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  • July 13th, 2012

Grandpa’s Gun

By Joel M. Vance

             If Frank and Jesse James and I have anything in common, it’s that we’re Missourians.  I haven’t robbed any banks and I’m not dead….but I do have a Colt Army .44 pistol, a model that that both Frank and Jesse packed in their early days of homicide and lawlessness.           

            Chances are Jesse and Frank James opted to upgrade from their relatively low-power .36 caliber Navy Colt single action pistols when the gun’s big brother, the Army .44 caliber became available to aspiring bushwhackers.  Too often if you shoot someone with a .36 caliber ball he gets up and shoots back.  Not so with the .44 which equates to using a baseball bat to get someone’s attention rather than a willow switch.

            My great grandfather was no bushwhacker, just a Chariton County, Missouri, farm boy whose brief military career in the Civil War lasted all of three months and whose combat experience comprised one morning.  He did, however, have that Army Colt .44 and it has made its way through three subsequent generations to me.  

            I also have blurry photographs of GG William Siebert Vance and his brother John Alexander Vance in uniform as well as copies of their Union Militia enlistment record, which began July 2, 1864 and ended October 15.  Both men ostensibly were farmers, although Great Uncle John was afflicted with virulent wanderlust and a misguided sense of adventure and, in the manner of big brothers everywhere, he dragged his kid brother along.

            Great grand uncle John was a restless type and he lit out for California, lured by the discovery of gold in 1849 at Sutter’s mill.  He was convinced he would return home every bit as rich as that Sterling Price fellow from south of Dalton who not only was rich, but also an Army general.  Like most of the Forty Niners, John returned home sadder but not necessarily wiser with what he ruefully called “a case of cooties.”

            Undaunted, he mounted a second trip to the gold fields and may well have encountered another Missouri would-be prospector, Samuel Clemens, from Hannibal, whose fruitless attempts to dredge gold from the California creeks he would later document in a book titled Roughing It under the pen name of Mark Twain.

            The second time he sought California gold, great grand uncle John dragged along his younger brother Bill but the trip was no more successful than the first one.  At least he got to share his cooties with family.  Both men, cured of gold fever, came back to Missouri to resume farming….just in time to be a very minor part of the national madness known as the Civil War (or the Late Unpleasantness if you happened to lean to the south). 

            Missouri during the Civil War was a hotbed of armed conflict and Chariton County was among the more contentious areas—most of it in the form of what today would be simple criminal activity not organized military action.  The bushwhackers may have claimed they were fighting for a cause, but mostly their fighting was the lure of mayhem for the sake of mayhem.

The Chariton County area was a maelstrom of divided loyalties.  Adjacent Howard County, where Vance’s Rangers would start and end their brief military career, was heavily Confederate.  Chariton County had many Union sympathizers, including the sheriff who paid for his allegiance to the Union with his life when Johnny Reb bushwhackers invaded the Courthouse and killed him.  Great Grandpa Bill’s granddaughter married a Finnell, a family that fought for the Confederacy.  And a John Vance fought with Quantrill’s notorious Confederate bushwhackers and was captured at Rocheport in 1863 (Rocheport was a Missouri River town that functioned as a headquarters for Quantrill).  Whether that John was kin to the Chariton County Vances is anyone’s guess—there are John Vances all over the family history.

            Many of the bushwhackers were just violent criminals.  Bloody Bill Anderson, nominally a Johnny Reb, said that he really didn’t owe allegiance to the Confederacy.  He just enjoyed killing.  Missouri ranks third among all states in the number of Civil War shootouts, behind Virginia and Tennessee (where the battles tended to be large and organized as opposed to Missouri’s skirmishes between small forces).

            On Sept. 27,1864,  Anderson, a psychopath, with about 80 heavily armed and murderous bushwhackers, some dressed in stolen Union Army uniforms, occupied  the town of Centralia, about 70 miles southeast of the Vance homestead, ostensibly to derail the North Missouri Railroad. The guerrillas were more interested in looting the town than in military tactics and reportedly drank whiskey from stolen boots to loosen their trigger fingers—a good indication of their degree of military discipline (not to mention disruption of their taste buds).  By the time the train hove in view, the guerillas were drunk and bloodthirsty.

 Anderson lined up 23 Union soldiers, heading home on leave, and his men killed all but one, sparing only Sgt. Thomas Goodman to, as Anderson said, tell the tale.   Later, Anderson added to his gory nickname when his gunmen slaughtered 127 Union soldiers sent in pursuit.  In retrospect it’s scary to think of this gory band of trigger-happy psychopaths roaming the central Missouri area so close to my kinfolks.

Among the Anderson shootists were two brothers destined for dubious legend, Frank and Jesse James, along with their equally vicious friend Cole Younger.  My grandfather, son of William Siebert, would be married by a minister named Younger, supposedly related to the infamous Cole, Jim and Bob, all three of whom would be shot up and captured after their abortive attempt to rob the Northfield, Minnesota, bank, along with Frank and Jesse who escaped back to Missouri.

            With the news of the Centralia slaughter fresh in their minds, Great-Grandpa and Great-Uncle traveled a few miles south less than three weeks later to help defend Glasgow from Gen. Sterling Price’s peripatetic Confederate army which had been wandering all over north Missouri looking for trouble.   It’s possible Great Grandpa Vance’s hogleg was intended for defense of the farmstead, rather than as a weapon of organized war, but he and his rowdy older brother embarked on their quasi-military mission to save Glasgow, a Missouri River town, probably motivated by one of Great Granduncle John’s Quixotic enthusiasms.  It was a Great Adventure, like the California gold rush, only with bullets. 

Gen. Price also was a Chariton County boy, with a plantation only a few miles from the Vance homestead as the crow flies.  You have to wonder if the Vance boys didn’t occasionally think of Price this is a hell of a way for a good ol’ Chariton County boy to act.  Price, a major general, was an overachiever, especially for a Dalton Bottoms product.  He was a brigadier general in the Mexican War and then was governor of Missouri from 1853-57.  An unreconstructed rebel, he fled to Mexico after the Civil War, failed to establish a Confederacy there, and returned to St. Louis where he died poor in 1867.  The Glasgow “battle,” such as it was, was at the apex of Price’s Civil War career.  It all went South from there—literally as his increasingly shredded army retreated to Arkansas and Texas.

Since John formed Vance’s Rangers it was logical that he would be the commanding officer and his little brother would be whatever rank the Cap chose for him which turned out to be corporal.  Was there sibling rivalry (“You got to be a captain and I was only a corporal!).  After Price captured the Rangers, he allowed the officers to keep their sidearms; else my Colt would not be here today.

Which makes me wonder if my Colt really is Great Grandpa Bill’s because he was an enlisted man and Price’s army confiscated the enlisted weaponry.  Grandpa Bill has a muzzle-loading rifle visible in his photograph, not a pistol.  Perhaps the Colt came later or perhaps it belonged to John or who knows?  It has traveled down the hereditary turnpike to me. 

            The Army Colt was new when the War started—it debuted in 1860, a $20 beefier version of the Navy .36 caliber Colt which dated to 1851.  The .44 was built on the same frame as its Navy cousin, and Union Army officers eagerly snapped up the new six-shooter as did their Confederate counterparts.  The gun was a vast improvement over earlier pistols.  Not that it was the ultimate in sidearms—that would come later with the introduction of cartridge pistols that could be reloaded far faster than cap-and-ball types.

            Loading it involved pouring powder into the chamber and seating a ball with a loading lever attached to the bottom of the barrel.  There always was the danger that firing one chamber would ignite adjacent ones as well, a dire incident called a “chain fire” which was as threatening to the shooter as the shootee. 

            Most used paper cartridges, with the ball and powder sealed inside a stiff paper wrapping which could be dropped into a chamber and seated with the ramming lever.  But it still was a cumbersome process and many who carried the guns, especially guerillas and bushwhackers, stashed several weapons around their body so when they shot out one loaded gun, they’d simply grab a fresh one and keep shooting.  James family photos show Jesse James with an Army Colt during his Civil War stint with Bloody Bill Anderson, although he favored other weapons in his later career as a criminal. 

            Before it became obsolete, sales of the .44 numbered 200,000, of which 127,000 were Army-issue.              Great Grandpa Bill lived until 1889 and as far as I know never fired his Colt in anger.  My grandfather used to load up the old .44 on July 4 and torch off a few rounds to celebrate the birth of the nation (and also the war that preserved it, so inefficiently fought by his daddy).  Grandpa Bill was lucky to have survived the Civil War unscathed, especially in a county where Southern sympathy was widespread and where guerilla raids were common.  It was murder on a daily basis.  Marauding bands of thugs would stop at a farmhouse and almost routinely kill the man of the house.

            The roving killers operated on both sides of the fence—some Union, some Confederate.  Some wore military uniforms; others didn’t.  But they shared a thirst for the most appalling murders, including hanging a 17-year old kid and leaving him still alive (he died).  Rebels captured the Chariton County sheriff in the courthouse at Keytesville (which later would burn, destroying countless irreplaceable records), shot him in the head and left his body in the middle of a county road. 

            Another Union sympathizer, William Young, died along with the sheriff.  He tried to run, but the bushwhackers cut him down.  It’s possible I was related to him—William Siebert married Hannah Young, but there are Youngs all over Chariton County to this day and I don’t know if the unfortunate William was close kin to my Great Grandmother or not.

            The bottom line is that my Great Grandfather was lucky to have escaped the Civil War alive and live another quarter century.  He died at 52 in 1889, not an old man.  But, given his ineffectual military career, likely he would have had a much shorter life had Bloody Bill Anderson and his bushwhackers come knocking at the door, even if he met them packing a Colt .44.


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1 Comment

  1. Carrie Jo

    July 22nd, 2012 at 4:44 pm


    Interesting research! We think of the old time bloodshed as somehow romantic… but how about Aurora, Colorado? Different times….

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