Although Gen. Robert E. Lee had surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia 20 days earlier, on April 9, the war continued --- and would not end finally until May was over. Columbus, Georgia, had just fallen to Union forces on the 16th. Confederate President Jefferson Davis remained at large.
Down in Wayne and Appanoose Counties, feelings were running high. Although the end of the long war was in sight, times were tense. The sometimes real and sometimes imagined threat of Confederate-sympathizing guerrilla activity in northern Missouri, spilling over the line into Iowa, had been a factor on the homefront throughout the war. Hundreds of men, some returned soldiers and others "graybeards" who had been too old or unable for other reasons to serve, remained armed and ready to defend the border country that stretched from the Mississippi to the Missouri.
The six men who caused a regional sensation --- largely forgotten now --- by robbing both east- and west-bound Western Stage Co. coaches between Promise City and Centerville that spring-like Saturday afternoon --- April 29, 1865 --- would have been hard pressed to find a more volatile and dangerous time to execute what seems to have been a carefully laid plan. If newspaper reports are to be believed, their folly would cost them their lives.
The most comprehensive report that I've found of events on April 29 along the general route State Highway No. 2 still follows between Corydon and Centerville appeared in The Ottumwa Courier under the headline, "The Guerrillas in Iowa!" A similar report was published or republished in full or in part in newspapers across the state --- across the Union states in fact --- updated as developments occurred. Here's the text of The Courier report:
THE GUERRILLAS IN IOWA!
Two of the Western Stage Co.'s Coaches,
Mails and Passengers Robbed,
Nine Miles West of Centerville, Appanoose
County on Saturday, April 29th, 1865
"OTTUMWA, May 1 --- We are indebted to Mr. F.J. Leach, a driver in the employment of the Western Stage Company, for an account of one of the most daring and successful robberies we ever heard of. Mr. Leach was driving from Corydon to Centerville. At Corydon, five passengers --- one of them a citizen, four of them strangers, got aboard the coach, paying their fare, two of them to Promise City, the first station out, and two to Centerville. At Promise City, two more strangers got aboard, and the two who had paid to that place continued on, making six passengers, one riding on the outside and the others inside. The citizen left at Promise City.
"Just as the coach or hack was winding on to the bridge at Walnut Creek, nine miles west of Centerville, the passenger on the box suddenly presented a revolver to the left breast of the driver, exclaiming, 'Hold on! Turn out here, G-d d--n you! You have gone far enough. You are in the hands of the rebels now! I will put a hole right through you if you don't stop!' Looking around, the driver saw the inside passengers looking out of the window, each one holding a revolver in his hand.
"Of course, there was no alternative but to submit, and he accordingly turned his team out to the side of the road. The six passengers instantly jumped off and out of the coach, and ordering the driver to keep his seat, proceeded to unhitch the horses and tie them to the stage and the trees nearby. They took out the mail sacks, ripped them open with knives and deliberately examined the contents, putting most of the packages containing more that one letter in their pockets, tearing the single letters open and appropriating the money found, so far as the driver could judge. He saw them take some money from the letters.
Prairie Trails Museum
"After this they waited about twenty minutes for the western bound stage to come up. When they heard it coming, four of the party went out and met it, took possession, and piloted it over the bridge to the place where the other coach was, and went through the process of unharnessing the horses and robbing the mails, as they had done with the other coach; occupying in doing so, about half an hour. When this was all done, they selected six of the best horses, three out of each team, mounted them and rode off towards Promise City, exclaiming as they left, 'Good evening, gentlemen.'
"It was now after sunset. The two drivers made up a team of the two horses, and drove into Centerville; the other passengers went on west with Mr. Sayger. The next morning a party from Centerville went out and gathered up the broken letters, express matter, &c. They heard of the robbers some distance from the scene of the robbery, on the road to Promise City. They robbed two houses, taking a saddle from each. This is the last that had been heard from them up to the time the driver left Centerville for Ottumwa.
"The agent of the Western Stage Company, George Pratt, offered a reward of $25 for each horse and $50 for the arrest of each of the robbers.
"The following is a description of the robbers, as given by the driver: One tall man without whiskers, hair dark and shingled short, dark clothes, gaiter shoes and a cloth or cassimere cape. Another, medium sized man, rather heavy built, with a very red face; had a very light goatee, hair light colored, had on a broad brimmed white hat, and overcoat of heavy corded goods, made in the style of soldiers' overcoats, with large black buttons, and gaiter shoes. Another tall and rather heavy built man with dark complexion and dark whiskers and moustache, had on citizens' dress, a black overcoat and a black hat; when he had his hat off his hair stands up bushy in front. Another, medium sized man has no whiskers, hair dark but not black, had on green and black barred pants and a black hat. Another rather small man with blue eyes and light hair, curly and rather bushy --- had on a light colored hat. The other man cannot be described.
"The horses were described as follows: Two roan horses, one about 10 or 12, and the other about 7 or 8 years old; the latter had the hair rubbed off his hips by the breeching; one horse about 11 years old; one light grey about 8 years old; two bays,, one with a star on the forehead and a light hind foot, and the other has sore or weak eyes and his near hind foot at the gambrel joint is swollen.
"Later advices state that the three counties, Appanoose, Wayne and Decatur, are in arms and are in pursuit of the robbers. The mail sacks that were robbed are here. J.W.N."
As the week after the robbery passed, briefer updates were published in many newspapers, some of the reports noting, too, that the robbers, as they fled, had "committed another robbery, taking from a sheep drover they met on the road $200."
On Saturday, May 6, The Davenport Morning Democrat reported that pursuing Iowans had caught up with the robbers somewhere in northern Missouri on Wednesday, May 3, and that "the pursuing party having surrounded them they abandoned their horses and took to the brush. The horses were recovered and the thieves, six in number, shot dead and left in the brush.
"If all guerrillas and bushwhackers were served in like manner the country would soon be rid of them," The Democrat opined.
The most comprehensive report I've found of the end to this Iowa history footnote was published on May 10, 1865, in The Iowa State Weekly Register, Des Moines. The report was lifted from an exchange copy of The Corydon Monitor --- an issue that so far as we know is no longer extant. Here's the text of The Register report:
FINALE OF THE GREAT MAIL ROBBERY!
"The six desperadoes who robbed the mail down in Appanoose County declared at one of the houses at which they stopped for a few minutes that they were creating an excitement in Iowa equal to that which was produced by the murder of the President.
"The Corydon Monitor says that four of these villains had been in that place several days, two of them stopping at the Phillips Hotel, and the other two at the Kentucky House. They said they were desirous of settling in Corydon and looked at several pieces of property with the assumed design of purchasing. One the morning of the day of the robbery, they took passage on the stage, and were joined at Promise City by the remaining two confederates.
"The stages were robbed about two hours before sunset at Walnut Creek, some nine miles west of Centerville, Appanoose County.
"On the following morning the whole country was roused and a vigorous pursuit was commenced. The robbers fled down into Missouri, and so hot was the pursuit that on Monday they were compelled to abandon the stolen horses about 20 miles south of Unionville, Missouri. At the same place the pursuing party rescued two men who had been impressed as guides into the service of the robbers.
"The scoundrels took to the timber and made frantic efforts to escape. Three hundred armed men stimulated with hate of rebels and untiring as blood hounds, closed around them, and on Wednesday morning, being pressed at all points, they threw aside their overcoats and everything else which impeded their flight --- but they were doomed.
"Before sunset of Wednesday, they were laying stark and dead in the timber of Northern Missouri. Whether they were shot down in their tracks or were captured and subsequently hanged, we do not know. The fact that they are dead is placed beyond question; and whether shot or hanged, their fate was richly deserved."