Battle's anniversary recalls 'Butcher,' rebels

Saturday, April 26, 2003

As the sun rose April 26, 1863, 5,000 Confederate soldiers under Brig. Gen. John Sappington Marmaduke took positions on a battle line on the western edge of Cape Girardeau, poised to attack. Six of the eight companies of rebels under Col. William L. Jeffers were Cape Girardeau County boys, preparing to attack and liberate their own hometown.

Ready to fend them off were 3,000 Union soldiers under the command of Gen. John "The Butcher" McNeil, who watched the southerners advance as Cape Girardeau civilians rushed to the waterfront, frantically boarding steamboats to cross the river to the safety of the Illinois shore.

As the sun climbed higher in the sky, Marmaduke gave the command to attack. Fierce rebel yells and deafening cannonade soon filled the air.

Before the battle

When the Civil War broke out, Cape Girardeau was a town of 6,000 people. It was bounded by Henderson Street on the west, Washington Street on the north, and Jefferson Street on the south. Its residents were evenly split between northern and southern sympathies.

In July 1861, just three months after the fall of Fort Sumter, Union forces began an occupation of Cape Girardeau that lasted until the end of the war. By August, 3,000 soldiers were stationed in the city, using it as a stronghold for patrolling Southeast Missouri. They constructed four formidable forts and imposed martial law. All residents of Cape Girardeau, including those whose relatives were off fighting for the South, were required to take oaths supporting the Union. Those who refused were jailed. Those who violated the oath faced punishments including jail, banishment, confiscation of property or death.

Gen. M. Jeff Thompson was the leader of the rebels operating a guerilla war out of the Mingo Swamps in Southeast Missouri. A Wisconsin cavalryman named Edmund Newton wrote from Cape Girardeau: "This country is infested with marauding bands that murder and plunder all that come in their way. There are some swamps where men can skulk and hide and it is impossible to ride a horse that they have the decided advantage."

Col. Jeffers, a prominent local resident before the war, was now referred to in Cape Girardeau's Union newspaper as "a notorious bushwhacker and horse thief of Jeff Thompson's gang." The same paper reported that Matthew Moore, the former publisher of the newspaper, was now a Confederate colonel. His property in Cape Girardeau had all been confiscated, and his wife had died "of a broken heart."

By April 1863, all large southern armies had been driven from Missouri, yet the smaller packs of rebels and bushwhackers still harassed Union fortifications, patrols and sympathizers.

Marmaduke's mission

In April 1863, the South sent Marmaduke and 5,000 cavalrymen on a raid from Arkansas into Missouri. The plan was for him to secure provisions for his men and to take Cape Girardeau, thereby forcing the Union to weaken its forces in the South by sending men back to Missouri. A fringe benefit would be the killing or capture of McNeil, nicknamed "The Butcher" for his ruthless execution of rebel prisoners.

Marmaduke's 5,000 men were not quite as formidable as the figure sounds. He wrote: "My whole strength was about 5,000 men, eight pieces of field artillery, and two light mountain pieces. Of this force about 1,200 were unarmed and 900 dismounted. Of those armed, the greater part had shotguns; some were armed with Enfield rifles and Mississippi rifles, and some with common squirrel rifles."

Marmaduke split his forces as he rode into Southeast Missouri. Half headed in the direction of Rolla to disguise their true objective. The other half attacked a small Federal force at Patterson and then attacked McNeil and 2,000 of his men at Bloomfield.

From captured correspondence, Marmaduke knew that McNeil had orders to go to Pilot Knob if attacked, so the southern force that had started toward Rolla veered suddenly to Fredericktown, where it lay in wait to ambush McNeil.

Instead of heading to Rolla, McNeil and his men fled back to Cape Girardeau after being attacked. Col. George W. Carter and 2,000 Texas cavalrymen chased them to the outskirts of Cape Girardeau, but pulled up when the Federals reached the safety of the fortifications.

McNeil frantically sent word to Gen. Samuel R. Curtis in St. Louis: "General: I am attacked by 8,000 men under Marmaduke. Expect to be stormed tomorrow. Can you send me two regiments of infantry and a field battery with supply of ammunition?"

Marmaduke and the rest of his men hurried through the rainy night to reinforce Carter, arriving at Cape Girardeau just in time for the battle.

The battle begins

From the heights of the Union forts, Federal soldiers waited nervously for the fight to start. Lt. Col. William Baumer had been instrumental in preparing the plan of defense: "My idea was to meet the enemy outside the fortifications, and, (if) overpowered, to fall back to Fort B, and from thence to Fort A, which place could be held against any force of the enemy. The position selected by me was west of Cape Girardeau, about 3/4 mile from Fort B. The troops had made up their mind to defend the place to the last man, and never surrender to the rebels."

The Confederate forces advanced across fields at the base of a chain of hills on the outskirts of town, along a battle line extending roughly from what is now St. Mary's Cemetery near Capaha Park, across the general area of Clark Street near Central Junior High School, all the way to Bloomfield Road.

The main attack was made northwest of Broadway, near its intersection with Perryville Road. The Confederates quickly found themselves in a cross-fire from a cannon at Fort B (the area where Academic Hall now sits) and a cannon on the hill where Southeast Hospital is now located.

From the rebel perspective, Col. Gideon W. Thompson said: "Captain Collins' battery, although greatly exposed to a cross-fire from the enemy's heavy guns, gallantly maintained its position and thundered forth a reply. The roar of artillery now became constant. The enemy's heavy guns from the forts on the apex of the hill overlooking our extreme left hurled their heavy shot and screaming shell furiously at our little battery."

The artillery duel lasted five hours, punctuated by charges the Union soldiers made from their positions behind the fortifications.

As Union Col. Baumer recalled: "The left flank, on Bloomfield Road, was protected by the First Wisconsin Cavalry. Three of their companies dismounted and fought the enemy on foot with their carbines."

Confederate Major Edwards described the battle evolving into far more than an artillery duel: "Shanks and Elliott, in a large peach orchard on the extreme right, were charged fiercely by a regiment of Federal cavalry, but they drove it back with loss after ten minutes of hot fighting. The enemy left their fortifications at last, and came down to grapple Shelby's command in the open field. The onset was destructive and lasted half an hour. Around the battery and among the peach trees where Shanks and Elliott fought, the dead lay thick and in clusters."

Meanwhile, Union reinforcements were arriving by steamboat.

As Col. Shelby's men drove toward Fort B, Marmaduke sent him reinforcements, but as the strength of Cape Girardeau's forts was revealed, Marmaduke decided it would be impossible to take Cape Girardeau without a full-scale charge of Fort B, which would have resulted in "wanton butchery and slaughter."

Decision to retreat

Once the decision to retreat was made, the Confederates fell back to Jackson, and then fled to Arkansas, crossing the St. Francis river at Chalk Bluffs, pursued the whole way by Union forces.

Meanwhile, back in Cape Girardeau, the dead and wounded lay upon the field. Although exact figures are unknown, reported Federal casualties were 23 dead and 44 wounded. Marmaduke stated in his official report that his loss from the Cape Girardeau expedition was "some 30 killed, 60 wounded, and 120 missing."

Major Edwards wrote that "over 100 of our men were badly wounded and left in hospitals."

With the Confederates in retreat, McNeil's tone in his communications with Curtis turned cocky: "The attack of the enemy has been brilliantly repulsed. I think you may give yourself no concern about Cape Girardeau. Do me the favor to keep my family advised with the progress of events."

Morley Swingle is Cape Girardeau County's prosecuting attorney and author of "The Gold of Cape Girardeau," a historical novel nominated for the 2002 Michael Shaara Award for Civil War fiction.

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