General "Jo" Shelby and His Great Raid
by Mark Weaver
Joseph Orville Shelby, or “Jo” Shelby, as he was often known, was one of
the most remarkable cavalry commanders of the Civil War. He was so
impressive, that Union General Alfred Pleasonton, who fought against
both Shelby and the renowned cavalry commander General JEB Stuart, would
later remark, "Shelby was the best cavalry general of the South.
Under other conditions, he would have been one of the best in the world"
What makes this praise even more remarkable is the fact that Shelby had
no military education when the war began. Rather, he was a natural
warrior who, as one biographer put it, “…fought like a man who
invented fighting…" One of his greatest feats during the war was
what is remembered as Shelby’s Great Raid.
In the fall of 1863, Colonel Jo Shelby left Arkadelphia, Arkansas, on
September 22, crossing behind Union lines to begin his raid against the
forces then holding his home state of Missouri. Shelby characterized
those Union troops as the, “…terror to the country, the insulters of
unprotected women, and the murderers of old and infirm men.”
General "Jo" Shelby 1860's vintage photo.
Shelby and his men, known popularly as the “Iron Brigade,” moved into
Missouri on October 2, and it was just a couple days before they started
making some noise…
He made his first strike at Neosho, Missouri, where he knew there was a
detachment of Union forces. Shelby ordered his men to spread out and
surround the town, and then they quickly dashed in on the attack:
“…the doomed enemy were encompassed by a
cordon of steel before they knew of a foeman near. Thorp, with his
usual dash, drove their pickets into town, where they, with the main
body, took refuge in a strong brick court-house, pierced and
loop-holed for musketry, where they kept up a hot fire upon our
advancing columns. … I ordered my cannon into position and sent two
balls crashing through the walls. This was followed by an immediate
demand for unconditional surrender, which… …they agreed to.”
After resting at Neosho, Jo Shelby and his men moved on. They passed
through the war-ravaged town of Sarcoxie, which Shelby described as
being, “…blackened and desolate…” Further on they came upon and
took the town of Bowers’ Mill.
Moving on from there, they took the towns of Greenfield and Stockton.
Here they “appropriated” food and arms from the Union stores, and
destroyed a fort in Stockton.
From Stockton, Shelby headed for the town of Warsaw. He captured 30
Union supply wagons and a number of men on his way. At Warsaw, they met
with resistance, but they outnumbered their enemy and defeated them
easily. Warsaw proved to be a good capture, but the ease with which the
raid had progressed so far was soon to be a thing of the past:
“Vast quantities of all kinds of stores
were captured here, with some arms and prisoners, and a strong and
well provisioned fort. Thus far I had traveled ahead of all
information, but now the telegraph flashed out its view-halloo, and
the railroads groaned under the dire preparations to meet me, and the
thunderer of Saint Louis threatened vengeance as dark as death and
terrible as the grave.”
Shelby and his men took a more leisurely pace over the next several
days, as they moved through the towns of Cole Camp, Florence, Tipton,
and Syracuse. Along the way, they captured a good quantity of supplies
and arms, burned and destroyed many bridges and railroads, and cut up as
many telegraph lines as they could.
Finally, Jo Shelby and his men reached the Missouri River at Boonville.
By now, “vengeance” was on its way in the form of a large force of Union
troops led by General Egbert Brown. Shelby moved on towards the town of
Marshall, but Brown split his force and moved to surround Shelby.
Warsaw Missouri in 1907. Available for
With Brown’s men now at both his front and his rear, Shelby also split
his force and made a desperate bid to escape. The now separated Iron
Brigade managed to break through the Union lines in two different
places, and the two units retreated southward independently.
They were hotly pursued and pressed by their enemy for the duration of
their retreat. Finally, on October 26, Jo Shelby and the Iron Brigade
made their way back into Arkansas, and headed back to safety behind the
In his final report of the raid, Shelby claimed to have killed, wounded,
and captured more than 1,000 Union troops; captured and destroyed ten
forts; and captured, used, and destroyed more than $2 million worth of
Union supplies, property, and railroads. He was promoted to Brigadier
General in recognition of his success, and a saying soon became popular
in the Confederate Army of the Trans-Mississippi: “You’ve heard of
JEB Stuart’s ride around McClellan? Hell brother, Jo Shelby rode around
General Jo Shelby served with distinction through the rest of the Civil War, but when it came to an end, he and several hundred members of the
Iron Brigade were not yet ready to surrender. Instead, they headed to
Mexico where they established a “Gringo” colony. Unfortunately for them,
the Mexican government was overthrown after just two years.
Shelby then returned to Missouri where he spent many years farming,
before serving as a US Marshal for the last four years of his life.
Before he became a Marshall, Shelby’s testimony was believed to have
played an important role in the acquittal of famous outlaw Frank James.
Jo Shelby was one of the most interesting characters of the Civil War.
He was an untrained officer who rose to be regarded as one of the best
cavalry commanders of the war, and his legend still lives in modern
times. He and the men he took to Mexico are often remembered as “The
Undefeated,” with a John Wayne movie of that name supposedly based on
Shelby’s story. His impact was remembered for many years, especially by
the men who served with him, as is evidenced by the following verse:
Ho Boys! Make a Noise!
The Yankees are afraid!
The river's up, hell's to pay—
Shelby's on a Raid!
© Mark Weaver,
American Civil War Story,
I’m Mark, and I have a web site called
Civil War Story. Many people don’t realize how many fascinating Civil
War stories they may be missing out on. My goal is to find as many of
those great stories as I can, and bring them together in one place for
everyone to enjoy. On my site you will find stories of Heroes, Spies,
Battle, and Conspiracy. Don’t miss out!
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