Bloody Bill Anderson: Missouri's bushwhacking devil
William T. “Bloody Bill” Anderson was a southern sympathizing bushwhacker born in Missouri and raised in Kansas. By the time of his death in 1864 Anderson had become one of the most sought after men in Missouri and had left a trail of blood and hatred across the west and central portions of the state. According to Larry Wood in his book, “The Civil War Story of Bloody Bill Anderson”, in the 1850’s Anderson was considered by his Missouri classmates as “better behaved than average” and by his future Kansas neighbors as a “steady, hard working young man.”
So what happened to young Bill Anderson that earned him the nickname “Bloody Bill” and even the respect and adoration of a young Jesse James? How would the tactics and strategies that Anderson used be a glimpse of twentieth century warfare and was he a contemporary of Union General William T. Sherman as a practitioner of the “total war” concept?
By the time Anderson was in his early twenties, the Civil War had begun. In 1862 Anderson’s father William C. Anderson was implicated along with his sons for horse robbery by a Union sympathizing family friend, A. I. Baker, and as the elder Anderson was looking for vengeance, was arrested and then killed by Baker.
Young Bill after the funeral of his father, met up with Baker and at his home, had a shootout with members of his gang, blocked Baker in his cellar and set the building on fire. Baker burned to death and Anderson and his men set back to Missouri, robbing and terrorizing along the way. In August, a detachment of Union soldiers were sent to arrest Anderson’s sisters Mary and Josephine. Anderson’s thirteen year old sister Martha “Mattie” Anderson was not wanted but voluntarily went with her older sisters. They were taken to a brick building on Grand Avenue in Kansas City. The building collapsed without explanation, killing Josephine and maiming Mattie, but Anderson, Quantrill and his band of men believed it was done purposefully.
Anderson’s mother had died by a freak lightening strike and his brother was killed by Indians. Having lost his mother, father, brother and now his sister, author Larry Wood explained that, “something snapped.” Richard Brownlee said that Anderson had become a “homicidal maniac.”
Anderson would continue his rampage across Missouri, killing Union soldiers without remorse. He would enlist Little Archie Clement who would become his second in command and instituted the practice of scalping and mutilating the soldiers and civilians they killed. By the time of his death, Anderson had long lost any reason to live but felt he was omnipotent. John N. Edwards, William Quantrill’s first biographer, stated that Anderson said on many occasions, “If I cared for my life I would have lost it long ago; wanting to lose it I cannot throw it away.” “Bloody Bill” earned his nickname, and rightly so, leaving a trail of blood wherever he went.
Anderson and the bushwhackers employed guerrilla tactics that certainly foreshadow the fighting around the globe we see today. Long gone are the Napoleonic full frontal assaults, the barrage of artillery and the thundering sounds of cavalry. In its place, back then and now, is fighting that is urbanized. Guerrillas followed the only rule they understood; victory. It didn’t matter if they dressed in Union soldier uniforms to trick not only civilians but soldiers as well. And it didn’t matter that they were brutal and systematic in their executions of the enemy. They were focused and committed to their cause, their beliefs, and in their mind, what was right and wrong. Modern day terrorists employ many of these same tactics. Some might consider the bushwhackers of the Civil War as nothing more than terrorists, which is a matter of perspective; however there is no denying that the similarities then and now are quite similar.
Anderson and his men, quite similar to William T. Sherman in his “total war” tactics in the South, used the land, used the resources and rarely fought staged battles. They used the population to their advantage and to the Union’s disadvantage.
During Confederate General Sterling Price’s raid into Missouri in 1864, Anderson was considered a Confederate Captain, and met with Price. After Anderson’s death a special order from Price was found in his belongings which instructed Anderson and his command to “permanently destroy the North Missouri Railroad”, yet another similarity to Sherman’s total war technique of destroying railroad lines. However, at that point the similarities end. Anderson and his men by this time had divulged into nothing more than outlaws, killing and robbing regardless of where their victim’s loyalties lay.
In the end, William T. “Bloody Bill” Anderson met the fate that most of his contemporaries did. However, unlike all the rest, Anderson was considered the devil himself and the news of his death brought a sigh of relief from across the state, Union and southern sympathizers alike. Editorials commented, upon seeing photos of Anderson’s corpse that “there is one devil less in this world.”
Bloody Bill Anderson, by circumstance or fate, became one of the most hated men on the planet. His unmerciful and inhumane treatment of his victims certainly earned him a proper moniker. His tactics and strategies are the forerunners of today’s terrorists, and he indeed understood the fine art of “total war.” William T. “Bloody Bill” Anderson went from being one of Missouri’s sons to the right-hand man of evil.