Initially, a bushwhacker was someone who traveled through bushes or lived in the woods. During the Civil War, Federal troops specifically applied it to irregular troops of the Confederate states engaged in guerrilla warfare—a true bushwhacker would fight undercover and even shoot their victims in the back. Missouri was littered with bushwhackers back in the day, and one of them was a local boy named Sam Hildebrand.
Missouri was littered with bushwhackers back in the day, and one of them was a local boy named Sam Hildebrand.
Samuel S. Hildebrand was born on January 6th, 1836 on the Hildebrand family farm outside of Bonne Terre, Missouri. He was born to George and Rebecca Hildebrand, successful farmers and stonemasons. Samuel, who would often go by the nickname “Sam”, was the fifth born out of ten children. Once of age, the Hildebrand children were sent to a local schoolhouse for education. However, Sam didn’t fare well in this setting. On his first, and only day of attendance, he sparked an altercation with the teacher. Upon hearing of this, Sam’s father gave him two options. He could return to school, and promise better behavior, or he could remain at home and take on the chores of the farm. Sam chose the latter, and spent his childhood as a full time farmer. He only learned to write two letters of the alphabet, and never learned to read.
However, Sam would soon find his niche after picking up a firearm. He was quick to sharpen this skill, becoming an excellent shot. He was able to maintain high accuracy at remarkable distances, and execute elaborate trick shots that are rumored to have never been recreated. This attribute only added to the “no nonsense” reputation around the Hildebrand family, Sam personally being described as “rough around the edges”. In 1854 at the age of 18, Hildebrand married a woman by the name of Margaret Hampton. This marriage would produce six children. Also during this time, Sam built by hand a cabin adjacent to his childhood home, where he would raise his beloved family. Contrary to popular belief, Sam was a family man, and would go to extreme lengths to protect his wife and children.
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The brothers hid out in the woods near their homes for months to evade capture.
The Hildebrand family were open Union sympathizers, with Sam himself expressing his abolitionist views throughout his life, and in his autobiography. He also stated that he was never interested in, or understanding of the uprising political turmoil, and certainly never intended to go off to war. This would change however, after bridges were burned between the Hildebrand’s and local Federalists. In August of 1861, well known Federal activist Firman McIlvaine had discovered one of his steeds had been stolen. After the course of a few days, it had wound up in the possession of troubled brothers Frank and Samuel Hildebrand, via trade. Upon being approached by McIlvaine, the two maintained their innocence, stating they were unaware the horse had been stolen, though this was not accepted by Firman. McIlvaine demanded justice, with his preferred method being death. The brothers then hid out in the woods near their homes for months to evade capture.
After recruiting his band, and his trusty gun that he called “Kill-Devil”, Hildebrand began his reign of terror.
In October of 1861, Sam would leave his post in the trees, and move his family to the small community of Flat Woods (near present day Knob Lick) in southern St. Francois County, Missouri. Frank would remain at the woody hideout until November of 1861, but upon a failed attempt to patch things up with Union authorities, Frank was arrested. He was denied a fair trial, and hanged by Firman McIlvaine and party on November 20th, 1861. Sam would remain with his family at the Flat Woods cabin for five more months, until this location was revealed to McIlvaine in April 1862. Soon after, an attack on the home, consisting of 80 soldiers commenced. This resulted in Sam taking a bullet to the leg, though he would survive and evade capture.
This was the final straw for Samuel. He had enough of the mistreatment, and settled that it was time to avenge the Union for all they had done to him, and his family. Although aligning with more Federal views, Sam would take advantage of the opportunities the Confederate Army had to offer. He set off to Green County, Arkansas, where he would join the Confederate States Army under General Jeff Thompson. Sam was able to run an independent operation, picking his own troops, targeting who he pleased, and taking on the full role of a “Bushwhacker”. After recruiting his band, and his trusty gun that he called “Kill-Devil”, Hildebrand began his reign of terror.
For every kill, Hildebrand etched a notch into old “Kill-Devil”.
Sam’s favored targets were those who had betrayed and threatened him or his family. Once prepared and healed from his injury, Sam set off for Missouri once again, on June 1st, 1862. After returning to St. Francois County, Samuel set his sights on his victims. First, came the informant of Firman McIlvaine, George Cornecious. Then, after camping outside his Big River Mills home for two nights, McIlvaine himself. For every kill, Hildebrand etched a notch into old “Kill-Devil”. It is said by the end of his duty, the gun displayed upwards of 80 notches.
...he successfully completed what he had set out to do, never being apprehended, despite being a well known figure.
Sam would often travel disguised in a Union uniform, which allowed him inside access to classified information he would use to his advantage. In fact, the only confirmed photo of Sam shows him wearing said Union uniform. He was a skilled planner, and stalked his prey. His intelligence and patience led him to rarely make mistakes. This combined with his ability to deceive and disguise, left him untouchable. Even with tens of bounties over Sam’s head, he successfully completed what he had set out to do, never being apprehended, despite being a well known figure.
Sam’s service came to an end shortly after the surrender of the Confederacy, in May of 1865. He later expressed in his autobiography that he was hesitant to surrender personally, as his priorities were on revenge, and not the outcome of the war. However Sam did decide to return to his family, with them drifting place to place for their safety.
In 1869, Sam’s wife Margaret, died. This resulted in a final relocation to Pinckneyville, Illinois, where Sam and the children assumed false identities. He cared for the brood as a single parent, working hard to provide for them. However, things would take a turn for the worst in 1872, when out for drink at a local bar, Sam was recognized. He drew a gun with the intention to kill the man in order to maintain his secrecy, but was spotted by a policeman. A struggle ensued, and Sam was shot and killed by the officer.
...a prime example of the Guerilla fighters of our past, and a study worthy specimen.
The life of the notorious Missouri Bushwhacker was a troubled one. Though it tells a tale of the heartaches, betrayal, and the struggles of wartime. He is a prime example of the Guerilla fighters of our past, and a study worthy specimen. If we followed the footsteps of Samuel S. Hildebrand, they would take us to attics, forts, caves, and places we still may have never seen. Our next task is to trace some of those steps, and see where they lead.
Today, thanks to Jennifer and Scott Speidel, the old family home of Frank and Bushwhacker Sam Hildebrand has been restored and renovated into a luxurious air b&b. Giving you a chance to walk the footsteps of this local historic legend.
GET OUT THERE!
words by j. moore
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