Cavalry Officer's Sabre
Confederate Shelby Sword
General Joseph O. Shelby, Confederate Army
General “Jo” is a well- known Cavalry figure
in the Mississippi region during the struggle between the States. Born in Lexington,
Kentucky in 1830, to a family of both economic and political means, he attended one
of the oldest universities in the country and the first university to be established
in Kentucky, Transylvania University in Lexington.
He started a business manufacturing rope and in 1852, moved to Waverly, Missouri, where he ran a huge hemp plantation, sawmill and a ropewalk and entered the steamboat business as well. By this time, he was one of the largest slave owners in the state.
His first skirmishes with the anti-slavery movement came with a conflict that was coined ‘Bleeding Kansas’ by the New York Tribune writer, Horace Greeley. Kansas was on the verge of statehood and was trying to decide how it would enter, as a free state or a slave state. A Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 was the spark that set off these violent confrontations that preceded the American Civil War which lasted from 1854 to 1861. This act decided that ‘popular sovereignty’ was the way to make the decision of free versus slave state, which meant that elections were held and people could vote their mind. Much intimidation was reported on election judges and individuals in order to sway them to vote proslavery. This set of skirmishes acted as a proxy for what many were feeling in the North and the South over this issue and at the heart of it was not recognition of one human being enslaved to another, but the fact that rich slave owners could buy up the best soil and utilize it better than their poorer counterparts were able to do.
Shelby was in the thick of this conflict, organizing a pro-slavery group called Blue Lodge in Waverly and leading a group of ‘Border Ruffians’ which was the term used to describe the pro-slavers. These Border Ruffians would go into Kansas to harass anti-slaver settlements and interfere with electoral proceedings and Shelby led his group into Kansas to do just that.
Eventually, his involvement with these groups caused him to lose much with his business ventures, including his business partner and stepbrother Henry Howard Gratz. In December 1855, their sawmill burned to the ground by arson and for Henry Gratz, it was the final straw. Even though their partnership remained, Henry returned to Lexington, leaving Shelby to auction off the remainder of the business, which he did in February, 1860.
After the attack on Fort Sumter, the governor of Missouri refused Lincoln’s call to arms, instead forming the Missouri State Guard and took the state out of the Union. This led to conflicts with Federal soldiers who were stationed in Missouri and the beginning of the Civil War came to Missouri.
Jo Shelby formed the Lafayette County Mounted Rifles and was elected as its captain. The Governor of Missouri, Claiborne F. Jackson, led the Missouri State Guard against federal troops himself with four thousand behind him, including The Lafayette County Mounted Rifles led by Jo Shelby, at the battle of Carthage, also known as the Battle of Dry Fork on July 5, 1861. The Missouri State Guard emerged victorious and the credit for the victory was given to several of the partisan rangers who were part of Jo Shelby’s group. This battle was pivotal as it signaled Missouri’s intent to fight to keep slavery and it was a rallying call to southern regiments in the early beginnings of the war.
His war record was impressive as he rose through the ranks becoming a captain, a colonel, then a brigadier general and finally, General Joseph O. Shelby. His famous “Iron Brigade” consisted of three regiments under the command of then Colonel Shelby. These cavalry troops were formidable and between September 22 and November 3, 1863, the longest cavalry raid in the history of the war occurred. They swept through Missouri traveling 1500 miles and are credited with over 1,000 casualties to Union Soldiers and over two million dollars of destruction or seizure of Federal troop goods and supplies. He was promoted to brigadier general following what became known as “Shelby’s Great Raid”.
Shelby and his troops distinguished themselves time and again and in 1865, he was formally appointed a major general but since the confederate government had by that time collapsed, it could not be finalized.
Shelby and 1000 of his men, refusing to admit defeat,
left the United States and found asylum in Mexico under Emperor Maximillian, earning
them the title of ‘The Undefeated’. Among his troops were Jesse and Frank
James. Shelby was a critical witness for Frank James during his trial after they
returned to the U.S.
When Maximillian was executed two years later, their stay ended in Mexico and it is said that Shelby sank his confederate standard as he crossed back into the United States in the Rio Grande, rather than surrender it to Federal soldiers.
1867 found him back in Missouri where he resumed farming. He went on to become the U.S. Marshal of the Western District of Missouri in 1893, a post he held until his death in 1897 in Adrian, Missouri. He is buried in the Forest Hills Cemetery in Kansas City. He is best remembered as one of the most intimidating leaders of the Confederate Army who brought great destruction to the Federal troops through his cavalry maneuvers and men.
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