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From Arkansas into Missouri
On Monday, September 26, a column of blue-clad riders galloped down the gravel road between Shut-in Gap toward the village of Arcadia disrupting lunch for a small group of pickets watching from a roadside shade tree. Although the others mistook the riders coming toward them as militia on their way to Fort Davidson, Sergeant Azariah Martin, a Kentucky-born twenty-five-year-old Confederate volunteer, insisted otherwise. Only the previous winter, Union troops had found Martin wounded in the military hospital at Cotton Plant, Arkansas. Paroled, he had returned home, enrolled in the state's militia to fight guerrillas, and, finally, joined the newly organized Forty-seventh Missouri. Martin had only worn the Federal uniform for three weeks when he saw the men in blue and insisted, "They are rebels! I've seen too many rebels to not know rebels when I see 'em!" No enemy column that size would not be entering the valley without a big fight in the works.
Although the Confederate movement of September 1864 aimed at one of the largest cities in America but moved through some of the most-isolated and sparsely populated terrain in the region. The invaders scattered to permit easier foraging through the countryside. This also disguised the scale of their forces, which seemed to appear piecemeal at various points in southeastern Missouri near the Arkansas line. Yet, the expedition could not risk concentrating to deal with the fortified enemy garrison in the Arcadia Valley. The first attempt to test Union strength in the area is what surprised Sergeant Martin and his comrades.
The Federal authorities had an ample forewarning. In early September, Arkansas rumors of an imminent invasion reached General Cadwallader Colder Washburn at Memphis. On September 2, he proposed to hold at Cairo units of General Andrew Jackson Smith's Sixteenth Corps on their way from Louisiana to Georgia. Grant and others in the national command chose to err on the side of caution, permitting advance detachments of Smith's men to wait at Cairo. The arrival of these troops in St. Louis would minimize the dependence of the Department of Missouri on the militia, but Smith's men turned up only in drips and drabs themselves.
Other indications of Confederate intentions turned up. The Federal authorities in southwestern Missouri intercepted a September 7 letter from Confederate colonel Frank Gordon to his wife, stating that General Jo Shelby would be leaving for Missouri the next day, and detailed a plan focused on central Missouri, whereby 12,000 Confederates under Price would "march by way of Rolla direct to Jefferson City." Although it included the correct size of Price's force—which Gordon and Shelby may have mistakenly expected the Federals to learn from scouts—the disinformation as to their route caused no end of confusion for weeks.
However, while Federal commanders accepted such information about the route, they remained utterly incredulous about the numbers involved. They rightly questioned rumors of 20,000 and upward, doubting the presence of so many thousands "where there is scarcely subsistence for as many hundred, is simply preposterous." Remarkably, General Frederick Steele of the Federal District of Arkansas contributed almost nothing to understanding the enemy force that had passed through his chain of garrisons. Although Steele had an army several times larger than either Price or the threatened Unionists in Missouri, he diverted roughly 4,000 of Smith's men to his own purposes on September 8. Until September 17, Steele used General Joseph A. Mower's division of Smith's corps not to probe the forces to his north but to bolster his own positions on the Arkansas River. When Steele finally did send Mower's men looking for Price, they moved as infantry in pursuit of a largely mounted Confederate column and never got within a hundred miles of Price. In short, those military organizations with the most men and resources siphoned off what was destined for those with the least.
Mid-September brought the first of Smith's men to St. Louis. A former slaveholder and Indian fighter, Smith had actually mustered Sterling Price into the U.S. Army many years before. The previous July, he had bested Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest at Tupelo in Mississippi, but, as an old regular army man seemed to have been regarded as a political ally of the most conservative currents. The Democrats in St. Louis apparently "sent one of their number to pump him" for some political statement, after which a group of them came by for a serenade "to draw out the General in a speech. But lo and behold he gave the Cop[perhead]s a terrible scathing and defended President Lincoln warmly." Smith arrived with every authorization from the army to operate independently from General William S. Rosecrans, but he readily placed himself and his men at the service of the department.
Despite rumors of a drive on Rolla, reports of the presence of Confederate regulars centered on General Thomas Ewing's district, specifically Major James Wilson's subdistrict headquartered at Pilot Knob. Wilson's own father had supported secession, and he had a brother fighting for the Confederacy. That September, his long absence in the army likely contributed to his divorce. The national cause that had demanded so much from him would now require much more.
Only a few years before the war, the Iron Mountain Railroad reached from St. Louis to Pilot Knob and the riches of the Arcadia Valley in Iron County. The town of about six hundred grew at the shadow of the mountain from which it took the name. With the war, Federal authorities had established a garrison and a large earthen Fort Davidson to protect the railroad and the raw materials. The outpost straddled the most direct route from Fredericktown to St. Louis.
Through the summer, the guerrilla operations in or near the Arcadia Valley became larger and more audacious. On September 13, forty to fifty of them attacked fourteen men of the Third MSM Cavalry near Caledonia. The Federals killed one and wounded several, having two wounded themselves. That same night, partisans "plundered the stores at Iron Mountain and destroyed the papers and machine in the telegraph office." Matters were worse farther from the garrison, which reported sharp increases in refugee populations, with the Western Sanitary Commission counting "over 1700 persons, mostly women and children" at Pilot Knob. On Friday, September 16, Major James H. Wilson, Ewing's subdistrict commander at Pilot Knob, got orders to locate any of the rumored Confederate forces.
By then, Wilson had expanded his force to a few hundred men, but they still had to cover a jurisdiction that ran as far as Arkansas. Most of the men came from his own Third MSM Cavalry—then fighting a bitter war of reprisals with guerrillas—but he had numerous bits and pieces of different units. These included about half of the available Forty-seventh Missouri; Captain Amos P. Wright's company of the Second MSM Cavalry; Captain Patrick F. Lonergan's of the First MSM Infantry; and Captain Robert L. Lindsay's of the new Fiftieth Missouri. Despite the newness of units such as the Forty-seventh and the Fiftieth, their ranks included many veterans. Captain Hugh M. Bradley had been in Wilson's own Third MSM before joining the volunteers, and thirty-four-year-old James S. McMurtry had served in the militia and done an earlier stint with the Thirty-first Missouri, which had fought at Vicksburg. Lindsay's company garrisoned Mineral Point, and the Forty-seventh had a company in blockhouses on the railroad back to Potosi with another at Fredericktown, twenty miles southeast of Fort Davidson.
Some thirty-five miles to the southwest, members of the Third MSM Cavalry and the Forty-seventh Missouri staffed the garrison at Camp Benton near Patterson. Connected by telegraph, these companies under Captains Morgan Mace, James S. McMurtry, and Pinckney L. Powers sat nearest the state line. The town's founder, a Virginian named William Patterson, had remained loyal to the Union, but John Kemper, the storekeeper who had laid out the town, had long since gone back east to join Robert E. Lee's army. When local secessionists laid a suspected trap by inviting a Union officer and former preacher to address their congregation, the officer accepted the invitation, but began his sermon by drawing a revolver and announcing that he "would shoot the first person who attempted to leave before he got through without his permission." In such places, unfriendly as well as friendly eyes always watched the soldiers of either side. On Sunday, September 18, Captain Robert McElroy sent Lieutenant Erich Pape on a sixty-mile ride south with less than ninety men.
What actually happened when Pape's men reached Doniphan, the seat of Ripley County, will probably forever remain confused. Antebellum southern hegemony always required the ruthless suppression of anything that threatened not only slavery but the political dominance of the slaveholders. Secessionist attempts to coerce or burn out their enemies in Missouri usually did much to strengthen Unionist sentiment among whites who had earlier had little interest in black slavery, but the tactics seem to have succeeded in Ripley County. There, the secessionists drove out the Unionists, and, when the Federals drove the Confederate regulars out of the state, much of Ripley County went into hiding.
Many who remained provided substantive support for local partisans under Timothy Reeves. The previous summer, a local storekeeper named Kittrell, who also kept a boardinghouse just outside of Doniphan, had sold food to some soldiers of the Third MSM Cavalry that nearly killed them. This earned a stern warning from the Federals that the further mistreatment of soldiers would forfeit the courtesy and rights of noncombatants. Thereafter, he set his dogs on exhausted and sickly paroled prisoners from the Fifty-fourth Illinois trudging north toward Ironton. Finally, in December, Reeves's guerrillas captured the better part of a company of the Third MSM Cavalry, which responded by striking hard and fast against Reeves's band.
Contemporary secessionists complained of their victimization by Union soldiers, and later admirers of the Lost Cause spun elaborate tales of what they call "the Wilson Massacre." Supposedly, Federal soldiers opened fire on civilians at a Christmas dinner, killing "around 100," 65 of whom had been civilians, women, and children, and took 112 locals into custody, many of whom died before reaching those authorities. (Another such postwar story told of "a Negro Arkansas Home Guard unit" that overran a hospital, slaughtering "a reported 150 and wounding an undetermined number.") Nevertheless, even in the more isolated nooks and crannies of the Civil War, atrocities on a much smaller scale were documented. Regrettably, such doubtful stories distract from the historical reality that there had been incidents enough to justify escalating retaliations, at least in the minds of those fighting it.
Around 5 a.m. Monday, September 19, Pape's column galloped into Doniphan, their new Colt revolving rifles blazing. They captured two pickets and surprised about forty Confederates under Rector Johnson's guerrillas working in advance of Shelby's division. With the Federals in pursuit, the Confederates crossed the Current River, destroyed the bridge behind them, and waited along the bluffs opposite. According to a Unionist account, one group of Federals formed at the river, while the other began to ford, stopping to water their horses in midstream to display their disdain for the enemy. The horsemen then finished chasing Johnson's men the eight miles into Arkansas. Back in town around noon, Sergeant James C. Steakley, who had not eaten all day, asked at the house of a Widow Low for a meal. As they spoke at the door, fires broke out at Kittrell's hotel and two other buildings, and she turned to Steakley and his men, pleading "for God's sake" not to burn her house. They assured her that they would not, and Pape quickly reassembled his men to ride the eight or nine miles back north. They stopped at 4 p.m. to eat and interrogate their two prisoners, who readily acknowledged belonging to a northbound army under Sterling Price. At about 5:30 that afternoon, the troopers continued on about a dozen miles to the Vandiver farm near Ponder's Mill on the Little Black River.
In the end, the history of Doniphan and Ripley County suffered most from politically motivated after-the-fact exaggerations. Although genuine atrocities were real and numerous enough, former secessionists later claimed that the Federals burned the town and "every house and farm building" all the way back to Ponder's Mill, but contemporary sources are relatively clear. Since the secessionists had already burned the homes of known Unionists, it had already left little. A Union sergeant acknowledged seeing orders from Pape's superiors to burn out the local secessionists, probably not merely in retaliation but to root out the base for the guerrillas and end attacks on Federal soldiers. Confederate Samuel Hildebrand arrived later and found "every house but one" burning in Doniphan—one suspects it was that of the widow who had fed the Union soldiers—so he ordered that one torched himself. As to Pape's burning everything over the dozen miles north from Doniphan, another Confederate observer, Dr. William McPheeters, took that road and counted "three houses, or rather the smoldering ruins of three residences, burned on yesterday by a company of Yankee cavalry."
Camped that night on the Vandiver farm, some Federals heard "the steady tramp" of large numbers of men around them, but Pape could not imagine such numbers. At sunup, they found themselves surrounded by dismounted Confederates three ranks deep in places. Using their Colts to good effect, the Federals charged and broke the rebel lines several times before falling back to their camp to reload. With the last of these, a number of mounted men in blue uniforms rode back into camp among them, and these turned out to be Confederates, which left the men "all mixed up together, rebels and our men." Steakley and seventeen others cut their way out, but Second Lieutenant William Brawner and "several others" fell wounded. While some Confederate reports mention prisoners, the ruthlessly straightforward Hildebrand said that the rebels had lost two killed and four wounded, but "captured sixteen Federals and shot them." They certainly shot and left for dead Sergeant Simon Branstetter when he tried to surrender. While one Federal account indicates that all but about a dozen of the Unionists eventually turned up, Confederates report more Federal casualties, including executions, the most likely explanation being civilians in the wrong place and the wrong time.
The news these survivors carried to Patterson convinced McElroy that he had no chance of resisting the kind of numbers that seemed to be bearing down on him. He telegraphed his report to Wilson who ordered Patterson evacuated and sent Sergeant Edward Wilkinson and ten men with a wagon to aid with the operation. Around noon Thursday, September 22, McElroy led his little column east toward the St. Francois River. Back in the town, Hildebrand's advance rushed the rear of the column; he "captured eleven negroes and seven white men in Federal uniform and shot them." Later, on the road, Colonel Benjamin Elliott's Confederate cavalry caught McElroy's column, capturing five from the Forty-seventh and two from the Third MSM Cavalry, while Wilkinson lost his wagon, its teamster, and three of his men. In the aftermath, the Confederates executed Brawner and two newly captured Federals who had been on the Doniphan scout. McElroy's survivors moved all night and reached Fort Davidson the next afternoon.
There, Wilson, in turn, had been dutifully telegraphing Ewing the news that a Confederate force had reentered Missouri. He passed on the rumors that thousands foraged near the state line to accumulate rations for five days, but could not resist adding, "I cannot believe the report to be true." Protected by the rugged terrain and official incredulity in the Union command, the Confederate advance moved north.
Excerpted from Price's Lost Campaign by Mark A. Lause Copyright © 2011 by The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Prologue: The Sacred Soil of Missouri: The State, the Army, and the Department 7
1 The Beginning
1 Of Conquest and Liberation: From Arkansas into Missouri 29
2 September 27: From Pilot Knob through Potosi to Centralia 46
3 Sounding the Alarm: The Road to Rolla 65
2 The Primary God
4 The Mysteries of St. Louis: Myths and Realities in the City's Defense 85
5 At the Gates of the Metropolis: Pacific and Union 112
3 The Secondary God
6 The Turning Point: From the Bourbeuse to the Gasconade 139
7 The Westward March: From Boeuf Creek to the Osage River 144
8 The Capital: From the Osage River to Jefferson City 159
Epilogue: Shaping the Memory of a Civil War Campaign 177
Appendix A Timetable of the Missouri Campaign, August 29-October 8,1864 195
Appendix B Engaged Units 203