Our Civil War was a relatively clean war in that the mass murder of civilian populations that are often a feature of civil wars was mercifully absent from that conflict. However, some atrocities did occur, and many of them were in the ferocious fighting that raged in Kansas and along the Kansas-Missouri border. There the Civil War had begun in 1854, with a brief truce in 1859-60.
Anderson, born in 1839, came from a family of horse thieves. Residing in Agnes, Kansas in March 1862, his father was shot by a local Judge in regard to a stolen horse. Bloody Bill and his brother Jim took revenge by shooting to death the Judge and his brother-in-law. Bloody Bill left Agnes, Kansas with his family and moved to Western Missouri.
By the spring of 1863 Bloody Bill and Jim had joined up with William Quantrill and his Confederate guerillas.
Union General Thomas Ewing, Jr., the commander of the military district which comprised Kansas and Western Missouri, ordered the arrest of relatives of the members of Quantrill’s band. 12 women among those arrested were housed in a three story house in Kansas City, Missouri. The house collapsed on August 14, 1863, killing four of the women. Anderson’s sister Josephine was killed in the collapse and his sister Mary was rendered a permanent cripple.
Anderson went crazy with grief and rage when he heard the news. In retaliation, Quantrill raided Lawrence, Kansas on August 21. 200 men and boys were murdered by Quantrill’s men, with Bloody Bill living up to the nickname by which he is known to history.
In the winter of 1863 Quantrill led his men to Texas. Here Quantrill and Bloody Bill quarrelled, with Bloody Bill leaving the band.
In March of 1864, Bloody Bill returned to Western Missouri, leading his own gang. Bloody Bill and his men took no prisoners, and often mutilated and scalped the bodies of the men they killed, soldiers and civilians alike. The scalps they would hang from their saddles as trophies. One of the men who rode with Bloody Bill was the bandit and future folk hero Jesse James.
O September 27, 1864, Bloody Bill led 80 raiders into the town of Centralia, Missouri. After looting the town, Bloody Bill and his men stopped a train. Aboard were 125 passengers, among whom were 23 Union soldiers on leave. 22 of the 23 unarmed soldiers were murdered, and their bodies mutilated and scalped. The raiders then set the train on fire and burned the depot. They were pursued by the 39th Missouri Mounted Infantry. This regiment was ambushed by the Confederates with 123 of the 155 men being slain.
On October 26, 1864 Bloody Bill died in a Union ambush near Albany, Missouri. The Union commander Colonel Samuel P. Cox wrote this account of the ambush:
I had only about 300 men under my command and gave the word to stand their ground – this fight must be victory or death – and not a man faltered. We dismounted at the wooden bridge leaving our horses in charge of the men with the commissary wagons. Crossing the bridge I stationed my men in the timber and gave explicit instructions not to begin shooting until I gave the command. Lt. Baker was sent ahead to reconnoiter and bring on the fight with instructions to retreat through our line. Cas. Morton, now a retired brigadier general, of Washington, D.C., was sent to Baker with the word to start the fight. Baker dashed up to where Anderson and his men were having meal ground and getting provisions, and opened fire. Instantly Anderson and his men were in their saddles and gave chase to Baker, who retreated under instructions and came dashing through our line. Anderson and some 20 of his men came in their historic manner, with their bridle reins in their teeth and revolver in each hand. When my men opened fire, many of Anderson’s command went down. Others turned and fled, but the grim old chieftain and two of his men went right through the line, shooting and yelling, and it was as Anderson and one of his men turned and came back that both of them were killed. The celebrated (Capt.) Archie Clement, who had gone through our line with Anderson, kept right on across the bridge and stampeded my wagon train and its guards boy [sic] yelling to them to fly as the command was cut to pieces, and thinking it was one of their men, they ran and kept it up until I was a day or two getting them together again. In the hubbub, Clemens escaped. Clell Miller, afterwards a noted bank robber and a desperate character, was wounded in this fight and taken prisoner. It was with difficulty I restrained my men and the citizens from lynching him.
Anderson’s body was taken to Richmond, Missouri. An indication of the profound hatred he aroused in Unionists is demonstrated by the fact that his body was decapitated with his head being stuck on a telegraph pole, and the rest of his body dragged through the streets of the town. Eventually the body was buried in an unmarked grave in the Pioneer Cemetery in Richmond.