In 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.
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.
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.
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 northern 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.
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.
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.
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…”
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.
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.
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!”
The 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.
I thought I might take this opportunity to explore another subject related to the fighting on the margins of the Civil War. This time, I want to examine the last battle to be fought for the control of Missouri, a vital, so-called, “border state.” Missouri was considered a part of the Trans-Mississippi Theater, a vast area of over 600,000 square miles. In total, there never were more than 50,000 men under arms across the entire region at any one time, and the leadership of both sides considered it a sideshow in the larger war. Essentially, it was, in terms of military importance, an empty wasteland.
As for Missouri, its status in the Civil War was much like that of West Virginia. Both regions were of great strategic value, with West Virginia’s related to the North’s need to keep the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad open, allowing the flow of supplies and men to and from the West, while Missouri’s was based on the need to maintain possession of St. Louis, which was vital to control of the Mississippi River. However, as in the case of West Virginia, Missouri’s status was decided relatively early in the war. From the outset, Union forces controlled both St. Louis and the state capital, Jefferson City, and the only significant Confederate threat to the state was turned back at Pea Ridge, Arkansas in March 1862. And, while St. Louis would initially serve as the Union command headquarters for the Western Theater, that command would migrate south as Federal forces penetrated deeper into Mississippi.
As a result, Missouri, like West Virginia, saw no great battles, no monumental campaigns. Rather, with a populace whose sentiments were deeply divided, it experienced a relentless guerilla war fought mostly by various bushwackers and even criminal elements, who used the war as an opportunity to steal, settle old scores, and commit cold blooded murder. Some of these elements would receive official sanction, such as the Confederate Partisan Rangers and Union Kansas Brigade, no matter the atrocities they would commit in the name of the cause. Men like James Lane, “Bloody Bill” Anderson, and William Quantrill would become legendary for their brutality and the fear they generated among the state’s inhabitants. However, in the fall of 1864, as the war entered its final phase, there was one last Confederate campaign undertaken to wrest the state from Federal control and, in doing so, hopefully influence the outcome of the 1864 U.S. presidential election in the South’s favor.
The campaign’s goal was the seizure of, first, St. Louis, and then Jefferson City. Once the latter was successfully completed, the state’s pro-Southern government-in-exile would be installed and the state would be under the effective control of the Confederacy. Hopefully for the Confederacy, this would, in turn, spark a secessionist uprising across the state, whose success would help destroy Lincoln’s reelection bid, and allow a negotiated peace, with Missouri as a part of the new Confederate nation.
The architect of the campaign plan and the man who would lead it was Confederate General Sterling Price, a former U.S. Congressman from Missouri and governor of the state. Price was terribly vain and not a particularly competent general. In fact, one of the most noteworthy aspects of this campaign was that many of its leading participants, on both sides, were incompetent “has beens” or untalented “never were’s.” These were men who either had proven unable to perform in the greater theaters of the war and had been exiled to the military backwater that was Missouri, or who simply had never demonstrated sufficient talent to garner a more substantial command and, as a result, were permanently stuck fighting the war in the vast Trans-Mississippi Theater. This combined lack of military ability would greatly influence both the conduct and outcome of what became known as Price’s Raid.
In addition to being a politician, General Price was also a former planter, lawyer, and slaveholder. Described as “quixotic” by one historian, the 55-year old Price had served as a Brigadier General of Volunteers in the Mexican War, and did perform competently at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Rosales. However, up to this point in the Civil War, his record was spotty, at best. He had been victorious when fighting either irregular or poorly trained Union units inside the state, but his record against more organized and better led opponents was one of total failure, with major losses at Pea Ridge, Iuka, and Corinth. Further, in the upcoming campaign to seize control of his native state, he would be somewhat blinded by his belief that his mere presence in Missouri would result in an influx of what he personally estimated at more than 30,000 new volunteers to the Southern cause.
In mounting this invasion of Missouri, Price was given three division commanders of varying quality. The first of them, General Joseph Shelby was, without doubt, the best of the lot and, was, in fact, one of the better Southern commanders operating in the Trans-Mississippi. His cavalry of Missouri volunteers had performed well at Wilson’s Creek and he had led several highly successful raids into Missouri. However, the other two division commanders, General John Marmaduke and General James Fagan, were another matter. Neither was particularly competent and they were classic examples of officers who would never have risen to their current levels of command in any other theater of the war. Marmaduke was a West Point graduate, but that had not translated into military success. His most noteworthy achievements to date had been getting shot at Shiloh and then killing his former commander, General Lucius Walker, in a duel precipitated by Marmaduke’s charges of cowardice against Walker. Fagan, meanwhile, was a minor politician and farmer from Arkansas who had seen undistinguished service at Shiloh and Corinth. After the latter, he apparently crossed the ill-tempered Braxton Bragg and was exiled across the Mississippi, back to Arkansas.
Worst of all, however, was the fact that, like seemingly all Confederate military organizations west of the Appalachians, Price’s new army would be beset by petty jealousies and bickering. Shelby despised Marmaduke and the two officers quarreled constantly. At the same time, both Fagan and Marmaduke distrusted Price and Price considered Marmaduke utterly incompetent. As a result, there was no command cohesion whatsoever, and a cloud of disharmony and ill will constantly hung over the command organization. Needless to say, this lingering atmosphere of jealousy, hatred, and distrust, combined with a distinct shortage of military aptitude, did not bode well for any chances of success.
However, the opposing command organization was not much better off. The Department of Missouri in St. Louis was led by General William Rosecrans, former commander of the Union’s Army of the Cumberland. Rosecrans, much beloved by the soldiers of that army, was a man forced to come painfully to grip with his own limitations. While he did lead his army to victory on January 2, 1863 at Stone’s River, “Old Rosy” was slow, unaggressive, and plodding by nature, preferring to seek bloodless “victories” through maneuver rather than via direct confrontation. This approach seemed to work, as he used it to chase Bragg’s army from Tennessee into northern Georgia, capturing the key city of Chattanooga in the process. But when Rosecrans met Bragg in battle at Chickamauga in September 1863, he discovered that he had exceeded his abilities. Bragg smashed his army, driving it back into Chattanooga, and trapping it. Rosecrans became utterly paralyzed and could see no way to break the siege. His incapacity led to Lincoln’s famous appraisal that Rosecrans was acting “confused and stunned like a duck hit on the head.” He was relieved of command in November 1863 and sent into exile in Missouri.
Rosecrans was supported in Missouri by General Alfred Pleasonton, the former cavalry chief of the Army of the Potomac. Pleasanton was a professional soldier and a classic example of the “careerist” who excels at political maneuvering. His only true skills involved his ability to take credit for his subordinates’ successes and ensure they received any blame for his failures. Historian Eric Wittenberg, an acknowledged expert on Civil War cavalry operations and leaders, describes Pleasonton as “a lead from the rear kind of a guy who was a masterful schemer and political intriguer…the sort of guy who would start a fight on the playground and then step back and watch the chaos that he had started.” Like Rosecrans, he was also overly cautious and his greatest military achievement was assigning General John Buford to command the cavalry screen on the Army of the Potomac’s left as it approached Gettysburg. Buford’s decision to fight on the ground around that Pennsylvania town was a key factor in the Union victory and one for which Pleasonton tried take full credit. While George Meade could not see through Pleasonton, Ulysses Grant could and he sent the cavalryman packing to join Rosecrans in Missouri, where the two of them could do as little harm as possible.
The orders to undertake Price’s Raid came from General Kirby Smith, commander of all Confederate forces in the Trans-Mississippi, on August 4, 1864, and they reflect Price’s convincing arguments to Smith that a host of new recruits awaited them in Missouri.
GENERAL: You will make immediate arrangements for a movement into Missouri, with the entire cavalry force of your district. General Shelby should be instructed to have his command in Northeast Arkansas ready to move by the 20th instant. You can instruct him to await your arrival with the column immediately under your command. A brigade of Louisiana troops, under Colonel Harrison, has been ordered to report to you. They should be added to General Marmaduke’s command, and with his old brigade constitute his division. General Clark should be transferred to the command of Marmaduke’s old brigade…General Shelby’s old brigade, increased by the one raised in East Arkansas can be organized into a division under his immediate command. General Fagan will command the division composed of Cabell’s and Crawford’s brigades. These skeleton organizations are best adapted for an expedition in which a large addition to your force is expected. These weak brigades should be filled by the regiments raised in Missouri…You will scrupulously avoid all wanton acts of destruction and devastation, restrain your men, and impress upon them that their aim should be to secure success in a just and holy cause and not to gratify personal feeling and revenge. Rally the loyal men of Missouri, and remember that our great want is men, and that your object should be, if you cannot maintain yourself in that country, to bring as large an accession as possible to our force…Make Saint Louis the objective point of your movement, which, if rapidly made, will put you in possession of that place, its supplies, and military stores, and which will do more toward rallying Missouri to your standard than the possession of any other point. Should you be compelled to withdraw from the State, make your retreat through Kansas and the Indian Territory, sweeping that country of its mules, horses, cattle, and military supplies of all kinds.
The other thing that is clear from General Smith’s orders is that the entire concept of seizing Jefferson City and reinstating Governor Thomas Reynolds and his government, which had been operating in exile from Texas, was entirely Price’s, as was the idea of fomenting a general insurrection in the state designed to hasten Lincoln’s downfall in the election. Price, ever the dreamer, saw his raid as being far more than merely a military operation intended to secure supplies and recruits. He sought to right the wrong done to him and other Confederate sympathizers by Federal authorities at the war’s outset and forever place Missouri in an independent and victorious Confederacy. As a result, he even summoned Governor Reynolds and his staff from Texas and had them accompany the army into Missouri.
Price collected 4,000 cavalry near Princeton, Arkansas, and took them to Pocahontas, just south of the Missouri border, where he rendezvoused with Shelby, Fagan, and Marmaduke’s divisions. In total, his newly anointed “Army of Missouri” numbered just over 16,000 men, with 12 artillery pieces and a huge, ponderous wagon train intended to carry the tons of supplies Price would supposedly seize during the raid. However, this new army was very much a hollow organization. Many of the so-called regiments contained nothing but a few officers and support staff, all of whom were to command the flood of new recruits to be garnered as the army moved north. Worst of all, however, only about two-thirds of Price’s men were armed. Apparently, the Federal arsenal in St. Louis would provide them with weapons once it was taken. Until then, almost 5,000 Confederate soldiers would venture into Missouri capable of only hurling rocks at the enemy. On September 19, Price and his army entered Missouri and he reported his men were “in fine health and spirits. We found the roads very rough and bad, but have not suffered much from that cause.”
In St. Louis, General Rosecrans had been aware of Price’s activities, but believed General Steele and his Union army in Little Rock would do something to prevent Price from moving north. As a result, when he learned Price had entered the state, he was surprised and began to hastily consolidate his scattered force of some 11,000 men, calling for reinforcements. General Sherman responded to Rosecrans’ urgent plea for help by immediately sending 4,500 veteran infantrymen from General Andrew Smith’s XVI Corps of the Army of the Tennessee to St. Louis. However, before those reinforcements began to arrive, Rosecrans received the unpleasant news that Price’s army was approaching Pilot Knob and a hexagonal Federal earthwork known as Fort Davidson, only 75 miles south of St. Louis.
Rosecrans had long believed that Price’s objective would be western Missouri, where Confederate sympathies were strongest, and, therefore, he thought this reported “army” approaching St. Louis was just a small force conducting a feint. Still, he needed to know for sure, so he dispatched General Thomas Ewing, Jr. to Fort Davidson to assess the situation. Upon arriving there, Ewing quickly realized that the force approaching Pilot Knob was no feint. He mistakenly estimated its strength as 19,000 men, badly outnumbering Fort Davidson’s garrison of 1,100 men supported by 13 cannon and three mortars. Ewing exchanged messages with Rosecrans, but the latter provided no clear guidance. Therefore, to his credit, Ewing decided to hold the fort and fight it out.
At the same time, the Confederate camp was experiencing disagreement over what to do about Fort Davidson. General Shelby argued that Price should simply go around the fort and move quickly to seize St. Louis. However, Price saw a great opportunity for a quick and resounding victory here. He knew that his army was far superior in numbers to the Union garrison and then there was the matter of General Ewing being in command. Ewing was hated by the state’s pro-Southern community as the man who had issued the infamous Order No. 11, which initiated the forcible deportation of thousands of “disloyal” Missouri families from four counties and included the confiscation or destruction of their farms and homes. In Price’s mind, a victory over Ewing and the capture of Fort Davidson would cause thousands to rally to him. Therefore, he overrode Shelby and ordered an assault on the fort for the morning of September 27.
Unfortunately, what should have been an easy victory turned into a mismanaged debacle. Price’s spies told him that there were unarmed civilians inside the fort, and that portions of the Union garrison were secretly Southern sympathizers who would not fire on Price’s men. On hearing this Fagan and Marmaduke argued that a mere show of force would bring surrender. So, Price cancelled his planned pre-assault artillery bombardment in order to spare civilian lives and ordered a massive frontal assault across hundreds of yards of open ground, hoping the sight of such an impressive force would, indeed, bring the desired capitulation of the fort. Instead, it brought the opposite. The attacking columns were poorly coordinated and Ewing’s men did not flee. Rather, they used their artillery with great effectiveness, slaughtering Price’s men as they crossed the flat, open fields surrounding the fort. As night fell, Price called off the attack, having suffered more than 1,000 casualties to Ewing’s 75. He had truly managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
That night, Price and his divided commanders debated what to do next. As they argued, the stillness of the night was broken by a series of massive explosions. When the morning dawned, Price discovered that Ewing had not only successfully gotten the entire garrison safely away, but had destroyed the fort and all its supplies by blowing up the magazine with a slow burning fuse. Then, his morning got even worse when spies arrived from St. Louis and informed him that Smith’s infantry had arrived in the city. With Union force defending St, Louis now outnumbering his, Price elected to abandon his original plans. Rather than attempt to take St. Louis, he would veer to the northwest, capture Jefferson City, and put Governor Reynolds back in the statehouse.
Meanwhile, despite the fact that Federal reinforcements had saved St. Louis from attack, the Union response to Price’s invasion was still disorganized and fragmented. Until the Confederate’s appeared in front of Fort Davidson, no one knew where Price was going and many felt that central Missouri or even southern Kansas might be his real target. The latter threat was taken very seriously by the Union commander of the Department of Kansas, General Samuel Curtis. However, Kansas, just like Missouri, had been stripped for the most part of any regular troops. Therefore, Curtis appealed to Governor Carney to call out the state militia and move it to the Missouri border under Curtis’ command. Unfortunately, Carney was locked in a tight reelection fight and was hesitant to call out the militia because it might cause hundreds of his supporters to be away from the polls on election day. He was about to agree to the mobilization of a few units when word reached him that Price was at Pilot Knob on the far eastern edge of Missouri. Carney told Curtis that Price posed no immediate threat and halted the mobilization.
While Governor Carney worried about his reelection in Kansas, General Price was conducting his raid as though it was also a political campaign. On September 30, after a brief feint towards St. Louis, he headed for Jefferson City, moving the army at a leisurely pace of only 10 miles a day. This allowed the men to liberally forage for food and supplies, which quickly turned into wholesale pillaging that filled the wagons with booty and, in the words of Shelby’s distraught adjutant, Major John Edwards, also added a “rabble of deadheads, stragglers, and stolen negroes” to the column. In addition, Price took every opportunity to stop and make eloquent speeches in each village and town along the way. If one had not known better, it would have appeared more like Price was seeking election than conducting a military operation. So, as he “campaigned” his way towards Jefferson City, Rosecrans was able to respond to the new threat, organizing state militia units and regular troops to defend the capital city and placing them under the command of General Pleasonton.
In addition, General Pleasonton’s cavalry were now ranging close to Price’s column and were beginning to impact his foraging activities, as demonstrated by one report from the 17th Illinois Cavalry:
HEADQUARTERS SEVENTEENTH CAVALRY, Rolla, Mo., October 3, 1864.
SIR: I have the honor to report that on the 30th ultimo, under orders from headquarters District of Rolla., I marched with two battalions, 15 officers and 450 men, to Saint James. The enemy had not appeared at that point, but was reported at Knob View, six miles beyond. Marching rapidly forward, I found the enemy, reported 150 strong, had burned a few cars, plundered a store, and fled southeast before our approach. This side of Knob View I overtook a drove of beef-cattle, numbering from 75 to 100, moving toward the rebel lines. Taking them to be supplies for the rebel army, I arrested the parties in charge, and sent them and the cattle back to Captain Ferguson, in command at Saint James, with instructions to send all to Rolla. The command marched along the railroad toward Cuba, and just at dark the rear of a column was discovered crossing the track to the left. Thick woods and darkness prevented a vigorous pursuit. They went down Brush Creek to the north, and were probably the same party that committed the depredations at Knob View. The command encamped at Cuba. The enemy, from 200 to 400 in number, had visited Cuba the previous night, burning the station-house and warehouse, tearing up the railroad track, and leaving about midnight. I sent Sergeant Stafford, Company L, and three men to Steelville, who returned at 5 a.m., and reported that no enemy in force had appeared at that point. I could obtain no reliable information of the enemy.
I have the honor to remain, your obedient servant,
JOHN L. BEVERIDGE, Colonel Seventeenth Illinois Cavalry
As Price made his lethargic approach to Jefferson City, and as indicated in Colonel Beveridge’s report, he also made every effort to destroy property and railroad facilities. General Fagan’s men destroyed the depot in De Soto, while another group cut the rail line near Franklin and burned the depot in that town. Troops from Marmaduke’s division were responsible for the destruction of the Cuba depot, tore up several miles of Pacific Southwest track, and destroyed the rail bridge over the Moselle River. Another of Marmaduke’s brigades took possession of the town of Washington without opposition, and destroyed all the rail lines within two miles.
On October 7, Price finally arrived at the outskirts of Jefferson City. He launched a few probing attacks on the city and soon discovered he had again been beaten to the punch by Rosecrans. In his view, the city could not be taken and he would abandon that objective as well. This caused him to clash violently with Governor Reynolds, who could see the prospect of Confederate control of Missouri rapidly slipping away. Price elected to move west “in the direction of Kansas, as instructed in my original orders, hoping to be able to capture a sufficient number of arms to arm my unarmed men at Boonville, Sedalia, Lexington, and Independence, places which I intended to occupy with my troops en route.”
Two days later, with Price comfortably camped at Boonville, the Federal strategy for dealing with the raid shifted dramatically from one of a passive, static defense to an active defense. Rosecrans realized that Price’s move west provided an opportunity for pursuit and even destruction of the Confederate army. He sent his newly arrived infantry marching west across the state and ordered Pleasonton to use his cavalry to chase and harass Price’s column. As Smith’s 4,000 foot soldiers quickly moved out, Pleasonton organized a force of 4,100 cavalry under General John Sanborn and ordered them to find Price, follow him, and attack the rear of his army at every opportunity. Sanborn and his troopers rode hard to the west following Price’s trail and, by the time Price left Boonville on October 13, they were already snapping at his heels.
Price’s turn westward also served to wake up Governor Carney in Kansas. Carney could no longer wish the Confederate threat away and, on October 9, he called out 4,000 regular state troops and some 10,000 militiamen, sending them to the Missouri border under the command of General James Blunt. Their call-up occurred so quickly, there was no opportunity to provide uniforms to the militia. Instead, they were all issued red badges to wear and many added to this by stuffing fallen leaves in their hatbands, causing them to anoint themselves as the “Sumach Militia.” One of them later recalled, “We were about as inefficient a force as could have been mobilized anywhere on earth to check the advance of a seasoned army.”
Blunt, along with General Curtis, moved the mixed force of regulars and militia across the Missouri border to the line of the Big Blue River. This crossing of a state line caused many of the militiamen to complain that such a move was illegal, and that they should not be required to fight on Missouri soil. A few near mutinies broke out, but eventually Curtis convinced the Kansas men that they would go no further east than the Big Blue and soon had them digging fortifications along the west bank of the river.
While the Kansas militia prepared for Price’s appearance, he continued to move west at a comfortable pace of only 11 miles a day. Pleasonton’s constant attacks caused him to realize he was being pursued, but he still did not hasten the pace of his cavalry, which was being outraced even by Smith’s Union infantry and was also now closing in on his rear. Then, on October 19, Price ran into a detachment of Blunt’s men in Lexington. The Federals were badly outnumbered and quickly retreated back across the Little Blue River. But the brief firefight made Price realize that he was now facing a threat in both his front and rear. However, despite this, he ordered the army to continue west towards Independence, Westport, and Kansas City, as his original orders from Kirby Smith specified. Worst of all, he elected to keep the wagon train of captured supplies and loot with him. The train had now reached almost 600 wagons and they were greatly responsible for slowing his men down. But General Smith had ordered he take the wagons to gather supplies and Price seemed determined to at least achieve some of the raid’s objectives, no matter the potential cost.
As far as the objective of garnering 30,000 new recruits, Price had failed there as well. While his men rested in Boonville, he had managed to bring in about 1,500 recruits and most of them were unarmed. Some of the Southern sanctioned guerilla groups also rode in and attached themselves to his army. Quantrill’s raiders, who were now operating under the leadership of George Todd, arrived and were assigned to serve as scouts for Shelby’s division. However, the most interesting addition was “Bloody Bill” Anderson’s command. Anderson showed up asking to see General Price fresh from a raid on Centralia, where he had captured then murdered 150 Federal soldiers. Worse yet, Anderson and his men rode into camp with a collection of human scalps laid across their saddle, trophies of their recent victory. Price steadfastly refused to meet with Anderson until the scalps were destroyed. Once they were discarded, Price welcomed Anderson into his army.
On October 22, Shelby’s division approached the Big Blue River and found the far bank blocked by Curtis’ Kansas regiments. Rather than attack this main line, Shelby wisely elected to force his way across the river at Byram’s Ford, where the Union line was not nearly as strong. Price personally directed the attack across the river, smashing several Kansas regiments and nearly annihilating another in fighting on the Mockbee farm. Curtis, seeing the danger of being cut off by Price, elected to retreat to Westport, south of Kansas City. At first, Price savored what he believed to be a major victory. However, he was soon informed that, while he was fighting along the Big Blue, Alfred Pleasonton’s cavalry had savagely attacked his rear guard and was pressing forward. With Curtis and Blunt aligned in front of Price, Pleasonton coming on strong from the east, and a total of 29,000 men on the field, the stage was set for the largest battle to be fought west of the Mississippi.
Price elected to face Curtis’ troops aligned on the north side of Brush Creek with Shelby and Fagan’s divisions, while Marmaduke was assigned to hold Pleasonton at the Big Blue River. Price planned to attack the Union lines but, shortly after sunrise on October 23, the Federals beat him to the punch. The first Union assaults were turned back, with Shelby’s men continuing to fight well, as they had throughout the campaign. However, early in the afternoon, a local farmer showed Curtis a narrow gulch that would provide a small force sufficient cover to penetrate the Confederate lines undetected. The Union general ordered the 9th Wisconsin Artillery and troopers from the 11th Kansas to follow the gulch and, when in position in Shelby’s rear, to set up their guns and open fire.
As the Union force moved undetected toward Shelby’s rear, things fell apart for Price along the Big Blue. Despite being outnumbered by Marmaduke’s division, Pleasonton’s cavalry smashed his lines with a ferocious attack. They Union cavalry, fighting dismounted, quickly engulfed Marmaduke’s lines and sent the Confederate cavalry reeling back towards Westport. Then, as Marmaduke was retreating, the Wisconsin battery emerged from the gully and began to bombard Shelby’s men from their rear. Almost simultaneous with this surprise, Blunt led the rest of the Kansas regiments across Bush Creek against both Shelby and Fagan’s front. The fighting became increasingly violent and, when he learned of Marmaduke’s disastrous engagement, Price realized he was about to crushed in a vice between Curtis and Pleasonton. He ordered some of Shelby’s men to shift east and slow down Pleasonton, while he sent the rest of the army into a full retreat south down the Fort Scott Road, where their wagon train was already headed.
Luckily, there was no immediate Federal pursuit. Feeling their men were too worn out from the fighting, Curtis and Pleasonton paused. But, the next day, Pleasonton’s cavalry was, once again, in full headlong pursuit of the fleeing Army of Missouri. On October 25, they overtook Price’s column, which continued to be slowed by their 600 wagons. One Confederate trooper described the massive train as moving like “a gorged anaconda dragging its huge body over the prairie.” As the pursuing Union horsemen approached, Shelby’s division and part of the wagon train had made it to the south side of the creek. Then, as Pleasonton’s men appeared, several wagons overturned midstream, clogging the ford. Fagan and Marmaduke set up a defensive line on the north side of the creek, hoping to hold off the Union cavalry until the rest of the wagons could get across.
Without pausing, the 2,600 Union cavalrymen charged, sweeping Fagan and Marmaduke’s men aside and destroying much of the wagon train, which was hopelessly stalled along the creek. In only 30 minutes of fighting, Price lost 300 men killed and wounded, with another 900 captured. Riding back from the head of the column to see what had happened, Price found the remnants of his army “retreating in utter and indescribable confusion.” Price’s raid, once so full of promise, had turned into an unmitigated disaster.
For their part, the Union commanders were satisfied, and decided not to pursue Price any further. The Army of Missouri would slowly wend its way back towards Arkansas. The weather turned cold and the loss of supplies from the wagons began to take a toll on the army. Starving, hungry soldiers trudged south, but more and more began to desert the column, heading for their homes, never to return to service. Finally, on December 2, the army reached Laynesport, Arkansas, with only 3,500 men left from the nearly 16,000 who had set out for Missouri in September. The last campaign of the Trans-Mississippi was over. The only positive thing gained by either side was that the guerilla groups who had joined Price remained with his army and left Missouri for good, finally freeing the people from their reign of terror.
For several of the key participants, men who had been such failures up to this point, the outcome of Price’s Raid did not improve their lot. Disgusted by Rosecrans’ slow response to the raid, Ulysses Grant dismissed the Union general from command of the Department of Missouri, and he left the army shortly after the end of the war. As for Sterling Price, he was attacked in the press for his poor leadership, attacks he referred to as a “tissue of falsehoods.” Price demanded a court of inquiry be convened to exonerate him, and Kirby Smith agreed to his request. The court was convened in Shreveport the following April, but was forced to adjourn when word was received that the war had ended. Price left the country, moving to Mexico, where he offered his services to Emperor Maximilian. Following the downfall of the puppet French government and Maximilian’s execution, Price returned home to settle in St. Louis, where he died in 1867, finally reaching the city whose capture was denied him during his great raid into Missouri.