Fayette, Battle of

September 24, 1864

The Battle of Fayette occurred on Sept. 24, 1864, when a large force of guerrillas assaulted a fortified Union garrison in Fayette. The attacking force of approximately 250 partisans was led by two of Missouri's most notorious guerrilla chieftains, William ("Bloody Bill") Anderson, and George Todd. The recently deposed guerrilla leader, William Quantrill, was also present but did not participate in the attack. Defending Fayette were some thirty to fifty members of the Ninth Cavalry, Missouri State Militia. Sheltered in log fortifications, the militiamen held off three charges by the guerrillas and inflicted heavy casualties. The ill-advised attack turned into one of the worst defeats suffered by the guerrillas up to that time.

The Fayette Attack Planned

The attack on Fayette took place in the context of guerrilla activities in Central Missouri. The raid seems to have been mainly Anderson's idea, supposedly in retaliation for the death of five of his men captured by the Ninth Missouri Cavalry earlier in the summer.

The Missouri State Militia force stationed in Fayette at the time of the attack consisted of four companies of the Ninth Cavalry, Missouri State Militia under the command of Maj. Reeves Leonard. About Sept. 25, all but about 30 (some reports say 50) of these men, along with Maj. Leonard, left Fayette to join other companies of the ninth Cavalry at Rocheport in hunting down guerrillas. This move left Fayette nearly undefended. The men left in Fayette were mainly hospital patients, convalescents and others under the command of Lieutenants Joseph M. Street of Company A and Thomas A.H. Smith of Company H.

On the day of the battle, Sept. 24, Anderson's company of guerrillas (which included Frank and Jesse James) rendezvoused with other guerrilla bands led by George Todd and William Clarke Quantrill south of Fayette and the leaders discussed the prospect of attacking Fayette. After some spirited arguments over the advisability of making the raid, Todd reluctantly agreed to join forces with Anderson to make the assault. Quantrill was opposed to the proposition of men armed only with pistols attacking an enemy who was well fortified. Anderson prevailed, however, and gave the order to proceed. The combined guerrilla commands began their movement toward Fayette.

The "Fayette Fight"

About 10:30 a.m. the guerrillas reached Fayette and rode quietly toward the courthouse square. They apparently were not detected as guerrillas since the men of the advance guard were dressed in Federal uniforms stripped from slain enemy soldiers. When they came to the courthouse square, part of the command (about 50 men) turned west to Church Street and then north toward what is now the Central Methodist University campus about a half mile from the courthouse. The main body of the guerrillas continued west on Morrison Street to Water [present Linn] Street before turning north. The command reunited at a ravine that existed on the north side of the present Central Methodist University campus.

To the east was their objective, a row of barracks or "blockhouses" constructed of logs (Frank James says they were railroad ties), which had been erected by the Federal soldiers for winter quarters. These well fortified quarters were located on the ridge north and east of the present Puckett Fieldhouse. Here, the 20 to 50 Federal soldiers capable of bearing arms were barricaded.

Only about 75 of the 250 guerrillas in the raiding party participated in the three suicidal charges made on the Federal stronghold. According to Hamp Watts, "Not one of the enemy could be seen, but the muzzles of muskets protruded from every porthole, belching fire and lead at the charging guerrillas. Horses went down as grain before the reaper…." In later years, Frank James said that the Fayette fight made him "the worst scared I ever was during the war." In his brief description of the fight, he said, "We charged up to a blockhouse made of railroad ties filled with portholes and then charged back again. The blockhouse was filled with Federal troops and it was like charging a stone wall, only this stone wall belched forth lead."

The guerrillas were usually masters of never engaging their enemy in a disadvantageous situation, but on this occasion, Anderson and Todd made a serious error in judgment. Watts complained: "Leading men, armed only with revolvers, charging an invisible enemy in block-houses, to simply imbed bullets in logs, with no possible chance to either kill or inflict injury on the foe, was both stupid and reckless." Each charge was repulsed by the defenders, who fought with the desperation of men who knew that their attackers would show no mercy or take no prisoners. When the futile attack was finally abandoned, 13 guerrillas were dead and some 30 wounded. Only one Federal soldier died (some accounts say three), and about five were wounded. Quantrill refused to order any of his men to take part in the assaults.

Aftermath

Anderson's and Todd's men finally broke off the engagement and left town headed north on the Glasgow Road (present Highway 5). Quantrill and his men retired to their encampment in the Howard County hills near Boonsboro. Three days later, Anderson and Todd were encamped near Centralia. Anderson's men halted a train at Centralia and, at their captain's order, executed the 24 unarmed Union soldiers aboard. Later that day, the combined force of guerrillas annihilated a unit of mounted Union infantry and left 116 dead on the field. On Oct. 11, Anderson, Todd and Quantrill met Gen. Sterling Price and his army of invasion at Boonville, and the general hailed them as "distinguished partisan leaders." Ten days later, Todd was killed near Independence by a Union sniper. Five days after that, Anderson was gunned down in Ray County in a guerrilla-style ambush laid by Missouri state militiamen.