The Battle of Pilot Knob

“The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both *may* be, and one *must* be, wrong. God cannot be *for* and *against* the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party – and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaption to effect His purpose. I am almost ready to say that this is probably true – that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By His mere great power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either *saved* or *destroyed* the Union without human contest. Yet the contest began, And, having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.”
― Abraham Lincoln

The hospital that I am affiliated with is a stone’s throw from Fort Davidson, site of the battle of Fort Davidson, also known as the Battle of Pilot Knob. By April of 1864 it was clear to Confederate generals that their chances of a military victory against Union forces were slim. General Lee was boxed in by Grant; Atlanta was about to fall to Sherman; the Shenandoah Valley was in Union hands. The only chance they saw for the Confederacy was political.


There was a presidential election coming in November. Lincoln was being opposed by the Democratic candidate, former Union Army General McClellan. The Democratic party platform included a clause that, should the Democrats win, they would pursue peace talks with the Confederacy. Although McClellan had to walk away from this promise as Union forces kept up their victories, the Confederacy leaders recognized that they would be much better off if Lincoln lost.


The Union forces in Missouri posed a less formidable opponent for the Confederates. General Thomas Ewing, who was in charge of the Missouri-Kansas troops, had no military training. He was a lawyer who volunteered to serve the Union forces. His wife was General Sherman’s sister, and he was close friends with Lincoln. He had a few successes during 1863: these earned him a promotion to the rank of General.


The Confederate plan was simple: attack Saint Louis, which had a large arsenal, and at the very least provoke some form of embarrassment for Lincoln and his generals. General Sterling Price was given command over 12,000 mounted infantry troops, although 3,000 of them were unarmed. It must also be said that his original army was larger and better trained, but his superiors had “borrowed” the better troops to be used elsewhere.


On his way to Saint Louis, General Price went through the Arcadia Valley, important for two reasons. There was a railroad line that went from the iron mines in Ironton to Saint Louis. And there was a small garrison in Fort Davidson in Pilot Knob, a very short distance from the railroad. General Price decided to attack the garrison at Fort Davidson, seize the weapons and munitions stored there, and post a morale-building victory.


General Ewing knew that he was in deep trouble. He had 1,500 men and seven cannons. General Price had 14 cannons and 12,000 men. Ewing thought about surrendering. Later on, he told a journalist that there were several African-American civilians inside Fort Davidson. Earlier in 1864 African-American Union troops had been slaughtered in Fort Pillow, Tennessee. Ewing decided to fight.


He had a few advantages. Fort Davidson had walls nine feet thick and ten feet high. In order to approach the fort, the enemy had to cross 300 yards of flat, unsheltered land in all directions. There was a large dry moat surrounding the fort. There was only one entrance to the fort, through a drawbridge. There were two positions inside the fort that were convenient for sharpshooters.


On September 26 there were a few skirmishes outside the Fort’s walls. The Iron County Courthouse still bears some scars from those confrontations. After Ewing refused to surrender, General Price moved three cannons to Shepherd Mountain. Early on the 27th the merciless pounding began.


One of the rifle outposts was quickly reduced to rubble. Four times the Confederate forces attacked, from different angles. For incomprehensible reasons, the attacks were not simultaneous. The Fort’s defenders had time to switch their cannons around. Only one of the attacks reached the Fort’s walls; it was defeated by the high walls and grenades that were tossed from inside the Fort.


Price lost a significant part of his troops. Although no one knows for sure how many Confederate troops died, at least a thousand troops were wounded. Twenty-four Union soldiers died.


General Ewing knew that he could not hold the enemy for much longer. The evening of the 27th he received orders to evacuate Fort Davidson; orders that had been sent before the battle that took place that day. While Price instructed his troops to make ladders during the night of the 27th, Ewing made plans to slither away.


All of the weapons and supplies that could not be carried away were placed in the powder magazine. The drawbridge chains were covered in cloth, to keep them from making noise when it was lowered. The Union forces escaped between two exhausted Confederate lines, even though a huge charcoal bonfire had been lit to illuminate the battleground. A slow-burning fuse was lit to make the magazine explode long after the Union troops had left. The explosion rocked the Arcadia Valley, but no Confederate troops came to the fortress to find out what had happened until the morning. By then Ewing’s troops were out of reach.


The Battle of Pilot Knob was the death of the last Confederate hopes. Price lost so many troops that a battle for Saint Louis became untenable. He retreated south to Arkansas, and eventually Texas. He fled to Mexico with the last of his troops, always refusing to acknowledge that the Union was here to stay. He tried to establish a colony of settlers in Mexico, an endeavor that failed miserably. He eventually returned to Missouri, where he died a poor man. It was only a matter of time before Lee had to surrender. Lincoln easily won reelection. Not long after his inauguration, evil forces found a way to defeat him after all.


Today one can visit Fort Davidson, which has a nice museum that explains about the battle. There are occasional reenactments of the Battle of Pilot Knob. Shepherd Mountain is a tourist attraction. Hikers can climb a (difficult) trail to the top.


We remain a divided country, a century and a half later. The forces of wisdom and tolerance, like those of General Ewing, remain in retreat.

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Cordell Webb

    Thank you for a great history lesson about our state.

  2. Betty Townsend

    I have always enjoyed historical stories and this one was right here in Missouri. Thanks.