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On the Margins of the War: Fort Davidson   Leave a comment

Photo 1In a previous entry, I wrote about Price’s Raid, the misbegotten 1864 campaign intended to bring Missouri into the Confederacy and led by the Confederate general and former Missouri congressman and governor, Sterling Price. As a part of that essay, I briefly discussed the first engagement of the raid at Fort Davidson, near Pilot Knob, Missouri. Recently, I took the opportunity to visit the Fort Davidson Historic Site, which is maintained by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, and toured both their excellent museum and the remnants of Fort Davidson itself. The museum’s exhibits offered fresh information about this small battle fought on the margins of the war and seeing the terrain around the fort provided a feel for the battle, the place, and the people who fought here. Armed with these insights, I did some additional research and discovered that, not only was the defense of the fort a small gem in terms of tactics, but also the battle’s aftermath included the kind of cruel tragedy and barbarism that marked the Civil War in Missouri.

On September 3, 1864, Major General William Rosecrans, Federal commander of the Department of Missouri, received word from General Washburn in Little Rock that Confederate forces at Batesville, Arkansas, under General Jo Shelby, were about to be joined by additional units and placed under the overall command of Sterling Price. Rosecrans and Washburn correctly surmised that Price’s presence meant an invasion of Missouri was in the offing, but the former was unsure what avenue of attack price might take. Even when he received intelligence that Price had crossed the Arkansas River, Rosecrans remained uncertain what direction price would go.

On the 23d we received certain information that Price had crossed the Arkansas with two divisions of mounted men, three batteries of artillery, a large wagon train carrying several thousand stand of small-arms, and was at or near Batesville on White River. From this point midway between the Mississippi and the western boundary of the State there are three practicable routes of invasion. One by Pocahontas into southeast Missouri, another by West Plains and Rolla or vicinity north toward Jefferson City, a third by Cassville north either through Springfield and Sedalia or by the Kansas border to the Missouri River.

His own military judgment told him that Price would aim for the central region of the state, but that the Confederates might also send a detachment into southeast Missouri. Little did he know that Price would indeed enter the southeast part of Missouri, but would do so with his entire army of 16,000 men with the goal of moving north to seize St. Louis before turning west to take Jefferson City. The next day, September 24, Rosecrans learned that Shelby and 5,000 men, supported by artillery, were reported just south of Pilot Knob, 86 miles south of St. Louis. While this could be the detachment Rosecrans predicted, he also was a smart enough soldier to know that Shelby could be the lead element of Price’s entire army, in which case St. Louis might be their objective.

General Thomas Ewing Therefore, he ordered General Thomas Ewing, Union commander of the region surrounding Pilot Knob, to gather what troops he could at Fort Davidson and ascertain whether the reports of Confederate activity in the area indicated merely that stray detachment Rosecrans predicted or if Price’s army was actually moving towards St. Louis. If it was a detachment, Ewing was to defend and hold Fort Davidson with the forces at his disposal. However, if it turned out to be Price’s army, he was to evacuate the fort and fall back to the north.

General Sterling Price From a purely military point of view, Fort Davidson was certainly not worth any expenditure of Confederate manpower or material and it was too small to pose any threat to Price’s rear should he bypass it on his way to capture St. Louis, as he should have done. But, Sterling Price was no soldier. He was a politician in uniform and he saw the campaign as being more political in its goals than military. While the “liberation” and occupation of St. Louis was his heartfelt goal, Fort Davidson was too tempting a target. It was tempting because it would provide an initial and overwhelming victory for his campaign, which was certain to rally Southern sympathizers to join his army, and it was even more tempting because Thomas Ewing now commanded Fort Davidson.

From Price’s point of view and those of Southern sympathizers across Missouri, Ewing symbolized Northern brutality and Union “occupation” of the state. He was a 35-year old former lawyer, two-term Congressman from Ohio, and Chief Justice of the Kansas Supreme Court, as well as an ardent “free-soiler” who had fought to make Kansas a free state. In 1862, he resigned from the Kansas Supreme Court to recruit and lead a volunteer Kansas regiment in the Union Army. He demonstrated a natural aptitude for leadership and, after his distinguished conduct at the Battle of Prairie Grove in 1863, he was promoted to Brigadier General and given command of the District of the Border, which comprised Kansas and western Missouri.

Photo 2 In that capacity, Ewing became infamous for issuing General Order No. 11 in retaliation for Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence, Kansas, which led to the murder of 150 men and boys. Under this order, anyone living in four Missouri counties that bordered Kansas who was considered to be a Southern sympathizer would be forcibly expelled. Rumor and innuendo were sufficient to cause expulsion and anyone who did not leave voluntarily, was forced out by Federal forces. Thousands of Missouri families were thus driven out of the state into Arkansas and their homes and farms either confiscated or destroyed. The bitterness this cruel policy created made Ewing a marked man in Southern eyes and made Fort Davidson a prize worth having, particularly if Ewing could be captured along with the fort.

As for the fort, itself, it wasn’t much of a prize. Even the term “fort” is something of a misnomer as the entire facility was not more than 30 yards from side to side. Ewing described the fort and its surroundings as follows:

The village of Pilot Knob, which is the terminus of the railroad and the depot for supply of the lower outposts, is eighty-six miles south of Saint Louis. It lies in a plain of about 1,000 acres, encircled by Cedar and Rock Mountains on the north, Pilot Knob on the east, and Shepherd’s Mountain, stretching around the valley, on the south and west. Each hill is from 500 to 600 feet in height, and rises abruptly from the valley, with the sides toward it covered with rocks, gnarled oaks, and undergrowth. The southern and western slopes of Shepherd’s Mountain are accessible, and several roads lead over them to “the coalings” on its summit. Stout’s Creek flows along the base of Shepherd’s Mountain and through a gap between it and Pilot Knob into a larger valley of several thousands of acres, encircled by a chain of hills, in the Photo 3northern end of which and about a mile from the town of Pilot Knob is the flourishing village of Ironton. Through this gap runs the road from Pilot Knob to Fredericktown, passing out of the larger valley by the “Shut-in,” a gap four miles southeast of Pilot Knob. The two valleys are called Arcadia .

 

Fort Davidson is a hexagonal work, mounting four 32-pounder siege guns and three 24-pounder howitzers en barbette. It lies about 300 yards from the base of the knob and 1,000 from the gap. From the fort to the remotest summit of these hills visible from it is not over 1,200 yards, while all parts of the hill-sides toward the fort, except the west end of Shepherd’s Mountain, are in musket-range. The fort was always conceded to be indefensible against any large army having serviceable artillery. Early last summer I sent competent engineers to select another site, but such are the difficulties of the position no practicable place could be found any more defensible. I therefore had the roads leading up the hills obstructed, cleared the nearest hill-sides of timber, and put the fort in a thorough state of defense by deepening the ditches, strengthening the parapet, and adding two rifle-pits leading north and south, commanding the best approaches.

Ft Davidson As Price approached, Ewing proceeded to Fort Davidson to join the small force already there under the command of Major James Wilson. Wilson’s force included six companies of the 47th Missouri Infantry, and one company from the 50th Missouri Infantry, for a total of 489 officers and men, all of which were, in Ewing’s words, “raw troops.” In addition, Wilson also had 562 veterans from 6 companies of the 3rd Missouri State Militia Cavalry; one company from the 2nd Missouri State Militia Cavalry; another from the 1st Missouri State Militia Infantry, a battery of the 2nd Missouri Light Artillery, and a detachment of the 14th Iowa Infantry that Ewing brought with him. Still unsure as to whether he was dealing with a small Confederate detachment or Price’s army of 16,000, Ewing made preparations to, first, determine the enemy’s strength and, second, to fight a delaying defense-in-depth no matter what that strength might be.

To those ends, shortly after arriving at Fort Davidson at noon on September 26, Ewing sent two companies to scout toward Fredericktown, and a smaller scouting party to reconnoiter the roads south of Fredericktown and “learn of the loyal people on them as much as possible as to the force of the enemy.” In short order, both groups ran into Confederate forces in strength near Shut-in Gap, and fell back into the town of Ironton, one mile south of Fort Davidson and just beyond the gap between Pilot Knob and Shepherd Mountain. There, the Union troops joined with a company from the 47th Missouri and turned to make a stand. When Ewing heard that the enemy had been found, he dispatched Major Wilson with men from the 14th Iowa, a section from Captain Montgomery’s 2nd Missouri Light Artillery, and all his available cavalry to support the units already engaged and ordered them to drive the enemy back through Shut-in Gap. Wilson’s men succeeded in driving the Confederates back through the gap, but soon encountered the leading edge of what was Price’s army. He wisely fell back as night arrived and a heavy rain storm ensued.

Photo 4 When Wilson’s reports arrived at Fort Davidson, Ewing sensed that he was not facing a small detachment, but, rather, that Sterling Price was on the other side of the gap. However, rather than immediately evacuate the fort as ordered, he decided to fight a delaying action. Given the circumstances, in which he was outnumbered by better than 10 to 1, it was a somewhat remarkable decision. In his official report, Ewing makes no mention of whether he believed St. Louis was Price’s objective or whether he knew critical reinforcements were on their way to the city. But, if he did, that may explain his decision to stand and fight, which he described as follows:

By midnight it was evident that the enemy were in strong force, as their column could be heard coming into the valley in steady procession, and their encampment grew extensive. We still did not know positively that Price’s main army was there, though all our information was decidedly to that effect. But the advantages of delaying the enemy two or three days in his march northward and of making a stubborn fight before retreating were so great, even though the defense should be unsuccessful and much of the garrison be lost, that I resolved to stand fast and take the chances.

That night, Ewing gathered all unneeded supplies and commissary stores, rolling stock, and wagons, and sent them north. He also had details quickly construct six platforms along the forts earthen walls for his field guns, and immediately placed four pieces on them. Throughout the night, Ewing kept Major General Smith in De Soto informed of his plans and movements via by telegraph until the Confederates cut the lines at 11:00 a.m. on September 27.

At first light on the 27th, Price’s men attacked, forcing Wilson back through Arcadia Valley to the gap between Shepherd Mountain and Pilot Knob. Ewing ordered the 14th Iowa to take position on the east end of Shepherd Mountain, and told Wilson to take his cavalry and fall back to the side of Pilot Knob, allowing them to command the gap from both sides and “opening a clear range from the fort.” Wilson and the Iowans were able to stubbornly hold the gap for several hours, but, by early afternoon, the weight of the Confederate forces forced them back towards Fort Davidson. Price’s men now crested Shepherd’s Mountain and swept down the hillside towards the fort, but Ewing’s artillery quickly drove them back.

Soon, however, two Confederate guns appeared atop the mountain and opened fire on the fort. This was what Ewing feared most because, if more enemy guns could be placed on the hills above the fort, they would quickly destroy it. Luckily for the Union defenders, Price could only get these two pieces in place and return fire from seven of Fort Davidson’s guns quickly drove the Confederate artillery back to the other side of the hill.

At this point, the wisest course of action on Sterling Price’s part would have been to wait until more artillery could be brought forward to the mountain tops, then pound Fort Davidson into submission. But that might take until the next morning and Price was impatient for his victory. His officers argued that a mere show of force might induce a Federal surrender, but Price would not listen. Instead, he ordered a frontal assault to begin immediately. Worse, rather than coordinating a simultaneous attack from several fronts, he sent his men in piecemeal, allowing Ewing to use all his artillery and rifles on each attacking group.

Photo 5 The first attack came from the direction of Shepherd Mountain and was made by General Marmaduke’s command. Marmaduke’s men struggled down the hillside, combating both the terrain and the intense fire from Union artillery. Unable to maintain good order, they took cover in a deep creek bed once they reached the plain in front of the fort. From that position, they maintained an “incessant fire” on the fort’s garrison, but were unable to get any closer. Meanwhile, General Fagan’s Confederates had moved around and over Pilot Knob to approach Fort Davidson from the east. This group assaulted the fort at the double-quick, but had to cross a broad open expanse that offered an excellent field of fire for Ewing’s men. As the Union general later described,

We opened on them when at 600 yards from the fort with musketry from the ramparts and from the long line of the north rifle-pits, and with canister from seven pieces of artillery. They rushed on most gallantly, but were broken, confused, and swept down by our rapid and well-directed fire until the advance reached the ditch…”

Photo 6 The fighting became frantic at this point. Captain Montgomery described the attack and his artillerymen’s struggle:

…the four guns inside doing excellent firing with shell until the rebels charged within 150 yards. We then used canister, double charge. The enemy’s lines came within thirty paces of the fort. Lieutenant Simonton held his position, doing excellent service, until the enemy were within sixty yards of the fort. He was then ordered inside. Just as the lead team of the right piece reached the gate the two lead horses were shot down, wounding the driver, blocked up the gap so they were unable to get the section inside. The lieutenant ordered all the men to take care of themselves. The men all came in except one, who was captured. The horses then were beginning to stampede, when I ordered them to shoot the horses with their revolvers.

Photo 7 The attacking Southern soldiers tried desperately to climb out of the ditch and up the fort’s walls, but they were too steep. As they struggled, the Federal defenders retrieved crude hand grenades from the fort’s magazine and hurled them down on the attackers. This made the ditch untenable and Fagan’s men fell back with heavy losses. Price suspended any further assaults, deciding to bring up artillery during the night and construct ladders for scaling the fort’s walls. He would attack again at dawn.

Meanwhile, Ewing’s interrogation of Confederate prisoners convinced him that, indeed, Sterling Price was here with his entire army. But, Ewing had managed to delay him by two days and decided now was the time to extract his command. At midnight, he began preparations to evacuate and attempt to slip through Confederate lines to the north via the Potosi road. He ordered that the magazine be filled with all spare ammunition and a delayed fuse be prepared that would destroy the magazine two hours after the Federal garrison had left.

We took possession of the town and valley and drove from them all straggling rebels. The garrison was then aroused, knapsacks packed, haversacks, and cartridge-boxes well supplied and everything destructible, which we could not take away and the enemy might use, placed near or on the magazine. At 3 o’clock Colonel Fletcher silently led the infantry out of the sally port around the ditch, and through the north rifle.pit, forming them under cover of a deep shadow at the end of the pit. The drawbridge was then covered with tents to muffle the sound, and the cavalry and battery marching out formed column with the infantry and took a by-way to the Potosi road.

Under the cover of darkness, Ewing’s entire command silently marched past Confederate camps and up the road to safety. At 5:00 a.m., the Arcadia Valley shook violently as Fort Davidson’s magazine exploded with a roar. This was clearly a sign that something was amiss, but Price did not have anyone investigate until daylight. Soon after Price learned that Ewing had escaped, he also received intelligence that strong reinforcements had arrived in St. Louis, making any attack on the city impossible—his insistence on taking Fort Davidson and Ewing’s successful delaying tactics has cost him dearly. Worst of all, 1,051 Union troops had inflicted more than 1,000 casualties on his army of 16,000.

Photo 8 Price would move on and his raid would eventually end with more disasters. But, there is another smaller and more chilling postscript to the story of Fort Davidson. During the fighting on September 27, Major James Wilson was wounded and captured along with five of his men. After the successful evacuation of the fort, he and his comrades remained Confederate prisoners. However, around October 1, Price’s men turned Wilson and the other prisoners over to Tim Reeves, commander of a notorious Confederate guerilla unit, near Union, Missouri. Reeves, a former rural Baptist minister, had been targeted by Major Wilson and his unit and there was a considerable amount of bad blood between them. Reeves promptly had all six men executed and dumped their bodies along St. John’s Creek.

On October 23, a young man named Michael Zwicky from Washington, Missouri and four of his friends found three bodies lying on the ground next to the creek, partially covered by leaves. Two were in Federal uniform, one “distinguished as an artillerist,” and one was in civilian clothing. Horrified, the young men soon discovered three more bodies, one with major’s straps on his coat. The other two bodies had been “torn to pieces” by buzzards and wild hogs. The men quickly covered the bodies and notified the local Justice of the Peace and Coroner, a Mr. Kleinbeck. Kleinbeck investigated the suspicious deaths, remembering hearing “fourteen or fifteen shots [being fired] in rapid succession” three weeks earlier. He gathered papers from the bodies and sent them on to St. Louis, where it was determined that the dead were Major Wilson and his men.

The Federal reaction to the murder of Wilson and his men was severe. In July 1863, in response to Confederate threats to execute Union prisoners and African-American soldiers in particular, President Lincoln issued a proclamation that “that for every soldier of the United States killed in violation of the laws of war, a rebel soldier shall be executed.” General Rosecrans now acted on the president’s policy by ordering the public execution of six Confederate prisoners of war. Five were to be enlisted men held at St. Louis’ Gratiot Street Prison, while the sixth would be an officer held in Independence.

The five enlisted soldiers were selected at random and none had anything to do with either Reeve’s guerilla unit or Wilson’s murder. They were not told of their fate until the date slated for their execution, October 29. A Catholic priest, Father Ward, and an Episcopalian minister, Reverend Phillip McKim, attended the men after their death warrants were read to them. Five were baptized and the other, young Asa Ladd, wrote a final letter to his wife and children. They then were taken by wagon to Fort Number 4, near what is now Lafayette Park in St. Louis, where a detachment of Union soldiers from the 10th Kansas and 41st Missouri Infantry would carry out the execution. The St. Louis Democrat reported the scene as follows:

On the west side of the fort six posts had been set in the ground, each with a seat attached, and each tied with a strip of white cotton cloth, afterward used in bandaging the eyes of the prisoners. Fifty-four men were selected as the executioners. Forty-four belonged to the 10th Kansas and ten to the 41st Missouri. Thirty-six of these comprised the front firing party, eighteen being reserved in case they should not do this work effectually.

 

About three o’clock the prisoners arrived on the ground, and sat down, attached to the posts. They all appeared to be more or less affected, but, considering the circumstances, remained remarkably firm. Father Ward and Rev. Mr. McKim spoke to the men in their last moments, exhorting them to put their trust in God. The row of posts ranged north and south, and at the first on the north was Asa V. Ladd, on his left was George Nichols; next Harvey H. Blackburn, George T. Bunch, Charles W. Minnekin, and James W. Gates. Ladd and Blackburn sat with perfect calmness, with their eyes fixed on the ground, and did not speak. Nichols shed tears, which he wiped away with a red pocket-handkerchief, and continued to weep until his eyes were bandaged. Nichols gave no sign of emotion at first, but sat with seeming indifference, scraping the ground with his heel. He asked one of the surgeons if there was any hope of a postponement, and being assured that there was none, he looked more serious, and frequently ejaculated, “Lord, have mercy on my poor soul!” Again he said: “O, to think of the news that will go to father and mother!”

After the reading of the sentence by Col. Heinrichs, Minnekin expressed a desire to say a few words. He said:

 

“Soldiers, and all of you who hear me, take warning from me. I have been a Confederate soldier four years, and have served my country faithfully. I am now to be shot for what other men have done, that I had no hand in, and know nothing about. I never was a guerrilla, and I am sorry to be shot for what I had nothing to do with, and what I am not guilty of. When I took a prisoner, I always treated him kindly and never harmed a man after he surrendered. I hope God will take me to his bosom when I am dead. O, Lord, be with me!”

 

While the sergeant was bandaging his eyes, Minnekin, said: “Sergeant, I don’t blame you. I hope we will all meet in heaven. Boys, farewell to you all; the Lord have mercy on our poor souls!”

 

Photo 9The firing party was about ten paces off. Some of the Kansas men appeared to be reluctant to fire upon the prisoners, but Captain Jones told them it was their duty; that they should have no hesitation, as these men had taken the life of many a Union man who was as innocent as themselves.

 

At the word, the thirty-six soldiers fired simultaneously, the discharge sounding like a single explosion. The aim of every man was true. One or two of the victims groaned, and Blackburn cried out: “Oh, kill me quick!” In five minutes they were all dead, their heads falling to one side, and their bodies swinging around to the sides of the posts, and being kept from falling by the pinions on their arms. Five of them were shot through the heart, and the sixth received three balls in his breast, dying almost instantly.

As was so often the case on the margins of this war, brutality and inhumanity had been answered in kind. No form of justice was served and both sides were guilty of nothing less than mindless, vengeful, cold blooded murder.

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