William T. "Bloody Bill" Anderson


The facts concerning the early life of Bloody Bill Anderson are as elusive as he was as a Confederate irregular. He was born in 1838 or 1839 in Jefferson County or Salt Springs Township in Randolph County, Missouri. His parents probably came from Kentucky, and he had three sisters and at least one brother. Bill and his brother James attended a local school in Huntsville, Missouri. Richard S. Brownlee, in his study of guerrilla warfare in Missouri, Gray Ghosts of the Confederacy, stated: “In the annals of the border war Bill Anderson is truly a mysterious figure, for little is known about the background of this terrible young man...” Notwithstanding his obscure origins, we know that he became one of the most violent and fiendish characters on either side during the Civil War. 

Anderson’s father, a hatter, moved the family to Kansas in 1856 or 1857. The Kansas and Missouri border was, at that time, a tinderbox. The Andersons moved into this storm in which lines had been drawn between proslavery and antislavery factions. Civil disorder, murder, arson, and thievery had become a way of life on the border, long before the nation was swept into the Civil War. The family passed through the turbulent eastern counties of Kansas and squatted on a sparsely settled prairie near Council Grove. The Andersons, because of their Southern sympathies and their refusal to take up arms against the South, soon found themselves at odds with their neighbors. The ferocious passion on both sides seemed a fitting training ground for someone with Bloody Bill’s personality. 

The Andersons soon gained a reputation for shady dealings. In early 1862 a local judge accused the Andersons and their friends of horse stealing, and in a confrontation the elder Anderson was killed. The family then returned to the supposed safety of Missouri. But Bill and several friends returned to Council Grove seeking revenge against his father’s killer. They gunned down the judge and his brother-in-law and set on fire a store owned by the judge. This was the beginning of Anderson’s intense vendetta against all Free Staters and later Union soldiers. Anderson’s appearance is described as “most handsome.” He stood just under six feet, was slender with long, thick, curly dark hair and piercing bluegray eyes. He was an excellent horseman and exhibited no fear of battle or death. His viciousness and show of emotions soon earned him the name “Bloody Bill.” 

Gen. Thomas Ewing Jr. became commander of the District of the Border in June 1863 with headquarters in Kansas City, Missouri, which was located near the center of guerrilla activities. Ewing, aware that the guerrillas depended on friends and relatives for information, shelter, and supplies, stepped up the arrest and confinement of suspected guerrilla supporters, including women. The women prisoners were housed in a three-story brick building that collapsed on August 14, 1863, killing four women, including Josephine Anderson, Bill’s sister. Another sister, Mary, was crippled. Anderson, like most guerrillas, became outraged when he learned of the death and injury of loved ones. From that time, Anderson was determined to kill every Union supporter he encountered. The die had been cast, and, according to Brownlee, Anderson became a “homicidal maniac.”

The cry for vengeance was soon answered, as the guerrillas, led by William Clarke Quantrill, decided to enter Kansas and destroy the hotbed of abolitionists in Lawrence. Many now believe the death of the women was the impetus Quantrill needed to persuade his men to raid Lawrence. Anderson was reported to have stated: “Lawrence or hell, but with one proviso, that we kill every male thing.” On August 21, 1863, Quantrill ordered his men to move into Lawrence.  Bill Anderson’s band was credited with more killing than any other company. When they left Lawrence four hours later, the guerrillas had killed 150 unarmed men. The irregulars then fled to Missouri and divided into small groups seeking safety and shelter from their friends and relatives.

The Union commander, General Ewing, issued General Order No. 11. This order banished twenty thousand inhabitants, all but those of proven Northern sympathies, from the four western border counties in an effort to curtail further guerrilla activities and to keep the revenge-seeking Kansans out of Missouri.

The guerrillas remained in hiding until late September when they began their yearly journey to winter quarters in Texas. As usual, they killed and plundered along the way, and their arrival in Sherman, Texas, was not welcomed by the citizens. The band robbed and murdered local residents and even shot at the church steeple. The guerrillas soon wore out their welcome in Texas and began their trek north to Missouri. 

On June 11, 1864, Missourians realized the guerrillas had returned when it was discovered that twelve Union soldiers had been killed and mutilated—a common practice of the Anderson irregulars. Bloody Bill Anderson took center stage as the most feared and vicious bushwhacker in Missouri. Albert Castel, in his study of Quantrill, stated of Anderson: “Between July and October he made more raids, rode more miles, and killed more men than any other guerrilla chieftain, including Quantrill, ever did.”

The people of central Missouri lived in fear as Anderson moved from county to county. He robbed and murdered in Carroll and Chariton Counties and even in his hometown of Huntsville. He entered Shelby County and burned the railroad bridge at Salt River. In Rocheport his men killed, scalped, and slit the throats of Union troops. Anderson and his men committed unspeakable atrocities on both the living and the dead. The name “Bloody Bill” was more than justified.

In September 1864, Gen. Sterling Price sent Missouri and asked them to harass the Union troops. Anderson, seeking news of Price’s army, entered Centralia, Missouri, on September 27, 1864. After robbing the stores, he and his men became drunk. The noon train arrived, and Anderson ordered the Union soldiers on it to disrobe. He then directed his men to “muster out” the soldiers. The guerrillas opened fire at point-blank range. On returning to their camp, they learned that a mounted Union infantry unit from Paris was approaching. To Anderson’s amazement, Maj. A. V. E. Johnson, the Union commander, ordered his men to dismount. Within a few minutes, Johnson’sThirty-ninth Missouri Infantry was massacred. Even  the wounded were killed. Bodies were mutilated: heads were severed, ears and noses were sliced, and many were scalped.

Anderson finally found Price in Boonville, but Price refused to meet with Anderson until he and his men disposed of the scalps and other trophies. Price then ordered Anderson to destroy the North Missouri Railroad bridge.

On October 26, 1864, Bloody Bill fought his final battle. The Missouri State Militia found his camp near Albany. A little after noon Anderson encountered an ambush by the Missouri troops. With a Rebel cry, he charged the bluecoats. He broke their ranks but was shot twice in the back of the head. His body was placed in a wagon and taken to Richmond, where it was put on public display and the town photographer took Anderson’s most famous photograph. It was reported the militia removed his head and placed it on a telegraph pole.

Anderson’s death ended the spree of one of the most cruel and vicious men in Missouri history. Anderson was no doubt brave, but his mental imbalance and homicidal urges overshadowed his courage.

Charles R. Mink

Brownlee, Richard S. Gray Ghosts of the Confederacy: Guerrilla Warfare in the West. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1958. Castel, Albert. William Clarke Quantrill: His Life and Time. New York: Frederick Fell, 1962.
Connelly, William Elsey. Quantrill and the Border Wars. New York: Pagent, 1956.
Goodman, Thomas M. A Thrilling Record Founded on Facts and Observations Obtained during Ten Days’ Experience with Col. Wm. T. Anderson. Columbia, Mo.: State Historical Society, 1868.
Goodrich, Thomas. Bloody Dawn: The Story of the Lawrence Massacre. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1991.
Hale, Donald, The Life of William Anderson: Missouri Guerrilla. Clinton, Mo.: Printery, 1975.

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.
Photo: State Historical Society [SHS 023422-1] http://shs.umsystem.edu/historicmissourians/name/a/anderson/index.html