As the Confederate cause takes a turn for the worse late in the war, guerrilla border violence escalates. On September 27, 1864, William T. "Bloody Bill" Anderson and roughly 80 guerillas, including Frank and Jesse James, stop a train at Centralia, Missouri. Of the train's 125 passengers, 23 are Union soldiers who are returning home on leave after the Battle of Atlanta. Anderson asks for a volunteer among the prisoners, presumably one who would be shot as an example, and Sergeant Thomas Goodman volunteers. Anderson instead orders the remaining 22 soldiers shot, sparing Goodman. The victims' bodies are reportedly scalped in one of the most notorious Civil War massacres in the West.
Later on the same day, Major A.V.E. Johnston leads 155 Union soldiers in pursuit of Anderson's men to their encampment southeast of Centralia. What is supposed to be a swift Union retribution quickly turns into a one-sided battle. When the two forces collide, the poorly armed and inadequately trained Union forces are nearly annihilated by Anderson's men. Only 32 of the Union soldiers survive.