“A lively narrative of post-Civil War America and Mexico.”—Washington Times
John M. Taylor
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General Jo Shelby, a daring and ruthless cavalry commander renowned and notorious
One of the most remarkable but surprisingly little known stories of the post–Civil War era is the unforgettable account of how a famous Confederate general forged a defiant new life out of crushing defeat and finally achieved forgiveness and respect in his own reunited land.
General Jo Shelby, a daring and ruthless cavalry commander renowned and notorious for his slashing forays behind Union lines, declared after Appomattox that he would never surrender. With three hundred men, some from his fighting “Iron Brigade” regiment, others adventurers, fortune hunters, and deserters, he headed for Mexico.
In vivid detail, General Jo Shelby’s March describes the dusty and dangerous 1,200-mile trek that this “last holdout of the Confederacy” made through a lawless Texas swarming with desperadoes and on into a Mexico teeming with Juárez’s rebels and marauding Apaches. After near fratricide among his fraying band of brothers, Shelby arrived to present a quixotic proposal to Emperor Maximilian: he and his fellow Americans would take over the Mexican army and, after being reinforced by forty thousand more Confederate soldiers, the government itself. Though a dramatic, doomed, and brave endeavor, Shelby’s actions changed both him and American history forever.
Historian Anthony Arthur then recounts the astonishing end of Shelby’s career: his return to the United States and his renouncing of slavery, his nomination by President Grover Cleveland to become U.S. marshal for western Missouri, and his eventual fame as a model of nineteenth-century progressivism.
“A lively narrative of post-Civil War America and Mexico.”—Washington Times
John M. Taylor
The Call to Arms
From Privileged Youth to Border Ruffian
In the early 1850s, a dozen years before he crossed into Mexico, nothing could have compelled Jo Shelby to leave the world of privilege and wealth into which he had been born. Well before his birth, the Shelby name was a famous one in Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky, denoting a numerous, widespread, and very successful clan. A common ancestor from Wales, Evan Shelby, had arrived in Pennsylvania in 1735 with his wife and four sons. Evan set the tone for the strain of violence and eccentric independence that would emerge in some of his progeny: Presiding at a wedding in Maryland, he blessed the couple by saying “Jump Dog, Leap Bitch, and I’ll be damned if all the Men on Earth can unmarry you.” He also threatened to “job a fork into the Gutts” of the groom when he showed signs of backing out. Evan’s energetic sons soon moved west and south, becoming wealthy entrepreneurs and men of property along the Appalachian frontier. His second son, David, sowed crops and begat children, eleven in all; the ninth of these was Orville, Jo’s father, born in 1803. Orville’s short life was shadowed by illness, but he had a golden touch when it came to business and marriage. His first wife was an heiress who died young and left him wealthy. His second, in 1829, was Anna Maria Boswell, daughter of a prominent physician in Lexington, Kentucky. Their son Joseph Orville—called J.O. or Jo for his initials from the day of his birth on December 12, 1830—would barely remember his father, who died, just thirty-two, in 1835. Orville left behind enough for his family to live on, including a trust fund for his son that would be his on his twenty-first birthday, in 1851—a healthy sum of $80,000, the equivalent of more than $2 million today.
In 1843, when Jo was twelve, his mother married Benjamin Gratz, who was already related to Jo by marriage: Benjamin’s recently deceased wife was Anna Shelby’s aunt. Gratz was then forty-nine, with three sons in their late teens and a fourth, Cary, who was just a year and a half older than Jo.
Benjamin Gratz was the scion of a family of eighteenth-century German Jewish immigrants who became merchants and men of distinction in prerevolutionary Philadelphia. Educated as a lawyer at the University of Pennsylvania, he had met Maria Gist, Anna’s aunt, while on a business trip to Lexington in Kentucky, one of several states where his family owned land. Among the Gratz holdings in Kentucky was the farmland where Mammoth Cave was discovered in the late eighteenth century.
In the opening decades of the nineteenth century, Lexington developed from a rough frontier village into one of the country’s more sophisticated inland cities; it liked to call itself the “Athens of the West.” Gratz become a wealthy hemp merchant and a leading citizen. One indication of Lexington’s sophistication may be suggested by its apparent willingness not only to tolerate but to welcome a Jew—even an essentially secular, nonobservant Jew like Gratz—into its aristocratic hierarchy. It could not have hurt that Gratz’s sister Rebecca was said to be Sir Walter Scott’s model for the beautiful heroine of that name in the hugely popular historical novel Ivanhoe: Scott’s novels had long provided models of chivalric behavior for those in the South who considered themselves aristocrats, as the wealthy planters and commercial barons of Kentucky did.
For seven years, young Jo Shelby lived a charmed life of privilege and ease in Benjamin Gratz’s brick Georgian mansion. He was an impressionable boy, with an intellectually acute and involved new father who saw Jo’s education in all things—or tried to. Too restless to be a good student, Jo was tutored at home by a succession of frustrated young men, students at Transylvania University, just down the street. His mother offered only occasional supervision; she would bear three children by her new husband within the first five years of their marriage, and whatever free time she had was devoted to her passions for cultivating roses, reading Shakespeare, and supporting the city’s orphans’ home.
Riding was Jo’s passion, and it was readily indulged. In a part of the country devoted to fine horses and daredevil feats of equestrian agility, he excelled. Slender and lithe, Jo sat his horse like a young centaur—no fence was too high, no ditch too wide for the sorrel roans he preferred because they rarely stumbled.
Jo’s exemplar as a horseman was his neighbor John Hunt Morgan, five years his senior, and destined, like Shelby, to become one of the Confederacy’s greatest cavalry officers. Another older youth who impressed Shelby with his brilliant mind and argumentative nature was his stepcousin B. Gratz Brown, who would later become governor of Missouri and Horace Greeley’s running mate in the 1872 presidential election.
But the most striking of his youthful influences was the darkly handsome Frank Blair, who would later become one of William T. Sherman’s generals in Georgia and a key adviser to Abraham Lincoln. Combative from the day of his birth in 1821, Blair was kicked out of Yale for carousing and left Princeton after shooting a man in a barroom brawl. Sent by his father to calm down at Transylvania, in 1842 and 1843, Blair lived for a time in the Gratz house and was Jo’s tutor—one of the more successful ones because they shared the same rebellious temperament.
Benjamin Gratz was well known for his hospitality and often opened his home to the great men of his own and earlier generations. One of these, the Marquis de Lafayette, provided a link with George Washington himself. In 1826, Lafayette, by that time a hale sixty-eight years of age, was feted at a ball in Lexington while on his sentimental tour of the nation during the fiftieth anniversary of its Revolution. While there, he dined with the Gratz family and dandled the infant Howard Gratz—the stepbrother, five years his senior, with whom Jo Shelby would become closest—on his knee.
Another frequent Gratz guest over many years was Frank Blair’s father, Francis Preston Blair, Sr., the newspaper publisher and intimate friend of President Andrew Jackson. (Blair’s former house in Washington, D.C., remains today the official state guesthouse for the president of the United States.) Other renowned visitors were Missouri senators Thomas Hart Benton and Henry Clay, who devoted their careers to heading off the great war between North and South that they saw coming. (Clay lost the presidential election in 1844 to James K. Polk, who promptly embroiled the United States in a war with Mexico whose echoes would touch Shelby profoundly in 1865. In 1873, Clay’s grandson would marry Jo Shelby’s half sister Anna.)
Benjamin Gratz, like most of his guests, was strongly pro-Union, and he would remain loyal to it when war did break out. He was also like Henry Clay and other patriots in that he owned slaves. Jo himself was attended by a black servant close to his own age named Billy Hunter; his mother bought him at the Lexington slave mart as an eleventh-birthday present for her son. (Billy later said that he had cost Mrs. Shelby $2,000—the equivalent of $50,000 today.) Both boys assumed the rightness of the world into which they had been born, and they became close friends in a way that would baffle later generations of Americans. Billy would stay by his master’s side throughout much of the war and would weep at Shelby’s grave more than thirty years after he had won his freedom.
Young Jo was not only indifferent to formal study but inclined toward horseplay and practical jokes. One day, according to family legend, he and some friends crept into a room at the Transylvania University medical school where a cadaver had been prepared for dissection in an adjoining classroom. The boys lifted the cadaver from the coffin, and one of them—perhaps Jo—took his place while the others replaced the lid. The pranksters hid in the shadows as young black slaves came in to carry away the coffin. As they began to lift it, the slaves were terrified to hear a sepulchral moan from within the coffin, and then a hoarse voice pleading, “Lift me gently, lift me gently!”
When Jo was sixteen, Benjamin Gratz decided to send him east for a year to have some of his rough edges sanded off at a finishing school in eastern Pennsylvania. His stepbrother Cary would accompany him for at least part of the stay, and both boys would be able to visit frequently with their aunt Rebecca, who lived with one of her other brothers in Philadelphia.
Born in 1781, Rebecca Gratz was still a beautiful woman in her old age. Like her namesake in Ivanhoe, she had never married. It was rumored that she had spurned a secret Gentile lover—Henry Clay and Washington Irving were among those suggested—but in fact she had chosen to devote herself to caring for her extended family, and she was greatly revered as “the foremost American Jewish woman of the nineteenth century” for her intelligence and her philanthropic works. In 1844 she had spent the summer with her brother’s family in Lexington. Much taken with both Jo and Cary, she assured their father that they would be welcome in her house.
Often sickly, with a tendency toward whooping cough, Cary was quieter than the obstreperous Jo. Rebecca said Cary was a “sweet” boy, “the beauty and the cadet of the family, still in my mind’s eye the loveliest of children.” She was also touched by Cary’s solicitude for Jo, who had his virtues but was never “sweet”: For defying the headmaster at the school he and Cary briefly attended in Philadelphia, Jo was locked in his room and put on bread and water rations for three days, until Cary intervened.
By the time he returned home in 1847, Jo had won his aunt’s heart completely. Impish and irrepressible, he “seems to have the spirit of mirth inborn in him,” Rebecca told Ann. “He is as merry as a bird, or rather as a boy let loose from School, which he illustrated in a way to justify the adage.” She would miss his lively presence, Rebecca said, but knew that Jo’s parents would certainly “rejoice” in his new application to “his studies.”
Jo Shelby’s inclinations would always be more practical than aca- demic. As an adolescent and a young man in the late 1840s, he was groomed as a merchant prince, not as a scholar. He did his best to absorb his stepfather’s essential injunction—“those who get along best in the world are those who conduct themselves with amiability, urbane in their manners, and perfectly honorable in all their transactions”—and began work in Benjamin Gratz’s hemp factory when he was seventeen.
Commercial hemp is virtually unknown today in the United States; for years it was legally proscribed because of a spurious association with its cousin, marijuana. But in the first half of the nineteenth century it was a major cash crop in Kentucky. Farmed and then processed into bags and cordage for baling cotton, among other uses, hemp was the foundation of an industry that was both profitable and labor intensive in the extreme.
Benjamin Gratz’s “ropewalk,” where Shelby began his business career, was typical of the factories that dotted southern Appalachia in general and Kentucky in particular. Two stories high, the main building was a narrow structure nearly two hundred feet long and twenty-five feet wide; workers at spindles and looms lined the sides of both floors. Black slaves tied hemp strands around their waists and hooked them onto spinning wheels, then walked back and forth to form extended strands that were twisted into ropes of varying thickness.
It was Shelby’s job to see that the men kept up a regular pace. There is no record of him whipping slaves—as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s villain Simon Legree does in Uncle Tom’s Cabin—but the work for the men on the floor was at best monotonous, often hot and always dirty, and deadening to mind and spirit alike. To pay free men the kind of wages they demanded for such labor would have made the products of the hemp industry ruinously expensive. Simple business economics thus made slavery necessary for the survival of these enterprises, and of their owners’ way of life. Convinced as they were that blacks were inferior to whites, most slave owners, including even Benjamin Gratz, ignored the moral quandary in which their successful businesses inevitably landed them.
In 1851, Shelby came of age and into his munificent inheritance. His decision to move some three hundred miles west to the village of Waverly, Missouri, must have caused his mother some pain—earlier, when he had briefly considered moving to St. Louis, his aunt Rebecca wrote sympathetically to Anna Gratz that she would certainly miss the presence of so “amiable affectionate & clever” a son. But Shelby was eager to strike out on his own. Stirred by the lure of the frontier, he was more than ready to heed the advice of an Indiana editor in 1851, made famous later, in a shorter version, by Horace Greeley: “Go West, young man, and grow with the country.”
It had been Howard Gratz, Shelby’s cautious and sobersided stepbrother, who initially suggested that he and Jo begin their own hemp business in western Missouri, where land was fertile and cheap. They decided upon Waverly, one of dozens of American villages whose name was inspired by Sir Walter Scott’s novel Waverley and its sequels, early nineteenth-century bestsellers about the Scottish rebellion in 1745 and its consequences. A William Shelby—a distant cousin—had lived with his family on a farm near Waverly for many years and would ease the path of the new arrivals into the community.
Attractively perched on a wooded bluff above the Missouri River, three-quarters of a mile wide at that point, Waverly had been a distribution point for shipping lumber, furs, and farm products for thirty years. It had a flour mill, an iron foundry, a blacksmith shop, a few stores, and a scattering of wood-frame dwellings for its several hundred inhabitants. A far cry from sophisticated Lexington, the placid village of Waverly in those days must have been much like that of Mark Twain’s hometown of Hannibal as he recalled it in Life on the Mississippi—an isolated mote of the universe where old men sat languidly whittling on the porch of the mercantile until the effort “broke them down,” and yellow dogs slept in the dusty streets until the arriving steamboat’s whistle shrieked and the town jumped to life.
Waverly was exciting enough, though, for Jo Shelby during the three years that it took him and Howard to build their new business—years that coincided with a boom in the national economy. By 1855, Shelby and Gratz were prospering as the proud owners of the Waverly Steam Rope Company, which depended on the hard labor of twenty slaves. They also owned a warehouse and a seven-hundred-acre farm, raising not just hemp but wheat and corn, as well as five thousand hogs, a thousand head of cattle, and hundreds of fine horses.
The market for hemp alone was so strong—in 1853 they sold more than four hundred tons at $120 a ton—that the brothers expanded their horizons. They built a giant sawmill a few miles away, made plans to move into real estate with a new town to be called Berlin, and bought their own steamboats in order to avoid being gouged by the piratical private owners who transported their goods to St. Louis. Shelby even thought about founding a college. But for Shelby, the most visible and satisfying symbol of his success was the bachelor palace he built in 1853, a columned white frame house halfway up the bluff—grandly known as Mount Rucker—above his shoreside ropewalk.
Shelby enjoyed his bachelor years in Waverly. Plantation parties and riverboat excursions gave him needed breaks from the press of business, and he became known in the county as a man of style as well as substance. Snub-nosed and larky as a boy, he grew into dignified manhood and sported a thick, flowing beard to enhance his maturity. Always something of a dandy, he wore broadcloth coats and fawn- colored trousers that accentuated his broad chest and narrow hips. A fearless horseman, a graceful dancer, and a witty conversationalist, he was admired equally by the young men and women of his circle. “He was the finest looking man I ever saw, black hair and handsome features,” an acquaintance recalled. “He looked like somebody. He looked like someone who had something to him, like he was a fine strong man, which no doubt he was.”
Though famously impatient and hot-tempered, Shelby was not notably aggressive in those early years of his manhood. Unlike most of the men he would befriend and later lead in battle, he fought no duels at a time when personal feuds and exaggerated concepts of honor made dueling commonplace. Nor was he, in contrast to his boyhood idol John Hunt Morgan, fascinated by military history and anxious to prove himself as a warrior. He took the South’s side in the never- ending quarrels of the day over slavery and secession, but less fiercely than his friend and former tutor Frank Blair supported the North—Blair was already famous as a Free-Soil Democrat in St. Louis. Rather, Shelby simply assumed the rightness of his society, whose economic pillars were balanced on the backs of slaves.
But in the mid-1850s, as the pressure from Northern abolitionists to destroy slavery started to peak, Shelby began to understand the argument he had heard so many times in the Gratz household from Henry Clay, Thomas Hart Benton, and his stepfather. Geography is destiny, they had said. Where you are born and where you live shapes your fate more than you can ever imagine.
Anthony Arthur (1937–2009) was a professor emeritus of literature at California State University, Northridge, and the author of five books, including Clashes of Will: Great Confrontations That Have Shaped Modern America.
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