What is Missouri outlaw Sam Hildebrand’s story?

Orville Turner
Richwoods, Missouri

This so-called “Big River Bushwhacker” was a mighty bad man, and an angry one too. Confederate sympathizers called Sam Hildebrand a Rob Roy, a freedom fighter; Union supporters vilified him as a ruthless murderer.

Sam went from being a farmer and father of six children to one of the most notorious Confederate bushwhackers. When Missouri vigilantes, with the help of the Union home guard, lynched his brother Frank in 1861, Sam got revenge against his brother’s killers. In retaliation federal troops burned the family home and shot and killed several of his relatives, including his 13-year-old brother.

Sam declared his own war on the North. He joined the Confederate army, but gained notoriety as a rebel guerilla fighter. He reportedly had 80 notches carved in the stock of his rifle, which he had nicknamed “Kill-Devil.”

In his book Sam Hildebrand Rides Again, Henry C. Thompson states a partial list of Sam’s victims, including 26 civilians and an undetermined number of federal soldiers. Many of his victims were hanged. His reign of terror in southeast Missouri lasted until he died while resisting arrest in 1872.

Two years earlier, the illiterate bushwhacker dictated his experiences to two journalists, and his life story was published as Autobiography of Samuel S. Hildebrand; Civil War historian Kirby Ross edited a 2005 edition.

Sam’s own words aptly sum up his violent life: “I make no apology to mankind for my acts of retaliation; I make no whining appeal to the world for sympathy. I sought revenge and I found it; the key of hell was not suffered to rust in the lock while I was on the war path.”

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