwest Missouri or southwest Iowa.

The Union soldiers were ordered at gunpoint to strip off their uniforms. Anderson called for an officer. Sergeant Thomas Goodman bravely stepped forward, expecting to be shot and the rest spared. Instead, Anderson's men ignored Goodman and began shooting the others. The bodies were then maimed and scalped. The guerrillas then set fire to the train and sent it running down the tracks toward Sturgeon, Missouri. They torched the depot and rode away from the town. Sergeant Goodman was taken prisoner on Anderson's orders, with the plan that he would be exchanged later for one of Anderson's own men held prisoner by Federal forces. Goodman spent ten days in the captivity of the guerrillas before escaping as they prepared to cross the Missouri River near Rocheport.

Battle of Centralia[]

At about 3:00 p.m., Union Major A.V.E. Johnston, with 155 men of the newly formed 39th Missouri Infantry Regiment (Mounted), rode into Centralia. The townspeople warned him that Anderson had at least 80 well armed men, but Johnston nevertheless led his men in pursuit. The Union soldiers soon encountered the guerrillas, and Johnston decided to fight them on foot. He ordered his men to dismount and form a line of battle. He then reportedly called out a challenge. Anderson's men replied by making a mounted charge. Armed with muzzle loading Enfield rifles, the Federal recruits were no match for the guerrillas with their revolvers. Johnston's first volley killed several guerrillas, but then his men were overrun. Most were shot down as they attempted to flee. According to Frank James, his younger brother Jesse fired the shot that killed Major Johnston. Of the 155 men in blue, 123 met their death.

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