Friday, September 4, 2009

"I believe the Red Legs will kill any man in this country for a good horse"

In April 1863, the following letter to the editor appeared in the Kansas City, Missouri, Western Journal of Commerce:

"There are several articles going the rounds, in all the newspapers, concerning Major Ransom and the Red Legs having cleaned Jackson County of bushwhackers, which are greatly exaggerated, and in some particulars wholly incorrect.

One statement, from the Leavenworth Conservative, says that forty rebels were killed; of which number Capt. Hoyt's Red Legs killed thirty-two. The Red Legs only numbered, according to the Conservative, thirty men, and yet they killed thirty-two rebels. It is not very reasonable for the credulous people of this age to believe that thirty men killed thirty-two, and not lose a single man?

The same paper states that 'over twenty rebel houses were burned.' I know of a certainty that one Union man's house was burned, he having been a refugee from home over fifteen months. I know[,] moreover[,] that the Red Legs did steal indiscriminately from rebels and Union men. I am inclined to think that when ever any man did not protest that he was unconditional Union, they shot him, and reported his property captured from the enemy. Some of these Red Legs, who it is alleged, never steal from a Union man, stole two horses from soldiers of the 5th Cavalry at Kansas City, and when the soldiers followed them to Leavenworth to recover their property, the thieves tried to bully them out of it, by saying that 'men had been killed for doing what they were then attempting.' Penick's outlaw, not fully appreciating the friendliness of the remark, drew his revolver, and was bout to let daylight into the beknighted mind of the Knight of the Red Legs, [Hoyt?] when he hastily retreated to a place of security.

The rebels killed were, so far as I have ascertained, persons who were not in arms, but citizens who sympathized with the south. I believe the Red Legs will kill any man in this country for a good horse; and they have glorified themselves considerably over finishing some unarmed sympathizers. They certainly deserved killing, but I would rather be excused from acting the part of executioner in such a case.

Everybody knows that the Red Legs will steal, and it is equally certain that they will lie. But this last one of their having killed thirty-two is a huge story, almost to large for any one to believe.

The Fifth Regiment has hunted the Bushwhackers with a zeal that has rarely, if ever, been equaled. They have adopted all expedients - scouted day and scouted night; lay in the brush and watched, tracked the bushwhackers to their camps, and even found men to betray them - but they never could take thirty men and do such immense execution as the Red Legs report they have done. And I believe that there are as good, brave and loyal men in the Fifth Cavalry as ever used a gun.

The fact is, they have carried on an immense stealing operation, and have endeavored to conceal it by a huge story that would hush the indignation of Union men. We will hear no more, however, of the Red Legs co-operating with the United States soldiers, as [Major] Gen. [James G.] Blunt has taken the matter in hand."

[Signed] Fifth Cavalry


  1. In this excerpt from Spring’s 1885 history of Kansas, one can find another description of what could happen when a red-leg’s victim tried to recover stolen property.

    That a rank growth of general freebooting should have sprung up in Kansas during the war was no more than might have been expected. The border naturally attracts men adapted to shine in this calling, and the territorial period afforded admirable training for the wider field of spoliation opened by the war for the Union. Early in the struggle an organization appeared known as "Red-legs," from the fact that its members affected red morocco leggings. It was a loose-jointed association, with members shifting between twenty-five and fifty, dedicated originally to the vocation of horse-stealing, but flexible enough to include rascalities of every description.

    At intervals the gang would dash into Missouri, seize horses and cattle -- not omitting other and worse outrages on occasion -- then repair with their booty to Lawrence, where it was defiantly sold at auction. "Red-legs were accustomed to brag in Lawrence," says one who was familiar with their movements, "that nobody dared to interfere with them. They did not hesitate to shoot inquisitive and troublesome people. At Lawrence the livery stables were full of their stolen horses. One day I saw three or four Red-legs attack a Missourian who was in town searching for lost property. They gathered about him with drawn revolvers and drove him off very unceremoniously. I once saw Hoyt, the leader, without a word of explanation or warning, open fire upon a stranger quietly riding down Massachusetts Street. He was a Missourian whom Hoyt had recently robbed." The gang contained men of the most desperate and hardened character, and a full recital of their deeds would sound like the biography of devils. Either the people of Lawrence could not drive out the freebooters, or they thought it mattered little what might happen to Missouri disloyalists. Governor Robinson made a determined, but unsuccessful effort to break up the organization. The Red-legs repaid the interference by plots for his assassination, which barely miscarried.

  2. Early in the struggle an organization appeared known as "Red-legs,"

    That Spring passage has always bugged me a little, and mostly because of the word "early" in connection with Hoyt. Spring is not alone in this, of course, as McCorkle says "Colonel Hoyt with his Kansas Redlegs was on the east side of East Blue, burning the houses of Southern people" in 1861, two years before Hoyt was a colonel and a good year before he headed the Red Legs.

    I gave you that story before where Hoyt and "Colonel Lane" are accused of conspiring to kill Dr. Ridge in December of 1861, when Hoyt was a mere 2nd lt in JBjr's Company K. There's an obvious bit of, shall we say, oral tradition in that story as well.

    For reasons you know, I've been trying to place Hoyt's whereabouts pretty much every day in 1862/3, and I'm convinced he made a trip back East in late '62 for a bit, perhaps right after the episode with Lane's Negro regiment. And his Red Legs were finished in mid-'63 for obvious reasons. So if my guesses are correct, that gives Hoyt nary a year with the Red Legs proper. So my question to the expert(s):

    In your opinion(s), how much of the later Red Leg mythology is based on the mixing of memories and how much of it is real, honest-to-goodness evidence that Hoyt was working as a detective and stealing every horse in Western Missouri simultaneously?

  3. On second thought, that McCorkle passage may refer to spring, 1862 - I believe Castel calls him out in the notes as being incorrect (I can't dig out my copy of his book as my lovely wife is asleep in our room). If that's the case, Hoyt was in Tennessee and so it's even more obvious that he's getting credit where none is due...

  4. I believe the Red Legs were formed sometime in the fall of 1862. However, it appears there were some scouts operating in the winter of 61 and 62 who wore red leather leggings. One newspaper story reported both Swain (Jeff Davis) and Bridges (Beauregard) and 11 others working for Captain Oliver near Independence during this time frame and that “one or two men in the party wore red leather leggings.” The Red Leg organization was not created by Blunt or Ewing as some have suggested. Once again, I think there was some confusion in later years involving the buckskin scouts and the real Red Leg organization. Blunt took Tough and his crew with him to Arkansas, as scouts in the fall of 1862. Blunt attempted to shut down the Hoyt/Jennison/Stout Red Leg operation from Arkansas in November 1862. It is also my conviction that the Hoyt Red Leg organization was fairly well dismantled by Major General Blunt by late April 1863. By this date, Blunt has locked up many of the principal players such as Swain, and Hoyt goes east for a short time. By the fall of 1863, Jennison, Hoyt, Swain and others are all in the 15th Kansas Cavalry. All part of Ewing’s plan to get these guys into the regular service.

  5. All part of Ewing’s plan to get these guys into the regular service.

    Seems to be a recurring theme, as Robinson did the same thing with the creation of the Seventh.

    It is also my conviction that the Hoyt Red Leg organization was fairly well dismantled by Major General Blunt by late April 1863.

    But here's a thing that bugs me and which I'll probably spend valuable years in a vain search to uncover: doubtless the Red Legs were dismantled, and even if they hadn't been, evidence seems to show that they were as much a trouble for the Union as the pro-southern Missourians. At least it's inarguable that they failed in Hoyt's declared mission "to protect Kansas from the savage Quantrell." Hoyt looks even more the fool for his July public statements against the possibility of a Quantrill raid in Lawrence.

    And yet 2 years later, there's Blunt pimping Hoyt for a brevet generalship, and long after he needed him for anything. One can see why he ensured that Jennison got some comeuppance. He could have possibly hanged the 15th orgy of destruction on Hoyt, had he been so inclined, because Hoyt was technically in charge. And yet he didn't. It's so unexpected, even bizarre, that there is something that I'm obviously missing.

  6. Yes, there are some very strange things going on from October 1864 until May 1865. However, I am saving that for the book.