Out of all the interesting stories about the American Civil War, the one regarding General Jo Shelby and his men, all Confederate soldiers, is one of the most interesting you might come across.
It’s a story about the bloody conflict in Missouri and Kansas, the Civil War west of the Mississippi River, and a group of Confederate warriors who followed their leader into Mexico rather than surrender to Union forces.
Joseph Shelby The Southern Businessman
Joseph Shelby ventured from Lexington Kentucky, his home, to Waverley Missouri in the 1850’s and founded a hemp plantation. Hemp was a very important product for baling cotton for shipment. Slaves were used to turn the hemp into rope. Cotton was king in the South and Shelby acquired a fortune along with several steamboats. It was said that Jo Shelby was the largest slave holder in Missouri.
The slavery issue was boiling for years and years. In states like Missouri and Kansas which had a good number of immigrants, the issue of slavery divided populations.
It was this sharp division that accounted for the massive bloodshed and guerrilla warfare prevalent in both states. The massacre of innocent civilians at Lexington Kansas was just one example.The Lexington massacre was the event that made southern guerrilla leaders like William Quantrill an infamous figure. His group has often been referred to as Quantrill’s Raiders. Out of this group came Bloody Bill Anderson who many thought more ruthless than Quantrill himself. Whether Quantrill’s excesses were condoned by the Confederate leadership is something that’s been debated for close to 150 years.
The slavery issue was something that sooner or later would come to a head. As we all know it certainly did after the election of Abraham Lincoln and the subsequent attack on Fort Sumter.
A Time to Make a Decision
One of the unique things about the American Civil War was that when the time for hostilities eventually arrived, people literally had to choose which side they would support. The old saying “brother against brother” couldn’t be more true. Some times the decision was quick and at other times it took some deliberation.
Jo Shelby’s family back in Lexington Kentucky were by and large Union supporters. Shelby on the other hand, a prosperous Missouri businessman with slaves, thought otherwise. This is not unique. This type of family division occurred all throughout the country. There were several instances where two brothers were military officers but on opposite sides of the conflict. it’s often been said that the Civil war split families like non other.
Jo Shelby The Warrior
At the outbreak of war, Jo Shelby was actually asked to join the Union side. This was an offer made to many who may have been thought of as sitting on the fence. Shelby declined and went back to his Waverley Missouri home and put together a regiment.
During the war years Jo Shelby and his men operated under the leadership of the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department. Shelby took part in several battles in the Missouri, Kansas, and Arkansas areas, some more key than others. He grew a reputation for daring and led a group of soldiers to be feared. During these years Shelby had some interaction with the Confederate guerrillas including names such as William Quantrill, Frank James, older brother of Jesse James, and Cole Younger.
How involved Jesse James was with Quantrill’s Raiders has been debated. At the time of the Civil War Jesse James would have been only sixteen years old.
What ensued after that and during all the years of the Civil War is a story like non other. The Missouri/Kansas area was a hotbed of conflict over the slavery issue and Jo Shelby was very much involved.
The End Times
After Lee’s surrender to Grant and the fall of Vicksburg the Confederates were doomed. Word of Lee’s surrender took several weeks to reach Confederate troops operating west of the Mississippi. The leadership of the Trans-Mississippi Department eventually made the decision to surrender as well. Before doing so they promoted Jo Shelby to general although there was no way for Confederate records to show this.
Not every Confederate soldier and officer made the same decision. The only real choice anyone had who desired to hold out was to flee to Mexico. A good many of those finding themselves in and near Texas at war’s end did indeed cross the Rio Grande. To many this was preferable to surrendering. Even doing this had great risks and some were killed just over the border by warring Mexican factions.
Union General Philip Sheridan was sent to Texas by Grant to round up renegade Confederates and to restore Union rule. Sheridan’s troops were on the heels of any Confederates fleeing to the border.
Shelby Enters Mexico
Jo Shelby and his men also made the decision to cross over into Mexico with the goal of offering their services to the French backed Maximilian who had recently taken over rule of Mexico. Maximilian was essentially installed in Mexico by Napolean III. Shelby and his men envisioned being a type of foreign legion for these rulers.
At the same time Maximilian’s mostly French troops were being opposed by Benito Juarez and his Juaristas. If Shelby thought he was leaving a war zone by going into Mexico he was mistaken. The fighting south of the border was intense and bloody.There was an ongoing guerrilla war in the area from Mexico City to the north and northeast.
The Juaristas would deal severely with any troops, Confederate or Union, who they believed entered Mexico to offer aid to Maximilian’s forces. After a few skirmishes with Juaristas, Jo Shelby and his hundreds of troops eventually made it to Monterrey where they hooked up with French commanders.
Shelby’s idea was to head west to the Sonora area and attempt to recruit Americans to fight for Maximilian. He felt he could recruit thousands but was denied permission to travel west. Instead he and his men were ordered to go south to Mexico City for a meeting with Maximilian and his French army chief.
Emperor Maxilmilian, aside from the fact that his military leader was okay with the idea, never did accept Shelby and his men into his armed forces as a unit. A few of his men did join a specialized military unit that had it’s origins in Africa.
Maximilian’s decision not to employ Shelby’s unit was likely influenced by pressure from the U.S. The U.S. never liked the idea of the French in Mexico but with the Civil War going on there was very little they could do. At the same time Maximilian was making diplomatic efforts to build relations with Washington.
President Abraham Lincoln even commented that the Union could fight only one war at a time. Emperor Maximilian never allowed any ex-Confederates to join his largely French Foreign Legion army with the exception of just those few men from Shelby’s regiment. He did however grant land to Shelby and other Americans near Veracruz for the purpose of establishing a colonies within Mexico for ex-Confederates.
Because of the military and political gains of the Jauraitas, led by Bentio Juarez, this colonial arrangement lasted only a short time. Just two years after it’s establishment the French were overthrown (they had basically decided to begin withdrawing all troops) and Maximilian, installed by Napolean III, who was from Europe’s Hapsburg dynasty, was executed. The Confederate colonies were being attacked as well and many colonists began fleeing back north to the U.S. These events ended the ex-Confederate colonies in Mexico.
Jo Shelby’s Return
Because of the turmoil and uncertainty in Mexico, Jo Shelby returned to the United States in 1867. His prior farming operation and luxurious mansion were gone.The mansion and the outbuildings had been burned to the ground during the war.
Jo Shelby settled in Adrian Missouri with his family and took up farming which he was involved in before the war except this time without slave holdings. His story is remarkable when you consider that in 1893 President Grover Cleveland made him U.S.Marshal for the Western District of Missouri and he held that post until he died four years later. At the time of his death he left behind a wife, seven sons and a daughter. Joseph Shelby is buried at Forest Hills Cemetery in Kansas City, Missouri.
Below are links to additional Trips Into History articles you might find interesting…
Visiting Waverley Missouri
If you wonder how the town of Waverley Missouri, located on the banks of the Missouri River, regarded ex-Confederate officer and town businessman Joseph Shelby, just take a walk on the town’s main street. There in a park you will find a life sized statue of Joseph O. Shelby sitting upon his horse.
The group responsible for the statue raised funds by selling copies of the book, Shelby and His Men. The statue was dedicated in June of 2009 to much fanfare. There were bands, reenactments, speeches, boy scouts and dozens of Shelby family members. This was Waverley Missouri’s way of finally honoring their Civil War hero who many feel was the finest cavalry officer in the entire Confederate army.
If you have the opportunity to visit Waverley Missouri, there s a stretch of highway that was once part of the famous Santa Fe Trail. Waverley served a an important port along the Missouri which cargo could be sent west along the old trail. There’s an annual “Blazin The Trail” event that goes along a twenty mile stretch of the old Santa Fe Trail (Hwy 24) between Waverley and Lexington Missouri. Along the route during this celebration are shops, crafts, wine, antiques, restaurants and plenty of family events and shows.
Waverley Missouri is about 65 miles east of Kansas City.
To learn more about Jo Shelby and his life before, during and after the Civil War, I would recommend the following books…
General Jo Shelby’s March by author Anthony Arthur and General Jo Shelby: Undefeated Rebel by authors Daniel O’Flaherty and Daniel E. Sutherland.
(Article copyright 2013 Trips Into History. Photos and images from the public domain)