Pilot Knob and the Retreat to Leasburg

Lampasas Bill

Sep 24, 2018
Today marks the 157th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of Pilot Knob, Missouri (Sept. 26-27, 1864). Last year I told the story of the battle in a thread titled "Never a Prettier Place to Die." https://civilwartalk.com/threads/the-battle-of-pilot-knob-never-a-prettier-place-to-die.177908/ This year I present the lesser-known sequel, the Federal defenders harrowing flight to safety after abandoning Ft. Davidson at Pilot Knob. The following is the revised text I wrote for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources in 2008. It was intended to be used on a historical marker in Leasburg, Missouri, where the Federals reached safety. I'm not sure if the marker was ever erected, so I might as well make use of my research for an audience that is most likely to appreciate it.

The Retreat from Pilot Knob and the Defense of Leasburg

Price's Raid

In Sept. 1864, Union authorities learned that Confederate Major General Sterling Price had entered Southeast Missouri with a large force. His intentions were unknown, but it was feared that he would attack St. Louis, which was lightly defended. To learn the location of Price's army, Brigadier General Thomas Ewing, commander of the District of St. Louis, hurried south to the Federal outpost at Pilot Knob, deep in the Ozarks. He arrived on Sept. 26 to find the Confederates already approaching the town.

Price had been ordered into Missouri as a diversion to draw Union troops across the Mississippi and ease pressure on Confederate armies in Virginia and Georgia. Price, however, had grander ideas and planned to seize St. Louis and its military depots, arm thousands of Southern sympathizers and reoccupy the state. The three cavalry divisions under his command numbered almost 12,000 men, but many were unarmed conscripts. To equip them, Price detoured from the direct route to Louis in order to capture the well-stocked Union supply base at Pilot Knob.

At Pilot Knob, Ewing had only 1,450 men to defend the town and nearby Ft. Davidson. They resisted stubbornly, and on Sept. 27 repulsed an assault on the fort, inflicting nearly 1,000 casualties. Price intended to renew the attack on the 28th, but after midnight the Federals slipped through Confederate lines, leaving a detachment to destroy the fort's magazine. The explosion was heard for 20 miles, but the Southerners failed to investigate until morning. Angered at Ewing's escape, Price sent General John S. Marmaduke's division in pursuit.

When I submitted this article to the Department of Natural Resources, I included this sketch map to guide their artists in preparing a map for the marker. It's rough, but it's all I have:

The Retreat North
Ewing marched out with about 1,260 fighting men: 731 infantry from the 47th and 50th Missouri, 1st Missouri State Militia, and 14th Iowa; 266 troopers from the 2nd and 3rd Missouri State Militia Cavalry; Battery H, 2nd Missouri Light Artillery with 6 three-inch Ordnance Rifles; and about 150 armed civilians in two companies, one black and one white. A swarm of refugees, including the families of soldiers, clung to the column. Enough horses were gathered to mount 200 cavalrymen and pull the artillery. Many of Ewing's men were inexperienced or untrained, but he could depend on his cavalry and artillery, and on the 142 veterans of the 14th Iowa Infantry, which formed his rearguard.

Ewing intended to reach Union forces at Mineral Point, but at 7 a.m. he neared Caledonia and learned that one of Price's divisions under General Joseph Shelby blocked the road several miles ahead. Shelby was unaware of the Federals, so Ewing hurriedly turned northwest into the rugged Ozark hills and headed for the Union base at Rolla. His column marched until sunset, then halted to rest at Webster. Ewing decided instead to march to Leasburg, which was closer than Rolla; part of the route would be on a steep ridge where his flanks would be secure.

The retreat continued at 1 a.m. Thunderstorms drenched the weary Federals as they marched along Hazel and Courtois Creeks, which they had to wade several times; candles and bonfires were set to mark the road, but were soon extinguished. The column made little progress, so Ewing called a halt. Hundreds of men who were not conditioned to hard marching had fallen behind; only about 650 would eventually reach Leasburg.

The Fight on the Ridge
The rain stopped at dawn and the march continued. About 8 a.m. the column reached the Steelville-Potosi Road, which it followed across Courtois Creek and up the narrow ridge that separated Courtois and Huzzah Creeks. For the next eight miles the road ran along the top of a ridge flanked by wooded ravines and bluffs. The Federals reached it none too soon, for an hour later a patrol, sent back to find lost baggage, was attacked by the Confederate vanguard. The refugees and recruits panicked and stampeded, but the veteran 14th Iowa stood firm. Aided by a detachment of cavalry and two guns of Battery H, they forced the pursuers back. Officers stilled the panic and the retreat continued. The Confederates attacked repeatedly, but the narrowness of the ridge prevented Ewing's men from being outflanked. Eventually the road descended the ridge and entered the Huzzah Valley, where the Federals were vulnerable in an open river bottom. The Confederates swarmed after them, but Ewing deployed his entire command and repulsed the attack with artillery fire. While the Southerners fell back to regroup, the Federals hurried ahead and crossed the Meramec River, only six miles from Leasburg.

Battle at the Red Haw Thicket
Those last miles from the Meramec were the most dangerous, for the road followed a wide, flat ridge through open country. Seizing the opportunity, Confederate horsemen charged the Federal rear; others moved up Avery Hollow to the east to cut off the Northern retreat. Ewing's refugees again panicked, and many of his inexperienced soldiers ran. The 14th Iowa had to bend back its flanks to avoid being encircled, but, just in time, the black civilian volunteers rushed to its aid. Together they repulsed the attack and rejoined the column, which Ewing rallied farther up the road. The Southern flanking column now launched a determined assault from Avery Hollow. Fighting desperately, the Federals formed a line with their left protected by a dense red haw thicket. The Iowa color bearer fell, but the colors were kept aloft as canister fire and disciplined volleys scattered the charging horsemen. The column hurried on to Leasburg, which it reached just before sunset. Ewing's hungry, weary men had marched 66 miles in 39 hours, repulsing Confederate attacks for most of a day.

The Defense of Leasburg
Leasburg consisted of Samuel Lea's two-story hotel and some dozen houses scattered over ten acres. The railroad between St. Louis and Rolla ran through town, partly in a five-to-ten foot deep cut. The Federals sheltered their horses in the cut and began to fortify, using railroad ties and cordwood from a breast-high stack that ran for 100 yards along the north edge of the cut. As darkness fell, Shelby's Division, which had joined Marmaduke's, launched a desperate night attack, but was beaten back. The smoke had barely cleared when a train arrived from St. Louis. Escape to Rolla seemed possible, but before the train could be loaded, word came that the tracks had been blocked. The cars, however, carried entrenching tools and hardtack, which the Federals put to good use. By morning a solid rampart stood along the tracks; buildings had been converted into strong points and a hospital.

Soon after daylight on Sept. 30, Shelby and Marmaduke surveyed the fortified position and decided against another attack. They feared Ewing had been reinforced, so Marmaduke left a regiment to occupy the Federals while the rest slipped away to rejoin Price. Ewing's men remained unaware that the Confederate main body had departed, and continued to man the barricades and skirmish throughout the day. Their morale was boosted when Mrs. Samuel Lea, a native of Yorkshire, England, produced an American flag, which she hoisted to rousing cheers.

The Federals waited tensely throughout the night, but the next afternoon, Oct. 1, the 17th Illinois Cavalry arrived from Rolla to a jubilant welcome. Early the following day, Ewing's men evacuated Leasburg and reached safety in Rolla. Their losses had been relatively light during the epic retreat: about 19 killed and 49 wounded; some 600 were reported missing during the grueling march, but most eventually rejoined their commands.

Following their fruitless pursuit, Shelby and Marmaduke rejoined Price at Saint Clair; they would come no closer to St. Louis. Ewing's stand at Pilot Knob and successful retreat had coast Price several critical days during which St. Louis had been heavily reinforced. The Confederates now marched west, where on October 23 they were defeated at Westport and harried south. By the time Price reached safety in Arkansas and Texas, his artillery had been lost, his wagon train abandoned, and many of his men captured or dispersed. The last Southern attempt to reclaim Missouri had failed, thanks in part to the defense of Pilot Knob and the successful retreat to Leasburg.
Mar 2, 2019
Reno, Nevada
Proud my gg-grandfather Sergeant Valentine Spawr of the 14th Iowa was there. I quoted Sergeant James C. Steakley of Company K of the Third Missouri State Militia Cavalry in my book. He wrote later that, when some panicked near Leasburg, "In the midst of all this confusion and alarm, I heard the command, 'Fall in here, Fourteenth Iowa. D—n them, we can whip them ourselves!'" He continued--

How encouraging it was to see that veteran captain, with his sword in his right hand and his hat in his left, forming his men steadily under the muzzles of the right wing of Battery H, and to hear him call out,

"Right dress! Front! Forward, march! Double-quick, march!"

Then forward they went, like Spartans of old; and when about one hundred and fifty or two hundred yards in front of the battery they halted, dressed, and we could distinctly hear the officer call out:

"Load! In nine times, load! Ready! Aim! Fire! Load! In nine times, load!" So simultaneous was their fire, that it sounded like the report of one gun, though as loud as a cannon. After about two hundred shots had been fired by Battery H, and probably twenty volleys by that brave little band of the Fourteenth Iowa, everything quieted down in the valley in front of us as if the enemy had seated themselves to take their after dinner smoke.
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Lampasas Bill

Sep 24, 2018
Proud my gg-grandfather Corporal Valentine Spawr of the 14th Iowa was there.
That quote from Steakley is one of my favorites as well. He was interviewed around 40 years after the battle, but his memories were still vivid. Peterson's and Hanson's Pilot Knob:The Thermopylae of the West certainly made a lot of use of Steakley. While I was writing this thread last week I was thinking about your book, which I enjoyed very much.


Aug 10, 2019
Thank you, Lampasas Bill, for this detailed post. As I was born and raised in St. Louis and used to do family "float trips" on the Meramec and Huzzah, this really spoke to me!

Lampasas Bill

Sep 24, 2018
Thank you, Lampasas Bill, for this detailed post. As I was born and raised in St. Louis and used to do family "float trips" on the Meramec and Huzzah, this really spoke to me!
That is a really attractive part of the country. The fight when Ewing's men crossed the huzzah was in the vicinity of Huzzay Valley Resort on Route 8.