This is a series of vignettes told to me as a little girl as it tied into the Civil War near our family “Century” farm in Northeast Missouri. Last night my parents shared something with me, a piece of cultural history from 140 years ago in the form of an article from a town near where my Mom grew up.
A newspaper article from 140 years ago prompted many memories of stories I heard while visiting the farm as a young girl. I am sharing the article, and also the stories, because I think the more things are illuminated on how they used to be, the inhumane and bad things that happened, the more can be healed by shining the light, and the more chance we have of not repeating horrific events as a society.
It is also why I have spent time visiting concentration camps in Austria and Poland and also Russian “camps” in Hungary when on vacation and other sites of atrocities. Honor those who have walked before, those who have walked in footsteps that we can never truly understand, sending healing, and sharing their stories.
I called my Mom this morning to speak with her about these stories from the Civil War and related farm lore and to have her refresh my memory on some of the details. Then I followed up with a little more research online to share as well.
Our Family “Century” Farm
Our family farm is in Northeast Missouri. It has been in the family over 100 years, since 1902, on my Mom’s Henderson side of the family. My mom Joyce Henderson Bilderback married Roger Bilderback, and they own our farm. Our ancestors on my mom’s side are buried in the area, and we regularly visit the cemeteries to place flowers on the graves, which really is a type of offering. When I walk our land, the ancestors walk with me. Their presence is so thick, and it is a presence of love and support and of gratitude for what we do to give back to the land and the area.
My Family’s Civil War Dead, Union Soldiers
One of our dead buried at a local cemetery there is David L. Wilkins, who fought with his brothers on the side of the Union during the Civil War, including Gettysburg, along with other locations. They all made it out of the war alive and went on to raise families. He is my Great Great Grandfather on my Great Grandmother Mae Willa Wilkins Northcraft’s side – he was my Great Grandma Mae’s father. She was a Wilkins before she married James Northcraft.
There were Civil War battles that took place near our farm, including in Newark, Missouri. There is a very old home there with bullet holes from that time that my Mom showed me as a little girl. It is still there.
The Palmyra Massacre
Palmyra is also near our family farm. It was the location of the Palmyra Missouri Massacre. There is an old hardback book by that name, which was my grandma’s and that my mom now has, which contains the first account of what happened. It has more details than you can find on the internet, and I will share some of them in this story, though for the story of what lead up to the massacre, you may visit HERE, which also contains links about Missouri slavery and the Civil War.
There were 10 Confederate prisoners in jail who were to be shot the next day on the town square in a firing squad due to the disappearance and presumed death of a Union sympathizer who had reported on numerous Confederate sympathizers. It was a threat and an act of revenge on the Union side, as it was reported, for the presumed killing of this Union sympathizer. This was an area of the country where there were those on both sides of the war – neighbor against neighbor. It reminds me of what I saw in Croatia, and the stories our Polish and Hungarian guides told us as they pointed it out, where some homes had bullet holes and others did not, as neighbors turned against neighbors there as well.
Here is the story that has been told of the Palmyra Massacre, as is outlined in the book… The wife of one of the Confederate prisoners that was to be shot the next morning in the town square by the Union side, had a large family, and she went to plead to get her husband released so he would not be shot. She gave a sexual favor in return. A young man around 20 years old and single volunteered to take this man’s place – Hiriam Smith (or Hiram or Hiran). The husband was released and the young man was shot on the town square with the other men/prisoners.
My Mom remembered his name was Hiriam Smith (she gave me that spelling), and I want to read the book to get the facts straight, as another website link talks about Hiriam Smith, but not in a way that he volunteered to take the other man’s place. He is buried somewhere in that area, and we had previously looked for the cemetery but still have not found it. It is in Lewis County. Mom says the book outlined the story as I presented it above.
Here is his story according to a genealogy website, which does say that Hiram took the place (though does not mention his “volunteering” to take the man’s place as it does in the book) of the other Confederate man/prisoner to be killed:
“Hiram Smith (Confederate) – Enlisted as Private into B Company, 10th Cavalry (Missouri)
Note Spelling of name Hiram instead of Hiran
Scarcely 22 years old.
He was the replacement for William T. Humphrey’s (wife Mary) who was freed.
Buried in little cemetery in Lewis County.
A headstone was erected by Senator George W. Humphreys the son of William.
The headstone reads:
This Monument is Dedicated to the Memory of Hiram Smith
Who was Shot at Palmyra, Oct. 18, 1862
As a Substitute for William T. Humphrey, My Father src#3”
It is interesting because this monument described above, that was erected to Hiram Smith, was erected at the behest of the grown child of the man who was saved through his act of volunteering to be a substitute so his/her father might live instead.
This account of the woman and the release of the husband upon substitution for a volunteer may be found in the book, yet Wiki gives a different account of it, which is not wholly accurate based on eye witness accounts in the book:
“After the massacre, it has been claimed that Strachan spared the life of one of the intended victims (William Thomas Humphrey of Lewis County) in exchange for $500 paid by Humphrey’s wife. Strachan is also said to have violated the chastity of Mrs. Humphrey, whether as part of the bargain or not. (Capt. Griffin Frost, quoted by Joseph A. Mudd, “With Porter in Northeast Missouri”). In 1864 Strachan was tried for the rape of Mrs. Humphrey and other offences, including misuse of funds. Found innocent of rape but guilty of embezzlement, he was sentenced to prison and was released by General William Starke Rosecrans on the grounds of persecution and an unfair trial, even though his accuser was another Union officer.”
Note that in this account above, there was a bribe and also alleged rape of the wife seeking her husband’s release and no mention of the volunteer. That time still had a culture of repression of women, so her story could have been she gave the favor or that she was forced into it to get her husband back, and even if she submitted to it, did she really have a choice? Back then rape would have been very hard to prove, and the idea that he was even tried for it speaks volumes.
In addition, to the victor goes the spoils and also the rewriting of history, and since the “volunteer” who took the Confederate prisoner’s place was also on the Confederate side, the newspaper accounts of that day or official military reports from the Union army would likely not have promoted that version that the young man “volunteered” to do it, as it would make a Confederate out to be a hero. I tend to believe the account in the book, and I also step out of the which side who was on viewpoint…to look at this as an individual young boy who was caught up fighting in a war, and did something heroic at the end of his life to spare the life of someone else on a basic human level.
The Washburn Story and Servant/Farmhand Quarters
This is another story of what I saw growing up and visiting the farm. There is the Washburn property, where they built a large brick mansion. They were wealthy and had extensive farm ground as considered for the times. When my mom was a little girl, she used to call on the Washburn family with her mother. My mom’s family was not wealthy yet they did visit and were welcomed. My grandma Hendrson on my mom’s side was an amazing woman in general – loving, hard-working.
When I was a little girl going to the farm from Peoria with my parents for vacations, before we moved to St. Louis in fourth grade, we would pass by the Washburn property on the way there. On the edge of the property along the road, there were small quarters. They were for the farmhands who worked the land. I had asked if they were slaves, and they were not. Though I am left to wonder if their pay was very good and I am also left to wonder as to their true ability to make something of their lives and thus be able to move on if they chose to do so. I always wondered as a little girl how they could live in houses that were so small because they were the size of a room.
At some point as the structures were falling down, they were bulldozed down. The house and land are now owned by someone different as the last woman in the family to live there died. I was given a tour of the home several years ago. The furniture and everything is just as it was left, though in some disarray.
Lots of ancestors, stories, lore and history.
The Edina Sentinel Story – Black Man Threatened 140 years ago
This is why I am writing this blog post today, what inspired it, and it also was the impetus for the ancestors to ask for the stories above to be shared. There is a newspaper, The Edina Sentinel, which is still published today. Edina is the Knox County seat where the County Courthouse is located. In each newspaper, they publish articles from years ago. Last night Dad gave me one that had articles from 140 years ago, as published originally on Feb. 17 1876. There is nothing like seeing history in print to bring home how disturbing it actually was/is.
In this article, you will note that none of the white mob that went to this black man’s house were mentioned by name in the paper, and that the white women were degraded for living with him, and of course there was no justice for the black man who was threatened…
“Threatened – Jack Smith (colored), living about one mile northwest of Edina, reports that on Saturday night last, some eight or ten persons came to his house, called him out, and threatened to kill him and his son, a young man of some 22 or 23 summers, if they did not run off two white women that were living with them. Jack, being somewhat scared, promised to obey all commands. They then retired in good order to their homes. It seems that two women (white), one calling herself Sarah Hale, and the other Mary Harman (reported hard characters) went to Jack’s house some five weeks ago and had since been resting there in peace and quietude. We understand that on Monday last Jack was in town making arrangements for their shipment north.”
My parents also told me that maybe a week or so ago, an article was published from the same time period that talked about a black man being sold for one dollar on the Knox County Courthouse steps, stating that his owner sold him because he was “lazy.”
Wow. I mean, who has words for that?
I think it is important that a paper like the Edina Sentinel makes old history living again, so we always remember and never forget. When I read and see these things, and though I know it all happened, there is still that part of me that is always in shock all over again that people can do this to others – racism, religious intolerance, war. And yet it happens all over the world, in different guises, throughout history and into current day.
The more we are aware of history, the more chance we have of not repeating it.
Listen to the ancestors. They have stories to tell.