The Civil War had ripped the social fabric of the nation apart, and lawlessness abounded in many parts of the country in the months that followed. Nowhere was this truer than Missouri, where sharply divided loyalties had given rise to a particularly vicious brand of guerrilla conflict during the war. Bushwhacking gangs sometimes used the war as an excuse for mere plunder.

Three "Regulators" lurked in the dull light of dawn behind Green B. Phillips's barn in Greene County, Missouri, as the former Union captain trudged from his home near Cave Springs to begin his chores on the morning of May 23, 1866. The trespassers covered Phillips with their revolvers and herded him toward some nearby timber. When Phillips broke away, the assassins opened fire.  

The Civil War had ripped the social fabric of the nation apart, and lawlessness abounded in many parts of the country in the months that followed. Nowhere was this truer than Missouri, where sharply divided loyalties had given rise to a particularly vicious brand of guerrilla conflict during the war. Bushwhacking gangs sometimes used the war as an excuse for mere plunder.

A year after the war's end, it was clear to many that the armistice had not stopped the banditry. An organized gang of thieves centered around Walnut Grove in northwest Greene County seemed to be operating throughout southwest Missouri. Rarely were the brigands caught, and even when they were arrested and brought to trial, they often won acquittal with ready alibis backed by the testimony of cohorts or through intimidation of potential witnesses and jurymen.

A group of citizens in the Walnut Grove vicinity decided to take matters into their own hands. In the spring of 1866, they formed the Regulators for the express purpose of wiping out the nest of outlaws. According to the 1883 History of Greene County, the Honest Man's League, as the group was sometimes called, was composed of "some of the best citizens" of the county.        

Green Phillips, their first victim, was considered a solid citizen by many, but he'd apparently brought suspicion upon himself by befriending the wrong people. Now he lay dead, shot full of bullets in his own barnyard.

On Saturday, the 26th of May, three days after Green’s murder, two young men named John Rush and Charles Gorsuch went to Walnut Grove and openly condemned the shooting of Phillips, then threatened two of the Regulators, whom they claimed were the killers. The vigilante group promptly passed a death sentence on Rush and Gorsuch, apprehended them in Walnut Grove, and strung them up to a redbud tree southwest of town. 

Two days later, on May 28th, the Honest Man's League, two hundred and fifty strong, rode seventeen miles to the county seat at Springfield and assembled on the public square. One of their leaders mounted a wagon and announced that the Regulators meant to rid the county of thieves by legal means, if possible, but that, if necessary, they would carry out justice in their own way.

Then the Regulators invited some of the prominent citizens of Springfield to share their thoughts on the vigilante group and its activities. Two men spoke in sympathy with the group, but future Missouri governor John S. Phelps urged the Regulators to let the duly elected officers handle law-breakers.

Unconvinced by Phelps's arguments, the Regulators rode south out of Springfield toward Christian County. Just south of Ozark, they came upon James "Boss" Edwards, a fugitive from Greene County charged with theft, and hanged him from a huge oak tree beside the road.

After this act, the Regulators began an indifferent effort to cooperate with authorities, helping a deputy sheriff round up several thieves in the Walnut Grove area in early June. Some of the men, though, were promptly bailed out, and the Regulators responded by issuing a proclamation to the citizens of southwest Missouri on June 16 warning that from now on anyone who bailed out suspects charged with robbery and larceny would be regarded as being in full sympathy with the thieves and would be treated accordingly.

On July 28, 1866, the Regulators held an organizational meeting southeast of Walnut Grove, but this was one of their last acts because the group had been so effective as to make its continued existence unnecessary. The Regulators had gotten their message across, and the group dissolved about as fast as it had sprung up.
                    
Larry Wood is a freelance writer specializing in the history of Missouri and the Ozarks. You may contact him at larryewood@mail.com or like his author Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/AuthorLarryWood/.