Colonel John A. Poindexter

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By August 5, Union reports place him in Chariton County and near Huntsville. Just three days later, Colonel Guitar and his victorious 9th Missouri Union Cavalry picked up Poindexter's trail in Randolph County. Guitar's orders illustrated the caliber of Union resolve; "Go light and live on the country, preferably secesh - Union men if you must." This would be a fight to the finish.

If Poindexter hoped to join Porter in his northerly flight, his hopes would be bitterly dashed. Guitar harried Poindexter's command 250 miles in seven days, an average of over thirty-five miles a day with no respite for man or beast. Soon there were contingents of no less than eight Federal regiments, pushing the rebel band into Chariton County, then Linn, and finally into Chariton once more. During an engagement at Little Compton Ferry on the Grand River, Union accounts record the capture of one-third of Poindexter's horses and arms, plus all his munitions and supplies. Caught like a fox between hounds, with General Ben Loan's Union forces closing on one hand, and Colonel Guitar on the other, time was running out for the Poindexter Regiment of Confederate cavalry.

After a forty-eight-hour running fight, Guitar struck them again. At 9 p.m. on August 11, Guitar's men caught the battered remainder of Poindexter's troops at Yellow Creek. There on the Muscle Fork of the Chariton, the exhausted rebels attempted a river crossing under the cover of darkness. However, many of Poindexter's men drowned, were killed, or were wounded in the attack, which reportedly included several Federal cannons. The desperate Confederates halted Guitar by burning the bridge at Muscle Fork, but Poindexter's command was effectively destroyed. Poindexter crossed into Carroll County, yet out of a command that once embraced up to 1500 men, only a remnant managed to escape, scattering into the woods and fields. This writer counted in excess of 400 taken prisoner, on the Compiled Service Records of Poindexter's regiment, while the numbers of those killed or wounded remain unknown at present. According to official records, his Regiment had inflicted some 680 Union casualties.

Union militia captured the Colonel himself on September 1, in hiding and utterly alone. Reportedly captured not only in civilian clothes, but in a house behind Union lines, Colonel Poindexter found himself pinned with the rather unusual indictment of espionage. He would be the first Confederate officer to be so charged. Soon after that, on September 9, Federal commander Brigadier General J. M. Schofield wrote that he wanted to select a captured guerilla as a "prominent case," to be shot as an example to others. The St. Louis District commander, choleric Brigadier General Lewis Merrill, immediately volunteered his captive, John Poindexter. A brief exchange of letters shows that Merrill already had an execution date planned. Yet Schofield warily cautioned that Poindexter should be formally tried by a military commission, rather than drumhead court martial.

Poindexter's capture and death-sentence was big enough news to make the newspapers, and thereby gain the attention of his old commander-in-chief, General Thomas Hindman. On September 10, the general personally wrote a letter to the Federal commander of Missouri's Southwestern Division, protesting Colonel Poindexter's treatment as a spy, rather than an officer of the Confederate Army. The Union reply was brusque and unequivocal, that such guerilla leaders would get no better treatment than what their men had meted out upon loyal Union citizens. However, Merrill and Schofield were unable to get an order of execution, and so John A. Poindexter remained alive.

Yet it would appear Poindexter retained little hope that Merrill would let that condition last very long. While the date is unclear, when given a moment of chance, the wily guerilla chief made a desperate break for freedom. He escaped, but his ill-luck held true, and he was wounded. Although the nature of his wound is not known, its severity was evidently such that ere two weeks passed, he turned himself back in to Federal authorities. That date he later gave as 21 September, and newspapers dated the 26th note he had given himself into the hands of military authority at Macon City. Somewhat incredibly, Poindexter later wrote that he surrendered with the understanding that he would be allowed to take the Oath of Allegiance and remain free on parole. However, as soon as he was in custody, no promise of freedom was forthcoming, and so the Colonel refused to take the Oath. On October 16, U.S. marshals would see that he made it safely to the St. Louis county jail.

In weeks to follow, survivors of Poindexter's command were listed captured as far south as Camden, Laclede, Douglas and even Ripley counties. These last were no doubt attempting to escape to Confederate-held territories in Arkansas. Dates of capture go as late as December 1862 and even January 1863, but by that time, Poindexter himself was long since a Union prisoner, facing the near-certainty of execution by hanging or firing squad.

In view of General Order Number 2, it would seem remarkable that any of Colonel Poindexter's men were accorded the dubious mercy of a prisoner of war camp. However, perhaps Union authority was not quite ready to execute wholesale the hundreds of guerillas who fell into their hands. The escaped survivors of Poindexter's Regiment who reached Arkansas were soon dismounted by order of General Hindman. In November of 1862, this remnant was assigned to John B. Clark Jr.'s Missouri Infantry.

By that time, Confederate government officials had decided that the guerilla business was neither a very ethical nor effective mode of warfare. Many of them felt the guerillas were loose cannons, ill-disciplined and improperly supervised. Thus ended the official sanction of irregular combat, but not so its unofficial practice.

As to Poindexter's counterparts, Col. Joseph C. Porter was wounded in Wright County in January of 1863 and escaped to Arkansas, where he died of his wounds in February. Upton Hays and Jo Shelby also withdrew into Arkansas, and Shelby made the rank of general, later winning some fame as one of the unrepentant Rebels who retreated to Mexico rather than surrender. William Quantrill survived until war's end, only to die of wounds two months later in a Louisville, Kentucky hospital. William "Bloody Bill" Anderson was killed in battle on October 26, 1864, near what is now Orrick, Missouri. Sterling Price and his Army were ultimately driven out of Missouri, and Hindman received transferred east. After the summer of 1862, the Confederate hold on Missouri was lost, but the struggle smouldered on. As history shows, guerilla tactics remained the brutal standard for fighting of the Civil War in that unfortunate state. Missouri would continue to bleed for three more long, sad years, and the fierce echoes of that struggle would resound in the adventures of the James Gang and Cole Younger.

Poindexter's part in the conflict, meanwhile, devolved to a far more personal battle. The military seemed uncomfortable with the idea of Poindexter being held in civilian hands, for civilian courts. One letter dated April 13, 1863 by a Lt. Col. F. A. Dick of the Provost Marshalls office, declared that Dick had "reason to believe that a master plan for his [Poindexter's] escape has been formed." While the handwriting is difficult to discern, it would appear the letter was directed to General Rosecrans. Lt. Col Dick stated bluntly that Poindexter rightly should be tried by military court, and requested instructions for removing Poindexter from civil authorities, and holding him at Alton Prison, IL for trial. To the Colonel's great good fortune, that request was refused.

Col. Poindexter's case then wandered through the civil courts at a snail's pace, or as records more rightly indicate, got passed hand-to-hand, for over a year. The charge, treason. Yet the outcome would be not a thunderclap, but the weary rumble of a storm passing. In September of 1863, the Columbia, Missouri Statesman carried a very long, personal address by Colonel Poindexter to "his Fellow-Citizens of Northwest Missouri." In it, he speaks with some eloquence of the waste and misery brought by guerilla warfare, and the dangerous fruitlessness of pursuing it. The Union now held the upper hand, in Missouri, he pointed out, and Southerners wishing to continue the fight within those borders lacked any base of supply, any lines of support. To continue such an uneven contest could only bring grief upon both the guerilla fighters and all who succor them. Writing at some length, he pleaded with his fellow Southern sympathizers to abandon this form of struggle. He said; "Guerilla warfare can have no impression on the final result of the struggle now going on between the two contending powers. Its only fruits will be desolation, devastation, and death." Perhaps the dark nights of prison brought him a long, tragic mental procession of the men who had fallen while under his command. If one must fight, he advised, in the one flicker of his old Rebel fire, one would do best to leave Missouri, and join Confederate forces in Southern-held regions such as Arkansas.

Although he spoke with logic and surprising sincerity, such conciliatory words ring oddly, from the pen of a man once viewed by Union command as a scourge upon northeastern Missouri. Some speculation exists that this denunciation of guerilla warfare was undertaken as a condition of his liberation. Whatever the case, in early October of 1863, Colonel John A. Poindexter was released on $10,000 bond from the St. Louis county jail. Subsequently he was admitted to parole by the Provost Marshal General, with permission to remain in his home area, Randolph County.

The last we see of him in the Official Records is a brief letter by Maj. General W. S. Rosecrans, dated June 15, 1864 at St. Louis, to General Fisk at St. Joseph. Rosecrans states that he has seen Poindexter, and asked the ex-guerilla leader to "use his influence in favor of law and order among the rebel sympathizers." The general further requested that orders be given to protect Poindexter "from molestation or outrage." The closing comment on a war-weary man is the simple statement, "He will do good."

One wonders how the forgotten soldier fared, as the slow, bloody months of struggle crept past, without him. A sadly ironic postscript is a single sentence in the Liberty, MO Tribune, in August of 1864. It seems the former guerilla chieftain had himself been driven from his home by bushwhackers. Subsequent correspondence in Poindexter's military file are dated St. Louis, from whence Poindexter wrote that he dared not return to his Randolph County home. On the one side lay Unionists who would gladly hang him for a bushwhacker, and on the other, he wrote, were bushwhackers who labeled him a traitor "for denouncing their hellish work." At one point he asked that his parole be extended to Illinois, where he might enter into business to support his family. It would appear that a notorious guerilla chieftain found the job market in St. Louis a little tight. This request, however, would be denied.

News came of Lee's surrender in Virginia in April of 1865, followed by Joe Johnston's in North Carolina. Yet the Civil War in Missouri did not end, so much as it fizzled out like a dying forest fire. As late as May 7, a guerilla band composed of former members of Bloody Bill Anderson's company attacked the villages of Holden and Kingsville, in Johnson County. General Kirby Smith officially surrendered Missouri and the Trans-Mississippi Department on May 25. Uneasy weeks passed as the tattered fragments of guerilla bands tiptoed in to negotiate their own capitulation. But for the sake of argument, one could even say that the war in Missouri ended with the surrender of Frank James, brother to Jesse, in July of 1865.

One-time-guerilla chieftain John A. Poindexter sought his own peace, as well. With civil indictments still hanging over his head, May of 1865 found him writing letters from St. Louis. Here he inquired about amnesty for former Confederate officers, who ranked Colonel or below, and how this might be applied to himself.

In July, newspapers noted that he had gone to higher authority, and applied for a pardon to President Johnson. However, it would seem that such a magnanimous act was not forthcoming, under the iron hand of Reconstruction. Two years later, home once again in Randolph County, a Grand Jury indicted him for "conspiracy against the United States, and for recruiting soldiers for the purpose of armed hostility against the same." Details of this matter are still unknown to this writer, yet it seems a final indignity, that he would be so singled out from amongst his fellow former Confederate officers.

At least one source claims that the colonel later became active in Missouri politics, and was a prospective candidate for Democratic nomination for governor of Missouri. If true, however, his aspirations were to never bear fruit. Hardships he suffered in the field and in prison may have left him broken in health, from which he never recovered. Colonel John A. Poindexter died at his residence in Randolph County, Missouri on 14 April 1869, and is buried at the Antioch Cemetery at Milton, east of Moberly. Left to mourn him were his widow, grown daughter and two very small sons. He was not yet forty-four years old.

by G. M. Atwater
Copyright 1999/2000 All rights reserved

* Bibliography of Sources for John A. Poindexter

* Genealogy of John A. Poindexter

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