Antioch Cemetary, Missouri
Colonel John A. Poindexter, CSA
1825 - 1869
John A. Poindexter was born 12 October 1825 in Montgomery County, Kentucky, the fifth child of David and Elizabeth (Watts) Poindexter. His was an old, genteel Virginia family, who followed the westward surge of migration to Kentucky, settling there around the turn of the century. It would seem expected, then, that in 1861 he should follow his Southern countrymen into the grim storm-clouds of war. How or when he left Kentucky is unknown, but when former Missouri governor Sterling Price called troops to the Confederate cause, John answered the summons readily.
His date of enlistment is presently unknown, but on 16 Jun 1861 he was elected Captain of an independent company that would later become Co. A, 1st Cavalry Reg't, of the 3rd Division Missouri State Guard. The State Guards were commanded by General Sterling Price, who ultimately answered to the Arkansas-based Trans-Mississippi Department, Major General Thomas Carmichael Hindman commanding.
Captain Poindexter's first action of note was on the sultry afternoon of 28 August 1861, when he led a small detachment of Confederate troops to hold up the North Missouri Railroad at Allen. They reportedly came away with three trunks of money, totaling $100,000 in coin, which belonged to the Missouri State Bank in Fayette. A subsequent newspaper article revealed that the money shipment was due to a Unionist "committee's" attempt to spirit it out of Missouri, and away from the potential hands of secessionists. An odd twist to an odd story was when Poindexter is reported as having returned the money to the Fayette bank. Peculiarities aside, this may well be the first train robbery in American history.
Official records next find him in September of 1861, leading "several independent companies" in the siege on Lexington, Missouri. Shortly after that Confederate victory, John Poindexter left cavalry service to accept a post as Colonel of the 5th Reg't, 3rd Division. In January of 1862, he suffered a defeat at the hands of Union forces at Silver Creek, or Roan's Tan Yard. Apparently his new command was rather ingloriously surprised in their camp during a heavy fog, but they put up a stiff fight for half an hour. Despite being a Union victory, however, this action may have drawn enough Federal troops from their posts to allow several hundred newly- recruited Confederate troops safe passage through Union lines.
Colonel J. A. Poindexter next appears in March 1862 at the battle of Pea Ridge, or Elkhorn Tavern, Arkansas. Here he led the consolidated 4th and 5th Regiments of the Third Division Missouri State Guard, Colonel John B. Clark, Jr. commanding. Brigadier General Sterling Price then had leadership of the overall contingent of Missouri State Guardsmen, with Major General Earl Van Dorn as commander of the army. Official reports say little of the abysmal circumstances of that fight; an exhausted army led at breakneck pace through blizzard conditions and icy roads, finally reaching the fight already depleted by one-quarter of their strength.
According to those reports, John Poindexter's part of the battle went as follows. With the light compliment of just 500 men, the Third Division began a sweep at Bentonville, Arkansas on March 3rd of 1862, where Union troops were found in retreat. They followed with no contact until reaching a place near Elkhorn Tavern, on March 6th. There they met the enemy in force, and deployed accordingly. After a brisk artillery duel and a hot exploratory skirmish, the Confederate troops then advanced with little or no resistance. By evening the enemy was once more discovered lying some four hundred yards to their front. Thereupon the soldiers of the Third Division advanced at the double-quick across an open field, against an enemy entrenched behind a fenceline and brush. They were met with a withering fire that nearly buckled their line, yet they held their own. Shortly they advanced again with redoubled fury, in thirty bloody minutes driving the Union forces from the field. Of officers and men in Poindexter's own consolidated regiments, they suffered 2 killed, 21 wounded, and 1 missing, with Poindexter himself named in the official report as slightly wounded. Total losses of the 500-man Third Division at Pea Ridge amounted to casualties of nearly one-third.
Yet dispite their sacrifice, Pea Ridge would be a Union victory. Inept leadership led to fatal confusion and, ultimately, rout. The resultant retreat could only have been as ghastly as the advance, with near-starvation and bitter cold a much greater enemy than Union bullets. The incompetence of General Van Dorn likely cost the Confederates the fight and, ultimately, the State of Missouri. Was Pea Ridge perhaps the crucible that changed John Poindexter's idea of war?
Now the Confederacy turned her attention to the pool of potential soldiers that lay snarled within the Union lines. Willing men of stout Southern loyalties were there, but how could they be reached and put to use? Soon, Colonel Poindexter accepted new and perilous orders. With the ratification of 1862 Confederate Partisan Ranger Act, the complexion of the war in Missouri would change dramatically.
Evidence of this came in March of 1862, when Union Major-General H. W. Halleck issued General Order Number 2. This order charged General Price with having issued military commissions to "certain bandits" who were being sent to form guerilla organizations in the state of Missouri. It further declared all members of such organizations as outside the rules of warfare. These men would not be treated as prisoners of war, but rather would be summarily hung - or shot, as the case often proved. Commanders of neighboring districts swiftly issued comparably ruthless orders.
Confederate Major General Hindman moved quickly to implement his own resources. On June 17, 1862, he issued General Orders No. 17, calling for the organization of "independent companies," with directives to carry on the fight without waiting on orders from higher command.
Upon his return to Missouri, Poindexter would retain his commission from the MSG, but his mission would be to recruit and organize a regiment for Confederate service, north of the Missouri River. These units would fall under the immediate command of General Sterling Price. Given the same mission were men including Joseph C. Porter, Upton Hays, and Joseph "Jo" Shelby. While a key battle had been lost, the fight for Missouri was far from over.
Colonel Poindexter readily embraced the challenge, and moved with sure swiftness through the back-roads and hidden lanes of northeast Missouri. In short order, he raised his own Confederate cavalry troop, known simply and collectively as Poindexter's Regiment. Union estimates placed his command at numbers anywhere between 400 and 1200 men, recruited in counties including Green, Howard, and Randolph. The Poindexter Cavalry's main theater of operation lay in the north-central part of Missouri, ranging east from Carroll to Monroe County and even Lincoln, south from Schuyler to Boone County. This area included the soon-to-be consolidated St. Louis and Northeastern Divisions, which came under the command of a Federal colonel named Lewis Merrill. Merrill's resentment of Poindexter's activities in his sector would, in time, take on personal meaning.
The letters of Union high-command reveal their alarm at the mushroom-rate of Southern guerilla organization. A missive by Brigadier General J. M. Schofield reads in part, "I am satisfied that we can restore quiet to North Missouri only by occupying a large number of points, at least one in every county, by cavalry as well as infantry."
Many of the men who now joined irregular service under Poindexter and his fellows were said to be returned Southern soldiers, released from regular duty. They found no peace awaiting them at home, and the guerilla units offered them a ready means to strike back at Federal forces, whom they saw as invading their neighborhoods. In another account, General Schofield plaintively admits, ". . . They have been repeatedly beaten, [but] their numbers seem to increase faster than we can kill them." Official reports soon speak of Poindexter in the same breath as that nefarious guerilla, William Quantrill, although no evidence has yet surfaced to suggest that he was of Quantrill's ruthless bent. That he led his men in unconventional warfare was black enough. Poindexter's and Porter's men now fought with the desperate certainty that capture meant death.
The guerillas' successes quickly roused the Union forces of Missouri to even more desperate measures. General Order 19, posted in July of 1862, demanded that "every able-bodied man capable of bearing arms and subject to military duty" must enlist in the Union army. The order drove numerous previously-neutral men into the brush to join the guerillas, rather than face impressment into service which would bring them into conflict with family and neighbors. However, by year's end the order also raised over fifty thousand men to help regain Union control of Missouri.
In late July of 1862, Federal forces under Union Colonel Oden Guitar turned the tables on Joe Porter as he tried to reach Arkansas, at a place called Moore's Mill, on Auxvasse Creek in Calloway County. A man whose reports suggest a plain-spoken, no-nonsense kind of soldier, Guitar proved to be the right man for the job. Pounded by cannon and superior numbers, Porter's hard-fighting command was finally smashed. Having violated, however boldly, the guerilla precept of never engaging in open battle, Colonel Porter and his survivors were forced to abandon the fight, divide their forces, and flee northward.
Despite this setback, the flame of Southern resistance still burned hot. On August 1st, Colonel Poindexter was reported as having taken the town of Carrollton with a force of 1200 to 1500 men. This act, however beneficial to Confederate morale, served also to help turn the fury of Union wrath upon him.
By August 5th he was reported 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. If Poindexter hoped to join Porter in his northerly flight, he was bitterly dissapointed. Guitar chased Poindexter's command 250 miles in seven days, pushing them into Chariton County, then Linn, and finally into Chariton once more. Union reports record the capture of one-third of Poindexter's horses and arms, plus all his munitions and supplies, during an engagement at Little Compton Ferry on the Grand River. Caught like foxes between hounds, with Union forces under General Ben Loan 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's men struck them again. At 9 mp on August 11, Guitar's men caught the battered remainder of Poindexter's troops at Yellow Creek, on the Muscle Fork of the Chariton, while attempting a river crossing under the cover of darkness. 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 names on the Union roll of Confederate prisoners, 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. General Order Number 2 no doubt rang as a death knell in Poindexter's mind. Thus, when a moment of chance appeared, the wily guerilla chief made a desperate break for freedom. He escaped, but his ill-luck held true, and he was wounded in the attempt. Although the nature of his wound is not recorded, it was severe enough that he shortly thereafter turned himself back in to Federal authorities. U.S. marshals would see that he made it safely to St. Louis.
In weeks to follow, some of Poindexter's men were listed captured as far south as Camden, Laclede, Douglas and even Ripley counties. These last were no doubt the survivors of the command who were trying to escape to 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.
Reported as captured not only in civilian clothes, but in a house behind Union lines, Colonel Poindexter himself was pinned with the rather unusual indictment of espionage. He would be the first Confederate Officer to be so charged. 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 Distict commander, choleric Brigadier General Lewis Merrill immediately volunteered his captive, John Poindexter. A brief exchange of letters indicates that Merrill already had chosen an execution date. Yet Schofield warily cautioned that Poindexter ought to be formally tried by a military commission, rather than drum-head 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. 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 in the Myrtle Street Prison in St. Louis.
In view of General Order Number Two, 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 excecute wholesale the hundreds of guerillas who fell into their hands. Even in war, there is a line of decency to be drawn. The escaped survivors of Poindexter's Regiment returned to Confederate strongholds in Arkansas, and were soon dismounted by order of General Hindman. In November of 1862 this remnant was assigned to a Clark's Regiment of Missouri Infantry.
By that time, Confederate government officials had decided that the guerilla business was not very ethical or effective warfare. Many of them felt the guerillas were loose cannons, ill-disciplined and improperly supervised. Certainly Missouri's notorious Quantrill did nothing to dispel this notion. Thus ended the official sanctioning of irregular combat, but not so its unofficial practice. Missouri would continue to bleed for a long, sad time to come.
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. Quantrill survived until war's end, only to die of wounds two months later in a Louisville, Kentucky hospital. Sterling Price and his Army were ultimately driven out of Missouri, and Hindman was transferred east. After the summer of 1862, the Confederate hold on Missouri was lost, but the fight was far from over. As history shows, guerilla tactics remained the brutal standard for fighting of the Civil War in that unfortunate state. The war in Missouri would drag on for three more bloody years, and the brutal echoes of that struggle would resound in the adventures of the James Gang and Cole Younger.
Poindexter's part in the conflict devolved to a far more personal struggle for freedom. His case wandered through the civil courts at a snail's pace, and would take 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." 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 territories such as Arkansas.
Although he spoke with logic and surprising sincerity, such conciliatory words ring oddly, from the pen of a man Union commanders once paired with William Quantrill. 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, newspapers reported that Colonel John A. Poindexter was released on "heavy 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 that the ex-guerilla leader has been asked to "use his influence in favor of law and order among the rebel sympathizers." The general further asks 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 weary 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 cheiftain had himself been driven from his home by bushwhackers.
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 say that the war in Missouri ended with the surrender of Frank James, brother to Jesse, in July of 1865.
Now-civilian John A. Poindexter sought his own closure, as well. In July of 1865, newspapers note that he has 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, 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 would seem a final indignity, that he would be so singled out from amongst all 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. He was not yet forty-four years old.
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