Missouri and Ozarks History

Information and comments about historical people and events of the Ozarks region and surrounding area.

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I'm a freelance writer specializing in the history of the Ozarks and surrounding region. I've written fifteen nonfiction books, two historical novels, and numerous articles. My latest books are Bushwhacker Belles, Wicked Women of Missouri, and Yanked Into Eternity: Lynchings and Hangings in Missouri.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Execution of John F. Abshire

Union authorities in Missouri usually considered all Southern fighters who were not in full Confederate uniform and acting in coordination with a large army to be guerrillas who should be treated as outlaws. The guerrillas themselves, however, usually did not see themselves as outlaws and, to the contrary, usually saw themselves as legitimate combatants. The case of John F. Abshire, who was executed at St. Louis in October of 1864, is instructive on this topic.
Originally from Arkansas, Abshire moved with his family to southeast Missouri not long before the Civil War broke out. He joined the Missouri State Guard near the outset of the war and served, according to his own later statement, about four and a half months in Brigadier General M. Jeff Thompson's division. He then returned home for several months before enlisting in the Confederate Army, serving under a Captain Townsend in a regiment commanded by a Colonel Fielding. Apparently, however, the unit did not operate as a regular unit of the CSA, at least not during the whole time Abshire was a member of it, because, according to the Union side of the story, Abshire was operating in Wayne County in January of 1863 with a band of guerrillas led by one Captain Ellison. (Confederate service records show that an S. Ellison served in the same regiment, the consolidated 3rd and 5th Missouri Cavalry, as a Captain M. Townsend. So, this might have been the unit to which Abshire also belonged.) It's likely Ellison's men were already members of the Confederate Army in January of 1863 or at least that Ellison was recruiting them for the purpose of enlisting them in the CSA. At any rate, Abshire and a large number of fellow Rebels were captured at Bloomfield in late January, taken to St. Louis as prisoners, on to the military prison at Alton, Illinois, and finally to City Point, Virginia, to be exchanged. After he was exchanged, he was sent from Richmond to Mississippi and was among the Confederate soldiers surrendered by General John C. Pemberton at Vicksburg in early July of 1863.
After being taken prisoner a second time, Abshire, according to his own later story, decided he did not want to be exchanged again but instead wanted to get out of the Southern army and become a Union man (as was not uncommon during the Civil War in Missouri). He was taken to Camp Morton, Indiana, where he made arrangements to join the Union Army. The day before he was to be released from custody for the purpose of joining the Union Army, however, he was taken to St. Louis and locked up at Gratiot Street Prison but for what reason he did not know.
After his capture someone had recognized him as having been a member of Ellison's band, and he was charged with operating as a guerrilla against the rules of war and with killing a man named William Hayes in Wayne County the previous January. Abshire was tried by military commission at St. Louis in the late summer of 1863. The main witness against him was a man named Davidson, at whose home the murder of Hayes reportedly took place. The defendant pled guilty to the specification but not guilty to the charge. In other words, he essentially agreed that he had done what he was accused of doing, but he denied that what he had done was a crime. His story was that Hayes was among a group of Unionists who had been taken prisoner, that he (Abshire) was among those detailed to guard the prisoners, that Hayes was shot when he attempted to escape, but that he (Abshire) was not the guard who actually did the shooting. Abshire said he did not try to mount a defense when he was first informed of the charges against him because he did not take them seriously and did not think others would either. He was very surprised that Davidson testified against him, he said, because he had been acting as a legitimate Confederate soldier. Not surprisingly, the military commission saw otherwise. He was found guilty and sentenced to hang.
Abshire was originally scheduled to hang in March of 1864, but the sentence was temporarily suspended after the condemned man appealed to Union authorities that he had not seen his wife nor his parents in seventeen months and asked that his life be spared long enough to allow them to travel from St. Genevieve and St. Francois counties to visit him before his execution. His father and his wife arrived shortly after the stay of execution was granted, and his wife remained in St. Louis during the time he awaited execution. I have thus far seen no evidence to indicate whether his mother also came to see him. In May of 1864, the execution was suspended again after Abshire's friends and family submitted a petition on his behalf asking that the case be referred to President Lincoln for his review.
Lincoln approved the sentence about September or early October of 1864, and a new execution date was set for October 14. A few days prior to the execution date, Abshire was moved from the Alton Military Prison (where he had been imprisoned after his conviction) back to Gratiot Street Prison to await the fateful hour. At about half past one p.m. on the 14th, the condemned man was taken to the city jail yard where a scaffold awaited him. According to a report in the St. Louis Daily Missouri Democrat the following day, Abshire walked to the gallows "with a firm step" and betrayed no sign of fear or other visible emotion. He stared calmly at the officer in charge of the execution as the officer read the charges against him and the findings of the military commission, and he also watched calmly as the noose was prepared. Then he stood and addressed those assembled to witness the execution. He repeated that he was innocent of the charges against him and said he had "never been nothing more than a Confederate soldier." After kneeling for a prayer beside a minister of the Christian Church who was acting as his spiritual advisor, he again stood and spoke a second time, this time with more emotion, saying that he regretted dying only on account of his wife and other family members who were "weeping and moaning" for him. He said it was through his ignorance that he failed to get witnesses to testify on his behalf and repeated that he had not thought Davidson would testify against him. "I hope to meet you all in a better world," he concluded as he motioned to the executioner that he was ready. He stepped firmly upon the trap door and a cap was drawn over his head. "Tie it so it will kill me quick," he said as the noose was adjusted. The door was then sprung, and Abshire fell about five feet to his death. His struggle was brief, and he died within a few minutes.
"His faithful young wife," said the Democrat, "who had frequently visited him in prison, took charge of the body, and the earthly career of John F. Abshire was terminated." The newspaperman, who had visited Abshire in prison the day before, described the wife, to whom Abshire had been married about two and half years, as a "very respectable, handsome and tidy young woman." The reporter also said the mother and father were respectable, hard-working people who were well thought of in the New Tennessee settlement of St. Genevieve County. The reporter said Abshire himself, although not well educated, did not appear to have any maliciousness to him, and he felt the young man had probably been misled by others for whom he was now paying the price. Abshire was described as strongly built, about 5'9" tall, with blue eyes, fair hair, a prominent nose, and a ruddy complexion.
By the way, I am participating in a multiple author book signing this coming Saturday from 1-4 p.m. at Always Buying Books in Joplin. The owner is billing the event as Wordstock, in commemoration of Woodstock, which occurred 45 years ago this month. Besides me, at least four other local or regional authors are scheduled to be there.
And since I'm doing a shameless plug, let me also invite any readers of this blog who are so inclined to like my author page on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/AuthorLarryWood.

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