This month marks the 150th anniversary of a brutal Civil War battle that took place in Centralia and involved men who became legends. On Sep. 27, 1864, Captain William “Bloody Bill” Anderson led about 80 Confederate guerillas in an ambush against about 125 Federal troops, led by Major A.V.E. Johnston. At the battle’s end, all but a few of Anderson’s men were still standing, while only a couple of Johnston’s Federal troops escaped alive. Among the triumphant Confederate guerillas were brothers Frank and Jesse James, and Jesse, according to Frank, fired the shot that killed Major Johnston.
Chris Edwards was in his mid-20s when he first read this momentous history. Growing up in Columbia in the ’60s and ’70s, Edwards didn’t realize Missouri had seen much conflict during the Civil War. His eyes were opened when his mom gave him the book Jesse James Was His Name by William Settle.
“I read it, and I got really interested in Frank and Jesse,” Edwards says. “I did not know before that Frank and Jesse fought in the Civil War. I really didn’t even know there was a Civil War in Missouri.
“I kept reading, and I really just developed this tremendous passion,” he continues. “It was weird because a lot of my friends would go out golfing on the weekend, and I’d go to the library.”
It took some time — about 30 years, in fact — but Edwards eventually turned that passion into two creative works about the Civil War, as well as a master’s degree in history from the University of Missouri.
He began working on the first creative project back in 1978. He was already an experienced musician by that time, having picked up the guitar at age 7. He started out studying classical guitar, but when the Beatles hit, “that did it,” he says. “I bought an electric guitar, and I played in rock bands for like 25 years.”
That included two years spent traveling with a band after he graduated from Columbia College, and then when he returned home, he became a member of the Catnip Mouse Band, a popular band in the ’70s and ’80s led by Columbia music icon Jerome Wheeler.
With his “discovery” of the Civil War, Edwards found a new inspiration for his music. He started writing rock songs about the people and events of the war, focusing on the guerrilla warfare that took place in Missouri and Kansas. As he’d get the money, he’d go to a professional studio to record a song or two, and finally, in 1999, he had a CD, “Blood on the Border.”
“It took me about 20 years to get it out,” Edwards says. “No kidding.”
By the time Edwards had the CD, he’d been studying the Civil War for close to 25 years. He decided he should have more to show for his studies.
“So when I was 50, I applied to get into graduate school at MU in the history department and work on my master’s,” he says, “and lo and behold, they let me in.”
Adding an M.A. behind his name, Edwards says, gave him higher credibility as a Civil War historian, which he needed for his next big project, “Bloody Bill Rides.” A “musical docudrama” about the life and times of Captain William “Bloody Bill” Anderson, “Bloody Bill Rides” incorporates Edwards’s original rock songs from “Blood on the Border,” plus historical folk music, live narration and projected images and videos mostly taken at Civil War reenactments by Wide Awake Films, a documentary and film production company in Kansas City.
All of the show’s music is performed live, with a full rock band delivering the contemporary songs and noted folk duo Cathy Barton and Dave Para providing the folk music. The film and images are synced with the songs and narration, for a live music video effect.
Edwards has put on the show three times, each time to rave reviews. Along with knowing he’s helping to preserve history, he says he also derives much satisfaction from seeing something he imagined come to life.
“I think that’s probably the neatest thing to me,” he says. “When I started talking to people about the concept, people said: ‘You can’t do that! That costs too much money!’ The whole thing was built on, ‘No,’ and, ‘You can’t do that.’ And I said: ‘You know what? I’m going to do it.’ ”
This month, Edwards will be a key participant in The Battle of Centralia Reenactment Weekend, Sep. 13 and 14, at the Centralia Battlefield. Already, he has contributed a video, posted on the event’s website, www.centraliabattlefield.com, that features him recounting some of the events leading up to the Battle of Centralia. The weekend before the battle reenactment, he will take part in a Columbia Star Dinner Train event that will reenact the Centralia Civil War Train Raid, which happened 20 days before the Centralia battle. He will offer narration and perform music during train rides on Sep. 6 and 7.
Then during the Battle of Centralia Reenactment Weekend, he will narrate both the Battle of Centralia and the Mount Zion Battle reenactments. He will also perform alongside Cathy Barton and Dave Para in “Guerrillas of Missouri,” which will present Civil War history through contemporary music, folk music and narration.
“It’s really about education,” he says, about the reenactment weekend and his other Civil War music and shows. “People say, ‘Well, heck, I didn’t know all that stuff happened here, and I say: ‘That’s why I’m doing this.’ ”
This summer, Chris Edwards retired from teaching at the Columbia Public Schools. He taught there only a few years, having spent most of his career in administrative positions at Woodhaven, Lenoir, Columbia College and a residential facility in Kansas City.
Now that he’s retired, Edwards will have more time for another ambition: He’s hoping to get a Nashville songwriter deal one day. Although his musical repertoire ranges from classical to rock, he’s focused on the country genre for pitching his songwriting. He’s recorded twice at Nashville’s Beaird Music Group, where he’s able to hire musicians and vocalists to bring his songs to life.
“I’ve been really fortunate to be able to pitch some of my songs to producers,” he says. “That hasn’t quite come to fruition — it may never — but it’s just a passion of mine, and I just really, really enjoy doing it.
“Nashville is a wonderful environment,” he continues. “The people down there are hard workers and great musicians.”
Edwards has a couple of songs he plans to take to Nashville within the next year.
“And, again, it would be great to have something that would be picked up,” he says, “but I think the odds are kind of against it, just because that’s the way of the business. But it sure is a tremendous amount of fun for me, and it gives me incredible satisfaction to be in that environment.”
Battle of Centralia Events
Centralia Civil War Train Raid
Presented by the Columbia Star Dinner Train
Sat., Sep. 6 and Sun., Sep. 7
Battle of Centralia Reenactment Weekend
Sat., Sep. 13 and Sun., Sep. 14