Confederate Major J.R. Boyce fled to Virginia City, Montana, in 1864 to avoid proscription after the Civil War. Boyce, who lost his Missouri plantation after the conflict, later told a biographer that while his head sympathized with the Union, and “he loved his country,” his heart sided with the Confederacy.
Though Boyce was born in Kentucky, his family hailed from Virginia, where three generations before him were born. He descended from some of the earliest settlers of the Old Dominion. “His friends and kindred were there and he had no alternative but to join the side of the South,” reads his apologetic biography.
James Richard was not only a slave owner, but his father had been a slave trader. Interestingly, one of J.R.’s former slaves may have ratted him out during the Civil War.
J.R. Boyce worked in merchandising for 20 years in Boone County, Mo., and his skills in logistics and procurement came in handy when the war broke out. He served in the quartermaster’s department under General Sterling Price, the former governor of Missouri, who led the Missouri State Guard.
We know for a fact that Boyce fought with Price at Wilson’s Creek in Oak Hills, Missouri, the second battle of the Civil War. His name appears on a list of officers in the 1st regiment, 3rd division of the Missouri State Guard that saw action on August 10, 1861.
At the time, Missouri hadn’t declared its allegiance. Both Union and Confederate troops had taken up positions in the state. Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon’s Army of the West was camped at Springfield, Mo. Confederate troops under the command of General Ben McCulloch and Price were approaching from the southwest. On August 9th, both armies formulated attack plans.
Lyon struck first, attacking the Confederates at Wilson’s Creek, about 12 miles southwest of Springfield, at 5 a.m. on the morning of the 10th. Rebel cavalry took the first blow and retreated from “Bloody Hill.” But other Confederate forces quickly rushed in to shore up their positions. Then the Rebels took the offensive, attacking the Union three times that day. Though the Yankees held their line, they ultimately retreated to Springfield, exhausted and their ammunition low.
2,330 soldiers died that day, a roughly equal amount on both sides.
The victory not only buoyed Southern sympathizers in Missouri, which ultimate joined the Confederacy, but it emboldened Price, who split from McCulloch, to march his troops as far north as Lexington, Mo. Price fought the battle of Lexington in mid-September 1861 against a garrison of about 3,500 Union soldiers led by Colonel James A. Mulligan.
Price first encountered Union troops on September 13th south of town. He pushed them back into their fortifications then decided to wait for ammunition, wagons, other supplies, and reinforcements. He ordered an assault on the fort on the 18th.
The Missouri Guard encountered heavy fire but managed to move forward and push the Yankees back into the inner portions of the fort. The next day Rebel forces kept the Yankees under heavy artillery fire as they consolidated their forces and prepared for a final attack. That came early the next morning.
Price’s troops advanced behind mobile breastworks made from hemp. They got close enough to take the Union works at the Anderson House in a final rush. By noon the fight was over. Another 1,874 soldiers, most of them Union, had died.
Despite his early success in Missouri, Price was best known for his losses. Boyce told his biographer that he fought with Price at one of them, the battle of Iuka in Northern Mississippi. The battle took place in September 1862, during the second year of the war.
At the time, Price, stationed in near Mississippi, was and engaged in his “campaign to the West.” He was ordered forward to fight against Union Generals Grant and Rosecrans. Troops led by Van Dorn were supposed to serve as back-up. But Price was defeated by Rosecrans before Van Dorn could come to his aid.
Boyce was part of a north wing of the army that was cut off from Price, who retreated to the south. According to Boyce’s biography, he was in command of the separated troops. For some time afterward, with numerous compatriots, he vainly attempted to get back to southern lines. He related stories about these experiences to his children.
Boyce may have been motivated by the fact that two of his sons were also fighting with Price. One was in a contingent that Price sent out to join Quantril, who was carrying on guerilla warfare in Kansas, where he sacked Lawrence in August 1863. “At the close of the great conflict, one of these boys was a prisoner in New Orleans, the other a prisoner at Rock Island,” according to the biography.
Fortunately, Major Boyce was not cut off far from his Missouri plantation. He may have used his home as a base, because Union forces ultimately caught wind that he might be there. In fact, N.B. Burford, a commanding brigadier-general, dispatched 100 men under the command of Captain C. O’Connell to investigate whether Confederate cavalry were hiding out on Boyce’s plantation, according to correspondence published after the war.
“I send you with 2 guides. Sergeant Crisp and a former slave of Colonel Boyce’s, who know the country. If you get proof that Boyce has been giving aid and comfort to the enemy you will arrest him. You will search his premises for arms, ammunition, and letters, also for cotton; but you will be careful not to allow a particle of his or any one’s property to be taken except for military purposes.”
Though it’s not known whether the mission was successful, Boyce’s children later boasted that did in fact provide aid and comfort to Confederate soldiers hidden in nearby woods during the war. Daughter Anne Marie Boyce entertained her children with stories about how as a teenager she had cooked food for the troops after the family’s slaves had gone to bed. The next day she and her sisters would pack the victuals in bags, which they tied up under their hoop skirts, and take them to soldiers hiding in the woods.
During the war, Anne Marie and her sisters would sometimes go out for an evening of dance with Southern boys. In one case they barely escaped from a farmhouse after a group of Northern soldiers swooped down on them, according to Herman Hagedorn’s biography of William Boyce Thompson. After that, the partying youngsters would sometimes keep sentries on watch for the approach of hostile troops.
In any event, the Union soldiers did not capture Boyce, who at some point fled west, across the Plaines. He eventually made it to Denver, where he re-engaged in merchandising for another year. That was when he got word he was on a proscription list.
Boyce decided to join the gold rush to Montana. He joined a wagon train heading north with a pair of mules and a wagon loaded with provisions. It took him 72 days to reach his destination, Alder Gulch, on June, 14th, 1864. Boyce wasn’t the only former Confederate soldier in lawless Alder Gulch, which, by some accounts, was a Confederate town.
Once there, Boyce got back into retail, joining the firm of Tulle Leach & Company, and opened a store. Boyce hauled goods in wagons from St. Joseph, Mo., and Denver and did a prosperous business, “getting fabulous prices in gold dust for [his] goods, and continuing there for a period of three years,” according to his biography. He eventually called for his family.
Boyce then moved the business to Helena and continued there until 1880, when he sold out and went to Omaha. He conducted business there for four more years then returned to Helena, where he invested in some city property and retired. Throughout his life, Boyce was active in the Methodist Episcopal Church.
“Indeed in all the walks of life he has ever cast his influence and his support on the side of justice and right,” reads his controversial biography.