(Bob Newell was a free-state rifleman who rode escort for “The Immortal Ten,” the Kansans whose covert rescue mission freed Underground Railroad conductor John Doy from a Missouri jail in 1859. [See story here. ] Bob, just 21, was among about 20 Jefferson County, Kansas, men summoned to help The Immortal Ten on the last 20 miles of their dangerous rescue. This post introduces the young Robert Newell, killed two years later in the Civil War Battle of Wilson’s Creek in Missouri. Captain Avra P. Russell wrote to Jesse Newell about his son’s battlefield death. (Captain Russell’s letter is transcribed here.)
Captain Russell’s letter glistens as a death notification that could only have been written early in a war. It is mournful, respectful, laudatory, personal. And it was early: early in Kansas statehood, early in the Civil War, early in Robert Newell’s life.
Carefully composed but written with an unbearable purpose, the captain’s letter told Jesse Newell that his son Robert had died in the Battle of Wilson’s Creek in southwest Missouri, August 10, 1861.
“The terrible battle at Springfield, fought on the 10th … deprived you of a very promising son, and me of a brave Lieutenant and highly cherished friend,” the August 18 letter told Jesse and Rosannah Newell, Oskaloosa, Kansas.
Bob Newell, as he was known, died at 23 years of age. He and his younger brother, Abram, had rushed into Union army service alongside many other young Kansans when the new state raised its first two regiments. He mustered in to Company G, Second Regiment Kansas Volunteer Infantry. Bob was elected third lieutenant of Company G, serving under Captain Avra P. Russell.
The young Newell’s brief life as a soldier began around June 20, barely two months after the Civil War began. And it was just the fifth month Kansas had existed as a state, a free state that forbade slavery.
Newell “…had taken a very active and efficient part through the day, manifesting a coolness and perfect self control almost unexampled in one so young and inexperienced on the field,” Captain Russell wrote of the battle and Bob’s part in it.
The Battle of Wilson’s Creek, a Union loss, was significant as the first major Civil War battle fought west of the Mississippi River. It gave the Confederates control in southwest Missouri.[i] Union forces were about 5,400 men; the Confederate and Missouri secessionist troops about 11,000. Losses were heavy for both sides: The Union lost about 1,235 men killed, wounded or missing and the Confederates and Missouri secessionist troops about 1,100.[ii] To understand the battle conditions Bob and his comrades fought in, told from a young Iowa soldier’s view, read this Emerging Civil War blog post here.
Bob Newell’s death came shortly after Union Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon was killed on the Wilson’s Creek battlefield.[iii] Lyon’s death was the first of a Union general in the Civil War.
Jesse Newell passed Captain Russell’s condolence letter on to The Oskaloosa Independent, which published it Aug. 31, 1861. See the transcript here. It ran with a letter written home by another of Jesse Newell’s sons, Abram, a 21-year-old private in Bob’s unit. Abram was shot in the hand in the Battle of Wilson’s Creek and remained with the 2nd Kansas until October 31st when the regiment finished its service.[iv] Abram’s “Dear Parents” letter may be seen here.
BLEEDING KANSAS, JEFFERSON COUNTY STRIFE
Boots on the ground experience in the Kansas-Missouri border war over slavery had already initiated Bob Newell and a good many other Kansas soldiers to Kansas-Missouri violence. Bob had emigrated to Kansas Territory at 18 years old in 1856. He grew to adulthood in the Bleeding Kansas years when Missourians and partisans from southern states fought to make Kansas a slave state and freestaters fought to keep it free of slavery.[v]
Skirmishes popped up between Missouri and southern proslavers trying to drive freestaters out of Jefferson County and freestaters trying to rid their county of the marauders.[vi] After the peak of Jefferson County strife in September 1856, Jesse Newell was slapped with an arrest warrant that charged him with fighting against the proslavers.[vii] He provided his own complaint back to the territorial governor, describing the 1856 war occurring in Jefferson County:
Jesse Newell included a frightening anecdote that included his boy, Bob.
“…[This] country is infested with guerrilla bands, for they have taken me and my son Robert out and threatened to hang us both. And since that time they have threatened to hang my brother-in-law Joseph Phitsimons [Fitzsimmons] and have destroyed my property in throwing down my fences and destroying my grain and threatening to burn my house and break up my [saw] mill.”
Named for his grandfather, Robert Newell was born in Richland County, Ohio, in 1838 and moved with his family to the two-year-old state of Iowa when he was 10 years old. The family lived in Mahaska County, not far from a namesake town of Oskaloosa, Iowa. Bob’s two older brothers, Valentine and John, emigrated to Kansas Territory in 1855, the rest of the family settling at what would someday be Oskaloosa, Kansas, in May 1856.
Within two years of settling, Bob Newell owned 160 acres of Jefferson County, Kansas Territory, farm land northwest of Oskaloosa, land that is held today by descendants of Jesse Newell. He also had an interest in his father’s steam-powered sawmill on the west side of the public square. [See the Google image of Oskaloosa, Kansas.]
Kansas Territory, as close as it was to the slave-holding states of Missouri and Arkansas, became a draw for determined enslaved people to escape bondage. Lawrence and its Douglas County surrounds, just across the Kansas River from Jefferson County and Oskaloosa, was a hub for these freedom-seekers. There, plans and routes were fixed to help enslaved men, women and children find freedom and safety in the northern states and Canada. Lawrence and Douglas County were well-populated with eastern abolitionists who wanted to rid the nation of slavery all together, and they were willing to break the law to do so.
I haven’t yet discovered how involved Bob Newell’s father, Jesse, was in Underground Railroad activity, but he gave young Bob a taste of it in 1859.
Bob and his brother John Newell rode with about 18 other Oskaloosa area men in their father’s rifle company to play a small role in one of the most celebrated rescues in Kansas history. They stepped up to help the good trouble makers from Lawrence, the Immortal Ten, who in July 1859 quietly broke Underground Railroad conductor John Doy out of a Missouri jail.
Doy had been headed north from Lawrence with 13 freedom-seekers six months earlier when his group was ambushed by slave catchers.[viii] The catastrophe happened about eight miles south of Jesse Newell’s home in Oskaloosa, and Doy had been on his way to the Newell place. Jesse Newell had agreed to help Doy and his party of freedom-seekers in some way as they continued north. [This link explains what we know about Jesse Newell’s role.]
The ambushers took the entire group hostage: Doy, his two assistants and the 13 men, women and children who had risked all for freedom. The ambushers hurried their prisoners across the border into Missouri and jailed Doy.
Six months later, the Immortal Ten swept Doy from his St. Joseph, Missouri, jail cell, crossed the Missouri River and began their dangerous trip south through Kansas to Lawrence. Suspecting they were being followed, the group’s leader, James B. Abbott,[ix] got word to Jesse Newell to bring his rifle company to be an escort guard for the last 20 miles of the trip.
Bob Newell’s name appears just once in the John Doy rescue story, but it tells us plenty about his mettle.
As Oskaloosa developed, Bob Newell built a sort of town hall for citizens, Newell’s Hall. He was building the wood-frame building at the southwest corner of Oskaloosa’s public square in August 1860, around the same time his father had built a two-story house for his family not far to the east.[x]
Newell’s Hall hosted local congregations of government, military and civil life. County Republicans, county court, church people all gathered there. Oskaloosans assembled at the hall to make sure Oskaloosa had a good enough road to connect it to the Smoky Hill Trail wagon route going from Leavenworth, Kansas Territory, to the gold mines of Colorado. (Oskaloosa won its place on the route.)
Prim Methodists conducted a fund-raising festival at Newell’s Hall to furnish their new church. The October 3, 1860, edition of The Oskaloosa Independent cheerfully urged the ladies and gentlemen of Oskaloosa to pay $1 per couple to come and enjoy the festival. Immediately following the notice was a reply to the impertinent question of whether the festival would include dancing.
“Of course not,” was the organizer’s reply in the newspaper. “We would be surprised to learn that any gentleman or lady of self-respect, and a proper regard for religion and the church, would ever think for a moment, of dancing on such an occasion.”
After Bob Newell died at Wilson’s Creek, Henry F. Woolley had taken over Newell’s Hall. He operated a store on the first floor and the county court met upstairs. Eventually, Oskaloosa was erecting grander buildings. Newell’s Hall was pulled down in 1885 and The Oskaloosa Independent walked readers through a compressed Newell’s Hall history, starting with Bob Newell putting it up in 1860.
“Judge Pettit held district court in the lower room,” the newspaper recounted. “J. Gill Spivey there made a speech and took the oath as a [Union] militia officer, and afterward went south and got a commission in the rebel army.
“[U.S. Sen.] S.C. Pomeroy made a speech there, also, when he was senator, and [U.S. Sen. and Union General] Jim Lane made his appeal within its walls for ‘foot soldiers,’ who would go over to Missouri on foot and come back riding one horse and leading another.”[xi]
Kansas joined the Union as a state free of slavery on Jan. 29, 1861. Three months later, the Civil War began. The new state of Kansas legislature was still writing new laws, trying to determine which city should become the state’s capital and rushing through military-related legislation.
Kansas men were ordered to form “military companies” a few days after the Civil War’s start April 12, 1861. President Lincoln ordered that two full-out Kansas army regiments be filled from those militia-like military companies, and armed and equipped.
Oskaloosa’s public square filled with citizens on April 22 to create a military company.
Wareham Gibbs, a 71-year-old veteran (of the War of 1812, perhaps), marched the crowd from the public square to Newell’s Hall, according to the April 24, 1861, Oskaloosa Independent. The militia men went inside and voted to name their company the Union Guards.
Bob Newell was elected 3rd sergeant of the Union Guards, and Jesse Newell signed up for the uniforms committee. Future Jefferson County military recruiter A.W. Spalding issued a patriotic speech, and so did J. Gill Spivey (And, yes, military records confirm that he did join the Confederates, as referenced above.) The crowd called for John F. Hinton, who declined to speak but instead played a rousing “Yankee Doodle.” The Independent article doesn’t note which instrument he played.
Bob Newell was among those leaving the militia group to join a fighting regiment, the Second Regiment Kansas Volunteer Infantry. The 2nd Kansas organized and drilled in Lawrence during May and set out in June on a 40-mile march to Wyandotte, Kansas (now Kansas City, Kansas), and then across the Missouri River to Kansas City, Missouri. Newell’s comrades elected him third lieutenant of Company G under Captain Russell when they met at Kansas City.
The 2nd Kansas’s job would be to help U.S. troops prevent Confederate and Missouri southern sympathizers from conquering Missouri, which was a slave state that did not secede from the United States.
Anonymous soldier correspondents kept Kansas newspapers abreast of Kansas soldiers’ experiences. Some grousing fell upon the long march to Kansas City, a lack of uniforms and their less-than-ideal weapons.
One of the correspondents, who was with Bob Newell’s Company G, wrote that the 2nd Kansas regiment had learned at 8 a.m. on June 18 that they would march to Wyandotte. By 11 a.m. they had crossed the Kansas River at Lawrenece and moved east. They covered 12 miles before stopping at 5 p.m. for a quick supper at Little Stranger Creek, and then took up their march, guns shining in the moonlight.
“During the early part of the evening, bursts of songs, and jests and shouts of laughter echoed over the prairie,” the soldier correspondent wrote, his letter published June 29 in The Fort Scott (Kansas) Bulletin. “But later the unwonted fatigue bore down the exuberant spirits of the men and by 10 o’clock the lines were as quiet as a funeral procession.
“Here and there men would drop out of the ranks, and be down among the tall grass, doggedly determined to go no farther, and it required the utmost exertions on the part of the officers to rouse them to farther effort.”
After sleeping on the prairie grass the regiment was off again, “foot sore and tired.”
“Mile after mile of the weary march dragged slowly along beneath the broiling rays of the sun,” the correspondent wrote. “The blistered foot and parched tongues brought the enthusiasm of yesterday down to zero. The secessionists were cursed as the cause of all our sufferings and many and deep were the maledictions showered on their devoted heads.”[xii]
Soldier “M,” also in Bob Newell’s Company G, wrote that the 2nd Second Kansas finally got part of their uniforms, “a single blouse to each man” when they reached Missouri. Soldier “M” was a correspondent for The Daily Times, Leavenworth.[xiii]
“Perhaps it is no fault of the Government, but still it seems to me that the Kansas volunteers have been treated with gross neglect in the way of clothing, “M” wrote on June 20. “The men grumble not a little about it. Another cause of complaint with the Second Regiment is the character of arms issued to us. They are the common musket, in very bad condition, and I believe they are condemned — if they are not condemned, they ought to be.”
Writing after the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, correspondent “F.A.R.” charged that the First and Second Kansas regiments had been “shamefully abused” from the start of the war.
“They have never yet received their uniforms, and are half naked, with no tents, and half of them without blankets.” F.A.R. wrote in the September 26 Vermont Phoenix of Brattleboro, Vermont.
“When they started from Fort Leavenworth [First Kansas] in the spring for the South they were provided with condemned tents and blankets, but now they are without either and compelled to sleep on the ground in the open air.
“In the late battle at Springfield [Wilson’s Creek] these two proved themselves the crack regiments, and certainly ought to be provided with clothing and camp equipage.”
The Battle of Wilson’s Creek showed the Kansas troops, considered “raw recruits” in some publications, would fight. The Battlefields.org Wilson’s Creek website page says even though the Confederates counterattacked the Union forces three times, they failed to break through the Union line.
The Confederates and Missouri forces then pulled back, but Union Major General Samuel D. Sturgis, who had taken command when Union Brigadier General Lyon was killed, realized his men were exhausted and running out of ammunition. Sturgis ordered his men to retreat.
“The Confederates were too disorganized and ill-equipped to pursue [Union troops],” the Battlefield.org website summarizes.[xiv]
Despite their loss, the Kansas Union troops won praise for their fighting as regiments and as individual soldiers.
Major John M. Schofield noted in an after-battle commentary that the Union troops’ food and supplies were low and that the soldiers had had to forage in the area.[xv] They were exhausted from their long marches.
But just before the end of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, the “… Second Kansas Regiment [Bob Newell’s regiment], which had firmly maintained its position on the extreme right from the time it was first sent there, found its ammunition exhausted, and was ordered to retire, which it did slowly and in good order, bringing off its wounded.”
In his letter to Jesse and Rosannah Newell, Captain Russell strove to assure the bereaved couple that Bob Newell did not suffer in his battlefield death.
“He was killed almost by my side, at the close of the day, when we were retiring from the field, by the bursting of a shell,” Russell wrote. “The missiles entered the back part of his head, and he fell a corpse – never moved or spoke after falling.”
“[Bob Newell] – was continually in the front of the battle doing noble execution himself, and giving courage to the whole company by his intrepid example,” Captain Russell wrote, bypassing the cold brevity of a formulaic “we regret to inform you” letter that he might have to write later in the war as soldiers’ deaths multiplied.
Russell himself would soon die in the war. He died Dec. 12, 1862, from injuries he received in the Battle of Prairie Grove, Arkansas, five days earlier.[xvi] He was 29 years old.
The soldier correspondent “M” who served with Bob Newell in Company G praised his regiment’s performance at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek and mourned Bob Newell.
“The Kansas 2nd was the last regiment to leave the field, and the only regiment that left with all the companies present, and in perfect order,” soldier “M” wrote August. 18, 1861, from camp near Rolla, Missouri.[xvii] “We left slowly, followed by the artillery and soon were off the field. As we were leaving, a shell thrown by the enemy fell and burst near us, killing our Third Lieutenant, Robert Newell, from Oskaloosa.
“He was struck on the back of the head, and killed instantly. He was a young man of sterling worth, and as true a heart as fought on the field. During the whole time he was at his post, cool and firm. His loss is keenly felt by us all.”
Abram Newell, Bob’s little brother, wrote in his letter home that Bob had been killed while his regiment was in retreat. The artillery shell that killed Bob also injured several other soldiers, Abram said.
“We did not have time to stop and bury him [Bob] then,” Abram wrote. “But he was decently buried afterwards.”
Soldiers who died at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek were buried on the battlefield and moved six years later to the National Cemetery at Springfield, Missouri. Bob Newell, like so many of the others who died that day, has no grave marker, according to the Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield website.
[i] I am not knowledgeable enough about the Civil War to supply the big picture part of Robert Newell’s story at Wilson’s Creek. I hope readers will seek, in addition to Kristen Pawlak’s piece here, some of the many articles, papers and books about the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. Ms. Pawlak’s recent article about the battle centers on a member of an Iowa regiment that according to the War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I., Vol. III fought alongside the First Regiment Kansas Volunteer Infantry and Bob Newell’s Second Regiment Kansas Volunteer Infantry in the U.S. forces’ Fourth Brigade.
The National Park Service operates the Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield, Republic, Missouri; its website: https://www.nps.gov/wicr/index.htm
Jefferson County sent soldiers to the battle in both the 1st and 2nd Kansas regiments. Jeremiah H. Bennet wrote about the Jefferson County soldiers at Wilson’s Creek in The Oskaloosa Independent in two articles:
[ii] The troops and casualty figures are from the Wilson’s Creek page on the Battlefields.org website. https://www.battlefields.org/learn/civil-war/battles/wilsons-creek
[iii] Lyon, beloved by his troops, had been a federal in the U.S. armed forces assigned to Kansas Territory after the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act took effect. He was favored by Kansas Territory freestaters. A soldier’s letter written eight days after the Battle of Wilson’s Creek and published in The Leavenworth Times said that Company G Corporal Marshall Edward Spurlock was among those who carried Lyon’s body from the battlefield.
[iv] Abram went on to serve in the Kansas State Militia in 1863 and 1864 as Kansas defended its borders against rebel invasion from across the Missouri border.
[v] The struggle was carried out both with violence and via political tugs of war and elections. The 1854 passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act meant white men (no one else could vote) in Kansas Territory would decide whether to allow slavery in Kansas or to ban it. After defeating the earlier proslavery Kansas Territory government at the ballot box, freestaters in 1859 adopted a constitution prohibiting slavery in Kansas. Kansas became a state free of slavery on January 29, 1861, the time gap due to the U.S. Senate’s slave power opposing a free Kansas. But as southern states began walking out the secession door, enough Senate votes were left to admit Kansas free.
[vi] For background about “Bleeding Kansas” in Jefferson County, Kansas Territory, see earlier posts about the September 1856 “battles” of Grasshopper Falls, Slough Creek and Hickory Point. https://jeffersonjayhawkers.com/2018/01/26/the-battle-of-grasshopper-falls/
[vii]Jesse Newell’s complaint to Kansas Territory Gov. John Geary, dated Sept. 20, 1856, is held in the archives of the Kansas State Historical Society, Topeka, Kansas. The Joseph Fitzsimmons mentioned in the complaint co-founded Oskaloosa with Jesse Newell.
[viii] Maj. James B. Abbott, the chief organizer of the Immortal Ten and the man who called for Jesse Newell to bring his rifle company and perform escort guard duty, wrote about the rescue and perilous journey from St. Joseph, Missouri, back to Lawrence, Kansas Territory. He read his account at the Kansas State Historical Society annual meeting in 1899. Near the end of his story, he names some of Jesse Newell’s rifle company members [some names corrected]. Read Abbott’s tale here.
“Thinking that it was more than likely that the horseman who followed us would endeavor to get reinforced at Lecompton and try to recapture Dr. Doy, word was sent to Captain Jesse Newell, of Oskaloosa, to furnish an escort; and when we arrived at his place we found the Captain on hand with the following-named officers of his rifle company, to wit: Jerome Hazen, First Lieutenant; J. I. Forbes, Second Lieutenant; John Newell, Gil. Tower, Robert Newell, James Monroe, Resolved Fuller, M. R. Dutton – privates; and eight or ten others. And without delay we passed on, most of the escort going to within a few miles of Lawrence, and the captain and a few of his men going the whole distance, where we arrived about six o’clock in the evening, and where we also found the streets lined with people…”
[ix] Abbott, endnote viii.
[x] The Newell-Johnson-Searle House, a wood-frame house and limestone cabin on Oskaloosa’s east side, were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2017. Only some wood framing inside and portions of the house basement are original to Jesse Newell in 1860, but the small limestone cabin behind it has been dated as a few years older and as original to Jesse Newell. Jesse Newell’s descendants purchased the homestead plot and are busy with restoration.
[xi] The Oskaloosa Independent, Aug. 15, 1885, Page 3. Jefferson County built its brick courthouse in 1868, providing an official venue for court proceedings and other county functions. The public square upon which the courthouse sat was donated by Jesse Newell and Joseph Fitzsimmons, co-founders of Oskaloosa. The old brick courthouse was destroyed by a tornado in 1960 and replaced with a modern one.
[xii] Read the Fort Scott Bulletin newspaper article by an unnamed soldier here: https://www.newspapers.com/clip/57635204/2nd-kansas-regiment-march-to-wyandotte/
[xiii] This excerpt was taken from a collection of war-time Leavenworth Dailey Times articles. Betts, Vicki,”[Leavenworth, KS] Daily Times, June 12, 1860-October 8, 1861” (2016). By Title. Paper 51. http://hdl.handle.net/10950/705
[xiv] Battlefield.org’s Wilson’s Creek page: https://www.battlefields.org/learn/civil-war/battles/wilsons-creek
[xv] From Major John M. Schofield’s communications of Aug 20, 1861, War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies Series I., Vol. III. P 57. Copyright 1971, the National Historical Society. Schofield was acting adjutant general for the Army of the West at the time.
[xvi] Russell County, Kansas, is named for Avra P. Russell.
[xvii] Soldier “M”’s letter was printed in the Leavenworth Daily Times on Aug. 22, 1861. The information is taken from Kansans go to War: The Wilson’s Creek campaign as reported by the Leavenworth Daily Times Part II. Edited by Richard W. Hatcher III and William Garret Piston. Kansas History 16 (Winter 1993): 224-247. https://www.kshs.org/publicat/history/1993winter_hatcher.pdf