Vol. IV, No. 4, Spring 1991 / Vol. V, No. 1, Summer 1991

The Ponder-Flanders-Bradbury Correspondence

Exchanged in the Preparation of "Between Missourians"

Editor Bob Flanders asked John Bradbury of the advisory panel to correspond with Jerry Ponder about many details of the Ripley County writings; this after Ponder and Flanders exchanged initial letters in the fall of 1990. The resulting three-way correspondence constitutes both a running discussion of and commentary upon the Ripley County writings. It also reveals something of the difficulty of researching and writing good local history. Excerpts from that correspondence follow.

Ponder to Flanders, October 1, 1990

Enclosed are two articles, THE BURNING OF DONIPHAN, and THE WILSON MASSACRE, both Civil War stories concerning Ripley County. They are submitted for your consideration for the upcoming Civil War issue of OzarksWatch. They are the result of several years of research.

Flanders to Ponder, October 10, 1991

Thanks for your submission....As an historian I admire the painstaking work that you have put into assembling the details of the war in Ripley County. I think you provide a valuable window on the nature of civil war upon the Missouri-Arkansas border.

We will assemble a small advisory board of professional Civil War experts to advise us. We might ask for their advice about your [articles].

Ponder to Flanders, October 14, 1990

...Please feel free to edit either or both of the articles "The Burning of Doniphan" or "The Wilson Massacre,'' so long as the factual integrity of the articles is not compromised. If I can help in any way, please let me know.

Bradbury to Ponder, November 27, 1990

Bob Flanders of OzarksWatch asked me to drop you a note. I've been consulting editorially with him on the upcoming Civil War issue of the magazine and he's given me copies of your articles...for review. I'm impressed with the detail in your studies. The operations of the 3rd Missouri State Militia Cavalry and the subsequent execution of Major James Wilson seem to me to be striking examples of the mutual retaliation which so often characterized the war in the Ozarks.

...Did you base your research on local traditions, or did you discover a cache of Confederate records? ...Since allegations of atrocities are always controversial, citations would be especially useful for the number of civilians killed [at the Christmas affair], Wilson's responsibility in the matter (was the massacre the result of an order by Wilson, or did he lose control of his men?), and also the major's own unusual demise at the hands of the Confederates. I'm...struck that Timothy Reeves's command acted as a local constabulary, which was also part of the mission of the [Union] Missouri State Militia.

Enclosed...are copies from the Richard G. Wood-son papers regarding the capture of Centerville. We acquired a few of Woodson's papers earlier this year from a collector in St. Louis .... I don't believe that the reply to Woodson from Fisk's adjutant was published in the OR ....

I'll recommend that OzarksWatch consider combining your articles for publication ....

Ponder to Bradbury, December 2, 1990

Thank you very, very much for your letter of November 27, 1990. I was especially pleased to hear from you. Believe me, the information you enclosed really made my day!...The letters put a somewhat different light on Colonel Woodson of the 3rd Missouri Cavalry.

Your comments on the two articles I had sent Dr. Flanders were well taken. I have added notes and am sending copies to Dr. Flanders and to you. Those articles were written for a newspaper so had no notes ....

As with any Confederate history in this area, "tradition" has to be used for much of the research. I do try to weed through what is around and use only what seems factual. There can be little doubt that the Christmas Day, 1863 Wilson Massacre, happened. Only one of the soldiers killed has been identified, as both Union and Confederate initial reports are missing. Of the 112 captured, practically all were wounded, an exception being one of the regimental surgeons. Twenty to twenty-five of the wounded died between Ripley County and St. Louis or soon after arriving at St. Louis. All of those captured have been identified and death dates are known for the ones that died. Even though some did die they were processed in to the St. Louis prison and are found on National Archives Reel 598-9972, giving disposition or, if dead, the place of death and date


The civilians killed are in the same category as the Confederates killed on the spot and few names have been found. In my own Ponder family we know of 5, four women and one child, killed there. A couple of the King family were also killed as was at least one of the Dalton family. Those killed were buried in at least three cemeteries and last month all three were named Confederate Unknown Soldier Cemeteries by the Veterans Administration. Monuments have been received and are to be put up soon by the VFW.

1 feel reasonably sure that the massacre was the result of an order by Major Wilson. Atrocities all through this area are attributed to his actions and he did have a policy of little regard for civilians.

Early in 1862, Timothy Reeves raised a company of men in Ripley County with the understanding that they would remain in the area for the protection of the people within the county and would not leave. The company was formed from members of the 1 st Division, Missouri State Guards, who did not stay with General M. Jeff Thompson or did not join regular Confederate units.

General Hardee moved his Headquarters from Pocahontas to what is now Currentview, Missouri, where the Military Road crossed Current River. The name then was Buck Skull, Arkansas, but a fort was built there on the Missouri side, called Fort Current-view, and that name stuck after the war. General Hardee moved to Greenville in Wayne County for a few weeks to prepare for an invasion into Missouri, but pulled back when General Pillow refused to participate. After Reeves' Company was raised Hardee left the area and Reeves' Company was moved to Kentucky and their aim to stay in Ripley County was shattered. They were only in Kentucky for a month or five weeks and, because of deep feelings, were moved back to Ripley County.

In the meantime, Ripley County was without any protection. Reeves' neighbor, William Righter, intended to raise a company to replace Reeves' men, but I guess it got out of hand and overnight became a regiment. According to Righter, he never received a Confederate commission, but was commissioned a Colonel by General M. Jeff Thompson ....

...From all reports [Righter] was a man I would have been pleased to meet. A true southern gentlemen and when he gave his word he would refuse to break it, so [after his parole in St. Louis] he took no further part in the war. Also, true to his aim, while he was in command, the 15th Missouri Cavalry did not leave their home region.

By late 1863, Timothy Reeves had consolidated his Company of Missouri Scouts with the 15th Missouri Cavalry and was promoted to Colonel by the Confederate government. Why they agreed to take part in Price's Invasion in 1864 and leave their home area I cannot say, but they did.

I might mention about the battalion of the 15th that lived in Butler County at a place called Coon Island, a few miles east of what is now Neelyville. Coon Island was reached only by a long ride through water in the Cherokee Bay Swamp and was a low island completely surrounded by swamp with extremely dense growth of trees and vines. Many families from Butler and Ripley Counties moved there and remained during the war, living almost normal lives. The men were formed into at least 3 companies under the overall command of Captain George Thannisch until his death in January, 1864 ....

The Civil War and local history have always been of deep interest to me. I have been researching the Civil War locally for about eight years now and hope to eventually get a book out on the war in Southeast Missouri. I have recreated most of the Confederate units active here--a very slow process ....

P.S. Almost forgot. There was one other thing I wanted to add about The Wilson Massacre. l...stated that on Christmas Day, 1863, members of the 15th Missouri Cavalry Regiment and their families were having Christmas Dinner at the camp. There were soldiers from two other units there: Shaver's Arkansas (37th AR) and the 1st Arkansas. Men from those units became Companies P, R, and S of the 15th Missouri Cavalry it seems....[Sol those present for Wilson's Massacre and some of those captured were from Reeves' 15th MO Cav, Shaver's AR Cav, and the 1st AR Cav. Others, home on leave from other units were there, too, but 1 think they were a small group ....

Ponder to Flanders, December 2, 1990

There are a couple of places where 1 could not complete the notes....Our library here is closed for several days for "Earthquake Days," but the [Abijah Johns matter] can easily be found by checking the index for The War of the Rebellion under "Captain Abijah Johns."

Captain Thannisch and two enlisted men had taken corn to a grist mill--probably at Doniphan--for grinding into meal and were returning to Coon Island in Butler County. They stopped at a spring in Turkey Pen Hollow, southeast of Doniphan near the Military Road, and were surprised by Captain Johns' detachment. Captain Thannisch tried to escape, but became tangled in wild grape vines and fell from his horse and was shot on the spot. The entry in The War of the Rebellion states something like, "Killed two bushwhackers near Cherokee Bay."


Bradbury to Ponder, December 21, 1990

...I told Bob [Flanders] after I'd looked at your notes that you had about convinced me that an atrocity took place at Doniphan, and that Wilson's death was indeed retribution. However (and I'm playing devil's advocate here), a few points occur to me. There might be something more on Wilson and his motivations, especially if he is considered responsible for other questionable incidents....Does his compiled service record include such charges? Should Wilson have warned the Confederates before charging into [Reeves's camp]? They were, of course, soldiers, and unless Wilson had good scouting in advance or other intelligence, could he have known that there was nothing more martial going on than soldiers and their families having Christmas dinner?

I'm also struck by the fact that there was a greater number captured than killed. Given the relative numbers, and Wilson's neglecting to mention civilian casualties in his report, could it be argued that Wilson simply lost control of his men when the shooting began, that his unit killed a number of civilians before it could be gotten under control again, and that Wilson was embarrassed enough to omit this significant detail in his report? It certainly wouldn't be the first case of an officer putting a bright face on things in order to protect his men (and his own reputation).

If they exist, you might quote from Shelby's orders to courtmartial Wilson and his men, and from the proceedings themselves. Peterson's address in 1906 is forty years after the fact. I know he gathered information from a number of veterans, but the fact that he calls it the "murder" of Wilson indicates his point of view. I wonder if Shelby was thinking of the massacre, [or of the] burning of Doniphan when he ordered the courtmartial. When you say that the "consensus" is that the 15th Missouri Cavalry made up the firing squad, was this Peterson's conclusion?

...It still seems to me that you've got a particularly striking example of tit for tat as it went on during the war in the Ozarks. A lot more research on the local level like you've been doing needs to be done in all areas before we can truly understand what went on in this region during the war.

Bradbury to Flanders, January 28,1991

...Jerry's appraisal of events hasn't changed as a result of my playing devil's advocate. As he points out, some questions will probably never be satisfactorily explained....I wish there were more details on Major Wilson's background and political motivation. There are enough questions about what really happened at the massacre that I'd be wary of portraying him [simply] as some kind of trigger-happy beast ....

Ponder to Bradbury, February 2, 1991

I was pleased with the notes you have compiled for the two Civil War articles. I have no date for James C. Steakley's "The Story of Price's Raid." At the very first of the report he indicates that it was several years past since the action took place and in another place stated that about 20 years had passed. No doubt it is dated, but I don't have the date.

On the estimate of those killed during the action on Christmas Day, 1863, I base that on several things, but others have estimated the number as about half of what I listed and there seems to be a lot of question about it. I can quote from the interview made by Dr. John Hume questioning Mrs. Wash Harris in October, 1889: "A bunch of them Yankees sneaked up on Reeves men while they was at Christ[nas dinner with their families and shot into the bunch killing and wounding about all of them 35 soldiers was killed and 62 of their wives and children was shot and killed and the Yankees captured a lot of soldiers and took some of the old men to the prison at St. Louis...." Mrs. Harris was quite old in 1889 when she made her first interview with Dr. Hume and older during a second interview about 5 years later, but practically everything she has mentioned that can be checked, is accurate ....

My mother grew up less than 3 miles from the massacre site and later taught at three schools very near the site. She collected information from residents about the history of the area, including talking to many of the survivors of the incident. She estimated the deaths of civilians at approximately 60. People in Doniphan estimate the number much less and, as a theory only, I could guess that since about half of those civilians killed were buried at Doniphan, they have taken the number buried in the Old Doniphan Cemetery as the total number of civilians killed and have not taken into account the ones buried in other cemeteries. At least three other cemeteries were used--the Old Ponder Cemetery, Union Cemetery, and the King Family Cemetery.

Major Wilson was responsible for the burning of Alton and the two raids on the Irish Wilderness on the Oregon-Ripley County line. His report dated Oct. 28, 1863, from Pilot Knob, states that he left there Sept 29, going to Alton. He described the two Irish Wilderness raids, one by Capt McFaden and one by Capt Rush. Wilson left a garrison at Alton and went as far south as Evening Shade, Arkansas, returning to Alton. After his return to Alton, Wilson stated that he sent part of his command to Patterson with prisoners and moved the remainder of the command to Thomasville on Oct. 21. According to eyewitness reports in Alton, Wilson broke camp at Alton and moved out, leaving a small group behind who fired the buildings and rode away. [Apparently to cover up his responsibility]. He wrote...in his report, "Learning that Alton had been burned since our departure, we hoped to intercept the rascals by traversing the northeastern portion of Oregon County, but in this we were unsuccessful."


About that same time a [Union] captain based at Houston, Missouri, was the subject of an investigation for burning 30 houses in Northeast Oregon County. I don't have a copy of the OR and [so] can't give exact references. As I recall, Major Wilson was implicated in the investigation.

Colonel Woodson, on the other hand, seemed to be a stern commander, but fair in his dealings with the residents of the Confederate regions of his command. On one occasion he complained to General Fisk that members of the [Union] 2nd MSM were guilty of misconduct. On Aug 27, 1863, Gen Fisk ordered Lt/Col Hiller at Cape Girardeau to reprimand Major Joslyn's command for plundering and pillaging in Ripley County and to make a full investigation. There were other examples of Woodson's fairness in the OR. I have a note that after the Wilson Massacre, Col Woodson left Pilot Knob at once for Ripley County to take command from Maj Wilson to insure safety of the prisoners.

As to Leeper. A quick scanning through the OR will show his personality. His outlook changed from month to month. I think he may actually have been afraid of war. That may have been the reason for the brutality.

Reeves name was [indeed] "Reeves", but spelled many ways in military records or church records as well as the census. I really believe he was a concerned commander interested in the safety of the residents of the counties represented in the 15th MO Cavalry Regiment. The only "bad" report I read on Reeves before Price's Invasion was on Dec 19, 1863, when Capt Leeper reported to Gen Fisk that Reeves had got a Colonel's commission and [was] conscripting every man between the ages of 18 and 45 years and [would] have 1,000 men. That was more or less supported in the diary of Dr. Brooks I sent earlier.

The [information concerning] graves at Jefferson Barracks of the six Confederates executed to avenge Maj Wilson's death were new to me. Thanks a million for sending that. Reeves was detained after the war' s end and was to be executed for Wilson' s death, but was released and permitted to work as a minister...for the Cane Creek Baptist Association. I have been unable to find anything on a hearing, a release, or a parole/pardon. Some information is located at the old courthouse at Jacksonport State Park, Arkansas, but gives no details ....

Do look forward to talking with you, John. Thanks very, very much for all of your help with the notes.


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