In the Line of Duty - George Law
By Mark Douglas
If you ask most people how many counties there are in Missouri they will tell you there are 114. They are mistaken. There are 113 counties and one Kingdom. The Kingdom of Callaway, in which you sit, was described during the war, by Union Colonel Arnold Kreckle, as “the heart of the Southern Confederacy in North Missouri.”
Reunions were held here for Confederate soldiers from North Missouri from the end of the war until the mid 1920’s. There were dinners and speakers and many stories of the war told. I like to think of these “musters” as a modern extension of those reunions.
The Kingdom of Callaway has always been a friend to the Southern Soldier. We supplied over 1500 men for the Southern Cause and after the war many men who could not or would not go home came here. One such man was Captain Joel Thomas Fisher, the grandfather of the current mayor of Fulton, Robert E. Fisher.
"Fighting Tom Fisher" was a courier on the staff of General J. E. B. Stuart until Stuart’s death, and after that was with Fitzhugh Lee till the end of the War. He was in Pickett's charge at Gettysburg where he was captured and was confined in prison from which he escaped. After the war he came to the Kingdom and stayed with a friend until he could make it on his own. That friend was Lt. Col. George W. Law, of the 1st Mo Cavalry.
Tonight, I have been asked to speak about George W. Law. To do so I will have to talk about serving in the line of duty, the Missouri State Guards, the 1st Mo Cav., Elijah Gates and about friendship.
Friendship is a special thing. It can bring out the altruist in all of us. There are things you would do for a friend that you would not do for anybody else. I would not be speaking here tonight if not for two of my best friends who, not only, got me involved in researching the war and in the SCV, but, also seem to take great delight in seeing me terrorized by public speaking.
We even rate our friends; we have acquaintances, friends, good friends and best friends.
But, there is a type of friendship that most of us will never experience. The friendship, formed under fire, forged in the line of duty among soldiers. Such was the friendship between Elijah Gates and George Law.
Comparatively, much has been written about Elijah Gates and little about George W. Law. We do know that Law was born in Henry County Virginia and migrated to Callaway County at a young age. He became a successful and well-liked farmer from Reform, MO.
George Law was 32 years old in the fateful spring and summer of 1861 when war came to Missouri. The first company was raised here after the fall of Fort Sumter in April of 1861. They left so quickly they ended up serving in a different division, the 3rd division of the Missouri State Guards.
Eight other Missouri State Guard companies were raised here that spring making up two brigades, four cavalry companies under Major Milton and four companies of infantry under Major Robinson. One of the cavalry companies was raised and commanded by George Law.
There was something unique about Law’s Company. Most of us who research or study the War Between the States get used to the sweeping generalizations made about the war. One such generalization, about Missouri, is that the German immigrants in Missouri were all Unionist. Law’s Company was over one-half German immigrants from southeastern Callaway and southwestern Montgomery counties.
Law’s Co. (Co. C, Milton’s Battalion) served with honor throughout the summer. In September, all nine of these Callaway County companies fought together at Lexington. In Brig. Gen. Thomas Harris’s report to Sterling Price, after the battle, Harris specifically commends the troops from Callaway County. Robinson’s Battalion is credited with starting the use of the hemp bales as moveable breastworks and Milton’s Battalion, containing Law’s company, with the recapture of the hospital that Mulligan’s troops were using as a snipers nest.
Law’s Company stayed with Price’s Army after the battle, and retreated, excuse me, advanced rearward with them into north Arkansas for the winter. In December many of these MSG troops were mustered into Confederate service. Around this time ten companies were formed and perfected into the 1st Missouri Cavalry, on December 30th, with Elijah Gates elected their Commander.
Two of the ten companies, companies B and K were made up entirely of soldiers from Callaway County and the surrounding vicinity. Company K, elected Charles Austin Rogers as captain and Co. B elected George W. Law their captain.
The 1st Mo Cav., dismounted, crossed over the Mississippi river in the spring of 1862 to serve in the western theater of operations of the Confederacy. While these Missouri soldiers were a little short on deportment and drill they more than made up for it in shear fighting tenacity. They we recognized as perhaps the best fighters the South had.
I am not going to list all of the exploits of the 1st Mo Cavalry, which are many, and most of you know them, but I do wish to talk about the Battle at Big Black River. There is a much-vaunted tale told about Elijah Gates and his love for his men that comes from this battle.
The 1st Mo Cav. held the north flank of a battle line that ran north to south that day. On their left and rear was a large bend in the Big Black River. When the middle of the Confederate battle line collapsed and was overrun that day, Gates and the 1st Mo Cav. were cut off from withdrawal across the bridge.
Gates ordered his men to swim the rain-swollen river to escape capture. Many did swim and two drowned attempting it. Around 90 men and officers who could not swim pleaded for Gates to stay with them to afford what protection a Colonel could in their surrender. Gates stayed and forever won the love and admiration of his men.
What’s not often told is that the last Confederate across the bridge that day was Lt. Col. Law. George Law, over the last year and a half had risen from Captain to Major to Lt. Col. of the 1st Mo Cav. Gates and Law had commanded these troops through some incredibly hard battles.
When Law informed Gates, that day at Big Black River, of the collapse of the line and their impending capture, Law tried to convince Gates and the men that they had fought their way out of tighter spots than this. To prove his point he mounted his horse and galloped across the bridge through a literal hail of gunfire. Law reached the comparative safety of the other side, but he paid a high price for his demonstration. A bullet wound to his left arm necessitated the removal of the limb.
Elijah Gates and the remaining men were captured. Gates managed to escape later and rejoined his troops after the fall of Vicksburg. The reorganized Missouri Brigades continued to fight on through the rest of 1863, the year of 1864 and the spring of 1865. Gates was wounded and lost his left arm at Franklin, Tenn. The remaining survivors of the 1st Mo Cav. fought their last battle at Blakely, AL, in April of 1865 and were in the general surrender there.
Law spent the time during the fall of Vicksburg recuperating from the effects of his wound. He was appointed Post Commandant at Meridian, Miss., and served until the general surrender in 1865. Both Gates and Law returned home to Missouri to resume their lives as farmers.
Gates and Law had many things in common. They were around the same age, both farmers, both Captains in the MSG. Both were promoted up through the ranks and served with honor and devotion in the line of duty. Both lost their left arm in the war and both returned home and were highly respected war heroes in their home counties. They have one more thing in common.
The Missouri they returned to after the war’s end was under the control of the Radical Republicans. The Drake Constitution had been enacted and it specifically forbade by a test oath any Confederate or sympathizer from being a minister, teacher, lawyer or their holding of political offices. But, by 1872, the constitution was loosing is power and the river counties were beginning to elect the men they wanted. Gates and Law were both elected Sheriff of their respective county’s, Gates in Buchanan County, around St. Joseph, and Law, here in Callaway County.
Gates went on to serve many years as Sheriff, and then Treasurer of the State of Missouri and ended his career as a United States Marshal. George W. Law was not as fortunate.
It seems that before, during and after the war a rather nefarious character by the name of Peter Kessler, with his family of sons, that was involved in many criminal acts in Callaway and surrounding counties. They were involved in thefts and extortion and were noted horse thieves.
In June of 1873 they stole a pair of mules from a farmer in Readsville and took the to be sold in St. Charles. The St. Charles Sheriff was alerted and arrested Peter Kessler and his son Augustus. They were taken to Jefferson City to await their trial in Fulton.
The Kesslers were much hated and despised in Callaway County and the talk in the county made Sheriff Law believe that mob action would occur against the Kesslers. Law twice asked Missouri Governor Silas Woodson for help in guarding the criminals. Woodson refused both times informing Law that it was the duty of the Sheriff and the citizens of Callaway County to provide protection.
On the morning of August 15, 1873, The Kesslers, handcuffed together were escorted by two Callaway County deputies from Jefferson City across the river on the ferry and put on the train at Cedar City to be brought to Fulton. A few miles north of Cedar City, young Gus Kessler, with the pretense of using the water closet and with his father handcuffed to him outside the closed door, managed to escape from his handcuff and jumped from the window of the train, never to be seen or heard from again.
Meanwhile, Peter Kessler and two deputies continued on into Fulton and Kessler was brought to the Courthouse for trial. The mood on the streets of Fulton was not good and now began to turn ugly. The crowd, incensed by the escape of young Kessler, feared that the elder Kessler would also escape justice. The cries for Kessler to be hung and for the Sheriffs resignation could clearly be heard from within the courthouse. Kessler’s lawyers originally intended to ask for a continuance, but fearing for the life of their client they pleaded him guilty and he was sentenced to six years in the state penitentiary.
Sheriff Law and the now convicted Kessler waited at the Courthouse two long hours until the train would arrive at the depot. Law knew his duty was to protect Kessler, but he also felt his duty to the citizens of Callaway County. Law did not want to be responsible for injury to any of the citizenry. Law removed his guns and placed them in his desk.
Kessler was led out of the north door of the Courthouse to a waiting carriage to be taken to the train depot. Inside the closed carriage were Kessler, Sheriff Law, Deputy Dundon, Prosecutor John Provines and Police Constable Arthur. Outside the carriage were several outriders to act as escort.
As the driver, T. W. Henderson started to pull away a member of the mob pushed his way through the mounted guards surrounding the carriage and stole the reins from Henderson as he shoved Henderson from the carriage. The man whipped the horse into a run and simultaneously drew a pistol to shoot Kessler. Sheriff Law knocked the mans arm up and the shot went wide up through the roof of the carriage.
Seemingly out of nowhere a group of men rode up to the speeding carriage and began to fire shots indiscriminately into it. Constable Arthur and Mr. Provines, suffering from grazing wounds, managed to jump from the Carriage. Twenty-five year old Deputy Dundon was shot in the neck with the ball traveling down into his chest, Sheriff Law was shot in the hip and again about 8 inches above that wound with the ball lodging against his spine. Both men were mortally wounded.
The carriage speeded north out of Fulton with the group of mobites in close pursuit. The carriage was stopped one mile north of Fulton near a cemetery and the men dragged Kessler across the road to the property of William Cole and there he was hung from a tree.
Sheriff Law and Deputy Dundon were taken to Law’s rented home in town and cared for by several local physicians, the prognosis was grim. Someone sent word to Elijah Gates in St. Joseph and Gates arrived here shortly before Law’s death.
It must have been an incredible scene, Elijah Gates, this huge bear of a man leaning down over the prostrate form of his dying friend. In a soft and tender voice Gates asked, “Do you know who this is?” Law stirred from his semi-conscious state and replied in a weak, but clear voice, “I would know that voice anywhere.” The two men embraced and Law lapsed back into unconsciousness and later that evening, to use the words of another dying southern commander, he crossed over the river to rest in the shade of the trees.
Elijah Gates had one more duty to perform for his fallen friend. Gates led the funeral procession the next day out of Fulton to Law’s family cemetery on the farm south of Reform. There, under a huge oak tree, next to his wife Amanda, and among eight of his eleven children, his friends laid George W. Law to rest.
The story doesn’t quite end here. Sheriff Law and Deputy Dundon both refused to identify the men involved in the shootings. Several men were brought before the grand jury in the murders of Sheriff Law, Deputy Dundon and Peter Kessler. No petit jury was ever convened, no one indited for the crime. It seems that a very bad man was the only man intentionally killed, and that there was no need to make other families suffer over this. Better to let the wound heal.
Governor Woodson threatened to put troops into Callaway County until the culprits were apprehended, but the Kingdom is known to not suffer invasions lightly. The troops never came.
For a while the local newspapers mentioned a fund to raise money for a suitable memorial to Sheriff Law. After that George W. Law’s name fades from the records. He was almost 44 years old.
Allen Conner and I found the Law Cemetery one warm August afternoon. We followed our instincts instead of directions and in the middle of an abandoned field, under a huge oak tree, yes, it is still there, we found his wife’s tombstone and markers for the children, but no memorial for G. W. Law. I would rather think that instead of some ne’er-do-well absconding with the funds in the 1800’s, that it was, much as we do today, spent on the care of his surviving children.
Now, 125 years after his death, as you can see here in front of the podium, George W. Law will receive the headstone he so justly deserves. It reads:
Lt. Col. George W. Law
1st Mo Cav
and the reverse has at the top a sheriff’s star with the simple inscription,
Killed in the line of Duty.
To mark the grave of such a man is incredibly humbling to me. But, as you have heard tonight, there is more to George W. Law than cold marble could ever tell.
It has often been said that you measure a man by his friends. George Law was mourned not only by his friends in the Kingdom of Callaway and the State of Missouri, but throughout the Confederacy.
In The Line of Duty - George W. Law address given to 1998 SCV Central Missouri Brigade Summer Muster, Fulton, MO, June 18, 1998 by Mark Douglas.