For residents of a small, agricultural town 125 miles north of St. Louis, Mo., the front line of the Civil War was in their fairgrounds on Oct. 18, 1862.
Ten men, a mix of Confederate soldiers and Southern sympathizers, sat on the foot of their coffins as a firing squad stood 30 feet away.
Union Maj. Isham Dodson called the squad to attention and, according to an article on the Missouri Civil War Sesquicentennial website, gave the orders: “Ready, aim -- thus perish all traitors to their country’s ﬂag -- fire!”
The incident became known as the "Palmyra Massacre." The Union colonel in charge of a militia unit defended his decision to have the men executed when a Union sympathizer taken during a Rebel raid in Palmyra was not safely returned. Outraged Confederates, for their part, used the episode as a recruiting tool.
"Missouri was very conflicted. This was a federally held town even though the majority of the residents were Confederate sympathizers," said Cindy Stuhlman, event coordinator for this Saturday's "Palmyra Civil War Remembrance Day."
These were the days of allegiance oaths. Marion County farmers, some of whom owned slaves, knew where their neighbors stood -- for the Union, or for the South. In some cases, it was brother against brother.
Donations made at Saturday's event, which includes a noon Missouri Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans ceremony at a monument marking the massacre, will go toward maintaining the Old Marion County Jail and the Gardner House Museum, both managed by a local group called the Heritage Seekers Historical Society.
The old jail housed the 10 prisoners selected for execution. This year's event focuses on the Porter Raid, which precipitated the bloody incident.
Confederate Col. Joseph E. Porter was on a recruiting mission in mid-September 1862, when his forces stormed into Palmyra, freed about 50 prisoners and took captive Andrew Allsman, 60, an alleged Union informant.
Col. John McNeil, who commanded the Union’s 2nd Missouri State Militia in Palmyra, demanded the safe return of Allsman. He posted a newspaper notice warning Porter to return Allsman within 10 days or 10 men jailed in Palmyra and Hannibal would be shot. Most of the prisoners had taken part in Porter's campaign.
"What exactly happened to Allsman has never been clearly established, but he was undoubtedly shot and killed by someone," according to the Missouri sesquicentennial website.
When no word came from Porter, the 10 men were taken from the jail to the fairgrounds. Only three died instantly; the remainder were finished off with pistol shots. The bodies were returned to the town square so relatives could retrieve them.
McNeil (left) was labeled the "Butcher of Palmyra," and despite his explanations, remained the subject of bitter feelings during and after the war.
Palmyra moved on after those difficult, dark days. But many residents still don't like to talk about the raid and massacre, Stuhlman told the Picket. She said Palmyra was "polarized" and "conflicted" during the Civil War.
Saturday's remembrance day will cover more than the raid and massacre.
The public can enjoy trolley rides, a Sanitary Commission and quilt display, a ladies' tea and an evening dinner-theater featuring a meal, fiddle music and a living history of Palmyra and the war.
An Underground Railroad quilt presentation is planned at the Gardner House, according to curator Sharon Harrison of Palmyra Heritage Seekers.
"Legend has it quilts were hung out by those who operated safehouses along the way," said Harrison, explaining the quilts contained secret messages that aided escaped slaves.
Visitors can also tour the old jail (right), which is undergoing restoration.
The Palmyra Massacre wasn't the only shocking incident that occured in Missouri. Confederate guerrillas removed two dozen Union soldiers from a train in Centralia in September 1864 and executed them.
Three years ago, the Picket interviewed Dr. William Piston, a professor and historian at Missouri State University in Springfield.
“Missouri was the worst place to be [in the United States] between 1861 and 1865,” Piston said of the border state.
Palmyra photos courtesy of Cindy Stuhlman
• Palmyra Civil War Remembrance Day schedule
• Read more about Porter Raid, Palmyra Massacre