The events of Oct. 18, 1862, gave Palmyra world-wide attention. The news that 10 Confederate soldiers had been executed reached President Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. What was thought by some to be an idle threat, and thought by others to be serious, became reality on that Saturday afternoon. There was no avoiding it. Word, like it does in every small town, spread quickly. This was a day of death.
At the edge of a farmer's field a metal sign dangles from a rusty chain on an old pole.
Winds force it to sway back and forth, back and forth, as the chain creaks and groans.
This is the former site of the Palmyra Fairgrounds.
Years and years ago this large piece of land was a place of gathering, leisure and entertainment. But 150 years ago, the soil was stained with the blood of innocent Confederate soldiers executed in retaliation; during the deadliest time in American history — the Civil War.
This was the site of the Palmyra Massacre.
Today, Palmyra, Missouri is a quaint, quite little town just north of historic Hannibal.
It is known as Flower City, employs many factory and plant workers, and is a prime farming area in the Show-Me State's northeast region.
However the events of Oct. 18, 1862, gave Palmyra world-wide attention. The news that 10 Confederate soldiers had been executed reached President Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. What was thought by some to be an idle threat, and thought by others to be serious, became reality on that Saturday afternoon. There was no avoiding it. Word, like it does in every small town, spread quickly. This was a day of death.
Everything leading up to the execution started a month earlier in September when Confederate Colonel Joseph Porter and his men raided Palmyra. In the midst of the ambush he took longtime Marion County resident Andrew Allsman prisoner. The 66-year-old was gruff and didn't have any problem in expressing his thoughts at any time. He was pro-Union and even joined the north to fight, but was let go because of his advanced age. His patriotism and local prominence did not fade, which is why he was more than likely the perfect hostage for Porter. Surely, the colonel thought, this would allow him to gain ground in this region of Missouri, but he didn't think too far ahead, because Brigadier General John McNeil was ready to fight back.
McNeil's message to Porter went out Oct. 8. He made the ultimatum clear, give back Allsman safe and sound or he'll execute 10 Confederate soldiers imprisoned in the Marion County Jail which had become a federal prison during the war. McNeil gave Porter 10 days from the date of his letter; they came and went, no Allsman.
Allsman was actually already dead, he had been shot during his captivity. One of McNeil's men came to the jail Oct. 17 to pick out five of the men prisoned in Palmyra to be shot and killed. The other five were chosen at the Hannibal prison and were transported the next morning.
"He came down the evening before and read off the names of the prisoners," Nik Yager, a Palmyra historian said. "And to those who answered he said, 'You and each of you will be shot in retaliation for the murder of Andrew Allsman.' The men were quite alarmed and reacted in different ways."
Each of the men prepared to die at 10 o'clock the morning of Oct. 18.
Thomas A. Sidenor, Willis T. Baker, Thomas Humston, Morgan Bixler, William T. Humphrey, Herbert Hudson, John M. Wade, Marion Liar, John Y. McPheeters and Eleaser Lake had gone through every emotion imaginable. They were well-educated men to an extent. The request had been made that men of promience who had the abilities of reading and writing be selected. The order wasn't fully executed because it was discovered some men couldn't read and write, nonetheless they were of the Confederate army, and served under Porter.
Hiram Smith was one of the men prisoned in Palmyra. He did what he could to console his fellow inmates about their approaching execution.
"Hiram Smith," suddenly echoed through the prison from one of the jailors.
When Smith acknowledged his name, it wasn't good news. He was now to be executed. Humphrey had been spared after his wife plead for his release. She traveled to Palmyra from Lewis County, Missouri (which was quite the distance at the time) and did succeeded in keeping her husband from facing the firing squad which had been rescheduled to carry out the execution at 1 p.m.
It was nearly 8 o'clock in the morning on what would be a dreadful Saturday.
While Smith was coming to terms with his approaching death, the morning sun warmed the cool fall air in subtle Palmyra. The prisoners chosen for execution made their way up from Hannibal, and like their Palmyra comrades, they sat and waited. Some met with preachers and wrote letters to their loved ones.
The speed of the day more than likely varied for each man. For some it was a long wait, for others it happened very fast. Seemed like almost as fast as they got the news they would be shot, government wagons carrying 10 coffins pulled up at the jail.
"When the government wagons pulled up beside the jail, here on the east side, the prisoners were loaded up," Yager said.
Each man was seated on a coffin. At that moment they served as benches to the fairgrounds where they would meet the firing squad, but they would be the box they would return to town in dead from their bullet wounds.
The men were escorted down Lafayette toward Main Street and then went east on what is now Ross Street toward the fairgrounds where about 100 people gathered to see the events take place.
"There were not a lot of people along the route," Yager said. "According to history books it was just a depressing affair of the men being taken."
Some historical publications say the men had to unload their own coffins off the wagons.
"They placed the coffins in a row, north and south," Yager said.
The men sat on their coffins, a couple of them took an offered blindfold, and faced the firing squad of about 30. There were other shooters waiting in case something went wrong.
The grounds went silent. No doubt with the exception of the men who sobbed and cried in their final moments of life.
"Ready," sounded the commander's voice across the grounds.
The large cloud of smoke from the guns blew away in the wind and the shooting soldiers saw that some of the men had fallen forward or straight back. Some were merely wounded, a few died instantly, one wasn't hit at all. With revolvers the shooters approached their victims and finished them off one by one.
The bodies were placed into the wood coffins — which had absorbed the blood and was visible on the outside — and were taken back to town square, placed in front of the Marion County Courthouse for friends and relatives to claim. Two of the men went unclaimed and were buried in the Palmyra Public Cemetery until family came to get them.
In 1907, a monument was erected outside the Marion County Courthouse in remembrance of the men who were shot and to memorialize Oct. 18, 1862, which has forever been known as the Palmyra Massacre.
According to a 1907 edition of the Courier-Post, the monument was made by a Keokuk, Iowa company at the cost of $1,500. Much of the money, Yager said, was collected through the sale of books on the massacre going for 25 cents.
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