John W. Clem
By Richard L. Stewart
“The fighting continued with the fierce grappling of the combatants spilling into the flames of the prairie fires. The combination of yelling and screaming soldiers, wounded horse, gunshots and roaring fires created an unholy din.”(1)
John W. Clem was born December 18, 1819 in Butler County, Ohio. His life is virtually unknown until his adult years when he married Miss Sally Starr and moved to Missouri. In the late 1830’s, they made their home in Van Buren County where their daughter, Mary Ann “Polly” and son, Andrew Jackson Clem were born before the family would move to a small piece of land at Mound Branch in Bates County somewhere between 1840 and 1843. Census records show that the family would move again and live in both the Lone Oak and Charlotte townships in Bates. John’s life was once described as “easy circumstances” due to his acquiring six hundred acres of land.
In 1859, John would start a term as sheriff of Bates county that lasted until 1862. During that time, he found himself in the thick of the Kansas-Missouri border wars and very aware of his surroundings. In August of 1859, a well known reckless Kansas Jayhawker by the name of Samuel “Pickles“ Wright, was being held in a Missouri jail under indictment for murder and robbery. John wrote this note to the Governor of Missouri, Robert M. Stewart and informed him of an impending situation….
His Excl. R. M. Stewart
From reliable information rec.d this morning from Paris K. T. (Kansas Territory) it appears that the JayHawkers (James Montgomery & band) have laid siege to that place, and demand of it’s citizens the Surrender of a lot of arms that was sent up by our government last winter to put down the Jay Hawking partys. They want the arms for the avowed purpose of making a decent (descent) on this State, for the purpose of rescuing Wm. Wright (alias Pickles) now confined in one of our jails under indictment for murder and robbery.
There is no telling at what time or place they may cross the line into the State and if they should come over we will make the best defence possible.
I will here further add, that (line crossed out) should they cross the line into my county, I will then call out the entire militia force for defence.
If there should any thing of great importance take place on our Border I will at once inform you.
Your obt Svt
John W. Clem
Sheriff of Bates County, Missouri
When the Civil War began, John, now forty three years old, was appointed to start a home guard regiment to protect the Missouri border from Kansans. He backed the southern cause after being a victim of the notorious Charles Jennison’s marauding Kansas Jayhawkers. His family was all but stripped bare of their food, clothing, personal property and effects during a Jayhawker visit to their home. As the hostilities grew more intense, John thought it best to leave Missouri and headed for Illinois. It is unknown how long he stayed there before moving on to Indiana. There, he was arrested by Union soldiers and sent to prison at Springfield, Illinois. Word of his capture got back to Bates county and his friends joined together to secure his release. The attempt was successful. They pooled together some money to send him so he could make his way back home. One of the home guard members with John was Sidney D. Jackman, the future Colonel of his own Missouri company of soldiers and guerrillas that would see action in Missouri and Arkansas. In July of 1861, John’s company would skirmish with Union troops at West Point in Bates county. It seems John was not very active in this battle and Jackman was critical of his allegedly proposing a surrender. On the heels of this action, the group was enlisted into the Missouri State Guard’s Eighth Division under Lt. Col. Thomas Cummings Ninth Cavalry, Company C. John was elected captain on July 22. It’s believed that John took part in the battle of Wilson’s Creek. Around late August, Cummings and his troops headed back home and hovered on the Bates - Vernon county, Missouri lines. On August 24, they overtook R.W. McNeil’s mill at Balltown, a settlement with a trading post at the Osage River where they used the mill to feed themselves and Price’s soldiers. Kansas Senator, James Lane got wind of this move and sent Kansas troops under the command of James Williams’ across the border to attack Cummings and send him and his boys packing….
Being warned of the approach of the jayhawkers, Cummins marched north of town to meet the enemy. The jayhawkers, spotting the cloud of dust raised by Cummins’ men, advanced to meet him. Williams formed his men in a line of battle along a strip of timber that separated him from Cummins. Cummins advanced into a cornfield about six hundred yards in front of Williams. Sharps rifle fire drove back a rebel flanking movement. Cummins attempted to make a stand in the center of the cornfield, but fire from Moonlight’s cannon scattered Cummins’ men in all directions. Then “commenced a running fight,” one soldier wrote, “The different commands taking them in all directions and very soon the whole country was hid from view by a vast cloud of dust with an occasional Sharp’s rifle crack and the boom of cannon…the chase….continued for an hour or more, during which time we had traveled four miles and killed fifteen seceshers….(2)
After this battle, Sidney Jackman praised Clem for courage as he stayed behind during the retreat to save the wagon train while Cummings men had fled amongst the chaos. But, from a certain point of view, this would not be the only meeting between John and James Williams.
John would again earn praise by Jackman per his actions at the battle of Drywood, Missouri in September, 1861. His alertness had prevented an attack on Jackman’s men by confused and disorganized Missouri State Guard members. When Price’s army geared up to head north towards Lexington, Missouri, John decided to make his way back home to Bates county. Doing this, he was deemed “absent without leave” in his military records. Subsequently, he never faced charges for doing so.
In October, the Kansas-Missouri border started to be erased by the many hoof prints from back and forth raids. On October 29, 1861, a short time after James Lane led his “Lane’s Brigade” into Osceola, Missouri where he laid waste to the small town, John led forty men into Miami County, Kansas on a mission to take back stolen booty from the Jayhawker raids. At North Sugar Creek, John’s men stole large quantities of livestock and torched several homes. Immediately afterwards, they dropped south into Linn County……
“During the war, raids were of frequent occurrence from Missouri into Linn County, and from Linn County into Missouri. One was made in October into Linn by a party of Missourians under Sheriff Clem, of Bates County. At this time, early in the morning, William Upton and Richard Manning were killed, and later in the day Joseph Speakes. The latter, with a cousin, had seen Clem's posse coming before they reached Thomas Speakes' house, and had gone into the timber along the Marais des Cygnes, for the purpose of holding the posse in check as they were leaving the county until the citizens should have time to collect and fall upon them in the rear, and in the fight which occurred there in consequence was killed. Among the houses robbed on this raid were those of Thomas Speakes and a Mr. Storms.
In December, 1861, a raid was made by a party of about one hundred and twenty Missourians, composed of three smaller bodies, one of these being from Butler, one from Balltown and the third from Papinsville. J. E. Hill's store at Potosi was robbed, and a large number of private houses centered and pillaged of their contents. Among these was that of Josiah Sykes, about one-half mile north of Potosi. Mr. Sykes himself escaped from his house in time to save himself, or he, being a Union man, would undoubtedly have been killed, as was a Mr. Seright that night. This raiding party was also under command of Sheriff Clem.”(3). John’s men also set fire to grain and numerous buildings. Sykes managed to hustle into his pants and escape into the winter night sans his shoes, coat, hat, anything to keep warm. As the raid progressed, the band ordered Mr. Seright to produce a firebrand so they could torch his stacks of hay. Per Union accounts, they reported that he went into his house and came back holding burning sticks out of his fireplace. The rebels shot him in the back and burned up everything that was combustible. Seright’s daughter recounts some of what happened:
“It was a bright moonlit night, almost like daylight. After retiring my mother heard shooting. When she heard this…she tried to induce my father to leave the house and go to where my brother Isaac…and his brother-in-law…were hiding, but he was not well physically, having chills and fever, and after arising and dressing remarked he was feeling so badly he did not care to lay out in the cold and damp and perhaps they would not come…So he lay down on the bed fully dressed. The next thing we knew they were pounding on the door for admittance. As soon as mother opened the door they rushed in and filled the room, middle aged men and a lot of boys not over twelve or fourteen years of age. Mother asked “Who are you?” They replied “We are Texas Rangers.” My father in the meantime had stepped into a side kitchen. There seemed to be two leaders in the gang- one stood at the bedside of my sister-in-law…who was recovering from a serious siege of pneumonia, and prevented other from stealing bed covers from her bed. All other quilts, blankets, coverlids, etc., were taken by them. A part of the crowd going into the kitchen discovered my father, bringing him back into the room, thence out into the yard. As they brought him through the room my mother said: “Surely you would not hurt him.” The other leader answering: “Not one hair of his head shall be injured….” By this time they had taken all they wanted from the house and now departed, all mounting, riding off, except one; my father yet standing in the door….The man left behind threw his gun over his saddle as if in the act of mounting; pointed toward our father, shooting him, killing him almost instantly. After he did this he mounted and as he was riding away a man came rushing back, asking angrily, “Why in hell did you do that?-didn’t I order you not to shoot?”(4)
Meanwhile, Sykes had made his way to Mound City, Kansas and alerted James Montgomery to what was transpiring. Montgomery immediately sent Major H. H. Williams and seven hundred troops to the scene. By the time they got there, John’s band had disappeared before they could be tracked. Williams, bent with frustration, took his anger out on the town of Papinsville, Missouri. The town went up in flames after the women and children had been “provided for“.
Deciding to give the official military service another shot, John enlisted with JO Shelby at Waverly, Missouri during a Shelby recruiting trip. On September 8th, 1862, he was commissioned a first lieutenant and is thought to have participated at the battle of Newtonia, Missouri in September, 1862. Though John had seen a lot by now and was a part of the Kansas-Missouri border wars, his participation in a battle in late October would be most historic and a first for the United States!
“They Fought Like Tigers”
Included in the Confederate pension application of Bates county, Missouri guerrilla leader and fellow Siloam Springs resident, Bill Turman, is a Proof of Service page. This is a page filled out by comrades of applicants to establish proof of the applicant’s service by the witness providing any battles and dates of service and knowledge of the applicant’s actual experiences. Turman’s comrade and witness was John Clem. On this page, John provides a key piece of information that secures his place in a historic battle and a first for the U.S.! Where the page wants to know “That he was wounded in said service at…”, John wrote “Near Kansas border in Bates County, Mo.” The next line states “That this information I derive from the following sources”, John writes, “I was with him and in the battle with him……” The battle John refers to on both lines is the October 29, 1862 battle of Island Mound, Missouri! This was the historic battle where African Americans fought in their very first action of the Civil War! The 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers, trained by Kansas’ James Williams of the Balltown, Missouri fight, were called on to repulse a Confederate guerrilla grip in Bates county….
“Major Benjamin Henning, the commanding officer at Fort Scott, ordered the 1st Kansas into Bates County on Sunday, October 26, 1862, in response to bushwhacker attacks along the border. They were ordered to move on the guerrilla nest at Hog Island. Captain Henry Seaman commanded the expedition into Bates County with 11 other officers and approximately 240 men in the 1st Kansas, and finally, six scouts from the 5th Kansas Cavalry. The following day, October 27, the 1st Kansas occupied the Enoch Toothman farm, questioned the family and found out that the guerrillas numbered approximately 400. The Kansans dug makeshift fortifications and turned the Toothman domicile into a blockhouse they called Fort Africa. The bushwhackers also knew of the 1st Kansas’s presence, and the sides attempted to gauge the opposition’s strength with long-range skirmishing on Tuesday, October 28.
The bushwhackers decided to attempt to draw out a portion of the 1st Kansas by setting prairie fires on Wednesday, October 29. Their hope was that Seaman would send out a portion of the 1st Kansas to investigate, and then the bushwhackers could destroy the isolated detachment. Seaman sent several detachments out, but with strict orders to stay within eyesight of Fort Africa. Unfortunately for Seaman, none of the detachments stayed within eyesight. The bushwhackers attacked, overrunning the initial detachment under Private John Six-Killer.
Fortunately, the majority of the men survived the bushwhackers’ charge and ensuing hand-to-hand combat until another element led by Captain Andrew Armstrong rescued the separate detachments of the 1st Kansas and chased off the bushwhackers. Armstrong’s men collected the dead and wounded, as well as the separate detachments of the 1st Kansas and returned to Fort Africa, ending the skirmish. The 1st Kansas suffered eight killed and 11 wounded.”(5) Two days after the battle, Turman gave the 1st Kansas their due credit. The New York Times quoted him as saying that “they fought like tigers.” This is the famous line spread nationwide regarding this fight.
As JO Shelby’s forces reorganized in November of 1862, John made his way back into Arkansas and re-enlisted in L.J. Crocker’s Company K of the Fifth Missouri Cavalry. It was in this regiment that he fought at the battle of Prairie Grove. Turman was in this fight as well. In January of 1863, Crocker was wounded at the battle of Hartsville and John took over the command after again receiving a first lieutenant’s ranking in December. Military records show that John was paid at the end of March, 1863, but his official existence in the military vanishes after that. As for John‘s family, John was still off fighting while back home, his wife Sally was under the stress and constant presence of the Union and the border wars burning around them. Looking to pack up and leave Bates county with family in tow, she asked for and received permission to take her family south. On May 13, 1863 an order was written providing permission for Sally and family to leave and crossing enemy lines in the process. It read:
May 13, 1863
Permission is hereby given to Mrs. Sally Clem & family to move south with her effects.
C.F. Coleman Capt
Co. D 9th K.V.C.
John and Sally’s son, Cincinnatus didn’t join his family for the trip south and it cost him his life. He was killed just two months later by Kansas bushwhackers on July 15, 1863 in Bates county.
John and Sally Starr Clem had seven children, Cincinnatus, Mary Ann, Andrew, Dorinda, Charles, John and William. Census shows the family at Hico, Benton County, Arkansas in the 1880s, but nothing before that. John died on September 20, 1896, bedridden with dropsy. The Gentry (AR.) Journal Advance posted his death this way…”Uncle Johnnie Clem, living three miles south of this place, passed away peacefully and quietly last Sunday morning. He had been confined to his bed for many months with dropsy. Mr. Clem was a man everybody respected and no man stood higher in the estimation of the people than he did. He was a high minded, honorable gentleman and we can truthfully say another good man is gone.”
Missouri Colonel Sidney Jackman said of John that he “went through the war a true friend of the South.” John and Sally are buried together in the Lone Elm Cemetery, Siloam Springs, Arkansas.
(Author’s note: Siloam Springs resident, Bill Turman is not included with John as also being in the historic Island Mound battle because his burial place is unknown and his final whereabouts have never been found)
(1) “Civil War General and Indian Fighter James M. Williams: Leader of the 1st Kansas
Colored Volunteer Infantry and the 8th U.S. Cavalry” by Robert W. Lull
(2)“Jayhawkers: The Civil War Brigade of James Henry Lane“ by Bryce Benedict
(3)William G. Cutler’s History of the State of Kansas
(4)"Black Flag: Guerrilla Warfare on the Western Border, 1861-1865" by Thomas Goodrich
(5)http://www.civilwaronthewesternborder.org/encyclopedia/battle-island-mound, The Kansas
City Public Library, Civil War on the Western Border, The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-
From the September 2018 issue of the "Benton County Pioneer "
published by the Benton County Historical Society, Bentonville, Arkansas.