Chapter 34 - Sam Hildebrand's Confession


Legend of St. Francois County
Reprinted from the County Advertiser by Farmington News Printing Company
September 26, 1979

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Confessions of Sam HILDEBRAND

TYPIST’S NOTE: I have not altered the manuscript at all, including all spelling and punctuation.  The ONLY change I have made is to capitalize all surnames. - BethK


[Started to Missouri with four men. - Surrounded at night near Fredericktown. - Narrow escape
by a cunning device. - Retired to Simms Mountain.  - Swapped horses with Robert HILL and
captured some more.  Killed Free Jim and kidnapped a negro boy.]

    About the first of April, 1865, I started to Missouri with four men, one of whom was Tom HAILE.  We passed west of Bloomfield, and made an attempt to take in a German living on the edge of Wayne county, whose name I never could pronounce.   He had rendered himself rather obnoxious to us in his officiousness in carrying news to the Federal authorities.

    On going up to his house about sunrise, thinking to find him asleep, we made no attempt at concealment, but marched directly up toward the front of his house; when we got within a hundred and fifty yards of the house he ran out and struck across a little field; we fired out guns at him, shooting one at a time; everytime we fired he squalled like a panther, which tickled Tom HAILE so well he could not shoot, but laughed about as loud as the Dutchman yelled.  We made no attempt to pursue him, as we cared very little about him any way.  We marched on toward
Fredericktown, reaching that place one morning about daybreak, and secreted ourselves for the day, during which time HAILE went into Fredericktown.

    After tying up an old coat in a dirty cotton handkerchief, and swinging it on a stick which he carried on his shoulder, he walked into town, passing himself off for a lame Irishman who wanted a job for a few days; he found some soldiers there but did not learn their number.

    While in town he met several acquaintances who kindly passed him without recognition.

     It appears, however, that in the morning as we were passing Mr. BLAKE’s farm we were discovered by some one and reported to the soldiers.

    A company was ordered out to guard a gap where we were in the habit of passing, and we distinctly heard their horses’ feet on the gravel road as they passed our retreat where we lay concealed in the thick forest awaiting the approach of night.

    Immediately after dark we started, but on crossing the gravel road two shots were fired at us from a short distance; we dashed through the thick brush, but my horse soon got tangled in a grapevine, and the boys all left me, vainly endeavoring to get him along.

    The firing became very rapid.  In riding through the thick tangled brush I made too much noise, and the first thing I knew I was completely surrounded, though their lines as yet were at some distance.

    Having no time to lose I quickly dismounted, dropped the bridle rein over a snag, and ran back about one hundred yards; I stepped behind a bush and  remained very quiet, knowing if I fired they would see the flash of my pistol.

    They were closing up in regular order toward the point where my horse stood.  I waited until they were within ten steps of me, then facing toward the horse which now gave a snort, I gave a few steps, then in a low but commanding tone I cried out: “Advance with more caution!  they can hear you a mile!”   By this time I was in their line, and under the pretense of correcting some irregularity in their movements, I stepped behind them and got away without creating the least suspicion.

    Being next discovered by the guards who were holding the horses, I told them that we had the bushwhackers all surrounded, and that to make a sure thing we must have more men.

    Mounting the best looking horses I could find by the dim light of the moon, I started toward Fredericktown in a great hurry; but when out of danger I changed my course for Simms mountain in St. Francois county the place designated for our meeting in case of trouble.

    The Federals probably captured my horse, but that was no loss to me, for I had obtained a much better one.

    I rode all night and part of the next day by myself before I reached our place of rendezvous.  My men were not there, and as the day wore away I began to fear that some misfortune had befallen them; but they made their appearance afer dark, and reported that the Federals had given them a severe chase; immediately after which they met a squad of Federals who chased them the other way.

    Simms Mountain is a very high elevation of land scarcely ever visited except by hunters at certain seasons of the year.  It looms up above the other hills, affording a fine view of the whole surrounding country.  While we lay here Tom HAILE took a trip to Iron Mountain to learn the news at the military camp, and get some provisions.  After getting near the place he left his horse and his arms in the woods, stopped at an old coal pit to smut his face and hands, and then went into town disguised as a collier, of whom there were many in the neighborhood.  While purchasing some provisions at a store he learned that “five hundred soldiers had Sam HILDEBRAND surrounded in a thicket from which it was impossible for him to escape.”

    This was good news, for it would enable us to make a raid on Big River in broad daylight with perfect impunity.  We passed down Flat River during the latter part of the night, crossed Big River at Haile Ford and rode into town just as the sun was rising.  Finding no goods there that suited us we continued along the main road until we got to the residence of our good Union friend, Robert HILL.  We wished to make him a friendly visit and swap off some of our horses, for Tom HAILE dissuaded me from doing him any personal injury.

    I took two of his best horses and left two in their place; we charged him some boot, but had to take it in clothing and such articles from the house as we could make use of.

    On leaving there we turned south and passed along the most public road four or five miles until we came to Nesbit ORTON’s.   We took a fancy to a couple of mares that some neighbors had there, one belonging to Tom HIGHLEY and the other to Tom CRUNKLETON.  The mare, however, which we took from the latter did not like Rebels, for on getting a few miles I concluded that she would make a splendid war horse; but she threw all my men, one at a time, and when I was about to try my luck she gave a snort, broke away from us and made her escape.

    Tom HAILE had remained behind to visit some of his friends on Big River, and did not overtake us until we got to Cook settlement.

    I and my other men continued to travel along the road until we reached the shanty belonging to an old free negro by the name of Jim.   He had made himself the dread of Southern sympathizers in his neighborhood by frequently visiting the different military posts with various charges against them, such as feeding bushwhackers, etc.

    To satisfy myself in regard to his complicity in the matter, we rode up to his cabin, each one being dressed in Federal uniform.

    On calling him out I gave him a hearty shake of the hand, and inquired if he had learned anything more about that man MADKINS he was telling me about at the Knob; at this the old negro imagined that he recognized me as Col. —, and asked me what I had done with my shoulder straps; to which I replied that I wanted to find out a few things for myself, and enjoined secrecy on him in regard to my disguised appearance.

    He made charges against several of the best men in the neighborhood, which was calculated to consign them to summary punishment according to Federal usage.

    After making his statements, he asked me if I was still willing to take his son for a waiting boy; I told him that I was, and that I designed taking him along with me this time, having brought a horse for that purpose.   He called the boy out and told him to mount the horse, which he at first refused to do; but after I had got the old negro to mount another horse for the purpose of going with us a few miles, the boy consented and seemed very reconciled.

    After going about two miles I shot old Jim, but took the boy on with us.

    We stopped near the residence of Francis CLARK, in Cook settlement, to get out dinners;  and while there some Federals came along, but seeing us they turned off the road and went around without molesting us.  We proceeded on without any further trouble, but traveled altogether in the night.

Reach St. Francis River.

     On reaching the St. Francis we found it still out of its banks; we, however, succeeded in swimming it by resting our horses on an island about half way.   From there we arrived safely at home, and for the first time in my life I owned a negro.  I was to all intents and purposes a genuine slaveholder.

    Immediately after I left Big River on my last raid, Robert HILL became satisfied that, as I took his horses, he could no longer pass himself off for a Rebel and a Union man at the same time.  He was a member both of the “Knights of the Golden Circle” and the “Union League.”  A few days after I “swapped horses” with him, he went before the provost marshal, at Potosi, and represented that in consequence of his Union sentiments he could not live at home on Big River without a band of soldiers for his protection.

    Failing, however, in his purpose, he went to Ironton and made a similar statement to the provost marshal at that place.  Certain Union men, however, who knew all the facts in the case, represented the whole matter as arising from personal enmity against Dr. A.W. KEITH and others.

    Thwarted again in his designs, he was left a few days to muse over his misfortunes; but a bright idea finally came to his relief.   He would expose the “Knights of the Golden Circle,” and consign his brother members to an indiscriminate butchery!

    The war was nearly at an end; the Union cause was about to triumph; and one string was enough to play on during the balance of the struggle.  He would startle the world by his disclosures; the earth should be dumfounded, and mankind should stand aghast at the magnitude of his revelations!  He sought and obtained a private interview with the provost marshal.  At this time, the sun was serenely smiling upon the earth; spring had just made her advent, and was strewing garlands of flowers along the meadows and sunny hillsides, as if nothing was about to happen; and men throughout the world, unmindful of what was about to take place, were plodding on in their daily pursuits.

    All things now being ready, he told the marshal that he was a member of the Union League.  This announcement was satisfactory proof of his loyalty, for this Northern Ku Klux League was instituted to save the National Union secretly.

    He then stated that, for the good of his country, he had also joined the Knights of the Golden Circle; that the Circle met at the house of Joseph HERROD, on Big River, and that many of the leading men in that neighborhood were members.

    The patriotic motives of Robert HILL will be very apparent to the reader, when I state that at the outbreak of the rebellion, when he joined the Golden Circle, he was a slaveholder, and utterly pro-slavery in sentiment.

    How pure, then, must have been his motives when, for the good of his country, even at that early day, he bound himself with oaths like adamant for the purpose of finally exposing the Circle, as soon as it should have run its race and become defunct!

Had The Confederacy Won!

      If the Southern Confederacy had won, his patriotism would have prompted him to expose the Union League; and when the last expiring beacon of Federal hope was about to be extinguished, he probably would have called for troops to crush the members of the Union League to which he belonged!

    The representations he made to the provost marshal had the desired effect; a telegram was sent to Col. BEVERAGE, at Cape Girardeau, who sent Lieutenant BROWN, with forty men, to Big River Mills.

    The statement made by HILL, however, needed confirmation.  It was desirable to prove the charges by some one whose word, on account of the color of his skin, could never for a moment be doubted.

    A negro man by the name of Buck POSTON lived in the neighborhood; his skin was black enough for him to be perpetually under oath, so they repaired immediately to his domicile, for the purpose of implicating certain persons as belonging to the Golden Circle.

    BROWN and his men put a rope around his neck, and tried to frighten him into a belief that he would be hung unless he confirmed HILL’s statements.  But Buck was a brave man, and answered “no” to each one of HILL’s accusations against his neighbors.

    Finally they told him that he was now about to be hung, and appealed to him to know if he did not love his wife and children, and urged him just to say “yes,” and live; but the old man replied: “Well, Massa, I does know some little things; but I’s gwine to take it all to t’other world with me!”  Neither persuasions, threats, the glittering of bayonets, nor the prospect of death, could make him divulge anything.

    The color of his skin, however, saved his life, and his tormentors had nothing to do but return to camp.  During the night following he gave warning to those whom he knew to be in danger.

    On the next day, May 16, 1865, Lieut. BROWN took four men, rode up to the house of Mr. Joseph HERROD, and found him at home.   They ordered him to get his horse and go with them to Farmington.  He did so, but on getting half a mile from the house, they took him twenty or thirty steps from the road and shot him through the back of his head.  There they left him, where he was found the next day.

    Thus perished a young man who, for kindness of heart, strict integrity, and moral honesty had no superiors, and but few equals.

    Before proceeding any further with the slaughter, Lieut. BROWN went and consulted with Franklin MURPHY, who told him that the whole matter was the result of a neighborhood difficulty, which did not warrant Federal interference in any manner what ever.

    BROWN and his men, during their stay on Big River, were engaged in a wholesale robbery and plunder of the citizens, taking their property without even a promise to pay.  Their depredations were even more intolerable than the same number of hostile Indians would have been; but after BROWN had been better informed as to the true nature of affairs he became half civilized, and on taking property he gave government vouchers.  These debts against the governments, however, were finally rejected, the people having been reported as disloyal.  Even the widow BAKER lost over one hundred dollars by some one reporting her as a Southern Sympathizer.

    After feasting off the neighborhood for about two months, BROWN and his infamous band of vandals took their departure.  The conspiracy founded on the marvelous revelation of a broken oath, and emanating from the fertile brain of base malignity, suddenly collapsed.