Autobiography of Samuel S. Hildebrand, Edited by Kirby Ross
reviewed by Deb Houdek Rule for Civil War St. Louis
“Hooray for Hildebrand,” the bandits at the Ste. Genevieve robbery (presumably the ultimately famous James-Younger gang) shouted as they rode out of town. That piece of history as much as anything secured Sam Hildebrand’s place in memory. If an outlaw would say “Hooray for Hildebrand” in 1873, I would say “Hooray for Kirby Ross” today for bringing the Autobiography of Samuel S. Hildebrand back from obscurity, and working it into a splendid new, and eminently useful, form.
Sam Hildebrand came to fame—or infamy—during the bloody struggle for Missouri during the Civil War. He went from being a farmer raising a large family in south-eastern Missouri to becoming one of the most renowned of the Confederate bushwhackers. Hildebrand was sometimes compared to Rob Roy, sometimes vilified as a bloody murderer. He is a rare figure for many reasons, not the least of which is Hildebrand published an autobiography of his exploits.
Written in 1870, the illiterate Hildebrand dictated his story to two journalists. Shortly after its publication, Hildebrand was shot and killed, dying as violently as he had lived. His autobiography went from a brief surge of interest to fade into almost complete obscurity. For myself, I know how rare and difficult to obtain the Hildebrand account was. The nearest copy I could find was in a special collections over one hundred miles away. At that, even once acquired the 1870 edition of Sam Hildebrand’s autobiography would be at best an interesting historical novelty.
Here lies the great virtue of this edition of the Autobiography of Samuel S. Hildebrand as edited by Kirby Ross—over one-third of this volume consists of Kirby Ross’s notations about the historical truth of Hildebrand’s words. The research and notes are nothing short of excellent. Far from being an historical novelty, the Autobiography of Samuel S. Hildebrand is now a valuable addition to the history of the war in Missouri, in particular of the convoluted guerrilla warfare. No library of the Civil War in the Trans-Mississippi can now be considered complete without this volume.
Kirby Ross—with whom we, the editors of Civil War St. Louis website, have had the pleasure of working with for many years, hosting many of his fine articles—is a thorough, exacting researcher and historian. His work on the Autobiography of Samuel S. Hildebrand shows this same high quality of work we’ve come to expect.
The Autobiography of Samuel S. Hildebrand as edited by Kirby Ross consists of two reading experiences. The first is the unchanged narrative as told by Sam Hildebrand loaded with adventures, violence, rationalizations, excuses, myths and reality. It’s good reading. The second, equally enjoyable reading experience, is the extensive narrative notes written by Kirby Ross breaking down the tale into reality, confirming or denying Hildebrand’s claims. Thank you, Kirby Ross, for this superb research and writing!
This review of the Autobiography of Samuel S. Hildebrand is long overdue, but this book will be a timeless addition to the history of the Civil War in Missouri.