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Exhuming the Remains

Originally published in THE CENTRALIA, MISSOURI GUARD, Dec. 20, 1873, and copied in the Dec. 26, 1873, edition of THE COLUMBIA MISSOURI STATESMAN.

The work of exhuming the remains of Companies A., G., and R. of the 39th Regiment Missouri Volunteer Infantry, who were killed in the famous Bill Anderson fight, at this point, on the 27th day of September, 1864, and buried on the outskirts of town, commenced on last Wednesday the 17th inst. under the direction of Capt. Nelson, who has for some time been engaged in collecting the remains of the Union soldiers in various parts of the state, and forwarding them to the National Cemetery at Jefferson City for burial. The contract for taking up the bodies was awarded to Mr. James H. Harris of this place at $150, and the contract for removing the monument was given to Mr. C. A. Brown at $30.

The bodies are buried east of town, near the railroad track, in a long trench, about three feet deep, and lie five abreast in regular order. The trench runs due east and west, and the bodies lie with the heads west and the feet east.

Large square pine boxes are provided, the bottom of which is covered with a layer of straw, into each box three skulls are placed and an equal proportion of bones shoveled in, although in many instances it is utterly impossible to get all the bones belonging to certain skeletons in one box. Nothing but skeletons were found, the flesh having long since decayed. Hats, boots and shoes were found in a remarkable state of preservation, and in many instances blouses, and other portions of clothing were still found clinging to the bones. When buried a hat had been placed over the face of each; these still remained. Pocket knives, combs, metal buttons, and even vials of medicine were found, as also were several well-filled cartridge boxes. Many of the skulls displayed suggestive round looking holes, and some hats appeared perfectly riddled.

The skeletons were with one or two exceptions of small size, showing that nearly all were young men. Crowds of people thronged about the spot each day, seeking to gratify a morbid curiosity. Among those attracted were persons who were eye witnesses of the fearful conflict, and had seen those inanimate skeletons when in the flesh, full of life and vigor, and in the form of manhood; but now, what a startling contrast is presented in those seared and yellow bones, and grinning skulls that greet the sight. Well can we exclaim with Macbeth:

"Life's but a walking shadow; a poor player, That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And is heard no more."

Thus after a lapse of near eleven years, we are brought face to face with the relics of one of the most sanguinary conflicts of the late war. Who in this broad land has not heard of the famous Bill Anderson massacre, at this place, with its attendant fearful conflict, which took place on the 27th of Sept. 1864? How vividly do the startling incidents of that bloody period flash across the mind. On that eventful September afternoon, these eighty-four unsightly skeletons that lie before us marched full of life and vigor, with buoyant spirits and high hopes-marched that band of one hundred and fifty to their doom.

A fearful massacre had taken place that morning, and these men came to avenge their comrades who a few hours before had been butchered without mercy by Anderson. The September sun was low in the west, not red nor angry, but an Indian summer sun, full of generous warmth and grateful beaming. The crisp grass crinked under foot. From afar the murmur of streams came softly through the hushed air, and now and then the note of a bird, not musical, but far apart. Over the prairies rode the devoted band-rode to their death, for but few returned to tell the tale.

Major Johnson was brave, but rash. As the column pressed onward eager for fray, Anderson's pickets came in view. They were driven toward a belt of timber, Johnson's men dashed forward, regardless of ranks or discipline, exultant. But suddenly out of the edge of the timber appeared a double column of men, from a column they formed two deep with double intervals between all the files. At a slow walk they moved over the prairie towards Johnson, who had halted his men, and unwisely awaited the coming charge, trusting to the long range of his guns.

All at once Anderson's men, as if by a sudden impulse, gathered themselves up together, and took the bridle rains (sic) between their teeth. In the hands of each man was a deadly revolver. Riding the best horses in Missouri, the guerrillas dashed from a walk into a full run, wailing like very demons. The attack was like a hurricane. Johnson's command fired one volley and then broke dismayed and panic stricken. Johnson cried to his men to fight to the death but they heeded him not. Onward like an avalanche came the guerillas firing right and left. Johnson fell among the first shot through the brain. There was no quarter. The wild rout broke away toward Sturgeon, the implacable pursuit vengeful as hate, thundering in the rear. Death did its work, in twos, in threes, in squads-singly. Anderson lost only four men.

This, in brief, is an outline of that terrible butchery which fell upon the country like a great horror, at the time, but was soon forgot in the stirring events that followed. It has ever been as a curse and a blight upon the fair fame of Centralia and no one regrets to see the last vestige forever removed from our midst.