Colonel John T. Coffee

Colonel John T. Coffee

Four months after his death in Texas on May 23, 1890, a Missouri weekly newspaper, the Greenfield Dade County Advocate, carried an obituary about John Trousdale Coffee. The obituary mentioned that “much of Col. Coffee’s life was connected with this city…there are scarcely any here who do not know something of him personally or by reputation. (1) What the readers of the obituary remembered or knew concerned Coffee’s years as a Mason, as an attorney, as a politician and as a leader of Confederate cavalry during the terrible years of the Civil War. Some Dade Countians also would have remembered Coffee as a hard-drinking and oft-married man noted for his “positive convictions” on many subjects. But the most vivid recollections of the people would pertain to Coffee’s military exploits as a successful recruiter for the Confederate cause and for his troop of cavalry which rambled back and forth through Missouri and Arkansas. Coffee’s men, during this perilous time, had caused Union sympathizers to fear for their lives and property and required Federal forces to constantly deploy against them.

John Trousdale Coffee was not a Missourian by birth. He had been born December 14, 1816, in Smith County, Tennessee, to Reverend Joshua M. and Jane “Jinny” Trousdale Coffee. (2) Besides preaching the gospel, Joshua Coffee owned property in Lancaster and Alexandria, Tennessee. He operated a store, known as “Joshua M. Coffee and Son,” in Alexandria where he also served as postmaster for a time. (3)

Young Coffee read law until he believed himself ready to take the bar examination. He passed the exam while in his early twenties and also joined the Masons. Falling in love with a first cousin, he proposed to her. She declined to marry him because of their blood relationship. His marital plans were delayed only a short time, and in 1841, Coffee married Eliza Jewell Stone. A year later Eliza died and was buried in Cleveland, Tennessee, the community in which Coffee apparently practiced law. The grief-stricken young widower received a further blow, in the fall of 1842, when his father died on October 2. The elder Coffee left a $20,000 debt due to financial reverses. (4)

The deaths of his wife and father, plus his father’s insolvency, probably prompted Coffee to emigrate to Missouri. Newly organized Greene County beckoned. The re Coffee might succeed in both law and politics, as well as acquire good land at a reasonable price.

After his arrival in Springfield, the Greene County seat, Coffee sought to qualify as a licensed lawyer. He began an active practice as one of the thirty attorneys serving the Springfield area prior to the Civil War. (5) On June 26, 1843, he expanded his practice when he registered on the roll of attorneys in Polk County. (6)

One recorded anecdote illustrated Coffee’s thirst for hard liquor and his humor. In the early 1840’s he and a fellow lawyer from Bolivar, John T. Payne, had taken a case and received a horse as their payment. While socializing in a Springfield saloon, Coffee and Payne discussed their payment. After a few drinks, the two lawyers began arguing loudly on how to divide the fee. Tired of the heated discussion, Coffee finally upholstered his pistol and started to walk out of the saloon. Payne followed him and demanded to know what Coffee planned to do. Coffee replied: “I am going to shoot my part of that horse. You may do what you please with your part.” (7)

On April 4, 1844, Coffee, who was dividing his time between his legal affairs in Springfield and Bolivar, married a Bolivar woman, Catherine Grace Hunt. Again misfortune visited the transplanted Tennessean. Two weeks after the birth of their only child, Catherine Coffee died. Coffee placed the child, named for her mother in the care of her maternal grandmother, who resided in Bolivar. (8)

By September 1845, the young lawyer decided to marry a third time. He exchanged vows with sixteen-year-old Lavena Harriet Weir of Greenfield, in mid-September. (9) The bride’s father, Reverend Samuel Jackson Weir, was a prominent minister and farmer, who had helped establish Greenfield as the Dade County seat. (10) Coffee and his new wife lived in Greenfield after their wedding.

During the late 1840’s, Coffee continued to practice law in Southwest Missouri and occasionally assisted land speculators. He left the state, however, for a brief period, after he raised a regiment of Southwest Missourians to fight in the Mexican War. Coffee recruited the company very late in the war, and it had traveled as far as New Orleans when the war ended. Consequently, Coffee discharged his men and returned home, where he became Dade County’s circuit attorney in 1849. (11)

As an anti-Benton candidate, Coffee successfully campaigned for the Missouri senate in 1854 and represented the Twenty-fifth District composed of Polk and Dade counties. (12) On December 28, 1854, he received his committee assignments to “Ways and Means” and the “Deaf and Dumb Asylum.” (13) His political beliefs were personified by his nomination, before a joint session of the legislature, of the proslavery candidate David Rice Atchison for another term as United States Senator. (14) Coffee sponsored a number of bills, including internal improvements for Southwest Missouri, the incorporation of the Carthage Female Academy, a prohibitory liquor law in Dade County, the incorporation of the town of Fremont in Cedar County and petitions for relief. (15) However, he would not finish out his elected term.

Both branches of the legislature recommended Coffee for a captaincy in the First U.S. Army Cavalry Regiment. He accepted the commission in May 1855, and commenced recruiting in Southwest Missouri before reporting to his duty post at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He resigned his senate seat on August 24, 1855. (16) Four months later on December 20, 1855, Coffee relinquished his military commission due to illness. He promptly returned to his Greenfield home, located on the town commons, which also served as his law office.

In 1856, the question of whether Kansas would be admitted into the Union as a slave or free state plagued Missouri and the rest of the nation. Coffee, by this time, had become one of the most influential men in Dade County and a recognized political leader in Southwest Missouri. A staunch states’ righter and owner of at least one slave, Coffee adamantly opposed the abolitionist activities occurring in Kansas.

On the evening of August 26, 1856, a citizens meeting took place at the Dade County Courthouse. A committee of seven men from Dade and Lawrence counties, including Coffee, were appointed to draft resolutions expressing “the sense of the meeting.” The drafted preamble and resolutions denounced “abolitionists and hired marauders … ravaging Kansas Territory, robbing the law and order citizens, burning down their houses ….” Immediate action was necessary and delay would prove:

fatal to Southern rights and the maintenance of law in Kansas, and that it is the duty of every pro-slavery man in our county to render such aid as he consistently can without serious injury to himself or family…. (17)

Coffee spoke afterwards to the crowd and proposed “squatter sovereignty” as a solution to the Kansas problem. (18)

In June 1857, Coffee and two other Dade Countians acquired the weekly Greenfield American Standard. Originally an anti-Benton paper, the former owners, in 1856, had begun to support the Know-Nothing party. The new owners changed the newspaper’s name to the Greenfield Southwest, dropped its Know-Nothing affiliation and published it as an “Independent in politics.” In 1859, the Southwest ceased publication, but while it existed, it furthered Coffee’s leadership as an independent Democrat after he withdrew from the national Democratic party. (19)

As an independent in 1858, Coffee offered himself as a Democratic candidate in the Seventeenth State Senate District. (20) He lost the nomination to the regular Democratic candidate, B.H. Cravens of Cedar County. Coffee then considered running in the general election as an independent candidate but reconsidered. He decided that his candidacy might prove injurious to the Democratic party. This decision foretold his forthcoming nomination as a candidate for representative of Dade County. Coffee won the election and immediately allied himself with pro-Southern leaders Sterling Price and Claiborne Fox Jackson. This alliance insured his selection to the office of speaker of the house for the 20th General Assembly. Coffee received 97 of the 117 votes cast. (21)

During the 20th General Assembly, Coffee sponsored internal improvement bills for Southwest Missouri, just as he had done a few years earlier as a state senator. He also introduced bills to incorporate Masonic lodges, a new school district, the Dade County Agricultural and Mechanical Association, and bills to legalize land transactions. (22) He voted for a constitutional amendment to limit the state debt to $30,000,000 and spoke in favor of postponing the vote on the state’s revenue bull until after the legislators had discussed it with their constituents. (23)

Throughout his term as speaker of the house, Coffee performed his important duties with dispatch. He presided over the sessions and followed the adopted rules of parliamentary procedure. Among his powers were committee and chairmanship appointments. He did not campaign for reelection the next term.

By 1860, his political ambitions appeared to center on securing the Democratic nomination for Missouri’s secretary of state. In a mid-February meeting, Dade County’s Democratic Committee met and instructed its delegates to the state convention to vote for Coffee. (24) Benjamin F. Massey, however, won the nomination. (25) For a brief period, Coffee returned to his law practice, worked his 800-acre farm and supervised his slave family. (26)

When the Civil War erupted, Coffee, his beliefs in states’ rights firm, raised a Confederate regiment in Dade County and won election as its colonel. He also established recruiting camps in southern Missouri for General Thomas C. Hindman (27) Official reports in Records of the war of the Rebellion scarcely mention Coffee until after Sterling Price’s Confederate victory at Lexington, Missouri. After the Lexington battle, Price withdrew his Missourians to Springfield, thence to the southwest corner of the state, and finally to the security of the Boston Mountains of Arkansas.

On March 7, 1862, Generals Price and Ben McCulloch of Arkansas, fighting in the command of General Earl Van Dorn, were defeated in the Battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas, by the Union forces of General Samuel R. Curtis. Again, Price withdrew his men to extreme Southwest Missouri and returned to the Boston Mountains. Following the Confederate defeat at Shiloh, Tennessee, Price took most of his army to Corinth, Mississippi. Soldiers who accompanied Price, joined the Confederate army for three years. (28) Confederate unites, remaining in Missouri, continued as independent commands.

Coffee chose not to go with Price. Instead, he established a camp at Cowskin Prairie in the southwest corner of Missouri. On April 26, 1862, Coffee and some sixty Missourians under his command joined Colonel Stand Watie and his Cherokee troops in a skirmish with the First Missouri Cavalry. A Confederate victory ensued, but Watie, in his report, mentioned that he was forced to withdraw because Coffee did not supply expected support. (29) By mid-May, Coffee had made camp at Maysville, Arkansas. Four hundred Confederates had joined him. Union General Samuel R. Curtis described these men as “the most despicable, rough, ragged rascals ever congregated together.” (30)

At the end of the month, Coffee and some 200 of his motley cavalry joined contingents of Watie’s troops to attack Union cavalry near Neosho. The rebels surprised their enemy and routed them. Watie reported that: “Colonel Coffee’s cavalry, which had charged simultaneously with our infantry, kept up the pursuit for miles.” (31)

In late July 1862, JO Shelby, recently returned from Tennessee, joined forces with S.D. Jackman and Coffee. The officers and their men rode through Neosho and traveled north with Jackson County as their destination. This force, joined by John T. Hughes, Gideon W. Thompson, Upton Hays, Vard Cockrell and their men, also actively recruited to swell its ranks. (32)

Union General E. B. Brown became aware of the Confederates’ plans and reacted accordingly. From his Springfield headquarters, he issued a circular on August 2, calling for the people of southern Missouri “to rise in a body and protect their homes and families.” Brown was convinced that “Coffee and his band.” in particular, would destroy the Union troops efforts to maintain “peace and security.” (33)

Coffee and his men led the Union troops on a merry chase. On August 5, Brown reported to General John M. Scholfield that: “Coffee has doubled, and yesterday afternoon was going south near Mount Vernon, our troops in pursuit of him.” (34) On the same day, Brown sent a dispatch to Colonel Frederick Salomon and stated that: “Coffee and [James S.] Rains made a recent raid into the State…but they move so rapidly I have but little hopes of coming up with them.” (35)

Brown’s belief that Coffee was near Mount Vernon on August 5, proved incorrect. On that day, he appeared in Montevallo, a small town located in Southeast Veron County. Montevallo was not far from Coffee’s camp on Horse Creek in the western part of Cedar County. When Coffee camped at Horse Creek in early August, about 200 men comprised his force. Through successful recruiting, he quickly added over a hundred others to his ranks. In Cedar County, the lawyer-politician-Confederate officer had enjoyed great military success. His and other Confederate troops had so terrorized the county’s pro-Union population, during the spring of 1862, that many had left the county for the protection of Union-held Springfield. (36)

At Montevallo, a Union detachment of over a hundred men from Fort Scott, Kansas, surrounded some twenty pro-Southerners seeking to join Coffee’s band. A skirmish ensued, and those Confederates that escaped made their way east to Coffee’s headquarters. The commanding officer of the Union force, Colonel William Barstow, and one of his sergeants purportedly boasted to the Montevallo townspeople that: “We will have Coffee for breakfast tomorrow morning and we will take him without a cream and sugar.” (37)

Told of the Federal attack at Montevallo, Coffee set off to capture the Union detachment. He wanted to surprise his enemy, but a Union sentry discovered the approaching Confederates. The Union cavalry mounted their horses and speedily withdrew to the south. Coffee and his ill-clad followers charged through the town from the east and pursued the retreating Federals. In their haste to escape, the Federal force left two supply wagons and large quantities of arms and ammunition, which would be put to good use by Coffee’s men. (38)

By August 9, Schofield knew that Coffee had been recruiting near Osceola. (39) On August 14, Brown informed Schofield that Coffee and Rains, with a combined force of some 3,000, probably had formed a junction in Cedar or Barton counties. Schofield, in his St. Louis headquarters, sent a reply to Brown the same day. It illustrated the confusion created by Coffee, his troops and men like them in the Union defense of Southwest Missouri.

If Rains and Coffee are both west of you it must be a mistake about any very large force south of Forsyth. I apprehend it is a mere demonstration to facilitate the movements of Rains and Coffee. It may, however, be the reverse. The movements of Rains and Coffee may be intended to draw your troops away from Springfield. Do not let them deceive you. (40)

Coffee may have deceived Brown, as Schofield suggested in an August 12 report to General Henry W. Halleck, (41) but he had not deceived Colonel Clark Wright or Major Samuel Montgomery of the Sixth Missouri Cavalry. Wright had ordered Montgomery to “cut Coffee off,” and on August 7, the major’s troops successfully carried out the order,. His troops had attacked part of Coffee’s cavalry from the rear, near Montevallo. The Confederate cavalry leader had split his force before the skirmish, sending half of his command to Osceola. Reporting the Wright-Coffee clash, Montgomery pridefully stated that “we have the old rebel in a tight place.” (42) On the ninth, Montgomery found Coffee’s forces reunited near Stockton. The Forth Missouri Militia and a company of artillery engaged the Confederates “just at daylight” on August 12, “and drove them handsomely….” (43) Shelby learned that Coffee was being hard pressed along the Osage River. He rode to the aid of his fellow officer, but Coffee and his men had out ridden and eluded the enemy. They appeared to be out of danger. (44)

Subsequently, Coffee and Shelby joined forces and continued north from the Osage to the Grand River. Coffee then turned his column west and headed for Independence. Shelby started in the opposite direction for Lexington. Both recruited men for their ranks along the way.

On the night of August 15, Coffee’s cavalry variously estimated at 800 to 1,500 mostly ill-clad, unarmed Missouri State Guard members, prepared to camp a mile south of the Lone Jack in Jackson County. Other Confederate troops were in the are of Lone Jack including the commands of Upton Hays and Vard Cockrell who planned to attack Lexington. The latter had camped about six miles northwest of Lone Jack. (45) Union troops, however, also were nearby. Some 800 troops, under Major Emory S. Foster, had marched from Lexington and arrived at the northern edge of Lone Jack at about nine o’clock, the evening of the fifteenth. Shooting between Coffee’s pickets and the Federal troops occurred immediately. Discovering that Coffee’s main force had camped south of the town, Foster prepared to attack them. The Union detachment, including artillery, had advanced some three-quarters of a mile when Coffee’s poorly equipped cavalry charged. A volley from Union muskets dispersed the Confederates. At the same time, the Union artillery fired into Coffee’s main camp. Coffee’s troops withdrew hastily, and the Union force returned to Lone Jack. (46)

Union cannon fire alerted the other Confederate officers in the area, who did not realize that enemy troops were nearby. Foster, however, knew about the Confederates. His troops had captured a sergeant from Coffee’s command who informed Foster that he was greatly outnumbered. Foster expected reinforcements and therefore, the news did not disturb him.

Now aware of the Union occupation of Lone Jack, Hays, Cockrell, Hunter and Jackman decided to attack the town early the morning of the nineteenth. As the Confederates approached from their positions toward the town, a musket discharged and the element of surprise vanished. Even so the Union forces virtually were surrounded. The Confederates attempted to capture the Union artillery more than once. They set fire to the Cave Hotel a rallying point for the Federal troops. Noah Hunt, a Lone Jack resident, counted over 110 dead horses laying around the square. Vicious hand-to-hand combat accounted for piles of dead and wounded. The reinforcements, Foster expected, never materialized.

As the battle raged, Coffee busily rallied his troops that had been dispersed by the previous evening’s engagement. Around 11 A.M., he was prepared to reinforce Cockrell. Foster had been shot, and Captain Milton Brawner had assumed command of the beleaguered Federals. As Coffee’s troops entered the fray, Brawner, short on ammunition and vastly outnumbered, decided to withdraw his force and returned to Lexington. (47)

The Confederates finally occupied Lone Jack around noon. The fighting had lasted less that five hours. One of the captured Federals, Lieutenant Levi Copeland, was placed under the charge of Coffee. Guerrilla leader William Quantrill arrived at Lone Jack late in the day and, finding that Copeland had been captured, demanded he be turned over to Quantrill’s men. Coffee refused. Quantrill incensed by this rebuff, ordered his men to mount and prepare to charge Coffee and his troops. He sent a note to Coffee explaining that Copeland “had dragged the father of two of Quantrill’s men from his home and in front of the man’s family hung him and burned the house.” Learning this, Coffee turned over Copeland, who was immediately shot by the two sons. (48)

Coffee’s reinforcement of Cockrell’s troops proved to be his finest hour. Arriving where fighting was the heaviest, they caused the Federals to flee as their dwindling ammunition gave them no chance to successfully repel the superior force. Brawner acknowledged as much in his report of the battle, “…the force under Coffee…again appeared on our left flank, with the evident design of surrounding our worn-out troops and cutting off all retreat.” (49) Because he had sustained minimal losses, had been in the right place at the right time, and ranked as the senior colonel in Price’s army, Coffee believed he deserved the rank of brigadier general. For months, he and Shelby would vie for the brigadier’s star.

The Confederate objective to occupy Lexington had been thwarted by Foster’s desperate defensive action at Lone Jack. At the same time, Union forces, commanded by General James Blunt from Fort Scott, Kansas, and Colonel Clark Wright’s cavalry, plus Iowa troops under the command of Colonel Fitz Henry Warren had been ordered by James Totten to try and cut off the Confederate withdrawal. Coffee’s hard-riding cavalry fled southward, avoided a confused Wright, crossed the Osage River near Clinton, and successfully escaped to the Arkansas line. Shelby followed at once.

All efforts to intercept Coffee and Shelby failed, despite General E.B. Brown’s empty boast on August 17 to Schofield that Coffee’s cavalry “are in a constant state of alarm, prepared to run and not to fight, and more afraid of the Feds than they are of the devil.” (50) Theodore Gardner, a member of the First Kansas Battery, testified as to the frustration experienced by the Union pursuers attempting to capture Coffee’s horsemen:

Before the day [August 17] was finished we had learned that we were headed for Loan Jack to run Colonel Coffee out of Missouri, and although we kept up the pace…for three days and four nights, the wily Confederate gave us the slip and returned to the Ozarks. (51)

On the twenty-first, Colonel Wright reported to Brown of his chase of the Confederates: “Coffee, Cockrell…and all the rebel bands are together, heading for Dixie. They can outrun Jordan….Their course has been direct, their speed high, and their exercise perpetual since I struck their trail.” (52) Once again the Union army controlled Missouri, but the Confederates would return. (53)

Three weeks after the battle of Lone Jack and following hot pursuit by the Federals, three regiments of Confederate cavalry (one under Coffee’s command) met in Northwest Arkansas. The regiments were attached to General Thomas C. Hindman, who had assumed command of the Trans-Mississippi Department. A reorganization of the Confederates under Hindman ensued. He approved the resignation of General James S. Rains and relieved him from duty because of drunkenness. At the same time, Hindman arrested Coffee on charges of drunkenness and ordered a court-martial. (54)

On August 26, General Schofield confidently advised Totten, at Springfield, that “the enemy’s forces in western Arkansas are not all that formidable. They will probably content themselves with raids like that of Coffee.” (55) General Curtis, from his headquarters at Helena, Arkansas, told Schofield that “Raines and Coffee [apparently waiting court-martial trials] at Fort Smith… Price gone east. No invasion of Missouri.”(56)

In late July 1862, Hindman was relived of his command of the Trans-Mississippi Department and replaced by General Theophilus H. Holmes. The latter had received much criticism for “apathy” at Malvern Hill (57) and had been transferred to the Trans-Mississippi Department. One Civil War Historian labeled this department, by 1863, as “the junkyard of the Confederate army[for generals from the eastern theatre]” until the arrival of Edmund Kirby Smith.(58) Hindman, before being replaced, had ordered all Missouri State Guards into the Confederate army. This action prompted General Sterling Price to advise the Confederate secretary of war, George Randolph, that thirty prominent Missourians, including Coffee, should be the men to organize Missouri troops for Confederate service.(59)

Hindman had placed Shelby in command of a brigade comprised of three regiments of cavalry, his own and the regiments of Coffee and Upton Hays. Shelby called his command the “Iron Brigade.” It went into bivouac south of Newtonia. The men were threadbare, on short rations and their horses were unshod.(60) Notwithstanding these privations, the Iron Brigade fought on and won the first battle near the end of September. Engagements followed at Cross Hollow, Cane Hill and Prairie Grove. All the while, Coffee continued to be inactive, presumably awaiting the court-martial which convened and tried him in the spring of 1863. Coffee won acquittal for the charge of drunkenness and returned to recruiting for the Confederate cause in southern Missouri.(61)

From his camp in Diamond Grove in Southwest Missouri. Major T.R. Livingston, on May 28, 1863, sent a dispatch to Price which illustrated Coffee’s importance to the Confederate cause:

Colonel Coffee has joined me with a small force of unorganized troops, and will co-operate with me…. It is currently reported here that Colonel Coffee will soon be restored to the command of his regiment; if such should be the case, we hope that he will be allowed to operate in this section of the country. His knowledge of the country, and the unbounded confidence of the people in him, demand that this should be the field of his operations.(62)

Coffee continued recruiting throughout the summer, often leading raids designed to create havoc in southern Missouri. His forays caused Union Colonel Edwin C. Catherwood to move his troops from Springfield, chase Coffee’s band and defeat him near Pineville, in McDonald County, on August 12. Catherwood won a decisive victory, killing 60 to 70 of Coffee’s men.(63) This affair foretold the almost complete Confederate loss of control of Missouri except in the extreme southwest corner. Thus, a plan, designed by Shelby to draw Federals from their control of the Arkansas Valley and Central Missouri, won the approval of Missouri’s Confederate governor, Thomas C. Reynolds.

Shelby planned and cavalry incursion into Missouri’s heartland, perhaps even to the state capital in Jefferson City. Besides disrupting Union control, the raid would give Confederates the opportunity to retaliate against Union General Franz Sigel’s recent burning of Bentonville, Arkansas.(64) The raid called for more than a thousand cavalrymen under Shelby to dash north toward the Missouri River. Coffee was to command a third of Shelby’s force. Shelby started in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, on September 22, 1863; Coffee joined him at Crooked Prairie near Pineville. On October 4, at Neosho, Shelby and Coffee forced Union Captain C.B. McAfee to surrender his troops and sizeable supply trains. Shelby paroled those captured, and took such supplies as his men could pack. Next the Confederates burned every house at Bowers Mill just north of Sarcoxie. Following a cold night’s ride north to Greenfield, the advance units under Coffee’s command arrived at the town at daylight on October 6. Here they surrounded and captured a garrison of fifty militia, seized all available supplies and fired the Dade County Courthouse, used as a federal garrison.(65)

When Coffee joined his advanced horsemen at his hometown, the courthouse was in flames.(66) He immediately ordered the men to take the county’s records from the burning building on the public square and place them in the residence of Judge Nelson McDowell. Despite his efforts to save the county records, Coffee learned following the war that his land records had been ripped from the county deed record book.(67)

To see the courthouse where he had practiced law, in flames no doubt saddened Coffee. But he was even more deeply saddened by another tragedy that had occurred while he was away from home. Less than two weeks before his return, his wife had died. Whether Coffee knew of this before his arrival remains unknown; and, history does not record what the bereaved Confederate cavalry officer did during this brief stay. Coffee, however, probably visited the grave of his wife and certainly looked after the disposition of the five children he had fathered.(68)

The courthouse fire abated, the family business settled, Coffee and his men continued north with the rest of Shelby’s brigade. The horsemen crossed the Sac River at the Seybert Mill on the road to Melville (now Dadeville). On the morning of October 7, the Confederates began arriving from Greenfield. There they burned the Cedar County courthouse which had been turned into a Union fort. They then torched the Caplinger and Crow water mills nearby and rode on to Fair Play in Polk County. They continued on to Humansville, Warsaw Cole Camp, Florence and Tipton, skirmishing with Union troops and capturing wagon trains. Some of the Confederate scouts came in sight of the night lights of Jefferson City, where General E.B. Brown’s Union troops outnumbered Shelby’s command more than three to one. Brown had left Jefferson City with 4,000 troops in pursuit of Shelby, Coffee and the Confederate force, which now had encamped near Boonville. General Schofield also had ordered General John McNeil to take 2,000 soldiers to intercept Shelby’s brigade.

Shelby withdrew his forces, fighting a delaying action against the enemies. Breaking camp early on the morning of October 13, he headed for Marshall. Outside the Saline County town, Shelby, Coffee and Colonel David Hunter and their men engaged General Thomas Erving, Jr., who commanded, according to Shelby, 4,000 union troops. Five hours of fierce fighting ensued; dismounted troops fought hand-to-hand combat. During the fourth hour, Coffee and Hunter had broken through Ewing’s left wing and occupied Marshall. About the same time, Brown and his men arrived in force Shelby estimated his enemy to now the number 9,000.

Toward the end of the fight, Brown’s forces joined up with Ewing’s. Shelby reported that “their combined forces, outnumbering us eight to one , looked absolutely frightful. While forming for a final, crushing charge, I determined to retreat, knowing it was madness to continue the unequal contest.”(69) Shelby ordered his command to fight through an opening in the Federal right. The assault surprised the Union soldiers. The Confederates, including Coffee’s command and the supply wagons, escaped.(70)

In his official report of the Battle of Marshall, Shelby included Coffee among the officers who “handled their commands with great skills, and were ever where fire was hottest and heaviest….”(71) Shelby lead his force to Waverly, thence southward. Not out of danger until they crossed the Sac River at Seybert Mill, the Confederates made camp, on October 17, at John Dunkle’s farm on Rock Prairie (now Everton), Twelve miles southeast of Greenfield. They reached Pineville, in McDonald County, the following night. Once again “under whips and spurs,” Shelby’s Iron Brigade had out ridden, outfought, and outmaneuvered the Federals, who outnumbered them more than six to one. They arrived in the Arkansas hill country four hours ahead of Brigadier General John McNeil’s Union force.(72)

Shelby wrote of the raid: “my command increased about 600…. fought five battles; had daily skirmishes; traveled 1,500 miles…. My men and horses are worn out and must rest here [Washington, Arkansas] for a week or two.”(73) Shelby had reached Washington forty-one days after starting the raid. His men traveled an average of thirty-six miles each day.(74) The “Great Missouri Raid” ended warfare of any importance in the state during 1863.(75)

Shelby’s aide, John N. Edwards, a few years after the war ended, wrote of his commander and the brigades exploits. He facetiously portrayed Coffee, during the 1863 raid, as a “politicking” officer bent always on electioneering. Edwards recalled at Cole Camp, while the Confederates were dressed in Union garb, “Coffee electioneered for Congress and explained his position.”(76) To Edwards, Coffee, at the drop of his Calvary hat, would orate to soldiers and civilians alike. Seemingly he exhibited this trait, common of recruiters, throughout the war.

Shelby emerged from the raid a household name and a prime favorite of Governor Reynolds, if not Price. Surprisingly , following the raid, General Hindman relieved Shelby as commander of the Iron Brigade, at the same time General John S. Marmaduke took command of all the Price cavalry on October 22, 1863.

Because of bureaucratic haggling in the confederate government at Richmond, Virginia, Shelby did not recieve his brigadier’s star until early 1864.(77) Coffee, a senior colonel in Price’s army and a colonel when Shelby held a captain’s rank, was passed over. Bitterness ensued among Coffee’s supporters when Shelby received the star. Lewis Renfro, for example, commented later: “I don’t know just how this happened, for colonel Coffee was senior in rank, but by some hook or crook the plum went to Shelby.”(78) Doubtless, those loyal Coffee recalled his timely arrival to insure victory at Lone Jack with Shelby twenty miles away, his dramatic break through Ewing’s encirclement outside Marshall and their day-to-day associations with him. The fact that Shelby’s past military successes actually overshadowed Coffee’s record apparently did not enter into their thinking.

Denied his general’s star, Coffee left his regiment, and Gideon Thompson succeeded him as its commanding officer. Thompson’s new command consisted of only three companies of Calvary and one company of infantry. After Coffee’s resignation, official reports afford scant information about him until Sterling Price reorganized the army in the summer of 1864. Shelby received command of a division composed of his brigade and those of Jackman and Colonel Charles H. Tyler. Coffee, in turn, became the colonel of a “paper” regiment of Missouri Calvary, transferred from Jackman’s brigade to Tyler. Coffee’s orders gave him until September 1 to fill his regiments ranks.(79)

Following Jefferson Davis’s proclamation forgiving deserters, Coffee believed that hundreds of deserters, located in the northern tier of Arkansas counties, would return to Confederate ranks. Coffee and Jackman and over fifty other officers were empowered to recruit.(80) Shelby thought that 3,000 men might come in, and if this occurred, Coffee again would have a full regiment to command. However, the recruiting success did not materialize; and when Shelby prepared to join Price in his 1864 raid of Missouri, the Calvary commander debated whether to leave Coffee at Batesville, Arkansas, to continue recruiting, or to take him along. He decided that leaving Coffee would only provide “a nucleus for the deserters to come back to.” Since this was undesirable, he order Coffee to join Jackman’s brigade in the expedition and allowed him to recruit to fill his regiment beyond the September 1 deadline.(81) Coffee thus recruited and the expedition traveled to Fredericktown, Missouri; he hoped to fill his quota of men, but, by October 3, he had not done so. Shelby relieved Coffee from Jackman’s brigade and ordered him to report to Price.

Shelby’s lengthy “Report of Price’s Missouri Expedition,” written by Edwards in December 1864, did not mention Coffee. Nor was Coffee mentioned in any of the reports after the Battle of Pilot Knob, on September 27, until the war’s end. Two Union officers, however, believed that Coffee may have been foraging for wheat in the Arkansas Fourche LeFave bottoms south of Dardanelle, early in 1865.(82)

After the Battle of Westport, in late 1864 or early 1865, Coffee moved his family overland to Waco, Texas. A family history suggests that Coffee went to Waco at the invitation of friends of his brother, Franklin Brown Coffee, who had been a member of the Texas Rangers.(83) While the reason for his trip may never be known, his staying in Missouri could have been disastrous.

Sometime after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, Coffee, per sona non grata among Union sympathizers, might have been physically harmed if he went back to southwest Missouri. His derring-do throughout the war had made him one of the most feared of all Confederate officers operating in the war-ravaged area. The charred brick courthouse hulks at Greenfield and Stockton stood as mute testimony to his perfidy.

Passed over as senior colonel in Price’s army, Coffee had lost the coveted brigadier’s star. The Drake Constitution of 1865, adopted by the Missouri State Convention, debarred him from practicing law and holding political office in Missouri, both of which he had pursued as his peacetime livelihoods. Death had claimed his third wife in late 1863, leaving him to care for seven children, five of them under fifteen years of age. Discouraged, apprehensive, and worn out from four years of fierce warfare, Coffee, with his children, joined scores of Missouri Confederates who decided to start a life anew in Texas

After the surrender of the Confederate army of the Trans-Missouri by General Edmund Kirby Smith, General Shelby, refusing to capitulate, moved to Eagle Pass, Texas. At this time, he purportedly asked Coffee to join his force as a mercenary and fight under the flag of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico.(84) Coffee declined and instead surrendered himself in Austin, Texas, to General George A. Custer. The ex-Missouri Confederate signed a formal oath of allegiance to the United States on July 26, 1865.(85)

The displaced parolee made a final move from Waco to Georgetown, Texas, the county seat of Williamson County. Within three months, he married his fourth wife, Eunice Amelia Allen Vontress. The native Texan, a twenty-seven -year- old widow and mother of a small daughter, had been the wife of Edward Hughs Vontress, a prominent Georgetown judge and Confederate wartime major. Vontress had died sixteen months earlier near Alexandria, Louisiana, when a bolt of lightning struck him. Coffee and his seven children moved into his bride’s home. When three of the girls reached “counting age,” two rooms were built on to the front of the house. His fourth wife bore him six more children.

The ex-Confederate operated a goat ranch nine miles west of Georgetown. For a third time, he qualified to practice law in a new state. The State’s Rights Democrat also resumed participation in politics. During the 1870’s , Coffee supported the Georgetown College and the Georgetown Railroad. Although he never returned to Missouri, Coffee unsuccessfully attempted to regain cleat title to his Dade County property, which was finally sold for delinquent taxes, in February 1879.

Coffee and his family maintained an active membership in the Georgetown Methodist Episcopal Church South. In 1882, the veterans of the Civil War, who lived in Williamson County, organized and elected Coffee as the first president. Eight years later, he died at Georgetown, Texas, on May 23.(86)

Probably most remembered for his wartime service to the Confederacy, Coffee should not be cast as a Confederate guerrilla in the mold of William C. Quantrill. But Coffee’s mission, if not his tactics, appeared the same as all guerrilla leaders: to keep a maximum number of Union troops off balance and committed to protect loyal Union citizens. For instance, when Union General Benjamin F. Loan wrote President Abraham Lincoln in October 1863. that he needed more troops , Loan named Coffee as the archetype guerrilla leader. Due to lack of Union protection, Coffee’s forays, according to Loan, forced Missouri’s pro-Union citizens to go into exile or unite in armed defense of their homes.(87) According to one historian of the Civil War, Confederate military activity in Missouri “kept the Union military forces of the border, who overwhelmingly outnumbered them, mobilized, harassed, and not available for utilization in other theatres where they were badly needed.”(88) Coffee’s leadership of Confederate forces, his ability to recruit effectively and the military tactics he employed greatly assisted in maintaining the tremendous imbalance in numbers.

  1. Greenfield Dade County Advocate, September 18, 1980.
  2. Joshua M. Coffee Bible, in possession of Mrs. C.F. Coffee, Corona Del Mar, California: “Coffee Family History,” in State Historical Society of Missouri, Columbia.
  3. Ibid
  4. Ibid
  5. Jonathan Fairbanks and Clyde E. Tuck, Past and Present of Greene County Missouri(Indianapolis 1915), I, 457.
  6. History of Hickory, Polk, Cedar, Dade and Barton Counties, Missouri(Chicago 1889), 296-297.
  7. Fairbanks and Tuck, Past and Present of Greene Co., I, 457.
  8. Mrs. Howard W. Woodruff, comp., Marriage Records Polk County Missouri Book “A” 1836-1859 (n.p., n.d.), 13; Elizabeth Prather Ellsberry, comp., 1850 Federal Census for Polk County, Missouri(n.p., n.d.) 23.
  9. Woodruff, comp., Marriage Records Polk Co., 16
  10. A.J. Young, ed., History of Dade County and Her People(Greenfield, Mo., 1917), I, 66
  11. Greenfield Dade County Advocate, September 18, 1890; John T. Coffee to Abiel Leonard, February 7, 1856, Abiel Leonard Collection, Joint Collection, University of Missouri Western Historical Manuscript Collection-State Historical Society of Missouri Manuscripts-Columbia; Columbia Weekly Missouri Statesman, July 6, 1849.
  12. Liberty Weekly Tribune, October 20, 1854.
  13. Journal of the Senate, Mo. 18th General Assembly (Jefferson City, 1855), 27, 28.
  14. Ibid., 48, 75.
  15. Ibid., 82, 118, 137, 161, 222, 299.
  16. Columbia Weekly Missouri Statesman,May 4, August 24, 1855.
  17. Springfield Mirror,September 4, 1856.
  18. History of Greene County, Missouri(St. Louis, 1883) , 242.
  19. Minnie Organ, “History of the County Press of Missouri,” Missouri Historical Review, IV (July, 1910) , 265; Columbia Weekly Missouri Statesman, June 26, 1857; Jefferson City Weekly Jefferson Inquirer, June 12, 1858.
  20. Liberty Weekly Tribune,May 28, 1858.
  21. Jefferson City Weekly Jefferson Inquirer, January 1, 1859.
  22. Journal of the House, Mo. 20th General Assembly (Jefferson City, 1859), 85, 182, 188, 347, 405; idib, Adjourned Session (Jefferson City, 1860), 89, 177, 188, 348.
  23. Jefferson City Weekly Jefferson Inquirer, February 5, March 26, 1859.
  24. Liberty Weekly Tribune, February 17, 1860.
  25. John F. Snyder, “The Democratic State Convention in 1860,” Missouri Historical Review, II (January, 1908), 122.
  26. U.S. Census, 8th Report, 1860 Products of Agriculture, “Dade County Missouri”; ibid., Slave Schedule, “Dade County Missouri.”
  27. Young, ed., History of Dade County, I, 98.
  28. Battles and Leaders of the Civil War(New York, 1888), IV, 281-287.
  29. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies(Washington, D.C., 1880-1902), Series I, Volume XIII, 61-63. Hereafter cited as O. R.
  30. Ibid.,91, 398.
  31. Ibid.,95.
  32. John C. Moore, “Missouri,” Confederate Military History(Atlanta, 1899), IX, 97-98.
  33. O.R.., Ser. 1 Vol. XIII, 530.
  34. Ibid.,537.
  35. Ibid.,539.
  36. Fairbanks and Tuck, Past and Present of Greene Co., I, 339.
  37. Clayton Abbott, Historical Sketches of Cedar County Missouri(Greenfield, Mo., 1967), 83.
  38. Ibid., 84-85; O.R., Ser.1, Vol. XIII, 211.
  39. Ibid.,55.
  40. Ibid.,567.
  41. Ibid.,561.
  42. Ibid.,221.
  43. Ibid.,230.
  44. Ibid.,
  45. Philip C. Parker, “Lone Jack, Invasion Battle 1862, Jackson County, Missouri,” typescript, State Historical Society of Missouri, 3.
  46. Ibid., 3; O.R.,Ser. 1, Vol. XIII, 237.
  47. Parker, “Lone Jack, Invasion,” 4-8; Richard S. Brownlee, Gray Ghosts of the Confederacy(Baton Rouge, La., 1958), 98.
  48. Parker, “Lone Jack, Invasion,” 9.
  49. O.R.., Ser. 1 Vol. XIII, 237.
  50. Ibid.,579.
  51. Theodore Gardner, “The First Kansas Battery,” Collections of the Kansas State Historical Society 1915-1918(Topeka, 1918), 242.
  52. O.R.., Ser. 1 Vol. XIII, 252.
  53. Ibid.,15.
  54. Ibid.,48.
  55. Ibid.,598.
  56. Ibid.,601.
  57. Ibid., 855, 860; Ezra J. Warner, Generals in Gray(Baton Rouge, La., 1959), 141.
  58. Albert Castel, General Sterling Price and the Civil War in the West(Baton Rouge, La., 1968), 141.
  59. O.R.., Ser. 1 Vol. XIII, 824.
  60. George S. Grover, “The Shelby Raid, 1863,” Missouri Historical Review, VI (April, 1912), 107; O.R., Ser. 1 Vol. XIII, 979.
  61. Ibid.; ibid., Ser. 1, Vol. XXII, Part 2, 145.
  62. Ibid.,849.
  63. Howard V. Canan, “Milton Burch Anti-Guerrilla Fighter,” Missouri Historical Review, LIX (January, 1965), 233.
  64. Battles and Leaders, IV, 374. Jay Monaghan provides a good discussion of Shelby’s raid and other Missouri military action in his Civil War on the Western Border 1854-1865(Boston, 1955).
  65. O.R., Ser. 1, Vol. XXII, Pt. 1, 671-673.
  66. Missouri Historical Review, XLVI (July, 1952), 328; Floyd C. Shoemaker, Missouri Day by Day(Columbia, 1943), II, 424.
  67. Young, ed., History of Dade County and Her People, I 247; John K. Hulston, An Ozark Boy’s Story 1915-1945(Point Lookout, Mo., 1971), 47-78.
  68. O.R., Ser. 1, Vol. XXII, Pt. 1, 671-673.
  69. Ibid.,676.
  70. Ibid.
  71. Ibid.,677.
  72. Ibid.,649, 670.
  73. Ibid.,670.
  74. Ibid.,678.
  75. Floyd C. Shoemaker, Missouri and Missourians(Chicago, 1943), I, 858.
  76. John N. Edwards, Shelby and His Men(Kansas City, Mo., 1897), 170.
  77. Daniel O’Flaherty, General Jo Shelby Undefeated Rebel(Chapel Hill, 1954), 209.
  78. Young, ed., Hist. Dade Co. & Her People, 101.
  79. O.R., Ser. 1, Vol. XLI, Pt. 1, 642.
  80. Ibid., Vol. XXXIV, Pt.1, 928.
  81. Ibid., 925; ibid., Vol. LXI, Pt.1, 27.
  82. Richard S. Brownlee, “The Battle of Pilot Knob,” Missouri Historical Review, LIX (October, 1964), 8; O.R., Ser. 1, Vol. XLVIII, Pt. 1, 139, 404.
  83. “Coffee Family History.”
  84. Charles Franklin Coffee II to Don Ruth Merrill, January 28, 1963, in “Coffee Family History.”
  85. Eugene A. Cordy, Descendants of Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri Pioneers(n.p., 1973), 311.
  86. Georgetown [Texas] Williamson County Sun, March 13, 1919; ibid., April 21, 1966; Waco [Texas] Tribune-Herald, December 4, 1966; “Coffee Family History.”
  87. O.R., Ser. 1, Vol. LIII, 581.
  88. Brownlee, Gray Ghosts of the Confederacy, 5.

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