Battle of Pilot Knob/Fort Davidson, Missouri

AUG

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Today is the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Pilot Knob, Missouri.

In September 1864, an army of Confederate soldiers 12,000 strong marched into Missouri from Arkansas, led by Major General Sterling Price. Headed north toward St. Louis, they soon arrived at the southern terminus of the St. Louis and Iron Mountain Railroad in Pilot Knob. There a federal fort, Fort Davidson, stood, garrisoned by only 1,500 Union soldiers led by Brigadier General Thomas Ewing Jr. Seeing a chance to obtain arms for his 3,000 unarmed soldiers and to gain combat experience for the nearly 6,000 untested draftees, Price sent men to rip up the tracks to the north, cutting off Union reinforcements to the fort.

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Price's entourage was a ragged lot to say the least. Most of the troops were clothed in tattered rags and several thousand were barefoot. Most had no canteens, cartridge boxes or other military issue; instead they carried water in jugs and stuffed cartridges in their shirts and pockets. Tents and blankets were absent. Arms consisted of an endless variety and caliber of rifles and muskets, making ammunition supply in the field nearly impossible. By the time Price reached Missouri, nearly a fourth of his army were without arms.

Though not nearly large enough to support the entire 1,500 man garrison, as more and more Confederate troops piled into the nearby town of Ironton, many Union soldiers were forced to withdraw to the safety of the fort. Its hexagonal walls—nine feet high and ten feet thick—were surrounded by a dry moat up to nine feet deep, allowing access only from a drawbridge in the southeastern corner. Two long rifle pits ran out from the walls, and for 300 yards in every direction there was a clear field of fire for the four huge siege guns, three howitzers, and six field artillery pieces that were fed by the buried powder magazine at the heart of the fort.

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(View detailed map of the fort Here).

On September 26 and 27 Brig. Gen. James Fagan's brigade of Arkansans drove any Federal troops in the surrounding area and hills around the town of Pilot Knob back into Fort Davidson.

Ewing found himself completely bottled in the fort with no avenue of escape. At a meeting in the gap, Price determined that his big guns would be placed on top of Shepherd Mountain. He then sent an emissary, Colonel Lauchlan Maclean, to the fort to ask for a Union surrender.

Hot-headed Maclean, a veteran of the Kansas border war, was a personal enemy of Ewing. When the Union general refused to surrender, Maclean returned to Price and urged a frontal assault on the fort, claiming there was no time to bring up all of the Confederate artillery and place it on Shepherd's Mountain. Price soon became convinced that placing the big guns on the mountain would be no easy task when the first attempt at placement saw a Confederate cannon disabled and its gunner killed by the first few volleys from the expert Federal artillerymen.

Price was now determined to try a frontal assault. For nearly an hour, a hush fell over the peaceful valley—the silence before the storm. Among the heavy brush and timber on the mountains the Confederate commanders were forming their brigades for battle. In the fort, Ewing ordered his cannons run down from maximum elevation and trained across the flat. Because all the riflemen could not take their place along the walls, details were assembled to tear cartridges, load rounds, and pass up the guns as they were needed. At the foot of the encircling mountains, 9,000 Confederates crouched down and waited.

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(From Battlefield Atlas of Price's Missouri Expedition of 1864 by Charles D. Collins.)

At two o'clock the silence was broken. Confederate cannons in the gap opened on the earthen fort. Soon waves of dismounted southern cavalry poured into the open. The troops, formed in long columns three ranks deep, slowly moved toward the fort. Inside the walled enclosure, the riflemen were ordered to hold their fire and the Union artillery was opened on the advancing Confederate lines. At short range across the flat, the big guns could not miss. Dense clouds of smoke blanketed the fort and rose in columns hundreds of feet high.

The surrounding Confederate mass continued its ill-fated advance. Now aware that the rifle pits could not be held, Federal soldiers poured into the fort. The Confederate horde was now only 500 yards from the walls when the Federal troops were ordered to fire. With empty guns being passed down and loaded ones handed up, the 300 rifles along the top of the walls spewed forth lead as if from machine guns. The 32-pounder guns mounted on barbette carriages belched forth double and triple canister, ripping giant holes in the Confederate ranks.

At 200 yards, the southern brigades unleashed their first volley and broke into a crazed running charge. The Federal gunners could see only the charging legs as the smoke blocked everything from view. The walls of Fort Davidson now blazed as fire leaped from the muzzles of the gun barrels. At 30 yards, Price's troops finally broke and slowly started to fall back.

Spurred on by their gallant officers, the terrified Arkansans and Missourians re-formed their lines and surged ahead. Again, they hesitated and their officers turned them about. By the third charge some men managed to reach the ditch at the foot of the walls of Fort Davidson, but the walls were too high to climb. The Federal artillerymen leaned over the walls and tossed lighted shells into the huddled Confederate soldiers.

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(Photo of the ditch by Smoothfin, Wikipedia. The walls are probably slightly lower than they were originally, but still in great condition.)

The blood and confusion now was too much to bear. Just a few yards from the fort, Price's soldiers finally turned and ran. As the soldiers streamed away from the fort and the smoke had a chance to clear, the incredible carnage became apparent. For 500 yards on the three sides of the fort that were attacked, the ground was covered with dead and wounded men. In the short few minutes that had just passed, one of the bloodiest clashes of the Civil War had taken place.

The assault was broken. The Confederates fell back and made plans to attack the fort the next day. However, inside the fort, Ewing and his men were making their own plans. Though they suffered only an estimated 100 casualties and 28 killed, the Union force was low on ammunition and wouldn't be able to hold out for another day of battle.

The black rainy night which settled in the Arcadia Valley saw every shelter from Ironton filled with Confederate wounded. Price sent messages north toward the Union lines to beg for medical assistance. His entire command lay in a pitiful state of confusion. Most companies were scattered and only a few posted sentries or maintained any semblance of military discipline.

Inside Fort Davidson, General Ewing was deciding on his next move. He correctly surmised that the new morning would dawn with Price's artillery perched on top of Shepherd Mountain, rendering the fort untenable. Near midnight, Ewing hit upon a daring plan; he would attempt to slip his troops out of the fort and through Confederate lines.

At midnight, Ewing muffled the wheels of the six field guns, with the 14th Iowa at the head, marched the column silently out of the fort. The weary Union defenders moved north along the road to Potosi and miraculously marched unchallenged right through the loose Confederate lines. In a few hours, Ewing was miles away from the fort.

At two o'clock in the morning, a squad left behind in the fort blew up the powder magazine in the center of the earthen enclosure. Confederates roused by the blast thought the explosion was an accident. At dawn, Price's dwindling army awakened to find the fort empty, with a giant smoking hole in the center. In a fit of rage, Price sent Marmaduke's division after the escaping Federals. Although Ewing ran headlong into Shelby, he was able to successfully fight his way to a strong Union fortification in Rolla. Marmaduke and Shelby wasted their three days on the futile pursuit.

With his best assault troops lost and two of his divisions in disarray, Price knew that an attack on the now reinforced city of St. Louis was out of the question. To salvage something from the ill-fated campaign, Price decided to turn northwest and capture Missouri's capital for the Confederacy. But the week wasted at Pilot Knob and the initial crushing defeat had cost him dearly. Price found that Jefferson City, too, had been reinforced, and he fought only a brief, half-hearted skirmish before marching to final defeat at the Battle of Westport less than a month later.

Today, the battle area and a museum is operated by the Missouri State Parks system as "Fort Davidson State Historic Site". The earthworks of the fort are still generally intact, surrounding the huge hole that was caused by the powder explosion. Following the battle, the Confederates retained the field and were therefore responsible for burying the dead. One of the rifle pits was accordingly selected for use as a mass grave. The mass grave is now marked by a granite monument. The site is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

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View 360 panorama of Fort Davidson Here.
 
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Patrick H

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Very nice article about a very sad and unwise choice on the part of Price. Of course, hindsight gives us that perspective on it. Price must have thought that his superior numbers would carry the day.
 

AUG

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Very nice article about a very sad and unwise choice on the part of Price. Of course, hindsight gives us that perspective on it. Price must have thought that his superior numbers would carry the day.
Price first had his chief engineer, Captain Thomas J. Mackey inspect the fort before hand. He concluded that the ditch in front of the forts walls was not very deep and that it could probably be taken by a frontal attack, though he recommended placing artillery on top of Shepherd's Mountain to bombard it first. Of course that was tried, but the fort's counter-battery fire drove off the Confederate artillery on the mountain, so Price decided on a frontal assault.

The main problem with the assault was that it came in almost piecemeal. Marmaduke's Division was broken up coming down the rocky terrain on Shepherd's Mountain. Marmaduke's and Fagan's men both hit the fort separately. Also the ditch turned out to be nearly 10 feet deep and 12 feet wide, almost impossible to climb while under heavy fire and without ladders.
 

AUG

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Captain William J. Campbell of the 14th Iowa describes the repulse of the third Confederate attack with the use of hand grenades:

"The enemy was now making his third desperate charge, and only veteran soldiers can appreciate what that means. If this could be repulsed, the worst part of the battle would be over. We sprang upon the banquette to see where the men could best be posted to meet the terrible on-coming masses of the enemy. We could count three long lines, each four ranks deep, coming from two directions, while our artillery and musketry mowed down their ranks. In a moment their front went down into the ditch. I shouted to my men: 'Turn your fire into the ditch! The enemy is in the ditch!' ... an artilleryman called to me in a hoarse voice: 'Get out the hand grenades!' ... we rushed back to the banquette and passed them to the men in front, with orders to throw them into the ditch. Pandemonium instantly broke loose ... Men were blown above the parapet and fell back dead; the ditches were cleared as if by magic. It struck terror to the enemy's lines, and they fell back in disorder."
 
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Patrick H

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Mar 7, 2014
It occurs to me that Price's army probably included a fair number of boys whose families had been displaced by Ewing's General Orders Number 11 in 1863. I wonder if they knew Ewing was in command at the fort.
 

Jesse

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This story of General Ewing sneaking his army away at night reminds me of a story about General Washington doing the same after he took the offensive in New York around 1775-1776. He kept a small group back to keep digging to trick the British sentries at night into thinking that his ragtag American forces were setting up earthworks for the coming slaughter the next morning -- when in fact his main body was already miles down the road. His artillerymen had also covered the wheels of their guns to deaden the sound on the frozen earth while the Continental Army stole away into the night to fight again. I wonder if this crossed Ewing's mind as his men set off into the night?
 
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