The Ambushers

An ambush (also, ambuscade) is a long-established military tactic in which combatants take advantage of concealment and the element of surprise to attack unsuspecting enemies from concealed positions, i.e., from dense underbrush, from wooded areas, or from behind hilltops.  Another term for ambush is “bushwhacking.”  Someone who engages in this kind of attack is referred to as a bushwhacker.

Bushwhacking is quite common is armed conflict and has been throughout history.  American patriots used it against the British during the Revolutionary War and both Union and Confederate troops used it during the Civil War.  As a tactic, ambuscade favors the underdog because it maximizes the efficiency of numerically inferior forces, particularly within areas too large for occupation.  Prevalent in rural areas, the aim of ambuscade is attrition and demoralization.

While both sides of the Civil War used the tactic, the term “Bushwhacker” was particularly significant because it was the term adopted to describe an irregular military force of pro-Confederate Missourians.  As a guerrilla tactic, the effect of bushwhacking terrorized “enemy” sympathizers, who were pro-Union officials, civilians, and people who were simply “suspected” of harboring pro-Union sympathies.  Bushwhacking civilians was part of a campaign designed either to punish people who opposed the Confederacy, or exact retribution.  No matter which side of the conflict perpetrated these atrocities, the other side regarded such behavior as acts as heinous barbarism.

Little Dixie - Missouri

Little Dixie (Missouri)

Irregular (guerrilla) military forces often dressed in civilian attire, masking who they were and what they stood for —until mere seconds before an attack, so there was always a question about whether the ambushers were part of a legitimate military campaign or simply toughs, outlaws, or terrorists.

What made the state of Missouri unique was the fact that nineteen of its 144 counties remained in the hands of Confederate sympathizers, and this adds weight to the claims of some historians that what happened there was a civil war within a larger civil war.  Missouri counties in rebellion were referred to as “Little Dixie.”  The people who lived in these pro-Confederate counties originated from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia —people who, culturally, rarely quit a fight until they can no longer raise a finger in defiance.  They are people who believe there is no such thing as enough retribution; people capable of keeping feuds going for decades.

These violent behaviors were not unique or confined to Missourians.  Cross-border attacks by people operating as guerrillas from Kansas were equally vicious.  Pro-Union ambushers from Kansas were referred to as “Jayhawkers,” violent men whose armed expeditions took them into the Appalachian regions of Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia (including West Virginia) and northern Georgia.

Mosby J S 001Leaders from both sides of the issue placed their own “spin” on guerrilla activities by referring to these groups as “Partisan Rangers.”  One of these rangers was Colonel John S. Mosby[1], CSA (pictured left) who carried out raids against Union forces in the Shenandoah Valley, northern Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.  Mosby’s raids were little different from the campaigns in Missouri or Kansas, but what distinguished Mosby from Missouri Bushwhacker William Quantrill[2] was that Mosby operated within the Confederate chain of command, while Quantrill followed orders only when it suited him.  No one, not even Quantrill’s superiors, knew what he was going to do next, or where he intended to do it.  For the most part, Missouri Bushwhackers were low-level, self-organized groups of young men (and boys) from slave-holding states and territories abutting the Missouri and Mississippi river systems.

There was never a shortage of atrocities in Kansas and Missouri.  Jayhawkers and Bushwhackers alike kidnapped, murdered, raped, rustled, lynched, and burned family homes to the ground.  Some people escaped the attention of these guerrilla bands by heeding their advice early in the war to “get out” of Kansas or Missouri.  The parents and grandparents of President Harry S. Truman wisely took this advice in 1862.

Regular Confederate/Union army units also participated in the chaos of guerrilla operations.  Union (and affiliated) troops often tortured and summarily executed suspected rebel sympathizers and prisoners of war without trial.  Two examples of barbarism stand out: the sacking of Osceola, Missouri in 1861, and the Lawrence Massacre in 1863.  Since history is written by the victor, we today hear more about the Lawrence Raid than we do Osceola.

George MaddoxIn Osceola, 1,200 Jayhawkers under the command of Brigadier General James H. Lane[3] raided the town of around 2,000 people, freed 200 slaves, tried and executed nine citizens, and then burned the town to the ground.   Seeking retribution, Quantrill planned and executed the Lawrence Raid.  On 21 August 1863, Lawrence headquartered Lane’s Jayhawk Brigade.  Captain Quantrill was meticulous in his planning of the raid, sending several columns of guerrillas into Kansas from different routes and converging on Lawrence with remarkable precision.  Quantrill’s raid involved around 450 Missouri Bushwhackers, who during their assault murdered 150 (generally unarmed) Kansas men and boys and burned the town to the ground.  George Maddox (shown right), participated in the Lawrence Raid.  He was later tried for murder but was acquitted.

Instances of vicious retribution soured the good citizens of Kansas and Missouri, particularly after Union General Thomas Ewing[4] ordered the removal of Missourians from four border counties in his infamous General Order No. 11.  The general’s order of removal propelled 25,000 citizens into homelessness, and to ensure these people didn’t straggle back to their homes, General Order No. 11 further ordered their homes and properties destroyed.

The anger and resentment these events created lasted far beyond the end of the war and it helps us to understand the post-war formation of criminal gangs from Little Dixie.  The outlaw gangs of Frank and Jesse James, and Cole Younger, mostly comprised of former Missouri Bushwhackers, including Frank and Jesse James, Cole, Jim, John, and Bob Younger, John Jarrett, Arthur McCoy, George and Oliver Shepherd, Bill and Tom McDaniel, Clell[5] and Edward Miller, Charlie Pitts (a.k.a. Sam Wells), and Bill Chadwell (a.k.a. Bill Stiles).  After the war, these men continued to plunder and murder, justifying their activities as righteous retribution for the horrible treatment Missourians received from Yankee aggressors.  Yet, since none of the citizens of Missouri benefitted from these robberies and murders, we should probably assume that the James-Younger Gang was more intent on enriching themselves.

Archie ClementsIn any event, the survivors of Bloody Bill Anderson’s guerrilla band remained together under the leadership of Archie Cléments[6], Anderson’s top lieutenant (Pictured right).  In February 1866, Cléments led his men through a series of armed robberies.  It was after a few of the older men were killed (including Cléments in December 1866) that these thugs became known as the James-Younger Gang.

Three years later Jesse James emerged as the most famous of this group when he was named as the prime suspect in the robbery of the Daviess County Savings Association in Gallatin, Missouri and the murder of bank teller John W. Sheets.  Actually, Sheet’s murder was a case of mistaken identity.  Samuel P. Cox, the man responsible for the death of Bill Anderson while serving with the Union militia, was a resident of Gallatin.  James simply mistook Sheets for Cox.  Jesse James was one of those Missourians who wouldn’t let bygones be bygones.  He frequently wrote to newspapers portraying himself as a proud Missouri Bushwhacker and trying to recruit the support of former Confederates harmed by federal blue bellies during the war and Reconstruction.

A similar group of men operated in central and southern California as the Mason Henry Gang.  The gang was organized by a Confederate sympathizer from Tennessee, a former judge by the name George Gordon Belt.  Judge Belt was a former alcalde of Stockton, California who used his ranch on the Merced River as headquarters for a company of Partisan Rangers.  Belt selected John Mason and Tom McCauley[7] (who used the alias Jim Henry) to lead the rangers.  Both Mason and McCauley were known criminals, but since Belt intended that they pillage, murder, intimidate pro-Union Californians, their criminal backgrounds may not have mattered to him.  Eventually, gang membership reached around fifteen gunmen.

In the spring of 1864, the gang rode over to Santa Clara County, which was a bastion of Copperhead[8] sympathizers to recruit more members for their outfit.  It was not a good recruitment year.  Drought, a depressed economy, and a surge of Union war victories disheartened Confederate sympathizers.  By October, with presidential elections approaching, Mason-Henry stepped up their anti-Union rhetoric.  Mason publicized his promise to kill any “black Republican” he encountered.

Of course, Mr. Lincoln won reelection, and this prompted Mason-Henry to go on a crime spree.  Three Union men were targeted for execution and duly murdered in cold blood.  The gang crossed Pacheco Pass into Santa Clara County and found refuge among fellow-Confederates in and around Corralitos and Watsonville.  Not long afterwards, the gang held up a stagecoach on the Watsonville road, killing three additional men.  To Mason-Henry, there was no such thing as murdering too many Republicans[9].  Masquerading as Confederate partisans, the gang terrorized Monterey and surrounding counties for several months.

In January 1865, Company B, 1st Battalion of Native Cavalry, California Volunteers (lancers) arrived from San Francisco and went into camp near San Juan Bautista.  Major Michael O’Brien of the 6th California Infantry arrived shortly afterward and began to organize a search from the gang members.  With information about their hideout, O’Brien dispatched a section of Company B under First Lieutenant John Lafferty to flush them out, but he was unsuccessful.

The next month, Captain Herman Noble sent a detachment from Company E, 2nd California Cavalry under Sergeant Rowley in a long pursuit of men believed to be the Mason-Henry Gang.  The chase took Rowley and his men across the deserts of southern California into Sonora, Mexico.  This effort also failed due to lack of forage for their horses.

In April 1865, the Mason-Henry Gang attacked the Firebaugh Ferry.  Lieutenant Lafferty led a detachment of five men to intercept the gang, and while they did intercept the outlaws, and were believed to have wound Mason, all they ended up with was Mason’s horse, whom the lieutenant promptly arrested.

By the end of April, although the Civil War was over, the Mason-Henry gang remained under intense pressure in central California, so they moved into southern California and split up.  In July, Mason and his sidekick Hawkins demonstrated their appreciation to rancher Philo Jewett for feeding them by pulling their guns and demanding more.  Jewett ran and escaped, but Mason or Hawkins stabbed and shot Jewett’s cook, John Johnson.  Hawkins was caught and hung.  Mason managed to elude the authorities.

Jim Henry and his boys migrated to the San Sevaine Flats in the eastern San Gabriel Mountains.  They continued rustling, robbing, and committing murder.  In September, while camped south of San Bernardino, Henry sent John Rogers into town to obtain provisions.  While there, Rogers had too much to drink and started boasting about his outlaw connections.  Locals alerted San Bernardino County Sheriff Ben Matthews, who formed a posse and arrested Rogers.  Rogers led Matthews twenty-five miles to Henry’s camp in San Jacinto Canyon.  At sunrise on 14 September, Matthew’s posse approached the camp.  Henry detected movement, drew out his revolver and fired three shots, hitting one deputy in the foot.  The rest of the posse emptied their weapons (57 rounds) into Jim Henry’s waiting and long-overdue body.  Rogers went to jail for five years.

John Mason, meanwhile, continued to pursue his chosen career path in Los Angeles County (present-day Kern County) with a $500.00 reward posted for his capture, dead or alive.  He was eventually killed by miner Ben Mayfield, whom Mason had kidnapped and held against his will.  Mayfield, for all his inconvenience, was not rewarded for Mason’s death.  He was instead accused of murder by Mason’s fiends, stood trial in Los Angeles County, was found guilty, and was sentenced to hang.  Eventually, Mayfield was exonerated but he never did receive his reward.

As for bushwhacking, I do not believe it is possible to conduct such affairs without a genuine hatred for the people being whacked.  This is, and has always been, the way of war.


  1. U. S. Army Field Manual 90-8, Counter-guerrilla Operations.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Army, 1986
  2. Schultz, D. Quantrill’s war: The Life and Times of William Clarke Quantrill, 1837-1865. St. Martin’s Press, 1997.
  3. Castel, A. and Tom Goodrich. Bloody Bill Anderson: The Short, Savage Life of a Civil War Guerrilla.  Stackpole Books, 1998
  4. Goodrich, T.  Bloody Dawn: The Story of the Lawrence Massacre.  Kent: Kent State University Press, 1991.
  5. Mosby, J. S., and Charles Wells Russell.  The Memoirs of Colonel John S. Mosby.  New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 1917


[1] John Singleton Mosby (1833-1916) commanded a Confederate cavalry battalion, known as Mosby’s Rangers, well known for lightening raids and attacks and his ability to elude the Union cavalry.  In later life, Mosby became a Republican attorney who supported Ulysses S. Grant and served as a United States envoy to Hong Kong.

[2] William Clarke Quantrill (1837-1865) was a disturbed and restless youth whose poverty and laziness led him into outlawry and gambling.  What Quantrill knew of guerrilla warfare he learned from Marcus Gill and Joel B. Mayes, a principle chief of the Cherokee Nation who harbored Confederate sentiments.  Quantrill initially participated in the war under Confederate General Sterling Price, but he eventually deserted to form his own group, which became known as Quantrill’s Raiders.  Notable members of Quantrill’s band were Cole Younger, Bloody Bill Anderson, and Frank and Jesse James.

[3] James Henry Lane (1814-1866) was a partisan leader during the “Bleeding Kansas” period before the Civil War, a US Senator and Union general.  Often referred to as the Commander of the Free State Army (also, Red Legs or Jayhawkers), he was instrumental in getting Kansas admitted to the Union as a free state.  Lane’s raid into Osceola was sanctioned by Union Major General John C. Fremont, which also included Lane’s raid on Morristown, Missouri.  Lane’s ruthless foray into Missouri prompted the Lawrence Massacre in retribution.

[4] What made Ewing’s order even more amazing is the fact that before the war, Ewing served as Chief Justice of Kansas.  There was nothing judicious or militarily sound about this decision.

[5] Cleland Miller affiliated with Bloody Bill Anderson as a guerrilla fighter when he was 14-years of age.

[6] “Little Archie” Clement stood five-feet tall and had a youthful appearance, but he may have been worse than Bloody Bill Anderson in his viciousness during and after the Civil War.  An example of Clément’s capacity for ruthless violence was the Centralia Massacre where 24 unarmed Union soldiers were captured while riding as passengers on the North Missouri Railroad and summarily executed.  Following Anderson’s death, Clement took charge of the guerrilla band and continued to lead them after the surrender of Robert E. Lee.

[7] Wanted for capital crimes against Gold Rush miners in the late 1840s and early 1850s

[8] Copperhead is the term Republicans used to describe Democrats who opposed the Civil War and wanted the Union to make a peaceful settlement with the Confederacy.  They were also called Peace Democrats, who accepted the label and touted it.  Democrats have been singing Kumbaya ever since, except when getting the United States involved in two world wars, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.

[9] Apparently, history repeats.  Modern democrats regularly call for the death of Republicans.

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in California, Civil War, History, Little Dixie. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Ambushers

  1. kidme37 says:

    Somehow I don’t think the blm and antifa people are up to it. Some big money and equipment will back them though if and when.

    This made me think of the movie The Outlaw Josey Wales. Clint did like to get as much accuracy into his movies as he could.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Andy says:

    The “bushwackers” seldom ended up enjoy longevity in their lives. One can only push one’s luck so far. Call it karma, luck, justice, or just plain time, those cutthroats ran out of it eventually.


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