James O’Neill, a 30 year old artist, comedian and actor, is thought to be one of the only newspaper artists killed during the War Between the States. Perhaps most well known for his illustration of the Union Cavalry charge at Honey Springs in July of 1863 (pictured here, and on our Border War Photos page), he would sadly never draw the final engagement of his life: The Attack by William Quantrill and his men at Baxter Springs, Kansas in October of 1863.
Born in 1833 in Ireland, the O’Neill family would eventually settle in Wisconsin (near Kenosha) sometime in 1843. An 1850 census reveals that a 17 year old James was working as a carpenter, and living with his family in a cottage where his father attended to the nearby Southport lighthouse. Sometime around 1855, James – who found a way to make ends meet through building and painting sets for a theatrical company – would end up acting and singing on the stage in Madison. He would do this, as well as work at creating artwork, until around 1860.
Like a lot of young men today, Civil War in Wisconsin notes that James “also had a reputation as prankster. He hung out with, and often led an irreverent band of cronies in their 20s and early 30s who loved to mock the older, more staid Madison establishment. He had friends who loved him like a brother, but also there were at least a handful of conservative old timers who deplored his wild behavior.”
Eventually, O’Neill would move to Leavenworth, Kansas and became involved in a local theatre there, all while working on painting a panorama of the War – which has never been found. He also painted commissions when he could, such as a portrait of the Virgin Mary for Bishop Miege’s then-planned Catholic cathedral in Leavenworth. James would soon set up an art studio at nearby Fort Leavenworth, where he would sketch soldiers and noteworthy characters of the day. It was his hope that he could sell these sketches to Frank Leslie’s newspaper – which incidentally, his drawing of General Lane would go on to appear in Leslie’s August 17, 1861 issue.
Interestingly, according to the Daily Times of Feb. 14, 1863, O’Neill became much more involved with local politics through delivering a speech at an Unconditional Union meeting in Leavenworth (which was also frequented by General Blunt and the notorious Jennison). At it, he apparently proposed that anyone found possessing or dealing in Confederate currency would be considered a traitor. This measure was adopted with acclaim, and in September of 1863 cutthroats would hang John Rapp in nearby Platte County for possessing a Confederate twenty-dollar bill (Paxton’s Annals of Platte County).
Having ingratiated himself to many people of rank around Fort Leavenworth, James O’Neill soon left the town behind to join General James Blunt ‘s Army, and was accepted as an unofficial part of the headquarters staff. His written reports of Blunt’s activities would show up in Leslie’s newspaper, but it was his political cartoons that were fondly remembered by his friend Lt. Pond.
Autumn of 1863 came, and when Blunt’s column left Fort Scott on the afternoon of October 4, 1863, O’Neill rode along with the Brigade Band. Led by Blunt, with a cavalry escort of 100, the group was surprised and attacked by Quantrill’s forces. Ninety men were killed in Quantrill’s attack. Blunt barely escaped with his life, and his military reputation suffered greatly.
While O’Neill’s group did attempt to escape in a wagon, someone (most likely the driver) shot and killed William Bledsoe. Todd, Gregg and 20 others amongst Quantrill’s men gave chase. Some 50 yards later, the wheel from the wagon came off and the wagon tipped over. As Bledsoe had been a much loved member of Quantrill’s group, O’Neill and the Brigade Band that had spilled out onto the ground were met with no quarter. O’Neill, along with the other victims, would eventually be buried in a special federal plot within the local cemetery.
Yes, what they say is true. War is Hell.