Joseph O. Shelby

Joseph Orville Shelby (1830 - 1897)

Joseph Orville Shelby has been hailed by a biographer as “the Jeb Stuart of the West,” while contemporaries likened him to Nathan Bedford Forrest. The nobility of Stuart’s mind-set may resemble Shelby’s, but most military historians consider Shelby like Forrest, an untutored genius of leadership, organization, and tactics.

Born in Lexington, Kent., on Dec. 12, 1830, “Jo” Shelby was the child of Orville and Anna Boswell Shelby. Descended of noted planters and rope manufacturers in Kentucky and Tennessee, he was also related to Kentucky’s first governor, Isaac Shelby. Orville died when Jo was five, and in 1843 his mother married Benjamin Gratz. Jo’s stepfather was a wealthy Pennsylvanian who took pains to educate his stepson, sending him to Transylvania University.

In 1852, with his paternal inheritance, Shelby entered Waverly, Mo.'s busy commercial scene. Following his forebears’ example, the young man developed a hemp factory in Waverly, a sawmill at Dover, and a 700-acre farm where slaves tended livestock, hemp, and wheat. On a bluff overlooking Waverly he built a mansion, and became a man of substance and a confidant of such politically prominent figures as his second cousin Frank Blair, David Rice Atchison, and Claiborne Fox Jackson. On July 22, 1858, Shelby joined a second cousin, Elizabeth N. Shelby, in a marriage blessed by seven children.

This was the decade of “Bleeding Kansas” and its border war, resulting from Missourians’ attempts to prevent another abolitionist bastion on their frontiers. Among the “ruffians” abusing the territory’s electoral processes was Shelby, acutely fearful he was living beyond his means and that abolition threatened his early ruin. As federal forces tipped the scales against pro-Southern Missourians, the turbulence was crippling western Missouri’s economy.

When the Civil War erupted, Shelby recruited at his own expense a cavalry troop for the Missouri State Guard, and as hostilities shifted southward his troops followed, scrapping at Carthage and Wilson’s Creek before facing the Yankees at Pea Ridge, Ark., in March 1862.

The following summer Shelby returned to Lafayette County and recruited the Fifth Missouri Cavalry. This made him a colonel, but he spent little time with his regiment. In September 1862 he rose to command the celebrated Iron Brigade, and led it until September 1864. Confederate officials in Richmond promoted him to brigadier general in early 1863.

The Iron Brigade swept across many western battlefields, and even waged a campaign, that included the Battle of Corinth, Mississippi, in October 1862. It participated in raids across Missouri, including John S. Marmaduke’s thrust at Springfield during the second winter of the war, terminating with the clash at Hartville in January 1863. The brigade joined Marmaduke’s ill-fated drive on Cape Girardeau that spring, and the following autumn Shelby led it on a daring foray northward to Waverly. When Sterling Price undertook to “liberate” Missouri in the final autumn of the war, Shelby, commanding a division, proved a daring leader for the campaign that came to grief at Westport in October.

The Confederacy disintegrating, Shelby refused to surrender. Burying battle flags in the Rio Grande, his 600 militants entered Mexico. Shelby was soon involved with Price in creating the “gringo” colony of “Carlota” near Vera Cruz. When the project failed, Shelby returned to the States in 1867.

Penniless, Shelby came back to Lafayette County, and with financial aid from kinsmen took up a farmstead near Aullville. His farming prospered, and he was sufficiently well off by 1885 to move to a farm more to his liking in Bates County.

Although his charisma was political “dynamite,” Shelby refused to stand for office. Passing years tempered his youthful militancy, and the resentful adherent of the “Lost Cause” gradually came to champion a renewed American national spirit. In the election crisis of 1876–1877, he endorsed whatever disposition Ulysses S. Grant proposed to make of it. Later, with encouragement from Unionists led by former governor Thomas Clement Fletcher, President Grover Cleveland in 1893 appointed Shelby U.S. marshal for Missouri’s western district. His handling of the Pullman strikers in 1894 was soon hailed as a model for fellow marshals.

When Gov. William Joel Stone chastised Shelby for exerting federal muscle in Missouri’s affairs, Shelby retorted that Stone’s problem had been settled at Appomattox. Although he voted for William McKinley in 1896, Shelby was a “gold Democrat” who disdained the inflationary silver schemes of William Jennings Bryan and the Populists. The truth was that he had learned how important sound currency was.

Shelby died at his home near Adrian on Feb. 13, 1897, and was buried in the Forest Hill Cemetery in Kansas City, Missouri.

R. Leslie Anders

Edwards, John N. Shelby and His Men; or, The War in the West. Cincinnati: Miami Printing and Publishing, 1867.
Oates, Stephen B. Confederate Cavalry West of the River. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1961.
O’Flaherty, Daniel. General Jo Shelby. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1954.

Excerpted from Dictionary of Missouri Biography edited by Lawrence O. Christensen, William E. Foley, Gary R. Kremer, and Kenneth H. Winn, published by the University of Missouri Press. To order this book, please call (800) 621-2736 or online at http://press.umsystem.edu/Catalog/ProductSearch.aspx?search=Dictionary+of+Missouri+Biography.