- Jul 23, 2017
- Southwest Missouri
While the Confederacy had cavalry commanders like Stuart, Hampton and Lee east of the Appalachians, and Forrest and Mosby in the ‘Western theatre’, for the Trans-Mississippi region, it was Joseph Orville Shelby and the Swamp Fox ‘Jeff’ Thompson.
After receiving a large inheritance at the age of 21, the Kentucky born ‘Jo” Shelby moved to Lafayette County, MO and started a hemp rope business. He also bought a 700 acre plantation and became one of the largest slave holders in Missouri. But by 1860, according to the State Historical Society of Missouri, inexperience and poor business management forced him to sell the business. Yet like other notable generals who might have failed in business prior to the 1860’s, the war would reveal the gifted leader and fearless warrior Jo Shelby was.
Much has been written of the exploits of Jo Shelby and his Iron Brigade during the war. On this day (May 16) in 1865, Brigadier General Joseph Shelby became the last Major General in the Confederate Army, though the promotion was never officially confirmed, with the Confederate government in hiding. After Kirby Smith surrendered the Dept of Trans Mississippi, Shelby’s spirit of defiance became even more popular after leading men south into Mexico, refusing to surrender. As remarkable as Shelby’s exploits were during the war, it was after his return to Missouri in 1867 where some would say, the most admirable traits of Joseph Shelby’s character truly revealed itself.
Less than a decade later, he became the topic of discussion after being interviewed at the infamous Planter House about the highly contentious Presidential election, which threatened to lead the country into armed conflict again. Missouri had voted for the Democratic candidate, Tilden, who had taken the popular vote by over a quarter million votes. The electoral vote was yet to be decided when Shelby was interviewed. To explain what Shelby said, former Colonel Alonzo Slayback was interviewed the following day and asked about his reaction. He replied “I understand General Shelby to be in favor of law and constitution, upheld by lawful and constitutional means, and if we are fit to be a free people, we must learn to have patience when there is political excitement in the country, and not fly to arms for the overthrow of every administration that may not represent our personal views and predilections. General Shelby was the idol of the Missouri cavalry and has more military genius than any survivor of the Trans-Mississippi department. As such I honor and respect any views he may entertain, and any expression of them he may see proper to make.”
After living life as a farmer near Adrian, MO, President Grover Cleveland appointed Shelby as the US Marshal for the western district of Missouri in 1893. This was not a job for a weak person, as the state still bore old wounds, and remained stubbornly fractured. His appointment raised the dander of Republicans in the East, and one Senator was quoted as stating “ Nearly thirty years have elapsed since the termination of the war. All that one can ask, even the most loyal Unionist, is that the government shall not be confided to men who, during that awful time, represented not fair battle, but rapine, cruelty and chaos. We, or most of us, believe Jo Shelby belonged to the latter class.”
In Missouri, however, the appointment was a popular one, with endorsements coming in from both parties and factions, and from friends and former foes. The honeymoon didn’t last long though, as each appointment Shelby made upon assuming the office, was criticized by one faction or the other. He kept two Republican subordinates on staff, which was not popular with fellow Democrats. And to fill a vacant deputy position, he hired a young black man named Lee Jackson. This was an unpopular decision among fellow former slaveholders, and an exasperated Shelby finally wrote in a public letter ”The young man is competent to render effective service in lines where white men cannot do as well perhaps as he will do. I appointed him for efficiency, and have no patience with that sentiment that gropes always among the tombstones instead of coming out into the bright light of existing life and conditions. . . I am right in what I have done, and by the right I propose to stand.”
During the nationwide Pullman strike in 1894, personal friend and fellow Democrat Missouri governor William Stone demanded of Shelby to explain his actions while protecting railroad property. Shelby’s initial three word reply of “Go to hell” was reworded to “I am acting under the orders of Uncle Sam; ask him.” While he never disavowed the Confederate cause, he did express regret for taking part in the Border War with Kansas. He told historian William Conelley “I was in Kansas at the head of an armed force. I was there to kill Free-state men. I did kill them. I am now ashamed of myself for having done so. I had no business there. No Missourian had any business there with arms in his hands.”
In 1896, he further frustrated friends by endorsing McKinley, the Republican candidate for President, writing in another open letter “I will abandon friends, party and kindred rather than yield even implied consent to such a base assortment of political heresies. A good patient will not take a quack's medicine. If he does he dies, and if the party swallows the Chicago prescription its days are numbered, its death certain.” - The Scranton Tribune Aug 15, 1896
In 1897, Marshal Shelby was returning from a trip to serve summonses when he contracted pneumonia and ten days later, died on February 13, 1897, at the age of 67. He is buried in Forest Hill Cemetery in Kansas City, Missouri.
To the end, Joseph “Jo” O Shelby was a man of integrity and fought for principles he believed right, and did not allow others, friend or foe, to steer his course. Dennis Cecil, a private in Jennison’s Cavalry, who faced Shelby on Price’s 64 raid, wrote “It is needless to comment upon the merits or demerits of great chieftains, but the fact is patent that " Joe " Shelby was the best general that ever drew sword on Missouri soil.”
Watertown Republican Feb 17,1897
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