150 Years Ago: A battle at Pilot Knob, Missouri

I like to dart around the Civil War map in search of good sesquicentennial topics.  So from the coast of South Carolina, let us turn to the “far west” and look at what was happening 150 years ago in Missouri.  Today I will follow up on my earlier post and recall Major-General Sterling Price’s 1864 Missouri Campaign. On this day (September 27) in 1864, Price fought the first major engagement of the campaign.  The place was the town of Pilot Knob in the Arcadia Valley.  There a garrison of approximately 1,500 under Brigadier-General Thomas Ewing stood in the path of Price’s 12,000 (though the Confederates engaged there were likely less – perhaps 7,000 armed troops at most).

I’ll not detail all the events of September 27, 1864 here, as the Battle of Fort Davidson deserves more space than I have for a single post.  For those who would like a good account of the action, and the campaign overall, I recommend Mark Lause’s Price’s Lost Campaign: The 1864 Invasion of Missouri.  However, one failing of the book is the lack of maps (Publishers: Explain how one can have a campaign study without campaign maps?  This puzzles me, please explain.)

So let me offer the campaign map from the Official Records so we have some point of reference:


Yes, that is a big map to consider.  You may want to click and zoom in on the file to see the details.  Or I’ll cut a snip out to show Price’s march during this phase of the campaign:


Fort Davidson was the primary defense of Pilot Knob.  Ewing could have run and I doubt history would have charged him with any neglect.  But he didn’t.  In his report on the campaign, Ewing rationalized his stand,

…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.

On the map, Fort Davidson was not exactly a Thermopylae affording secure flanks and a prime defensive position.  The fort served its intended purpose protecting the industrial community from the occasional raider.  But against a large Confederate force?  In Ewing’s own words, “The fort was always conceded to be indefensible against any large army having serviceable artillery.”  High ground dominated the fort:

For Price, this appeared fruit ripe for the picking.  What worked against him was a Federal garrison which made the most of what it had and which took advantage of the sluggish movement of the Confederate force.  The slopes of the surrounding hills were cleared to give the Federal artillery clear lines of fire.  The range to any of the summits overlooking Fort Davidson was 1,200 yards or less. So any direct attack by the Confederates was done under fire.  So severe was the Federal fire that on several occasions the Confederates resorted to using a flag of truce as cover to get their formations in position.  So Fort Davidson became a tough nut to crack, from the tactical perspective.

In the face of this tactical dilemma, the Confederates didn’t offer their best effort.  Price failed to bring the weight of his artillery to bear on the fort.  Two 12-pdr Napoleons did get into a good position to fire on the Federal rifle pits. But on the other side, the guns of Battery H, 2nd Missouri Artillery, under Captain William Montgomery, along with the fort’s 32-pdr siege guns and 24-pdr howitzers did most of the “booming.”  Price also to seal off all routes into and out of Fort Davidson.  So not only was the garrison permitted an unmolested rear flank, they were also granted an escape route.

Price planned on massive assault.  But as these things are apt to play out, the attack was done piecemeal.  Federal gunners could focus on one advancing formation at a time and thus blunt the wave.  But the fighting did reach the parapets of the fort.  So close in fact that Federal soldiers used hand-grenades to repel the assault.

After midnight on September 27, Ewing started a quiet withdrawal from Fort Davidson.  After sparring with some Confederate advance guards of Brigadier-General Joe Shelby’s command (which were maneuvering to assault the fort at dawn), the garrison slipped out of the valley.  A slow match in the fort’s magazine touched off a large explosion around 4 a.m.  Yet, the Confederates did not see that as a queue.

The next morning, Price had his prize but at a cost.  Estimates of the Confederate casualties in the battle vary, but the most credible put the loss at 200 killed and around 600 wounded. Ewing had indeed delayed the march while receiving just under 100 casualties (and just over 100 captured between the fort and the retreat).

In his report on the action, in the usual “thanks” to his subordinates who had performed well, Ewing mentioned several local citizens who took up arms and joined the Federal ranks during the emergency.  In particular, “A colored man named Charles Thurston, organized and commanded a company of negroes, who eagerly bore their share of labor and danger.”  I have long suspected that Thurston and his company were largely composed of laborers from local lead industry (the town sits in the middle of Missouri’s Old Lead Belt).  If so, these men were likely not escaped or freed slaves from some plantation, but rather working-class citizens.  They could have fled, or even stayed quietly at their jobs.  They chose instead to defend their homes and country.

No assessment of the action at Pilot Knob is complete without considering the “strategic” impact.  Set in the fall of 1864, with all the air of an election cycle, this action could have been another “Harpers Ferry” (referring to the 1862 battle, just over two years earlier).  Yet Ewing’s stand was celebrated in newspapers throughout the mid-west as positive war news.  The Daily Illinois State Journal ran this lead-in on September 30, 1864:


Not a route or delaying action, but a defeat of the rebels.  In the northern press, Ewing had won the battle and lived to fight another day.  After September 27, 1864, anything Price might accomplish in Missouri which might affect the presidential elections had to overcome this spin.  And, as later events would show, Price was never able to overcome the setback at Pilot Knob – either on the battlefield or in the eyes of northern voters.  In short, this battle at Fort Davidson deserves a place alongside Mobile Bay, Atlanta, and Cedar Creek as actions which factored into Lincoln’s re-election.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s