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Civil War Round Table of Kansas City

Battlefield Dispatches #46

Christmas "Campaign"

A Christmas dinner scene on the outer picket line by Edwing Forbes (Library of Congress)

During the Civil War, as in most wars involving Christian Armies, “Christmas” was remembered, but not celebrated as the “Holiday” it is today. Behind the lines, away from the “front” there were festive celebrations, dinners & dances, but at the “Front” or in “Enemy Territory” the WAR & KILLING went on as if December 25th was just another day, because that’s what it was.

Throughout the Civil War, the Union Army considered the state of Missouri to be “Enemy Territory” & the war was waged 365 days each year. Late in December of 1861 the Blue Bellies conducted a successful “Campaign” in northern Missouri to eradicate the “Bridge Burners”. The “Bridge Burners” were Bushwhackers, Confederate Guerrillas & Southern Sympathizers who were, at first very successful, in burning the bridges along the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad that crossed the entire width of the “Show Me State” from the Mississippi River to the Missouri River. By partially or completely destroying the railroad bridges, the Union supply effort & transportation of troops was severely slowed down & sometimes completely stopped for short periods of time.

Henry W. Halleck

John M. Schofield

The following reports & letters located in Series I, Vol. 8 of the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion describe the “Union” campaign against & the elimination of the “Bridge Burners in 1861.

Headquarters, Dept. of the Missouri,
Saint Louis, December 22, 1861.

These bridge burnings are the most annoying features of the war. They are effected by small parties of mounted men, disguised as farmers, but well armed. They overpower or overawe the guards, set fire to the bridges & escape before a force can be collected against them. Examples of severe punishment are the only remedies. I shall carry out in this respect my General Orders No. 32 enclosed herewith. 

Henry W. Halleck
Major General, Commanding

General Orders No. 32:

I.    Insurgent rebels scattered through the northern counties of this state, which are occupied by our troops, under the guise of PEAECFUL CITIZENS, have resumed their occupation of BURNING BRIDGES, DESTROYING RAILROADS &TELEGRAPH WIRES. These men are guilty of the highest crime known to the “Code of War” & the PUNISHMENT is DEATH! Any one caught in the act will be immediately SHOT & any one accused of this crime will be arrested & placed in CLOSE CONFINEMENT until his case can be examined by a military commission & if found guilty, he will also suffer DEATH.
II.    Where injuries are done to railroads or telegraph lines the Commanding Officer of the nearest post will immediately impress into service, for repairing damages, SLAVES of all SECCESSIONISTS in the vicinity & if necessary the SECCESSIONISTS themselves & their property. Any pretended “Union” man having information of intended attempts to destroy such roads & lines or of the guilty parties, who does not communicate such intention to the proper authorities & give aid & assistance in arresting & punishing them, will be regarded as “particeps criminis” & treated accordingly.

III.    Hereafter the TOWNS & COUNTIES in which such destruction of public property takes place will be made to PAY the EXPENSES of all repairs unless it be shown that the people of such towns or counties could not have prevented it on account of the superior force of the ENEMY.

By order of major General Halleck.

Headquarters, Dept. of the Missouri
Saint Louis, December 25, 1861.

Brig. Gen. Schofield:

You will IMMEDIATELY repair to Warrenton, on the North Mo. Railroad & take command of the troops in that vicinity. The enemy is supposed to be at or near the railroad between Warrenton & Renick. Birge’s Sharpshooters, about 800, ought to be on the road somewhere between Renick & Centralia. General Henderson’s State troops are supposed to be in Lincoln County. It is hoped that most of the BRIDGE BURNERS may be surrounded & captured. Keep me advised by telegraph of everything, so that I may direct the movements of other troops in co-operation.

Palmyra, Mo. Dec. 26, 1861.

[To] Capt. J.C. Kelton, Assist. Adj. Gen.:

Chariton Bridge, two span, 150 feet each, Stockton & Collas BURNED last night. Force in pursuit. Have here 33 Bridge burners & accomplices. What shall I do with them? Have witnesses against them here.
Henry Binmore, Assist Adj. Gen.

Saint Louis, Mo. Dec. 26, 1861.

[To] Brig. Gen. T. J. McKean, Jefferson City:

If Merrill’s Horse can be crossed over, send it to Columbia to operate against the BRIDGE BURNERS.

Henry Halleck, Maj. Gen.

Saint Louis, Mo. Dec. 26, 1861.

[To] Brig. Gen. John Pope, Otterville, Mo.:

Insurrection in northwestern counties very serious. If troops can be crossed over at Boonville, send 400 or 500 horse to Fayette to operate against BRIDGE BURNERS.

Henry Halleck, Major Gen.

Martinsburg, Jan. 1, 1862.

[To] Major General Halleck,

Have captured about 50 prisoners, among the rest Captain Owen, the leader of the bridge Burners about High Hill & Col. Jeff Jones. Most of the bridge burners not killed or captured have passed back across the railroad.

J. M. Schofield, Brigadier General.

St. Louis, Jan. 1, 1862.

[To] Hon T. Ewing, Lancaster, Ohio:

I am satisfied that nothing but the severest punishment can prevent the burning of RAILROAD BRIDGES & the great destruction of human life. I shall punish all I can catch, although I have no doubt there will be a newspaper howl against me as a BLOOD THIRSTY MONSTER. These incendiaries have destroyed in the last ten days $150,000 worth of RAILROAD PROPERTY, notwithstanding that there are more than 10,000 troops kept guarding the railroads in this state. A plot was discovered on 20 Dec. to burn all the bridges in the state & at that same time to fire this city. Fortunately a part of the intended mischief was prevented. This is usually NOT done by armed & open enemies, but by pretended QUIET CITIZENS LIVING ON THEIR FARMS. A bridge or building is SET ON FIRE & the culprit an hour after is quietly plowing or working in his field. The civil courts can give us no assistance, as they are very generally unreliable. There is no alternative, but to enforce martial law. Our army here is almost as much in HOSTILE COUNTRY as it was when in Mexico.

I have determined to put down these insurgents & bridge burners with a strong hand. It must be done; there is no other remedy. If I am sustained by the government & country, well & good; if not, I will take the consequences.

H. W. Halleck, Maj. Gen.

John Pope (Library of Congress)

Thomas Ewing, Sr. (Wikimedia Commons)

In a letter to Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, General in Chief of the Union Army, on January 14, 1862 Gen. Halleck described the elimination of most of the bridge burners as follows:

The arrangements to break up the bands of bridge burners in the northeastern counties of Mo. have been very successful. Immediately after the burning commenced, a small force of cavalry started in the cars for Hudson city. In this way they surprised a large party of SECESSIONISTS, killed 8, took a number of prisoners & horses. On Dec. 28, Gen Prentiss with 240 cavalry & 200 sharpshooters attacked a body of rebels, about 900 strong, at Mount Zion, Boone County, & dispersed them. Enemy’s loss reported 150 killed & wounded, 35 prisoners, 95 horses & 105 guns captured. Our loss 3 killed & 11 wounded because of the long range of our sharpshooters rifles.

George B. McClellan

Did this “Christmas Campaign” eliminate all of the Bridge Burners? No, it did not. However, the Union Army increased the protection of the railroad bridges by constructing blockhouses to house permanent “Yankee” garrisons & patrolling the railroads of northern Missouri.

Civil War Round Table of Kansas City
436 West 88th Terrace
Kansas City, MO 64114

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