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Monday, September 2, 2013

Wild Bill Hickok in the Civil War

When we think of Wild Bill Hickok, we usually think of him as an Old West gunfighter and scout on the Plains. Here he is, second from left, with some of his scout buddies. Like many of his kind, however, he was involved in the American Civil War.

His war service got off to a humble start when he signed on to the Union army as a civilian scout. He was at the Battle of Wilson's Creek, where the noise of the cannon fire so frightened him that he was momentarily paralyzed.

Later he served as a wagonmaster, once having to make a quick escape when his wagon train was attacked by rebel bushwhackers. By early 1862 Hickok had become a scout again. He probably figured that if he was going to be involved in the fighting anyway, he might as well have a more impressive title! He saw action at the Battle of Pea Ridge and probably numerous smaller engagements.

He did so well at the battle that the Union command made him a spy, riding around the Missouri countryside without a uniform while trying to learn about rebel troop and guerrilla movements. When Confederate General Sterling Price invaded Missouri in 1864, a campaign that serves as the background to my novel A Fine Likeness, Hickok was sent to infiltrate Price's camp.

This he did, and according to his own account he was able to hang out in Price's headquarters and gather useful information. But that information would be of no use if he couldn't get back to his own lines. So one day when pickets from the opposing armies were lined up on opposite sides of a river, Hickok dared a boastful Confederate sergeant into riding out into the river with him to see who would get closest to the Yankees.

The Union soldiers recognized Hickok and held their fire. One of them was dumb enough to cheer, "Bully for Wild Bill!" The sergeant became suspicious, and so Hickok blasted him out of his saddle. Then he urged his horse through the water as the rebels opened fire after him. He returned safe and deliver the information to the Union command.


  1. A Trickster, he was, then. Wild Bill and others of his ilk weren't quite as glamorous as we have made them out to be in later years.

    Nice information, Sean!

  2. Sounds like a very interesting read. Just got back (two months) from Gettysburg where my great-grandfather was a Union surgeon with the 11th PA. Right in the mix. Actually, he was assistant, a country doctor who joined up only 2 months before. Learned what an assistant did in those times: on the field, doing triage, a practice created only around a year before.

    When you write horror, do you mean ghosts or real horror of war? Looks like you did some great research.

    1. Both! Actually it's unclear from my novel whether the paranormal stuff is actually happening or it's the imagination of the protagonists.


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