Howell County Returns from Ashes 1865-1875
Tue, 08/22/2023 - 4:29pm admin
The return home to war-ravaged Howell County by its former citizens held many challenges, as most improvements made in the decade before the war was destroyed. The town of West Plains was intentionally burned to the ground by Southern sympathetic guerrillas in October 1863. The destruction was complete, including all public buildings and homes. In the fields, the high ten-rail split oak fences were gone, burned by troops on both sides and anyone needing to keep warm outside.
Hogs that had survived for years in the woods on their own as free-range animals had all been hunted down, shot, and eaten, creating a pork shortage that lasted into the 1870s. In 1866, the Springfield Patriot told its readers that bacon sold at the ridiculous price of thirty cents a pound. Cattle had to be restocked, fields of wheat and corn planted, and all re-fenced to keep critters out. They fenced free-range animals out of their cultivated crops. The railroad had not arrived, and our part of the Ozarks was unsettled and painfully slow in recovery.
The victors of the war now controlled the county and state under a new constitution designed to punish former rebels, who had vastly outnumbered Unionists throughout the war. Most of the men of Howell County could not vote, hold political office, or even preach under Radical Republican rule. The only way to rejoin the government was to swear you had "never" supported the Confederate cause or get a pardon from the Governor of Missouri. If one had fought for the South, they owed the full four or five years of taxes on their property. Union men owed nothing. Any abandoned land was grabbed up and resold to a Union man. It had been an uneasy peace since 1865, and Howell County had a reputation of now being un-friendly to former Confederates.
This decade is a challenging period to research because the county government, which had been shut down for five years, was getting re-established. The county records from 1857 to the war survived by being secreted in a cave. When the war ended, they were temporarily housed in a shed that caught fire, and everything was destroyed. We have a county court book (today's county commission) beginning in 1865 showing the judge's efforts at re-opening and maintaining roads and establishing taxes.
Most publicly available newspapers covering the period are so fragile they can no longer be handled. The West Plains Journal and Gazette are on microfilm and online, starting in 1898. Papers were printed in the 1870s but are only found on scattered dates and are not publicly available. We get a little peek at these papers and the times in Howell County when they were quoted in other Missouri and Arkansas newspapers, often at the local level.
For example, on June 19, 1867, the Springfield Patriot and Rolla Express wrote, "A few days ago Jefferson Friend, of Howell County, lost an interesting little boy five years old, from the bite of a rattlesnake. The dreadful fangs entered his leg just above the ankle. He was speechless within ten minutes and died within three hours."
In the August 3, 1871 issue of the Springfield Patriot, we get another little look at daily life and the state of things in Howell County.
They printed: "Mr. Newburry (Newberry) near West Plains fired his revolver at a dove in the road the other day, and the ball passed through Reverend Blanton's hat, alarming him with the belief that assassins were after him and causing him to put spurs to his horse."
"A fellow by the name of Crabtree, says the West Plains Journal, was arrested at that place for stealing a bell collar and committed to jail, there being no jail nearer than Rolla, he was to be taken there, but previous to starting the deputy sheriff escorted him to a singing school, and during the exercises he jumped out of the window, and though the officer fired his revolver at him, he escaped."
Howell County had not built a courthouse to replace the one burned in the war, therefore no jail. They were renting public buildings to house the seat of government. I think the "bell collar" was for a horse, though why steal a sleigh bell in July?
A lot of "justice" was administered off-record in this timeframe. Militia Major William Monks could call up his own armed company at any time and did. The deputy might have decided it wasn't worth a couple of days' trip on horseback to put this fellow in jail in Rolla for a horse collar. The populace also struggled with nature and a land that had returned to the wild.
From this same issue: "The (West Plains) Journal also tells how Elijah Johnson was attacked by a panther and of his miraculous escape on a mule. It also gives the following: The other evening, three or four children belonging to Mr. and Mrs. John Bailey, who lives near town, were playing in the woods when they discovered a wild cat. Too young to realize their danger, the little fellows commenced stoning it and continued the sport until the cat turned to give battle, when fortunately for the boys, another boy arrived with a gun and shot the varmint."
From 1863 into the 1870s, the woods of Howell and Oregon Counties were infested by another varmint type. At least six bands of outlaws and marauders discontent with the war's outcome and refusing to submit to civil law roamed the countryside stealing horses, looting, and killing. The only way to deal with them was to have more armed men; the state militia was supposed to serve that purpose.
Males eighteen and older, regardless of color, were required to register annually for the Missouri State Militia, but there was substantial resistance in many of the southern Missouri counties. William Monks was appointed by Governor Fletcher as Major (Monks only reached the rank of Captain in the war) over a State Militia company tasked with enforcing the law.
His heavy-handed tactics, like the illegal arrest and kidnapping of Confederate Captain J. Posey Woodside, brought a backlash against Radical Republican rule. A group known as the Sons of Liberty arose to defy the state, and a group in West Plains met daily to drink a toast to the death of Monks. Oregon County formed its own militia in response to Monks' raids, and he had already turned his attention to Arkansas and fighting the rise of the Ku Klux. In Arkansas, Radical Republican Governor Powell Clayton appointed Monks Lieutenant Colonel of the state's militia in northern Arkansas following the assassination of one of Monks' enrolling officers and a friend. The allegations of raiding, looting, and killing by Monks' men overshadowed the bushwhacker problems.
The killing of Howell County Sheriff Elihugh "Hugh" Cordell was a spillover from the war on the border. Cordell was a former Union soldier and lived southeast of West Plains. In 1868, he defeated incumbent W.D. Mustion, a former Union soldier and a Monks man. In the same election, Ben Alsup had unseated William Monks in the race for State Representative. These fellows, who had all been brothers-in-arms and allies during the war, were now bitter rivals.
While Monks and Alsup were in Arkansas, Alsup ran home to campaign and stole the election - from Monks' viewpoint. So the backdrop for all this is the Democratic, former Confederate populace hated the government in place, and the Republicans were spending more time fighting each other than the Democrats or the bushwhackers.
According to the official story, Cordell, an Alsup man, was hunting for a fellow named West, a Monks ally, who had a stolen horse, possibly taken from a home on a raid in Arkansas. The Sheriff and two deputies, McKinney and Gladden, encountered West on horseback south of West Plains. The Sheriff and West opened fire on each other simultaneously. Sheriff Cordell was knocked off his horse but got up and continued firing at West. Both men died in a matter of minutes. Many variations of this story exist. Some believed the deputies killed West, possibly after capture. In any event, seven children were fatherless, and the county was in turmoil.
In June 1870, the Springfield Leader printed, under the headline "War in Howell County," "We learn from authentic sources, that Monks, at the head of seventy-five men, threatens the lives of all Democrats in Howell County. The Sheriff of the county, M.S. Alsup, on the 6th instant (June 6), issued a notice warning all persons against lawlessness, declaring 'the law must and shall be enforced.' On the 16th, a mass meeting of the law-abiding citizens was held at West Plains, and resolutions were adopted pledging the civil officers of the united strength of the county in the enforcement of the law. Resolutions were also adopted denouncing Monks and his gang-holding him responsible for the lawlessness committed."
The destruction of Howell County and subsequent turmoil delayed the railroad's coming for at least twenty years. The policies enacted in the Reconstruction by Radical Republicans reversed Howell County politically for a while. After the repeal of the Drake Constitution, most Republicans were defeated by Democrats, including William Monks in his run for Circuit Judge. He was defeated by Democrat John R. Woodside of Oregon County, father of J. Posey Woodside. Both men were former Confederate officers.