By Martin Northway
More than 150 of us are gathered in front of the Callaway County Courthouse in Fulton, Missouri, to share a community landmark: dedication of our eighth and final local interpretive panel on the Gray Ghosts Trail Civil War driving tour through central Missouri. It is warm and clear, and seating in the closed-off brick street fosters the atmosphere of a country wedding.
The theme of the panel is “Callaway County Men at War.” Its thumbnail biography features a local Civil War and Reconstruction hero, a county sheriff killed by vigilantes in whose honor three-dozen uniformed law officers and firefighters pass with muffled tread in front of Civil War re-enactors to open the ceremony.
This is a project that has occupied years of effort. I am surrounded by friends and even relatives, almost none of whom I knew when I returned to the ancestral home of my dad’s family a dozen years before. I could not then have predicted this result, but I had after all come here for connection, and I enjoy the jibes thrown my way by speakers who understand not only the event’s significance but its importance to me. It is like being alive at your own wake; it is not so bad.
I vividly recall wheeling my U-Haul truck west through St. Louis from Chicago, suddenly facing mounds of black clouds roiling from the southwest, threatening to muscle out the calm sky north of I-70. It was as if God himself was troweling the frescoed sky. I laughed at the unexpectedly familiar: the southern three-fourths of Missouri is the top of the South climatically, storms liking to ride the Gulf current from Texas and Oklahoma, while weather in the top tier of counties arrives on the prevailing northwest wind, as in the upper Midwest, or Chicago.
Just below the climatic divide, Missouri’s Little Dixie region sweeps about two counties deep from Mark Twain’s Hannibal and Louisiana west along and generally north of the Missouri River to Kansas City. Settled by pioneers from the upper South—some of whom were slaves—this is the land of my father’s people, and I invaded it the way the Yankees did.
Along I-70 from Danville through Callaway County, it is also the route of today’s Gray Ghosts Trail. Crossing into Callaway, I passed little Williamsburg, “Gateway to the Boone’s Lick region” pioneered by Daniel Boone’s sons.
After seven splendid-but-trying years editing the free arts tabloid Strong Coffee and three more editing the North Side weekly Inside, I had found the nouveau riche gentrifying Uptown were fraying my psychological tether to the Windy City. Older relatives repeatedly drawing me back to Missouri, I wondered how much of the old Little Dixie remained. After a friend’s death in the autumn prior to the Millennium, I set out on a long walkabout and hitchhike from Hannibal to historic Arrow Rock.
I wanted to experience how much of the culture I remembered was left. It was a magical adventure among folkways and people, fried chicken, horses and hound dogs, making it an easy decision for me—my children then out of the nest—to bolt from Chicago to take a job editing the paper in Fulton, Callaway’s county seat.
That gig did not last, but I quickly threw myself into my dad’s cousins’ routine of Friday coffee at Mel’s Country Cafe in Jefferson City, and of Sunday fried chicken or country ham at the Claysville General Store in southern Boone County, a place once owned by relatives.
Callaway is a big county, stretching from rolling mixed prairie in the north into wooded hills and the top of the Ozark plateau in the south, abruptly cut by the Missouri River and its valley. Across the river is the state capital, Jeff City. My extended family is from southwestern Callaway and adjoining southeastern Boone County.
My kin landed there soon after Lewis and Clark paddled by. My childhood was packed with fables of larger-than-life forebears, night hauntings stalking me into adulthood: a great-grandmother who with her mother stood up to invading soldiers; “Grandpa” Hughes whose legs were shattered by a cannonball; my white grandma’s “Aunt Mary,” a former slave.
The Civil War sesquicentennial looming, I would have a chance to test some of the mythology, applying lessons learned at the knee of University of Chicago scholars. What I would discover was that truth often exceeded fiction, that the “dark and bloody ground” of that other border state, Kentucky, had nothing on Missouri during the War Between the States.
I came backgrounded in regional history but requiring immersion in the area’s war history. I started at the Kingdom of Callaway Historical Society, but the real education was a result of my friendship with Mark Douglas, who knew more about this place during the war than anyone else alive. After I assumed a leadership role in the Sons of Confederate Veterans, he and compatriot Don Ernst reported word of the proposed Gray Ghosts Trail.
We agreed that Callaway had an important story to tell. To share the considerable tasks, we gathered a dozen heritage leaders into the Kingdom of Callaway Civil War Heritage group. Researching and writing the history fell to Mark and me, I the junior partner though his senior in age.
The first interpretive panel told how the county came to be known as the Kingdom of Callaway after local Southern minutemen bluffed would-be invading Union militia in October 1861. The panel was almost entirely Mark’s work, and the dedication at the Heart of Missouri Tourism Center in Kingdom City was a triumph.
Completion of the project seemed daunting but achievable, when Mark died, suddenly, of a heart attack. It was a horrible loss to us all; the telephone call came amidst one of our planning meetings. Were it not for the support of our group, I don’t know that I would have been able to continue alone the work we had shared. But we all cinched up our sword belts to finish the job Mark had helped begin.
Someone was always bucking me up. Sometimes it was co-chairs Joe Holt or Bryant Liddle or Barbara Huddleston of the historical society or Vicki McDaniel of Fulton Heritage Trust. Shortly after we thought we had settled on six sites for Callaway’s Trail, Joe Crane started attending meetings. Favoring billed hats and red suspenders, Joe is the unelected mayor of Williamsburg, the small town one passes as one enters the county from the east, as I had in the U-Haul.
You can readily find him at Crane’s Museum or Marlene’s Restaurant, with its tasty country fare, which he runs with his wife, Marlene. If you’re lucky he will tell you, as he did us, of how Captain “Bloody Bill” Anderson’s heavily armed Rebel guerrillas, “mounted on thoroughbreds,” used Williamsburg to stage the 1864 nighttime raid on the Union town of Danville just east, reducing it to cinders. Historical research confirmed Joe’s account; so Williamsburg too is on the Gray Ghosts Trail.
And so it was comforting and fitting to see Joe Crane with us listening to Judge Gene Hamilton’s and presenter Warren Hollrah’s accounts of Sheriff Law’s heroism so many years ago. With Missouri divided but Callaway County strongly Southern, Law was a farmer who led a company of Missouri State Guardsmen off to war in Spring 1861. Many of the same men followed him into the Confederate Army, in which Law rose to second in command of the 1st Missouri Cavalry Regiment.
Lieutenant Colonel Law was with his men resisting Union General U.S. Grant’s forces at the gates of Vicksburg, Mississippi—the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy”—when he lost his arm in combat. Despite that handicap, after the war he was elected Callaway County sheriff, once former Confederates were permitted to hold office in Missouri.
In 1873, near this place, he escorted a convicted stock thief from court to the train station. The prisoner was a notorious bushwhacker despised by both sides in the war. Riding in a carriage with guards, Law eschewed pistols. En route they were attacked by mounted vigilantes who mortally wounded Law and a guard and lynched the thief, Peter Kessler. Law lingered just long enough to be joined bedside by former commander Colonel Elijah Gates, himself Buchanan County sheriff despite his own loss of an arm during the war.
Bushwhackers good and bad, slaves who became Union soldiers, one-armed heroes—such stories confound the simpler (and duller) versions of the Civil War—but it is war as it was in Callaway County, whose ghosts we have learned still live and who, hell, no, I ain’t forgetting.