As even casual students of the Civil War in Missouri know, the conflict in our state was characterized by bitter guerrilla fighting that spawned rampant lawlessness. Robberies, destruction of property, and even murders were not uncommon. Most of these criminal acts were related at least peripherally to military operations—either committed during the fight for control of the state early in the war or else during Confederate efforts to dislodge the occupying Federal Army after the Union secured Missouri in the spring of 1862. However, some crimes were personally motivated and had little or nothing to do with military operations. In the rural parts of the state, most such outrages were committed by partisans and freebooters who identified at least nominally with the Southern cause. However, crimes in the larger cities, which served as Union posts and headquarters, were also not uncommon, and these were often authored by the Federal soldiers themselves. An example is a shooting affray that occurred in Springfield in the spring of 1862, perhaps the city’s most notorious incident of the Civil War that did not directly involve military operations.
Union sympathizer Mrs. Mary Willis, having lost two sons at the hands of bushwhackers in her home territory of northern Arkansas, sought refuge at Springfield during the latter part of the winter of 1861-1862, and she and her family were placed in a vacant house in the east part of town. Because the house had previously been occupied by “a squad of accommodating girls,” two soldiers were placed as guards at the house to turn away unwelcome visitors. About sundown on the evening of May 21, 1862, duty officer John R. Clark and his orderly, A. J. Rice, both in a state of intoxication, called at the Willis home and demanded dinner. When Mrs. Willis declined to prepare the meal, Captain Clark and his companion grew irate, began cussing, pulled their pistols, and tried to force their way into the house. One of the guards shot Clark through the body, and he staggered back a few steps and fell dead. Rice promptly fired at the guard but missed and hit Mrs. Willis’s daughter, Miss Mary Willis, in the head, killing her instantly. The second guard then shot Rice and wounded him severely. The ball struck him in the breast and ranged up through the shoulder, which was badly shattered.
A Mexican War veteran, Clark was a member of Company B, Fifth Kansas Cavalry, but he and most of the men of his company had been recruited into Federal service from Mercer County, Missouri, where he had served four years as sheriff of the county and had been a delegate to the 1856 Democratic State Convention. Despite the circumstances of his death and despite the fact that he was considered by at least one member of his own regiment “a Pro-Slavery brute” who “ought to have joined the rebels instead of our side,” Clark was buried in Springfield the day after his death with both military and Masonic honors.
Upon initial examination, A.J. Rice’s wound was considered mortal, but he lived long enough to be indicted the following summer in Greene County Circuit Court for the murder of Miss Mary Willis. At the August 1862 term of court, he took a change of venue to Phelps County. He was tried at Rolla in late October and convicted on October 30 of first degree murder. The next day, he appealed and was granted a new trial on November 1. The following April the case was continued, but no record of it has been found after that. Rice might have died before the new trial began, because, according to Holcombe’s 1883 History of Greene County, Rice’s wound “eventually proved fatal.”