On September 27, 1864, Major General Sterling Price’s 12,000-man Army of Missouri moved north towards their target of St. Louis and encountered the Federal garrison at Fort Davidson in southeastern Missouri in the St. Francois Mountains. Price advancing north from Camden, Arkansas into Union-occupied Missouri was the last major offensive movement of a Confederate army to attempt to recapture lost territory. Just two months prior, Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal Early launched a movement into Maryland with the goal of seizing Washington, DC. All other Confederate armies – with the exception of Price – were on the strategic defensive. At Fort Davidson, the first major engagement of the 1864 Missouri Campaign, we as historians tend to focus on Price’s repeated attacks against the Union defenses. In this post, though, we will spend time looking at the Union defenses and how they were able to hold the fort until able to safely retreat.
Constructed in 1863 and named for Brig. Gen. John Davidson, the Fort itself sat at a critical juncture for a large army to maneuver northward. Roads radiating from the towns of Pilot Knob and Ironton led to Middlebrook, Farmington, California, Potosi, and Fredericktown. The terminus of the Iron Mountain Railroad shot north from the iron furnaces at Pilot Knob to St. Louis. Additionally, the Fort sat in lowland, protected by the surrounding mountains, yet it could still protect the vital supply lines. At first glance, it may seem as if Fort Davidson were in a situation like Harpers Ferry in September 1862, where Maj. Gen. Stonewall Jackson utilized the surrounding heights for artillery positions to bombard the Union garrison on Bolivar Heights. The Army of Missouri would attempt just that against the Federals. The Union garrison would use the mountains to screen and protect the fort from an envelopment. You can visualize this in the map below.
The Union garrison under the command of Brig. Gen. Thomas Ewing left to protect Fort Davidson, Pilot Knob, and Ironton consisted of roughly 1,500 men. Just days before the attack, Ewing received reports that Price’s Army of Missouri was advancing north through Fredericktown, Missouri en route towards the Arcadia Valley. In response to the credible threats, he called for “Companies B, C, D, E, and H, Fourteenth Iowa Infantry.” Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans advised Ewing to abandon the fort if the entire Confederate army threatened that position. The goal for Ewing was to slow down Price to give St. Louis time to prepare defensively for an attack. In the shape of a hexagon, Fort Davidson’s earthen walls were nine feet high and ten feet thick. A dry moat nine feet deep ran around the fort. In the inside of the fort lay the powder magazine. Running north-south from the fort were rifle pits. In addition to these works were four siege guns and several field guns:
- 3 24-pdr Howitzers
- 4 32-pdr Siege Guns
- 4 3-inch Ordnance Rifles
In his official after-action report, Ewing describes Fort Davidson’s defenses and how the small garrison protected the fort, town, and the lines of communication:
Fort Davidson is a hexagonal work, mounting four 32-pounder siege guns and three 24-pounder howitzers en barbette. It lies about 300 yards from the base of the knob and 1,000 from the gap. From the fort to the remotest summit of these hills visible from it is not over 1,200 yards, while all parts of the hill-sides toward the fort, except the west end of Shepherd Mountain, are in musket-range. The fort was always conceded to be indefensible against any large army having serviceable artillery. Early last summer I sent competent engineers to select another site, but such are the difficulties of the position no practicable place could be found any more defensible. I therefore had the roads leading up the hills obstructed, cleared the nearest hill-sides of timber, and put the fort in a thorough state of defense by deepening the ditches, strengthening the parapet, and adding two rifle-pits leading north and south, commanding the best approaches.
On September 26, 1864, Price’s army arrived in the Arcadia Valley. Around 1:00pm in the afternoon, the leading units of the Army of Missouri skirmished with the Federal pickets encamped near the Ironton County Courthouse. Reinforcements from Pilot Knob rushed south to reinforce and counterattack the oncoming Confederates. Luckily for the Federals, they were able to temporarily push the Rebel troops back to Arcadia and the Shut-In Gap by the evening. The 1,500 Federals encamped at Ironton prepared to defend the Arcadia Valley at all costs.
In the morning of September 27, the Army of Missouri left its position at Arcadia at dawn and attacked the Federals at Ironton, pushing them back to the mountains. After the war, a Confederate veteran from the battle recalled the Confederate occupation of Shepherd Mountain for artillery: “Major General Marmaduke was ordered to take possession of Shepherd Mountain. He arrived from the south side, passed over the top of the mountain, and descended the north side. Six mules in front of eight horses took the guns over the ledges of rock four feet high. The ascent was satisfactorily accomplished, four guns were placed in position about fifteen hundred yards from Fort Davidson, and the division was formed … Skirmishing took place all day and heavy firing of Artillery from Fort Davidson … D.L. Glaves … in charge of gun No. 1, fired the first shot from Shepherd Mountain.” The Federal troops pushed back from Shepherd Mountain fell back to the rifle pits at the fort. On Pilot Knob, Federals were able to hold their positions there.
Though the mountains provided a great position for an artillery bombardment, Price believed his army could take the fort by repeated frontal assaults. He would attack Fort Davidson from three sides: from Shepherd Mountain (southwest), from Pilot Knob (east), and up the gap into the valley (south). John S. Marmaduke’s division that occupied Shepherd Mountain advanced down the mountain slope to Fort Davidson, but heavy artillery and small arms fire forced them to stop and take cover in a nearby creek bed. Two brigades in James F. Fagan’s division advanced from Pilot Knob. Though able to overwhelm Federal cavalry, they were also stopped. Fagan’s other brigade under William Cabell advanced from the gap, but took heavy causalities. The Rebel attacks took 1,000 casualties while inflicting just 200 on the Federals.
Convinced his men could not hold any more assaults by the Confederates, Ewing ordered an evacuation of the fort after midnight. Knowing the Rebels would take their excess ammunition in the powder magazine, Ewing orders it to be detonated and destroyed. The powder magazine exploded at 3:30am on September 28. Though the Army of Missouri tactically won the Battle of Pilot Knob since their opponents left the field, it still sustained horrific casualties that led Price to abandon his advance to St. Louis. Price then decided to move on to Jefferson City, Missouri’s state capital, which again ended in failure.
Here at Pilot Knob and Fort Davidson, Price’s Missouri Campaign lost most of his momentum and initiative. We cannot necessarily say that this battle marked the end of the campaign, though; Price would continue on for another month throughout the state.
“The Battle of Pilot Knob,” Confederate Veteran Magazine, 1914, 417.
Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, ser. 1, vol. XLI (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1884), 445-446.