Tuesday, September 4, 2007

The Forgotten Battles of the Civil War: the Battle of Pilots Knob September 27-28 1864

Missouri ranks third in in-state Civil War clashes. Only Virginia and Tennessee had more battle within its borders and in September 1864 one of the forgotten battles of the war occurred at Pilot Knob, Missouri. The area is located in the peaceful Arcadia Valley of southeast Missouri but its beauty was disrupted by one of the wars bloodiest battles. In just 20 minutes nearly 1,000 men lay dead or wounded at the foot of Pilot Knob Mountain.The summer of 1864 had not gone well for the Confederacy. By the end of the season the nations most powerful army was entrenched and enduring a siege at Petersburg, Virginia. Union General William T. Sherman had begun to beat back Confederate forces as he made his way towards Atlanta. The armies west of the Mississippi river were commanded by General Edmund Kirby Smith who kept a tight reign on his regiments and some say he acted like a dictator over the region. Smith's lack of resolve allowed Union forces to concentrate in Georgia and Virginia.
As Confederate manpower dwindled, President Jefferson Davis ordered some of Smith's regiments east to help defend Petersburg and Atlanta. Fearful of losing men, General Smith wrote Davis that he was planning a major offensive and would need to retain his regiments. Major General Sterling Price, a former governor of Missouri, to lead Smith's western campaign. No Confederate general began a mission with such a ragged force because most of the rebel troops were clothed in tattered rags and many went without shoes. Soldiers carried an endless variety and caliber of muskets which made ammunition supply in the field nearly impossible. Some soldiers even assumed this offensive without field arms of any kind.

As September 19, 1864 dawned, Prices was ready. A 12,000 man mounted army of misfits and regulars crossed the Arkansas border into Missouri. Meanwhile, on the Union side nothing could get any worse.In St. Louis the commander of the Department of Missouri was General William Rosecrans who had led Union forces during its defeat at Chickamuaga in 1863. This setback caused President Lincoln to remove Rosecrans from command and like John Pope before him, Rosecrans was sent west. General Rosecrans after receiving reports that Price was moving towards him called for reinforcements. His efforts weren't enough and by late September he commanded just 6,000 men. A Confederate advantage of 2-1 was the only thing that stood between Price and the occupation of the greatest American city west of the Mississippi at that time. Rosecrans and his men entrenched themselves at Pilot Knob and waited for the Confederates to attack.Many of Price's officers urged him to ignore the Union garrison and move on to St. Louis. The capture of such a prized city would renew hope within the Confederacy and bring much needed supplies to the army. Price ignored the suggestion but did send part of his force to rip up a railroad connection. The rest of the men would attack the Federal force at Pilot Knob.

The Union defenses was headed by 1,000 men under General Thomas Ewing. The earthworks that his forces defended was known as Fort Davidson. The fort was surrounded on three sides by commanding hills which dominated the valley floor. Enemy forces would have no choice but to cross hundreds of yards in the open to reach the fort. This would expose them to artillery and infantry file which would easily break up their formations. The forts one vulnerability was to any artillery which could be placed on the encircling hills. Ewing sent out untested troops which skirmished with Confederate forces in a fierce rainstorm on September 26. By the morning of the 27th, Ewings troops retreated to the safety of the fort but did some damage by inflicting nearly 200 causalities on the Confederates.General Price looked over the situation with a keen eye and determined that artillery placed on the hilltops would easily pound the Union garrison into submission. Price ordered Colonel Lauchlan Maclean to the forth to ask for a Union surrender. Ewing and Maclean were personal enemies and the Union general easily rejected the opportunity to surrender. Perhaps, Maclean let his personal hatred of Ewing get the best of time because he quickly urged Price to order a frontal assault. Placing cannon on the mountain tops was no easy task and General Price abandoned the easier course and prepared his assault.An hour of quiet over the battlefield was disturbed by the Confederates trampling brush with their feet as their battle lines formed. Ewing ordered his cannon to load canister and made sure every available rifemen was placed in position to receive Price's attack. The best marksmen were chosen to fire while others loaded muskets so that a continuous fire could hit the gray wave that would soon arrive.Confederate artillery pounded the fort around two o'clock and after a short barrage the rebels began to move towards Fort Davidson. Ewing ordered his cannon to fire and soon thick clouds of smoke blanketed the attacking columns hundreds of feet high. When Price's men came withing 500 yards the Union infantry was ordered to fire. As spent rifles were passed down and loaded ones handed up, the 300 rifles along the top of the walls fired as if they were machine guns during World War I. The heavy fire caused many Confederates to fall to the ground clutching bloody wounds.Still the gray line pressed on and when they got within 200 yards, the southern brigades fired their first volley and broke into a running charge. Many Union gunners and rifemen could only see the charging legs under the thick haze of smoke. As the the men defending Fort Davidson continued their unrelenting fire the Confederates fell back. It is estimated that the rebels got within 30 yards of the forts walls before having to abandon their position. The hot lead was too much for Sterling Price's brigades and many of his retreating forces tripped over their fallen comrades.They Confederates were rallied by several officers who spurred them forward again as devastating fire from Fort Harrison continued to rain upon them. Some rebels even made it to the base of the forts walls but some were destroyed or disabled by Union gunners who lit artillery fuses and dropped them into the Confederate hordes below. This was too much for the soldiers to bear and the rebels quickly retreated across the open fields now littered with their dead. As the smoke slowly lifted, the incredible carnage became known to both sides. Nearly 500 yards of open ground was covered with wounded and dead men. The Battle of Pilot Knob had only lasted a few minutes but the results were bloody. After the attack, Price was unable to gain control of his men and his entire command was scattered and confused. Meanwhile, General Ewing realized that he shouldn't press his luck and during the night he withdrew from Fort Harrison. The last squad of Union infantry blew up the ammunition depot which caused an enormous explosion. Many Confederates felt that the Yankees had blown themselves up but they were dismayed to find the fort empty when the sun finally rose. Price knew that his command had suffered too much and taking St. Louis was impossible. The National Parks Service website reports 1,684 total casualties (US 184; CS 1,500). Perhaps the biggest result of the Battle of Pilot Knob was another Confederate drawback. By the end of the year Lee's army was dwindling, Atlanta was in Union hands and Sherman's March to the Sea was about to begin. This battle goes virtually unnoticed by many Civil War historians and buffs. This fact saddens me because it is a battle that I just recently discovered myself and I think it is really intriguing.
Mackey, T. J. 1974. Escape from Fort Davidson. Civil War Times Illustrated. 13, no. 1: 30-31.
Suderow, Bryce A. Thunder in Arcadia Valley: Price's Defeat, September 27, 1864. Cape Girardeau, Mo. (530 N. Pacific, Cape Girardeau 63701): Center for Regional History and Cultural Heritage, Southeast Missouri State University, 1986

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