William J. Rountree Memoir

William J. Rountree was born in Springfield, Missouri on October 17, 1847 on his grandfather’s farm. The Rountree family had a Scotts-Irish background, and owned a tavern in St. Louis. Rountree lived with his family in St. Louis and recalled the family’s slave, Betty, taking him to school. Between 1830 and 1850 St Louis’ population and economy boomed. In the 1850s over three thousand steamboats traveled to St. Louis bringing new business, merchants and customers to the rapidly growing city.1 Rountree remembered encountering Native Americans, who came to the city to trade furs. William lived in St. Louis until 1852, when his father got “gold fever” and decided to move to California to try and strike it rich with the other prospectors.2 William would not see his father again until 1870.

When his father left for California, Rountree was sent to live with his grandfather in Springfield. William’s grandfather, Joseph Rountree, was one of the earliest settlers to Greene County. Joseph was a former school teacher, and he helped build the first school in the area.3 William attended school in Springfield, noting the uniqueness of his education. “There were no public schools then. They were what was called “subscription” schools and a teacher was employed by the community. The schools were only for the fall and winter months and you were supposed to learn the three “R’s”, Readin, Ritin, and Rithmetic.”4

William’s grandmother was permanently disabled from a buggy accident, thus his time away from school was spent on the family farm. William was given many chores and various duties to assist managing the farm. His grandfather owned two slaves who helped work the land and tend the home. Ozarks agriculture in the mid-1800s, was based on producing self-sustaining crops which fed the settlers and their livestock. The region had relatively few slaves, and those who were slave owners generally only had one or two to help with the farm and house work. The market for agricultural “cash crops” was available, but until the arrival of the railroad following the Civil War, most famers cultivated what they could consume or sell locally. Rountree described his family’s self-sufficient farm, “We were as nearly a self-contained people as it was possible to produce. We had plenty of all the essentials of living, but it was produced on the farm by our own efforts. As to money, we had very little. The crops were corn, wheat, flax, cattle, mules, sheep, and hogs. From the wool of the sheep and from the flax was made what clothing we wore.”5

Life continued rather normally for Rountree until the 1860 presidential election. Tensions in the country mounted over the issue of slavery and as Rountree recalled many southern states threatened to secede from the Union if Abraham Lincoln won the election. Roundtree and his fellow classmates never dreamed that Lincoln would actually win the election and they debated the issue in the classroom.6 Southern fireaters increased their secession rhetoric after Lincoln’s election. South Carolina became the first state to take the momentous step when it passed an Ordinance of Secession on December 20, 1860. Six weeks later, another six Southern states voted to secede. Secession conventions were called across the border-states, and Missouri’s was held three weeks after Lincoln’s inauguration. Days after the attack on Fort Sumter, Lincoln called for militia volunteers to confront the rebellion. Rountree noted Missouri became engaged in the conflict after “Mr. Lincoln called for 75,000 troops, and some thought that the war would soon be over and the states brought back into the Union. In our State of Missouri, Clark Jackson, the Governor, and the Secession Party tried to make the state secede but were prevented by the preponderance of Union men and Missouri remained loyal, but in doing so made herself the battleground for four long years.”7 Over 1,100 battles and skirmishes were fought during the Civil War in Missouri. Only Virginia and Tennessee had more engagements. 8

Rountree cited the first act of war in Springfield was when a group of men hoisted the Rebel flag over the courthouse on June 11, 1861. Tensions were high and many witnesses to the event feared there would be bloodshed right in the middle of the square, luckily no violence occurred.9 On the early morning August 10, 1861 Federal troops under Brig. Gen. Nathaniel Lyon marched from Springfield to engage Confederate troops camped along Wilson Creek 10 miles outside of town. The Battle waged only a few miles from the Rountree farm, which ran along the Wilson Creek. “All day long we listened to the cannons roar and the continual crash of musketry.”10 The outnumbered Union Army split its force into two columns and attacked the encampment from two positions. Eventually, General Sterling Price and Benjamin McCulloch rallied their forces and drove the Union troops from the battlefield. Lyon was killed during the engagement. Rountree noted the battle was Missouri’s, “biggest battle of the war but not our last as we had that same year, on October 25th, the famous charge of Fremont’s body guard, commanded by Major Zagona, and then again, January 8th, 1863, Marmauke’s attack on Springfield.”11

As the War waged, food became scarce as more soldiers marched into the region. Both the Union and Confederate armies and bands of bushwhackers depleted the food resources in the country and took the crops and livestock of local farmers. William’s uncle, Lucius Rountree, lived on a farm nearby on Mt. Vernon Road and had all of his horses and mules taken either by the Rebels or Union army.12 Rountree and his grandfather had to become very resourceful and began hiding away food to help sustain them through the difficult time.

What little we had left we proceeded to hide away and it was very little indeed. In my grandfather’s house was an immense stone chimney between the dining room and the kitchen. On the other side of the dining room was a built-in cupboard. Between the cupboard wall and the kitchen wall was a vacant space. The only way to reach this space was to go through a small trap door in the ceiling of the passageway and clamber over the joists of the dining room. We decided to use this well, or vacant space, to hide what food we had left. I made a ladder to go down into this space, and the old negroes and grandfather handed me the stuff and we stored it away. It consisted of some bacon and hams, cornmeal, dried beans, fried fruit, and our extra clothing and bed clothes.” In the kitchen and dining room were two big fireplaces. The one in the dining room was about four feet wide. The one in the kitchen was six feet wide. Soon we had two Rebel regiments on each side of the farm, and from that time on the house was full of soldiers from morning to night, crowding us into the background as the enjoyed the warmth of those big fires more than their camp fires. We had only two meals a day.
William Rountree Autobiography, pg 10

Rountree and his grandfather along with those who decided to remain in the area suffered many hardships until February 1862 when Union General Curtis came to Springfield and drove the Rebels to Arkansas. The family was once again able to use a small steam mill that had been occupied by the Rebels to make flour for bread, which helped tide them over until they had a crop in the fall. While the Union now had control of Springfield, it did not mean that there was peace and harmony in the area by any means. “Curtis followed the Rebels on into northern Arkansas and fought the great battle of Pea Ridge and completely whipped and scattered the Rebel Army west of the Mississippi. From that time on we were not bothered by Rebels except on January 8th, 1863. Marmaduke, with a large raiding force, attacked Springfield and an all-day battle was fought in which the Rebels were defeated. The Rebel Army broke up into guerrilla bands, and there was constant raiding all over Missouri and Arkansas. Many of these band were nothing more than bands of thieves, robbers, and murderers, like the Quantral band in which Jesse and Frank James were members. It got so no one was safe in the country out on the farms away from protection of the army, as many were robbed or murdered almost in sight of the army posts. Any man was safer in the army than anywhere in the country.”13 Ironically, because of their lawlessness, many bands became an enemy to both Union and Confederate troops. What had started with such promise, ended with wholesale plundering that forced most civilians off of their land.14

On December 1, 1864, Rountree enlisted in the Union army. His uncle, Lucius Rountree, commanded the newly organized 14th Missouri Cavalry. The regiment consisted mostly of the 8th Missouri Cavalry, but the regiment enlisted soldiers from November 30, 1864 to May 13, 1865 in Springfield and St. Louis. Rountree was sixteen years old when he enlisted, but men were so scarce that no one questioned his age. An unknown number of soldiers—probably around five percent— served in the war under the age of eighteen.15 In 1861, President Lincoln announced that boys under eighteen could enlist only with their parents’ consent. The next year, he prohibited any enlistment of those under eighteen. Heavy casualties led recruiting officers to look the other way when underage boys tried to enlist. The 14th Missouri Cavalry mostly patrolled along the Missouri-Arkansas border, attempting to prevent guerrilla activity, but from June to November 1865 the regiment was assigned to frontier duty on the plains.16 Rountree recalled, “The Indians were very bad in ’64 and ’65 attacking settlers in Kansas and the Overland Stages all over the West. At that time there was no railroad west of Topeka, Kansas. All freighting was done by great trains of “prairie schooners” or large covered wagons draw by six or eight head of oxen. They were just starting to build, from Topeka, the Denver branch of the Union Pacific and the Santa Fe along the Arkansas River. We were sent out there to guard the workmen building the road and also guard over the Overland Stages running to Denver and Santa Fe.”17

After the war ended, Rountree applied to the Naval Academy at Annapolis. After failing the entrance examination, he returned to Springfield where he served as a clerk for the firms of Massey, McAdams & Co. and Keet, Massey & Co.18 Various sections of Springfield were destroyed during the war, as the town was heavily contested and changed hands several times. He concluded his autobiography by describing the reconstruction of Springfield in 1865 stating, “There had been no building completely destroyed, but the country was almost denuded of foods and feeds. The thousands of soldiers that had swarmed Southwest Missouri had seen the beautiful prairies that stretched westward from Springfield to the Kansas line, and we began to have an influx of settlers to take up land and make homes. The money they brought with them and spent made business good and recovery rapid, and soon we were almost back to normal.”19 Eventually, Rountree headed west like his father and settled with his family in Wyoming as a farmer.

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  1. Christopher Phillips, Missouri’s Confederate: Claiborne Fox Jackson and the Creation of Southern Identity in the Border West (Columbia: University of Missouri, 2000), 116.
  2. William Rountree Autobiogrpahy, c.a. 1932. Rountree Collection. History Museum on the Square.
  3. “Joseph Rountree,” Encyclopedia of the History of Missouri, Vol. V., 1901, pg 404.
  4. William Rountree Autobiography, c.a. 1932. Rountree Collection. History Museum on the Square.
  5. William Rountree Autobiography, c.a. 1932. Rountree Collection. History Museum on the Square.
  6. William Rountree Autobiography, c.a. 1932. Rountree Collection. History Museum on the Square.
  7. William Rountree Autobiography, c.a. 1932. Rountree Collection. History Museum on the Square.
  8. Frederick H. Dyer, A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion, vol 1 (Dayton, Ohio: Morningside Press, 1994), 797 – 815.
  9. William Rountree Autobiography, c.a. 1932. Rountree Collection. History Museum on the Square.
  10. William Rountree Autobiography, c.a. 1932. Rountree Collection. History Museum on the Square.
  11. William Rountree Autobiography, c.a. 1932. Rountree Collection. History Museum on the Square.
  12. William Rountree Autobiography, c.a. 1932. Rountree Collection. History Museum on the Square.
  13. William Rountree Autobiography, c.a. 1932. Rountree Collection. History Museum on the Square.
  14. Robert R. Mackey, The Uncivil War: Irregular Warfare in the Upper South, 1861-1865 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004), 49.
  15. Mintz, S. (2007).Child Soldiers. Digital History. Retrieved 29 October 2010 from http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/learning_history/children_civilwar/child_soldiers.cfm
  16. “14th Regiment of the Missouri Cavalry,” National Parks Service Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Systems, http://www.itd.nps.gov/cwss/soldiers.cfm
  17. William Rountree Autobiography, c.a. 1932. Rountree Collection. History Museum on the Square, pg 12.
  18. William Rountree Autobiography, c.a. 1932. Rountree Collection. History Museum on the Square.
  19. William Rountree Autobiography, c.a. 1932. Rountree Collection. History Museum on the Square.