A Civil War Story of Slavery and Rescue

Cover of Incident at the Otterville Station by John Christgau

It is November 11, 1863 on a Missouri farm two miles north of Sedalia. Anticipating the end of slavery in Missouri, a slave owner named Charles Walker attempts to ship his thirteen slaves to Kentucky, where he intends to sell them.  But orders have just gone out from various Union military authorities forbidding the issuance of permits to ship slaves out of state.  Still, Walker has gotten a permit to ship his thirteen slaves, but Union troops stop him from boarding the train in Sedalia.  Walker then travels east a few miles and secretly boards the slaves at the next Pacific Railroad stop in Smithton, Missouri

Meanwhile, one of the slaves is shot and killed in an escape attempt.  Another slave, named "John," whose wife and children are among the slaves to be sold, escapes and makes a night run of almost twenty miles to the encampment of Companies C and K, 9th Minnesota, just south of Lamine Bridge, and a mile from the Pacific Railroad station in Otterville, Missouri.  John pleads with the Minnesota troops to rescue his family, and thirty-six men of Companies C and K race to the Otterville station, board the train with drawn guns, face down two armed Missouri militia men who try to stop them, and turn the slaves loose.  The slaves disappear into the woods around the Otterville station.

The next day, all thirty-six Minnesota soldiers are arrested, sent to Jefferson City, and jailed in the basement of an abandoned hotel.  The charge is "mutiny," among the punishments for which is execution.

When Missouri and Minnesota papers report the event, it creates an outrage in the North.  Congress then picks up on the issue, which is argued on the floor of the U.S. Senate.  Lincoln appoints Secretary of War Stanton to do an investigation of the incident.  After four months of imprisonment, the Minnesota soldiers are finally released on Stanton's order.  Nearly half of the men are subsequently wounded, killed in action, or die in Andersonville Prison.


At the center of the story are: Sergeant Francis Merchant, who leads the Minnesota soldiers in the rescue; Private Henry Ehmke, a German immigrant; Private James Woodbury, who dies in Andersonville prison; the two Missouri militiamen who try to stop the rescue; the slave John; and Secretary of War Stanton. 
This little known but remarkable story stands as a dramatic illustration of what bravery and courage it took to oppose slavery despite Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.

Chapter One--Charles W. Walker

It was the grandest ball in the history of this country. On an unusually warm Thursday night in November of 1863 in New York, during some of the heaviest fighting of the Civil War, thousands of guests promenaded into The Great Russian Ball along a narrow walkway of magenta carpet in the New York Academy of Music. Bronze statues holding lighted torches flanked the entry doors to the dance floor. White tapestries and baskets with braided ropes of bright flowers hung along the walls.

On the huge dance floor what was described as a mass of humanity heaved and flowed. Dancers struggled to find room to step and whirl. There were waltzes and quadrilles and polkas. Actors, empresses, soldiers, writers, statesmen, beautiful young women in magnificent dresses garnished with pomegranate blossoms and sparkling dew drop diamonds looped and glided and bumped. The ballroom smelled of thick perfumes and forget-me-nots. The music of Rossini and Verdi and Schubert glided above the steady hum of the cheerful voices of the dancers.

It wasn't until late at night that the exhausted revelers sat down to consume a seven course banquet featuring half a ton of beef and a thousand ducklings prepared as canetons a la rouennaise. A toast was proposed to "Abraham Lincoln the Emancipator," and a thousand champagne corks exploded like the gunfire in a war that had been momentarily forgotten.

The dancers had hardly recovered from the gala event when a thousand miles across the country, a Missouri slave owner gathered his thirteen sleepy slaves in the middle of the night in front of their cabin. The cold air held no trace of the intoxicating perfumes of dancers. The squawk of roosters replaced the strains of Strauss and Verdi. It was pitch dark. There were no bright lights or sparkling diamonds. There were no pomegranate blossoms. Instead of the savory aroma of roast ducklings, there was only the sharp smell of fried fatback and barnyard manure. Instead of a thousand cheerful voices, there was only the lone, flat voice of master Charles W. Walker as he addressed his assembled slaves of six adults and seven small children.

He had awakened them early, he wanted them to know, because he was shipping them by train that very morning to Kentucky, where they were to be sold on the slave market in Louisville.

The thirteen slaves were stunned. Walker had always treated them well. It was not necessarily a reflection of his kindness. Missouri was surrounded by free territory that invited runaways. Cruelty to slaves only increased the possibility of flight. Now, the man who often worked beside them in the field, the man with whom they worshipped in the same church--this man who treated them like family members was announcing his intention to ship them to Kentucky and sell them. His authorization to do so, he said, would come from the Union forces in Sedalia.

It meant that despite the Emancipation Proclamation of that previous January, Abraham Lincoln was not "The Great Emancipator" who would ultimately control their fate and was being toasted in the ballrooms of New York. Their fate was in the immediate hands of Charles W. Walker, who had been born in Casey County, Kentucky, in 1821, the second of thirteen children of a saddler named James T. Walker and his wife Mourning. In search of cheap and fertile land, the whole family had left Kentucky to homestead a small farm in Pettis County, Missouri, in 1847. The party of two adults and thirteen children made a long wagon train of horses and mules that wended its way over ridges and through steep defiles to a "land such as God had promised to the ancient Israelites."

At first, the numerous strapping boys in the family served as the laborers for raising wheat and hemp for baling cotton. But James T. Walker saw that slave holders in Pettis County produced three times the crops of non-slavers, and he promptly acquired a sixteen-year-old slave named John. Other slaves soon followed, until they numbered six adult slaves who did the field work and cooked and cleaned in the Walker household.

One-by-one the Walker sons and daughters moved out. Then the family patriarch James T. Walker died, and it left Charles, still single at 39, to run the farm. In 1860, inspired by the example of his brothers who had married and started their own farms, thirty-nine-year-old Charles Walker married a woman hardly half his age and began a family of his own.

Meanwhile, even before the start of the Civil War, Abolitionists and pro-slavers took up arms against each other in Missouri over the issue of slavery. Sensing an opportunity during the conflict for freedom, slaves fled from their owners and some were conscripted as soldiers in the war effort. The value of slaves began to decline. The days of slave ownership in the state seemed numbered. As the Civil War raged, slavers began transporting their "property" to solid slave states, for sale at auction markets or for safe harbor until the bloody war had ended.

It was clear, at least in the mind of Charles Walker, that slaves would soon be of no value whatsoever in Missouri. Now he told the thirteen figures who stood before him in the dark to gather whatever personal belongings they could carry with them. In a matter of only a few minutes, on one of the horse-drawn farm wagons driven by his brother, Walker would take them to the Pacific Railroad terminus in Sedalia. There, he would board them on the train and escort them on the journey to slave markets in Louisville. It didn't matter who Abraham Lincoln claimed he had emancipated, Walker finished. There was no use attempting to escape. If he didn't immediately shoot them himself, Missouri "bushwhackers"--mounted pro-slavers who roamed the countryside in packs, looting and burning and killing--would hunt them down and shoot them on sight.

It was still dark when Walker and his brother set out with his slaves on the two mile ride into Sedalia. The town had been laid out only a few years earlier but hadn't prospered until 1861, when it became the end-of-the-line for the Pacific Railroad carrying passengers from Sedalia to St. Louis along stretches of the Missouri River. As it moved east, the train made brief stops to deliver goods and take on passengers in the towns of Smithton, Otterville, Syracuse, Tipton, and Jefferson City.

To serve those travelers as well as settlers, Sedalia had two dozen business houses along Main Street selling groceries, drugs, meat, tin ware, and whiskey. When Walker and his slaves arrived, those businesses were all dark and the town's three thousand citizens were still asleep. Only the wooden water tank at the railroad depot was visible in the dark, watching over Sedalia like a sentinel.

Walker led his slaves past the dark offices of the Overland Stage and the livery stables to the cattle yard on the southwest part of town, where Union soldiers were stationed to protect Sedalia from bushwhackers and Rebel incursions.

The practice of shipping slaves out of state to avoid the inevitable end of slavery was repugnant to Abolitionists. Only the day before, orders prohibiting the practice had been issued from the headquarters for the Union army's Department of Missouri in St. Louis. "No provost marshal or other officer in military service," the order read, "will permit any person to take slaves from Missouri to any other state."

It was an order that had not yet been received by the young lieutenant who served as assistant provost marshal for the Sedalia troops who were just then waking up for the day's duty. The lieutenant listened to Walker's explanation of what he intended to do. He promptly wrote out a permit and signed it with a flourish, then sent Walker and his slaves on their way to the Sedalia depot.

The only hotel in town was the Ives House, described as not a "respectable kennel for a pack of hounds." But the hotel had a long covered veranda that served as the platform for the railroad depot, and Walker led his slaves out of the farm wagon and onto the platform. The engine and its tender, two boxcars and a string of passenger coaches stretched down the track.

Walker presented his certificate of authorization to the platform agent, who read it carefully. "Permission is granted for Charles W. Walker," it said, "to ship from Sedalia to St. Louis en route to Kentucky the following blacks." The agent read the names carefully, then studied each of the slaves, as if he was checking to see that the group standing before him agreed with the names on the certificate.

There was twenty-three-year-old John, the first slave Walker had bought seven years earlier. John was muscled and strong-legged from long days of hard work breaking hemp. There was Emily and her five young children, all of them nearly asleep on their feet now. There was Rachel and her two young children, also half asleep. There were Anna and Patey, teenage girls but old enough to labor. Finally, there was twenty-three-year-old Billy. The certificate did not explain how they might all have been related. And if the slaves had surnames, they were not transcribed. They were "property," no more entitled to a surname than a hay rake or a mule.

The station agent only glanced at the certificate, then handed it back to Walker. He could not permit Walker and his slaves to board the train, he said.

Walker was stunned. Did the agent think there was a discrepancy between the list and the group Walker had brought for shipment?

No, the agent explained. The Pacific Railroad had several lawsuits pending against it for slave transport. One of the company's officials had complained that if they were held liable for slave transport, the railroad would soon be bankrupt. The agent told Walker that the transport of slaves was a risk the railroad was no longer willing to take.

Walker protested. The certificate was signed by local military officials. Walker invited the agent to walk the block to the Sedalia encampment to check for himself if he wanted.

There was no need, the agent said. The Union troops stationed in Sedalia would arrive momentarily for the day's duty guarding the depot. But regardless of what the troops said, the station agent explained, Walker and his slaves would not be allowed to board the train.

A squad of soldiers bearing their weapons arrived in a matter of minutes. Walker again presented his certificate to the soldiers. They did not even bother to look at it. They explained that they were under standing orders not to permit the shipment of slaves to another state. That was the end of it.

Walker pressed them to explain why the young provost marshal had issued them a permit in the first place.

They said he must not have seen the recent order against shipment.

But, Walker objected, the permission he had just received obviously countermanded any such order.

The soldiers didn't care. They had their orders, and they intended to follow them.

Walker protested further: what was he supposed to do?
They told him that as far as they were concerned, he could get in his wagon and take his slaves back to his farm and put them to work again. But on no account was he going to take them to another state on a Pacific Railroad train.
There was another possible motive for the resolve of the soldiers. Only weeks before Walker's arrival at the platform, a bothersome peddler had come into the Sedalia encampment of soldiers crying, "Pins, thread, combs, buttons!" It was an Irish private who had ordered the peddler out of camp. "I've been ordered about for the last six months," the private had explained. I've never had the pleasure of ordering another man."

The station soldiers, who also now had a chance to deliver orders instead of receive them, made a line between Walker's group and the passenger cars. Walker had no choice then but to gather his slaves together again, climb back in his farm wagon, and disappear.

They had gone only a few hundred yards into the darkness when Walker stopped the wagon and turned to his slaves. He was not going to return them to his farm, he said. He had his permit. In the dark, he brandished it. Those thirteen slaves huddled in the wagon represented a good part of the nearly fifty thousand dollars of equity in land and slave "property" that he and his father had accumulated over the years through farming. He was not about to lose it all because some young Union soldiers half his age intended to "follow orders."

The train was scheduled to depart the Sedalia station at approximately at eight a.m. Heading east, it would make its first stop to board passengers in Smithton, just a few miles down the track. For a short time Smithton had been the terminus of the Pacific Railroad line, and the town had sprung up like a prairie flower. Then the line had been extended to its new terminus in Sedalia and the once radiant flower of Smithton had quickly wilted. All that was left of the town was a boarding platform, a water tank, and a few buildings. There were no Union soldiers camped nearby. Walker and his brother could gallop the wagon team to Smithton. They could be there before sunup. When the train arrived from Sedalia, he could board it with his slaves and be on his way. The Union forces in Sedalia would be none the wiser.

The very reasons why Walker felt he could board his slaves in Smithton were exactly why escape suddenly became a possibility for them. Smithton had become nearly a ghost town. There were few inhabitants. There was no Main Street with businesses preparing to open for the day. There were no livery stables or open cattle yards that escapees would have to negotiate before they could disappear into nearby thick woods. If just one of them could escape and go for help, Walker would not be able to leave the rest of the slaves unguarded while he ran down the lone fugitive.

Walker and his brother drove the team of horses at a gallop along a frontier trail from Sedalia to Smithton. The sky had turned gray from the approaching sunrise when they arrived. Walker said goodbye to his brother in the wagon and herded his thirteen slaves onto the platform. There were no soldiers or a platform agent to stop him now.
John waited to be the last to climb up on the platform before he suddenly bolted and raced along the right-of-way ditch for the nearby woods. Walker shouted, then fired his pistol, but that was the end of his pursuit. There was no point in risking the escape of his entire slave equity in pursuit of one fugitive.

John headed back for Sedalia at a brisk run, splashing through creek beds, skirting the patches of open prairie, and keeping to thick woods of oak, hickory, and walnut.
He moved as swiftly but as quietly as he could in the dark, fearful that even the snap of a dead twig would betray his presence to the bushwhackers and Rebel guerillas in the area. If they captured him, they would be just as ruthless as the mob of one hundred men on horseback who a few years before had dragged a slave accused of murder and rape from jail in Georgetown, just north of Sedalia. On the steps of the Georgetown courthouse, the mob had put the fate of the accused slave in the hands of the local citizenry: should the slave be lynched or burned alive? The decision was to burn him alive, and he had been taken to the outskirts of town and tied by wrist chains to a walnut sapling. All the slaves from the surrounding farms were made to watch in horror as he was set on fire and then pleaded for his life as the flames engulfed him.

There had been considerable doubt concerning the guilt of the victim. To those slaves who watched him burn, and to those who subsequently heard about the incident, it was not the object lesson it was meant to be on the inevitability of white man's justice. It was instead an object lesson on white cruelty. But for John, the chances of being lynched or burned alive as a fugitive seemed a risk worth taking if he could rescue his own family. Once he got back to Sedalia, he could alert the soldiers who had refused to let Walker on the train. They had seemed to be sympathetic to the plight of the slaves. They surely would be incensed to learn that Walker had defied them. They would know exactly what to do to come to the rescue.

At a brisk run still, John reached Sedalia and passed the livery stables, then the Overland Stage offices, which were beginning to stir now with preparation for the new day. Dawn was just breaking behind him when he reached the platform of the Ives Hotel and found the same soldiers still there, guarding the platform like watchful loiterers.
The Pacific Railroad train was beginning to load passengers when John leaped onto the platform and confronted the soldiers.

Mr. Walker had defied them, he explained. He had taken all the slaves to Smithton, to await the arrival of the train, then board them. His wife and children were in the slave group. They would all be lost to him forever if the soldiers didn't rescue them.

The soldiers explained that they were under orders to guard the platform. They could not abandon their post. There was nothing they could do to help. They were as adamant about their orders to stay at their post as they had been to turn away Walker.

John was momentarily speechless. It had been heartbreaking, to be awakened in the middle of the night and told of Walker's plan. But hope for rescue had arisen when the soldiers on the platform stopped Walker. Those hopes had been dashed when Walker and his brother moved them all to Smithton. Again, hope for all of them had suddenly risen when John had bolted into the night. Now, for John those same hopes had been dashed a second time with the soldiers' explanation that they couldn't leave their posts.

So what was he to do?

If he wanted his family and the others rescued, the solders explained, his best bet was to make a dash for Otterville. After the train's brief stop in Smithton, it would move on to Otterville.
Otterville? John had never heard of Otterville. Or been there.

There was a small cantonment of Union troops just east of Otterville, the soldiers said. Their duty was to guard a bridge over the Lamine River. Perhaps those soldiers could muster a rescue party.

The Lamine Bridge. John had never heard of that either.

Head straight east, the soldiers told him, into the sun which was just about to appear on the horizon. Follow the tracks and the right-of-way. But stay out of sight of the bushwhackers. If he was spotted by bushwhackers, he was doomed.

Yes, he knew that.

Could he run?

Yes, he could run.

The train wasn't scheduled to depart the station in Sedalia for approximately an hour. He would have to get to Otterville and alert the troops at the Lamine Bridge before the train's scheduled arrival there at nine o'clock. The soldiers glanced at their watches. It was just after seven. It gave him almost two hours to run a little more than twelve miles to Otterville and the Lamine Bridge. He would have to run at a good clip. Could he do that?

He could work hard from before sunrise until after dark. He could use his powerful arms all day long to cut and then break hemp. He could run from one corner of Walker's farm to the other, because walking wasted time and reflected indolence. But he wasn't sure he could run swiftly for twelve long miles.

He would have to, they said, if he wanted to rescue his family. There was no time to waste. He better get going.