- Date of birth: sources range from 1837 to 1839
- Place of birth: Hopkins County, Kentucky
- Claim to fame: Confederate guerrilla; Captain of Quantrill's Raiders, 1863-1864
- Nickname: "Bloody Bill" Anderson
- Date of death: October 27, 1864 (some sources state October 26; see Bloody Bill Anderson, p. 155)
- Place of death: Albany, Missouri
- Cause of death: Killed by Union soldiers in the Battle of Albany
- Final resting place: Pioneer Cemetery, Richmond, Missouri
William T. Anderson was one of the most notorious Confederate guerrillas of the Civil War. Operating against Unionists in the midst of the guerrilla war in Missouri and Kansas, he was a leading figure in the infamous Lawrence Massacre and the Centralia Massacre, gaining the nickname “Bloody Bill” for the perceived savagery of his exploits. Like fellow Confederate irregulars William Clarke Quantrill and Jesse James, segments of Anderson’s life are shrouded in doubt, giving rise to a romantic guerrilla mythology.
Anderson was born sometime between 1837 and 1839 in Hopkins County, Kentucky, to William C. and Martha Anderson. His family moved to Huntsville, Missouri, as a child, and in 1857 the Andersons moved again, to Kansas, and settled near Council Grove. Despite not owning any slaves, the Andersons were deeply proslavery. Besides befriending a local proslavery judge, I. A. Baker, the family personally experienced the “Bleeding Kansas” conflict over slavery that had embroiled the territory.
By 1860 Anderson had become a property owner and went into the freight shipping business with his father and began horse trading. The outbreak of the Civil War saw an increased demand for horses, and Anderson began stealing horses and selling them along the Santa Fe Trail. In late 1861, he and Baker attempted to join the Confederate Army, but they were attacked by the 6th Kansas Cavalry in Vernon County, Missouri. After being captured, Baker distanced himself from the Anderson family, issuing a warrant for the arrest of William’s brother, Griffith. When William sought to have the warrant suspended, a quarrel ensued in which Baker shot and killed the Anderson patriarch. On July 2, 1862, William murdered Baker, burned his home, and fled to Missouri.
Anderson’s sisters, having operated as Confederate spies, were arrested by Union authorities under the command of the hated Union General Thomas Ewing Jr.
In Missouri William and Jim Anderson formed a gang with Bill Reed, robbing and attacking Union soldiers, before joining Quantrill’s ranks in early 1863. After a robbery near Council Grove in May 1863, Quantrill’s men were ambushed by federal troops and forced to split up. Anderson was soon promoted to lieutenant, achieving a quasi-independent command, and partook in raids in Westport, the state of Kansas, and Lafayette County, Missouri.
On the home front, meanwhile, Anderson’s sisters, having operated as Confederate spies, were arrested by Union authorities under the command of the hated Union General Thomas Ewing Jr. After arresting and confining a number of suspected female spies to a makeshift jail in Kansas City, the building collapsed, killing one of Anderson’s sisters among other victims. Confederate sympathizers, including Anderson, believed the collapse intentional. Although motivations are difficult to determine, historians Albert Castel and Thomas Goodrich argue that Anderson’s motivation shifted at that point, as wanton killing became an end in itself. “Bloody Bill” Anderson and his associates went on to earn ignominious reputations for torture and mutilation.
Anderson soon became the most notorious guerrilla in Missouri, increasing his local support network and attracting bloodthirsty recruits, including Jesse James.
Fueled at least in part by revenge against Ewing, Quantrill led approximately 450 Confederate raiders into pro-Union Lawrence, Kansas, on August 21, 1863, killing between 160-190 male citizens and burning and looting much of the town. Anderson and his men, including George M. Todd, Archie Clement, and Frank James, purportedly conducted themselves with excessive brutality. As Unionist retaliation increased, most notably by way of Ewing’s Order No. 11, many of Quantrill’s men, including Anderson, made for Texas. In Texas, tensions mounted between Anderson and Quantrill, resulting in Anderson having his commander arrested for murdering a Confederate officer. This break with Quantrill set the stage for the next phase of Anderson’s guerrilla career.
Returning to Missouri in the spring of 1864 and free of Quantrill’s oversight, Anderson’s men disguised themselves as Union soldiers and staged a series of raids in which they ambushed federal troops and murdered or even scalped civilians. Anderson soon became the most notorious guerrilla in Missouri, increasing his local support network and attracting bloodthirsty recruits, including Jesse James.
Operating in central and northwest Missouri, along the Missouri River in the state’s “Little Dixie” region, Anderson staged a raid near Centralia on September 26, 1864. Having robbed Unionist Congressman James S. Collins, captured a Union passenger train, and murdered 22 furloughed Union soldiers who had surrendered, Anderson’s men were pursued by 39th Missouri Volunteer (Union) Infantry. After a separate skirmish that took place later in the day, sometimes known as the Battle of Centralia, Anderson’s men ambushed the outgunned Unionist pursuers, and his men mutilated and tortured the federal survivors of the battle. The initial murders and the aftermath became known as the Centralia Massacre.
Pursued by Union authorities, Anderson’s escape from Centralia involved the looting and torturing of Union sympathizers and several instances of reported rape, particularly in a raid on Glasgow, Missouri. Union forces under Lieutenant Colonel Samuel P. Cox, a former army scout, finally caught up with Anderson and his approximately 150 men on October 27, 1864. A brief battle ensued in which Anderson was shot in the head and died instantly. Union soldiers photographed Anderson’s body and paraded it through the streets of Richmond, Missouri, burying it nearby (it was later reinterred). Cox became a Union hero, and Anderson’s death later became the motivation for Jesse James’s 1869 bank robbery in Gallatin, Missouri, in which he mistakenly shot someone whom he believed to be Cox.
For more information about the atrocities committed in the Centralia Massacre and the following skirmish, read this PBS American Experience discussion from a panel of Civil War experts.
Like Quantrill and James, postwar histories cast Anderson as either a sadistic murderer or a dashing Confederate cavalier. Appraisals by recent historians, however, have situated Anderson within the world of slavery politics, political violence, and wartime atrocity from which he arose. Most agree that his actions and persona embodied some of the war’s most savage aspects. Heavily mythologized, Anderson has been featured in a variety of popular culture media, including a character in the film The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976).
Albert E. Castel and Thomas Goodrich, Bloody Bill Anderson: The Short, Savage Life of a Civil War Guerrilla (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998).
T. J. Stiles, Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War (New York: Random House, 2003).
Daniel E. Sutherland, A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Roles of Guerrillas in the American Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).