Battlefield Missouri: 1864 was a busy year for the Show Me State as it warred with the Union

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Editor's note: The following is the second in a series about Missouri and its involvement in the Civil War, which began in April 1861. The third part of the Civil War series will visit central Missouri to see "Civil War Missouri: A House Dividing" at the Missouri State Museum and site of the First Battle of Boonville. Look for it and the remaining entries in Good Times each week.

Fort D, in Cape Girardeau, was one of several fortifications built by Union forces. Missouri Division of Tourism

In the fall of 1864, the Civil War was going badly for the South. The Confederacy needed a morale-boosting victory, and chose Missouri as the battleground.

Maj. Gen. Sterling Price was picked to lead a raid into Missouri. He knew the land well as a former governor of the state. His goal was to capture St. Louis or Jefferson City, to gather recruits and supplies, and to divert Union troops from east of the Mississippi River.

With an army of more than 12,000, Price left Arkansas en route to St. Louis. In the lovely Arcadia Valley of Southeast Missouri, he came upon Fort Davidson, a small Union fort defended by 1,400 men at the base of Pilot Knob Mountain.

Members of the Union Turner Brigade of Civil War re-enactors conduct an artillery drill at the Fort Davidson State Historic Site in southeast Missouri. Tom Uhlenbrock/Missouri State Parks

Although many of his soldiers were raw recruits and unarmed, Price knew he outnumbered the enemy nearly 10-to-1. Taking the fort would give him needed supplies. It was a disastrous decision.

As America marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, sesquicentennial commemorations are planned in Doniphan, Fredericktown, Cape Girardeau and other sites of skirmishes in Southeast Missouri.

But the Battle of Pilot Knob stands out as the most important, and most dramatic, of the area's confrontations.

"He expected to just run over Fort Davidson on his way into St. Louis," Brick Autry, an interpreter at the Fort Davidson State Historic Site, said of Price. The Union command in St. Louis sent Brig. Gen. Thomas Ewing to Pilot Knob when word came of Price's advancing army.

"Ewing gathered a regiment of Iowa soldiers and brought them down to Pilot Knob on the railroad," Autry said. "He discovered Gen. Price and all his men. By that time, he figured he was surrounded and that he'd better stay and fight."

A daring escape

Fort Davidson was a hexagonal earthwork fort surrounded by a dry moat with a drawbridge. The fort was built in 1863 to protect the budding industrial area of the Arcadia Valley, which was rich in iron ore. The St. Louis and Iron Mountain Railroad served the Southeast Missouri iron mining district.

"There was lots and lots of St. Louis money invested down here," Autry said. "They were very desirous to have the Union army protect the area."

On the afternoon of Sept. 27, 1864, Price ordered an attack on the fort, figuring one swift assault would take it. He had cannons firing down on the fort from nearby Shepherd Mountain.

But Price's brigades came in separate waves, allowing the Union soldiers to mow them down with muskets and cannons as they approached the fort. Without scaling ladders to mount the walls, the lone Rebel brigade that reached the moat was slaughtered by grenades hurled down on them.

The fighting halted at dusk. Low on ammunition, Ewing devised a daring escape. At 2:30 a.m., the Union soldiers silently evacuated the fort, traveling north between two Confederate encampments.

A small detail of about 20 men was left behind, and blew up the fort's powder magazine to destroy the remaining supplies. "It was damp that evening, and it wouldn't blow up," Autry said. "Finally, they dumped powder, threw in a torch and ran out. The ground shook for 20 miles."

The Confederates figured a tragic accident inside the fort had done their work for them. Price didn't investigate until daybreak, too late to catch the fleeing Union army. Instead of boosting morale, the Confederates paid a heavy price at Pilot Knob. Price's army had up to 1,000 dead or wounded, compared to just 28 Union soldiers killed. He gave up on his goal of taking St. Louis or Jefferson City, and headed west. At the Battle of Westport, near Kansas City, Price suffered a major defeat and retreated back to Arkansas.

Seven months after the Battle of Pilot Knob, the war was over. The South was defeated.

Rich in scenic beauty

Today, tiny blue and red lights on a fiber-optic diorama inside the museum at Fort Davidson State Historic Site show the movements of the Union and Confederate troops, while a narrator describes the action. Strobe lights go off when the fort is blown up. A 20-minute video also explains the battle.

Gen. Ewing's sword is among the artifacts in cases, along with cannonballs and other objects taken from the battlefield.

On a field outside the site's visitor center, the earthen walls of the fort still stand. A crater inside the walls shows the depression left by the explosion of the powder magazine.

A granite monument marks where the dead Confederate and Union soldiers were buried in a mass grave. The marker reads: "Whatever transgressions existed on either side, let the passage of time bury amid the ruins of the past."

The valley not only had iron ore deposits, it also was rich in scenic beauty. The pristine Black River flows through adjacent Reynolds County, and Taum Sauk State Park, Elephant Rocks State Park and Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park are popular local attractions.

A major re-enactment of the battle is scheduled for Sept. 27-28, 2014.

Battle in a Cornfield

The Iron Mountain Railroad figured in an earlier Civil War skirmish. In October 1861, Confederate Brig. Gen. M. Jeff Thompson led raids into Southeast Missouri with a 1,500-man force of the pro-southern Missouri State Guard. Known as the "Swamp Fox" for his ability to attack and then disappear into the Ozark swamps, Thompson burned several railroad bridges to prevent Union forces from chasing him.

Two Union columns -- Col. Joseph B. Plummer with 1,500 men and Col. William P. Carlin with 3,000 -- were sent in pursuit. On Oct. 21, Thompson decided to attack his pursuers, and set up an ambush. A two-hour battle ensued in a cornfield south of Fredericktown.

With superior artillery, the Battle of Fredericktown was a victory for the Union, which counted only seven killed and about 60 wounded. Among the 25 Confederates killed was Col. Alden Lowe, whose grave in a Fredericktown cemetery is marked to this day with a small Rebel flag.

Many of the residents of Fredericktown were Southern sympathizers. Union soldiers burned several homes, and ransacked St. Michael's Church and the Madison County Courthouse, until stopped by their officers. To document the town's place in the war, the Foundation for Historic Preservation has opened a Civil War Museum in a two-story 1877 home a block off the town square.

Next to the redbrick courthouse is a steel sculpture of "Old Abe," the bald eagle mascot that led the 8th Wisconsin volunteer infantry into 36 battles during the war. The sculpture marks the start of the War Eagle Trail, which follows the battles through Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana.

"Records show the Confederates aimed at the bird many times because they thought they could demoralize the 8th Wisconsin if they shot it," said Carole Magnus of the Foundation for Historic Preservation. "It lost a wing feather, but was never killed." The Gathering

The Foundation for Historic Preservation has purchased three acres of the original battlefield and has invited descendants of the Union and Confederate soldiers to "The Gathering" at the site on 1 p.m. Oct. 21 of this year. A re-enactment is scheduled for that weekend.

"Right now, we've got about 50 descendants who have contacted us," Magnus said. "We're going to plant two cornfields, and are inviting descendants to take part in the ceremony. Descendants and uniformed re-enactors will march through the rows of corn to a drummer. We'll have captains for the Union and Confederacy call out the names of a soldier, and the descendants will come up and receive a certificate."

Except for an interpretive sign erected by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, the battlefield was much the same as it was in October 1861. Magnus pointed out the ridges where Union cannons were stationed.

"Can you imagine what it must have been like with the cannon and musket fire, the horses and the cries of the men?" asked Magnus.

An amazing sacrifice

Gen. Sterling Price was not the only Confederate officer to lead a raid into Missouri. Brig. Gen. John S. Marmaduke began his second raid into the state in April 1863, and led his force of 5,000 in pursuit of U.S. Brig. Gen. John McNeil.

McNeil fled to Cape Girardeau, which was heavily fortified. Generals John Fremont and Ulysses S. Grant had approved the construction of four forts to protect the city. Forts A, B, C and D were built in 1861 under the direction of Lt. John Wesley Powell, who later guided the first river expedition through the Grand Canyon.

On April 26, 1863, Marmaduke ordered one of his brigades led by Col. Joseph B. Shelby to attack Forts B and C to test their strength. During a four-hour battle, the Confederates were repulsed by the forts' heavy artillery.

Marmaduke withdrew his troops, and returned to Arkansas. Only Fort D remains of the four, with its earthen walls standing on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. The city of Cape Girardeau operates the historic site, and, in conjunction with the Friends of Fort D, scheduled a series of events this summer on Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day weekends.

See for a full schedule of the free events at the Fort D Historic Site. Another helpful website is The Cape Girardeau Convention & Visitors Bureau has a brochure with a driving tour of the city's Civil War sites.

Scott House and his wife, Patti, are members of the Union Turner Brigade, a group of re-enactors that schedules events at Camp D.

"A lot of people wonder, 'Why did the Union men fight'?" Scott House said. "We portray that they were for a continued United States of America. They didn't want to see it broken up.

"It was an amazing sacrifice."

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