Perhaps it is just an inside joke among those of us who have studied the Civil War in Missouri to any great extent. But ask me about the Battle of Boonville and I’ll respond, “Which one?” There were four battles fought around Boonville. None of which might rank as a major battle compared to, say, any of the Winchester, Virginia battles. But the records show four actions, so we must rate it as an important crossroads in the Civil War. The first action took place on June 17, 1861 and featured Brigadier-General Nathaniel Lyon routing the Missouri State Guard (pro-Confederate forces). The second, on September 13 of that year, was another defeat for the Missouri State Guard and the death of Colonel William Brown. A third action, on October 11, 1863, was part of Brigadier-General Joseph Shelby’s “Great Raid.”
And exactly a year later, the forth and final battle took place as part of Major-General Sterling Price’s campaign. Two days previous, elements of Price’s Army of the Missouri occupied Boonville.
Price himself arrived on the 10th. Although he had time to give a speech encouraging support for the Confederacy, his time in Boonville was limited due to the pressing Federal pursuit. In his account of the campaign, Price left a short description of the action:
On the 11th, hearing of the approach of the Federal General [John] McNeil with a cavalry force estimated at 2,500 men, for the purpose of attacking Boonville by the Tipton road, I selected my position about half a mile from the river and placed the divisions of Major-Generals Fagan and Marmaduke in line of battle to receive him. The enemy attacked them, but was easily driven back with considerable loss, and was afterward pursued by a portion of Fagan’s division and Jackman’s brigade a distance of twenty-one miles from Boonville with heavy loss, in spite of obstinate resistance and the ruggedness of the country over which the pursuit was made.
For this small engagement, I offer this rudimentary map adapted from the 1861 Lloyd’s map of Missouri:
The troops in blue were actually not McNeil but rather that of Brigadier-General John Sanborn. Major-General James Fagan’s division is the shorter of the two red arrows. And Colonel Sidney Jackman’s cavalry brigade’s movement is depicted by the longer, bent, line. While most of Fagan’s command consisted of Arkansas troops, Jackman’s was all Missouri cavalry with one section of Missouri artillery in support. Jackman provided some details in his report of the action:
At 3 p.m. of the 11th I was ordered on the Georgetown road, five miles out from Boonville, to meet a force of the enemy making a demonstration there. On reaching the point designated I found that the force had disappeared. At 4.30 p.m. I received an order from General Shelby to move across to the Tipton and Boonville road, a distance of seven miles, and fall upon the flank and rear of a force of the enemy in line of battle there. Immediately on the receipt of this order I moved my brigade rapidly in the direction indicated, but meeting with a good deal of difficulty in finding the road, and being compelled to march through a badly broken country without a road or guide, I did not succeed in coming up with the enemy until about dusk. Upon discovering him I formed so as to strike him in flank, but before my formation was complete he commenced withdrawing in column on the Tipton road. I moved at once in pursuit and pressed close upon him to the bridge across the Tête Saline River.
Jackman exercised caution and did not pursue further. He setup a position south of the Tête Saline (Or “Little Saline” if you prefer), and detached a portion of his command to clear the road back to Boonville. Since Fagan’s command had not advanced that far, and had fallen back, Jackman had reason to be concerned. The Missouri troopers remained in that position through the morning. Attempting to press out further on the 12th, they fought an hour-long engagement with the Federals. Jackman reported his casualties amounted to only 4 killed and 20 wounded out of around 600 engaged. Sanborn reported only one Federal casualty from his command.
A little affair to be sure. So why waste a blog post on a skirmish? Sanborn was at that time operating under instructions from Major-General Alfred Pleasonton, in command at Jefferson City. Pleasonton had arrived, returning from leave, at the state capital just as Price was threatening attack. Though he was too late to add anything to the defense of the city, his being “in command” was an important piece missing up to that time in the Federal response to Price. With Major-General William Rosecrans focused, some might say distracted, several subordinate commands in the central part of the state operated without direct guidance. This gave Price room to move. Now I know some “easterners” will smirk at this, but with Pleasonton “in command” there was at least a central figure to control the columns in pursuit of Price. If nothing else, Pleasonton was able to sort through the various reports coming in from the field and attempt to draw a picture of the situation. And at 1:30 p.m. on October 11, Pleasonton’s assessment was:
[Price] will have to go south through Kansas, as he cannot subsist his force through the western tier of counties of this State; they are so destitute, so I am reliably informed.
And in Kansas was Major-General Samuel Curtis, ready to block Price’s movements. Two days spent in Boonville, recruiting and looting, had cost Price that “maneuver room” which Rosecrans had offered. The skirmish outside Boonville, though small, was the sound of footsteps getting close in pursuit.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 41, Part I, Serial 83, pages 631-2 and 673-4; Part III, Serial 85, page 785.)