Joseph Orville Shelby was a Confederate major general from Missouri who is recognized as perhaps the most accomplished Confederate cavalryman in the Trans-Mississippi Theater. He was involved in most of the Civil War campaigns that took place in Arkansas.
Joseph Orville Shelby was born on December 12, 1830, in Lexington, Kentucky, to a wealthy, aristocratic family that boasted veterans of the American Revolution. In 1852, he moved to Waverly, Missouri, and established a rope-making operation that soon made him a wealthy man. The slave-owning Shelby was actively embroiled in the border war with abolitionist Kansans, taking part in cross-border raids in the late 1850s.
As civil war became imminent, Shelby raised a company of troops, the Lafayette County Cavalry, at his own expense and offered them for service to Missouri’s governor, Claiborne F. Jackson. Shelby saw action at Carthage and Wilson’s Creek, Missouri, in 1861 before retiring to northwest Arkansas with Sterling Price’s Missouri State Guard in February 1862, then fighting with the Confederate Army of the West at the Battle of Pea Ridge in March. His cavalry company was dismounted, and Shelby led them east of the Mississippi River with the rest of the Confederate army in April 1862. He soon returned to the west, however, and received a colonel’s commission on October 27, 1862, after recruiting the nucleus of what would later be known as his Iron Brigade.
Shelby’s brigade fought at the first battle of Newtonia, Missouri, in the fall of 1862, before they fell back to Cross Hollows in Benton County, Arkansas, after which they scouted throughout the region. Shelby served under Brigadier General John Sappington Marmaduke during the fighting at Cane Hill (Washington County) on November 28, 1862, covering the Confederate retreat before a superior Union force by falling back by companies, a tactic he would use throughout the war. The Iron Brigade also fought at the Battle of Prairie Grove on December 7, 1862.
Shelby’s command took part in Marmaduke’s two Missouri Raids in the spring of 1863, and he received a serious wrist wound in the failed attack on Battery A at Helena (Phillips County) on July 4, 1863, an injury that kept him from participating in resistance to the Union advance on Little Rock (Pulaski County), which fell on September 10. On September 22, he embarked on a raid into Missouri during which we wrought chaos, killing, wounding, or capturing 1,100 Union soldiers, destroying nearly $2 million in Union supplies and infrastructure, and recruiting some 800 new Confederate soldiers.
Shelby received his commission as a brigadier general in the spring of 1864, to rank from December 15, 1863. He learned of his promotion as he led his troops against Major General Frederick Steele’s army during the Camden Expedition as Steele sought to join a second Union army at Shreveport, Louisiana, for an invasion of Texas. Shelby harried the Federal troops in fighting at Terre Noire Creek, Okolona (Clark County), Elkin’s Ferry, and Prairie D’Ane, and played a major role in the crushing Confederate victory at Marks’ Mills in April 1864.
Following the Camden Expedition, Shelby was dispatched to northeast Arkansas to disrupt Union operations and contend with the chaos caused by the many deserters, irregulars, and lawless bands that infested the region. He dealt with the latter by issuing a proclamation ordering able-bodied men in the area to join either the Union or Confederate army by June 10, 1864, or face execution. His men also sabotaged the Little Rock and Memphis Railroad; sank the USS Queen City at Clarendon (Monroe County), the only Union warship sunk in Arkansas waters in the Civil War; raided Federal-leased plantations around Helena; and destroyed Union hay-cutting operations west of DeValls Bluff (Prairie County) in the Action at Ashley’s Station.
Shelby led one of three Confederate divisions in Sterling Price’s Missouri Raid, which began in mid-September and threatened the capital at Jefferson City before heading west in the face of increasing Federal opposition. Shelby and his men were in almost constant combat and were nearly cut off in the fighting at Westport before cutting their way through the Union lines. Shelby fought off a final Federal assault in the second battle of Newtonia, Missouri, on October 28, 1864, the last battle in the raid.
Shelby’s division was in Texas when Lieutenant General Edmund Kirby Smith promoted him to major general on May 16, 1865, just a few weeks before the Trans-Mississippi Confederate armies joined their fellow forces in the east in surrender. Shelby then led an armed force into Mexico to fight under the French-supported Emperor Maximilian, returning to the United States in June 1867 as that “empire” collapsed. Shelby engaged in a number of business activities in Missouri in the postwar years and was appointed U.S. marshal for Western Missouri in 1893. The former general pursued his new duties enthusiastically and was returning from a trip to serve summonses when he contracted pneumonia, dying on February 13, 1897. He is buried in Forest Hill Cemetery in Kansas City, Missouri.
Researchers should take note that much of the contemporary material written about Shelby—including Shelby and His Men and Shelby’s Expedition to Mexico, and, indeed, the majority of Shelby’s reports in The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies—was written by John Newman Edwards, a flamboyant journalist before the war and Shelby’s adjutant during the conflict. Many incidents in Edwards’s accounts, such as the general’s meeting with Union commander James Blunt at Cane Hill and the so-called “Battle of the Bees” at Okolona in 1864, appear nowhere other than in Edwards’s work and thus almost certainly were the journalist’s exaggerations. Edwards should always be corroborated with other contemporary accounts.
For additional information:
Christ, Mark K. “The Queen City Was a Helpless Wreck: J. O. Shelby’s Summer of ’64.” In The Earth Reeled and Trees Trembled: Civil War Arkansas 1863–1864, edited by Mark K. Christ. Little Rock: Old State House Museum, 2007.
Edwards, John Newman. Shelby and His Men: or, The War in the West. Cincinnati: Miami, 1867.
———. Shelby’s Expedition to Mexico: An Unwritten Leaf of the War. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2002.
O’Flaherty, Daniel. General Jo Shelby: Undefeated Rebel. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
Mark K. Christ
Arkansas Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission