Jo Shelby – Repentant Border Ruffian?

     In an early post I noted that in 1841, at the age of fifteen, B. Gratz Brown went to reside with his namesake great uncle, Benjamin Gratz, in Lexington, Kentucky, while attending Transylvania College. Brown’s cousin, Frank Blair was also in residence at the Gratz home and attending Transylvania. At the time, four of Benjamin Gratz’s sons were there, ranging in age from fourteen to twenty-one. They were Michael Barnard Gratz, 21, Henry Howard Gratz, 19, Hyman Cecil Gratz, 16, and Cary Gist Gratz, 14. Benjamin Gratz’s first wife, Maria Gist Gratz, the mother of these boys, died in 1841, and Uncle Benjamin soon re-married. His new wife, Anna Boswell Shelby, was a widow who brought another son to the family, Joseph O. Shelby, 11 in 1841.[1]

    Brown’s biographer stated that despite the four year age difference between Brown and Shelby, they became “devoted friends.”  And yet, the two could not have taken more divergent paths. I have been reading Daniel O’Flaherty’s 1954 biography of Shelby which was re-printed in 2000 with a new foreword by Daniel E. Sutherland which you can read here. It is actually quite incredible to think of these young men at the Gratz home in Lexington debating the politics of the time and listening to visitors like Henry Clay, John J. Crittendon, and Francis Blair, Sr., Frank’s father, and then to think of the impact they had on the nation and on Missouri in particular. While later in the 1850s, Gratz Brown and Frank Blair fought slavery and its extension from their political base in St. Louis, Shelby and Henry Howard Gratz had also moved to Missouri and were engaged in very profitable hemp growing and rope manufacturing in the heart of Little Dixie on the Missouri River, heavily invested in the institution of slavery. While Brown and Blair were planting seeds for an anti-slavery Republican Party in Missouri, Shelby became a dedicated border ruffian, aligning himself with Claiborne Fox Jackson, David Rice Atchison, and other pro-slavery leaders in western Missouri. In 1855 he raised a group of volunteers to ride into Kansas for the purpose of fraudulently voting to make Kansas a slave state. [2]

     When the Civil War started in Missouri, Shelby quickly joined the fight and was present at Wilson’s Creek as a captain in the Missouri State Guard. Sadly for the Gratz family, the youngest Gratz son, Cary, had enlisted as a captain in the First Missouri Volunteers and was also at Wilson’s Creek on that hot August morning. As O’Flaherty wrote:

     “There was not half a mile’s distance between Captain Cary Gratz and Captain Jo Shelby when Lyon struck at Wilson’s Creek. It is possible that Shelby saw the face of his stepbrother and cousin amid the smoke that rolled across the field that morning, without recognizing it. Whether he did or not will never be known; but undoubtedly he saw it afterward on the battlefield stilled in death.”[3] 

     Shelby went on to earn a reputation as the premier cavalry commander in the Trans-Mississippi. When Lee surrendered in Virginia, Shelby refused to give up, and instead headed for Mexico. He was immortalized by Hollywood in the 1969 film The Undefeated starring John Wayne. A character played by Rock Hudson in the film was purported to be based on Jo Shelby.

     I want to write more about Shelby’s post war activities, but for now I want to consider this excerpt from a letter he wrote in 1882 in response to one he had received:

     “…We failed but we (the South) have the satisfaction of Knowing that no people on Earth endured or fought more from patriotic desires – We were overcome by the hirelings of the World, who were avaricious, Mercenary, ignorant of our people, devoid of honor and patriotic duty. It is over, and as we all surrendered it behooves us all to abide by the terms imposed. As to the institution of slavery, nobody cares that it is obliterated. All the world is opposed to it, and in due time the South would have abolished it – So it was not the loss of it we objected to, but the manner in which it was taken from us. The War has demonstrated that so far as the Constitution is Concerned, it amounts to Naught – It is force that frames Constitutions and fanatics when they can exercise the power over the Masses will by force break Constitutions. After all it is the greatest number of bayonets…”[4]

     Coming from a man who had been a leader of men who had violently fought all democratic efforts to thwart the extension of slavery this is a remarkable statement. I can’t help but wonder what Frank Blair and B. Gratz Brown would have thought of this letter if they had ever seen it. Regarding the Constitution, it seems to me that his assertion that “fanatics when they can exercise the power over the masses will by force break Constitutions” could really be applied to the pro-slavery fanatics like himself. But what really intrigued me was his assertion that the South would have ended slavery on its own “in due time.” This is an argument still made today. Of course, one may ask exactly how long is “due time,” but also what evidence is there that the South had any intention of abolishing slavery at any point in the future in the 1850s or 60s?  While contemplating Shelby’s letter I came across this article by James Loewen in which he wrote:

     “Slavery was hardly on its last legs in 1860. That year, the South produced almost 75 percent of all U.S. exports. Slaves were worth more than all the manufacturing companies and railroads in the nation. No elite class in history has ever given up such an immense interest voluntarily. Moreover, Confederates eyed territorial expansion into Mexico and Cuba. Short of war, who would have stopped them — or forced them to abandon slavery?

     To claim that slavery would have ended of its own accord by the mid-20th century is impossible to disprove but difficult to accept. In 1860, slavery was growing more entrenched in the South. Unpaid labor makes for big profits, and the Southern elite was growing ever richer. Freeing slaves was becoming more and more difficult for their owners, as was the position of free blacks in the United States, North as well as South. For the foreseeable future, slavery looked secure. Perhaps a civil war was required to end it.”

     In 2009 the town of Waverly, Missouri, where Shelby had enslaved people working his rope factory in the 1850s, dedicated a statue of their famous Confederate. You can read about it at this SCV website. Note that they place the blame for the Kansas-Missouri border war squarely on the Kansans. I’m sure they would appreciate the above quoted letter, but I wonder if they know that Shelby, a few weeks before his death in 1897, discussed the sacking of Lawrence with Kansas historian William E. Connelley and said this:

     “I was in Kansas at the head of an armed force at that time. I went there to kill Free State men. I did kill them. I am now ashamed of myself for having done so, but then times were different from what they are now, and that is what I went there for. We Missourians all went there for that purpose if it should be found necessary to carry out our designs. I had no business there. No Missourian had any business there with arms in his hands. The policy that sent us there was damnable and the trouble we started on the border bore fruit for ten years. I should have been shot there and John Brown was the only man who knew it and would have done it. I say John Brown was right. He did in his country what I would have done in mine in like circumstances. Those were days when slavery was in the balance and the violence engendered made men irresponsible. I now see I was so myself.”[5]


[1] Daniel O’Flaherty, General Jo Shelby: Undefeated Rebel (Chapel Hill and London: the University of North Carolina Press, 2000, reprint of 1954 publication), 15; Norma L. Peterson, Freedom and Franchise: The Political Career of B. Gratz Brown (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1965), 4-5.

[2] Ibid, 18, 21-43.

[3] Ibid, 79.

[4] Ibid, 353-354.

[5] Ibid, 44.

6 thoughts on “Jo Shelby – Repentant Border Ruffian?

  1. Bob, this is good stuff. I have questions and comments. Did Shelby live in Waverly? Can you give an approximate location for the “Little Dixie” area of Missouri? Stephen Douglas claimed it was ridculous to argue over slavery in Kansas as cotton wouldn’t grow in Kansas. In the fall of 2009 as I drove south of Wichita on I-35 I saw miles of cotton fields in Kansas. Most slave states had outlawed manumission [I believe I have the right word--the freeing of slaves]. I believe the acquisition of Cuba was in the party platforms of both Democratic Candidates in 1860. A primary reason slave holders were against the Republican policy of outlawing slavery in the territories was it would surround the slaves states with free land and give slaves a multitude of places to runaway to. J. Davis’ speaks to this a little in a speech before the Insurgent Congress a little after the war started. Keep up the good work. I may have seen the Shelby Statue in Waverly. I know I’ve seen the Sterling Price statue in Keytesville which is about 50 miles east of Waverly and on the north side of the Missouri River, but probably still within the “Little Dixie” area.

  2. It is unfortunate that Shelby’s arguments about the South eventually abolishing the institution of slavery on its own are continually promoted by the likes of Thomas DiLorenzo, Donald Livingston, and Jeffery Hummell today. While many in the lost cause crowd today echo almost verbatim what Shelby states here, the fact of the matter is that slavery was far from dissolving in 1860, and while Loewen is correct in saying that it’s anybody’s guess when it would have ended, suggesting that the South would voluntarily end slavery on its own would have been a shock to most southerners in 1860. Even in Missouri, according Douglas R. Egerton in his book “Year of Meteors”, “the inslaved population increased by more than 30 percent in the 1850s, from 87,422 to 114,931.” Wouldn’t Shelby know this, being from the heart of Little Dixie, the area of Missouri with the most slaves in the state?

    It goes further than this, however. The expansion of staple crops and exports throughout the South, especially the Black Belt, had many prominent Southerners such as J.D.B. DeBow, William Yancey, and James Henry Hammond calling for a reopening of the Atlantic Slave Trade (with the notable exception of slaveholders in Virginia, who produced 1 out of every 6 slaves throughout the south by 1860 and stood to lose profits with a reopening of the trade).

    I found this passage, again from Edgerton’s book, to be pretty compelling to me:

    “If given access to the fresh lands of the West, and if allowed to import more African captives to break the soil and mine for ore, the nearly four hundred thousand slaveholders of the South could regain the parity in the Senate and protect their capital investment in humans… James Henry Hammond did not care to debate the point. Was there ever a society ‘persuaded by arguments, human or divine, to surrender, voluntarily, two billion dollars?’ he asked. If slavery was allowed to spread into the New Mexico territory, one southerner anticipated, ‘Mexico and Cuba would inevitably, with Central America, form a part of the Union,’ and with the protection of the federal government a pioneer might enter ‘this new territory with slaves.’”

  3. Very interesting piece. I can’t help but wonder how differently Shelby might have thought about his involvement in Kansas had events in Mexico allowed the exiled Confederates to remain at Carlota for more than 20-ish months?

  4. My family always referred to him as uncle Jo Shelby. Have done some research but cant find much on. His personal life. Family names were Thornton and Magyars./l

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