William “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s Civil War Service
In the later part of the 19th and early 20th centuries, William Cody was one of the most famous people in the world. Nicknamed Buffalo Bill from his time supplying buffalo meat to workers building railroads on the Great Plains, Cody gained fame from his Wild West Show, which featured actual cowboys, frontiersman, and Native Americans in performances depicting the American West. The show toured North America and Europe and attracted huge audiences. But before that, as a young man Cody served in the Union Army in the Civil War.
William F. Cody was born in Iowa in 1846. His family moved to a farm near Leavenworth, Kansas Territory, in 1853. In the 1850’s residents of Kansas Territory were divided on the issue of expanding slavery into Kansas whenever the territory achieved statehood. These divisions often resulted in violence, and the territory became known as Bloody Kansas. Young William found out about this first hand. In 1854, his father Isaac attended a public meeting in Leavenworth on the issue of slavery. Isaac spoke against admitting Kansas to the Union as a slave state, and was stabbed by a proslavery man. Although he survived the attack, it weakened him and he never truly recovered, dying in 1857. Proslavery men continued to harass the Cody’s over the next few years.
When the Civil War began in 1861, 15 year old William joined a group of Kansas guerillas know as Jayhawkers. The Jayhawkers attacked proslavery people in Kansas and western Missouri, operating on the fringes of military action and criminal activity like plundering farms. Cody’s mother was dismissive of the Jayhawkers as criminals, and made William quit. The next year, Cody joined a similar band known as the Red Legs, but left that group as well when he found they operated in the same way as the Jayhawkers. When he wasn’t serving in these groups, Cody guided and escorted military wagon trains across the plains.
On February 19th, 1864, Cody enlisted in Company H of the 7th Kansas Volunteer Cavalry. In June, the regiment was sent to Memphis, Tennessee, as part of Major General A.J. Smith’s 16th Corps. A Union force under Brigadier General Samuel Sturgis had been defeated by Confederates under Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest at the Battle of Brice’s Cross Roads in northern Mississippi, and Smith was ordered to prepare an expedition against Forrest.
But before Smith could attack Forrest’s army, he had to find out where it was. Cody’s commanding officer recommended him for a select group of
men that was being formed to act as scouts and messengers. After interviewing with A.J. Smith, the general was convinced the young plainsman was up to the task. Smith told Cody to disguise himself as a Tennessee civilian, and that his mission was to locate Forrest’s army and gather as much information as possible and return, reminding him that if he was captured, he would be “shot as a spy”.
After a few days, Cody located Forrest’s encampments. Convincing the guard that he was “a country boy, and had come to see the soldiers. My father and brother. I said, were fighting with Forrest”. His story convinced the guard, and he was allowed in. He continued his ruse as a Tennessee civilian, and was able to wander around and gather information. When he had gathered all the information he could, he departed the camp, and was allowed to leave after it was determined he had no contraband materials. Cody headed north, evading Confederate cavalry patrols until reaching the Union encampment.
The information proved valuable to Smith as he marched south into Mississippi. On July 14th and 15th, Forrest attacked the well prepared and positioned 16th
Corps, and was handed a rare defeat at the Battle of Tupelo. Cody’s regiment participated in the battle.
In late September 1864, General Sterling Price invaded Missouri with a last ditch attempt at capturing the state for the Confederacy. The 16th Corps was sent to Missouri to join forces with other Union commands in an effort to stop Price. Price’s army had some initial success in several battles but was handed a big defeat at the Battle of Westport, near Kansas City. The Confederates were forced to head south, through eastern Kansas as the Federals pursued and engaged them in several actions, until the Rebels reached Arkansas. In this campaign, Cody again acted as a scout and courier, traveling between the various Union commands.
Cody was mustered out of service on September 29th, 1865. He would go on to have one of the more colorful lives of any character of the Old West, culminating with his Wild West show. Buffalo Bill Cody died January 10th, 1917 in Denver. He was buried on top of Lookout Mountain, west of Denver, per his wishes (although some family members disputed this). His grave is located on the grounds of the Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave. The view of Denver and the plains to the east from the top of the mountain is spectacular.
An Autobiography of Buffalo Bill (Colonel W.F. Cody) by William F. Cody.
Buffalo Bill: Scout, Showman, Visionary by Steve Friesen.
A.J. Smith’s Defeat of Forrest at Tupelo (July 14th, 1864) by W.S. Burns. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume IV, edited by Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel.
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume XXXIX, Part 1.
Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Kansas 1861-65, Volume I.
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