By Christmas of 1861, the State of Missouri had seen its share of bloodshed and violence. Missourians had seen the death of 28 civilians in the streets of St. Louis; 2,500 soldiers killed, wounded, or missing ten miles outside of Springfield; the first death of a Union general; bloodshed between along the Mississippi near Belmont; a Union garrison routed at Lexington; and the outbreak of irregular warfare in nearly every corner of the state. Most of the engagements fought in 1861 were Southern victories, but that would change just three days after Christmas at a small white church at Hallsville in Boone County.
Following the Southern victories at Wilson’s Creek in August and Lexington in September, the Missouri State Guard saw a boost in enlistments of Southern sympathizing Missourians. Slaveholders and Southern sympathizers were concentrated along the Missouri River, also known as Boone’s Lick or Little Dixie. Fertile land and access to the Missouri encouraged farming and crop production; roughly 17% – 37% of the population was enslaved in those respective counties, such as Callaway, Howard, and Boone. Particularly, Boone’s slaves accounted for 35% of the county’s population. Those high numbers encouraged Union Brigadier General Benjamin Prentiss (later known for his participation in the Battle of Shiloh) to move seven companies of Union troops into Boone County at the end of 1861.
On Christmas Eve, five companies of the Third Missouri Cavalry and two companies of Birge’s Western Sharpshooters under Prentiss’ command left their headquarters at Palmyra in Marion County. Two days later, Prentiss’ force arrived in Sturgeon, which sat along the North Missouri Railroad line. Running from St. Louis and north into Iowa, the North Missouri was a vital supply line that could send Federal troops from Iowa into the state. Additionally, it connected other vital rail lines at Mexico in Audrain, Hudson in Macon County, Kirksville in Adair, and Lancaster in Schuyler. From Sturgeon, which sat at the northern edge of Boone County, troops could easily move using the road network. In command of 350 men in six companies of State Guard, Colonel Caleb Dorsey left Pike County on Christmas Eve towards Boone County. On December 27, they arrived near Hallsville. Dorsey was unaware of the Federal troops just ten miles to the northwest, however, Prentiss learned quickly of his enemy’s position. “Having learned of rebels near the village of Hallsville, in Boone County, I sent forward one troop of cavalry, commanded by Captain Howland, to reconnoiter in that vicinity,” recalled Prentiss in his report. His men, totaling around 900 men, or double what Dorsey had, advanced on the State Guard encampment at Mount Zion Church near Hallsville.
Prentiss went on to write:
After marching a distance of about 16 miles, at 8 o’clock a.m. of the 28th instant found one company of rebels, commanded by Captain Johnson, in position to the left of the road leading from Hallsville to Mount Zion. I ordered two companies of Sharpshooters to pass to the rear of the enemy and one of cavalry to dismount and engage them in the front … the enemy being posted at a church and place known as Mount Zion, in Boone County, and one mile and a half in advance, numbering near 900 men, I ordered the cavalry under Colonel Glover forward, accompanied by two companies of Birge’s Sharpshooters, Colonel Birge with them. Arriving near the encampment, one troop of the cavalry were ordered to dismount and engage the enemy. The Sharpshooters were afterwards oredered through a field on our right to skirmish with the enemy’s left, and, if possible, drive them from the woods. The firing being heavy, these three companies not being able to drive the enemy from his cover, Colonel Glover, with his available force, moved in double quick to the aid of “the three companies engaged, and for half an hour longer the battle raged and became a hand-to-hand fight … the rebels could not stand the fire of our rifles and retreated, leaving in our hands 90 horses and 105 stand of arms. The battle was brought to a close about 11 am.
One of Dorsey’s men later wrote an account of the battle at Mount Zion in the 1880s. Between Prentiss’ wartime record of events, you can see the discrepancies this postwar account.
About 2 o’clock, P. M., of the 27th, this force took up the line of march, intending to camp at Mount Zion church. About a half a mile northeast of the church, the Federals came up and fired on their rear guard, wounding two of Dorsey’s men, and then fell back. Dorsey pursued them, and three miles from the church overtook the retreating force, and fired upon them. A ten minutes’ skirmish ensued, in which one Federal was mortally wounded, and Capt. Howland (Federal), was wounded in the thigh, and taken prisoner. Dorsey’s surgeon, Dr. Herndon, extracted the ball. None of Dorsey’s men were killed or wounded. On the morning of the 28th, ‘the engagement was renewed, the force under Dorsey being about 100 yards east of the church, in the brush and timber. The Federal charge upon them was with both infantry and cavalry, but was repulsed. They again charged, and were again repulsed, after which they made a third charge. The ammunition of Dorsey’s command being exhausted, he determined to fall back to his wagons. The Federals advanced upon him, and took some ten prisoners. They then marched on to the church, and seeing soldiers in the building, fired on it, whereupon two of the prisoners who were in the church, ran out and said: ” There are no fighting men here; this is a hospital;” hearing which the Federal fire ceased. Gen. Prentiss then gathered up his dead and wounded, pressed teams and wagons, and returned to Sturgeon, leaving the Confederate wounded on the field, whom Dr. Herndon distributed among the farm houses in the neighborhood. Dorsey’s loss: 5 killed; 35 wounded, and 10 prisoners. Prentiss’ loss (estimated): 30 killed; 60 wounded, and 10 prisoners. The gentleman who makes this report to us, also desires it to be stated that Gen. Prentiss in every respect acted the gentleman and the soldier, in regard to the Confederate wounded, affording all the assistance in his power, and detailing a guard from his own command to keep soldiers out of the church.
Now, for the Southerners, this defeat was enough to stir up Major General Sterling Price, whose men were in southwestern Missouri near the Arkansas border. Price ordered Dorsey’s command to rendezvous with the rest of the army. He would cross the Missouri to move with Price’s army in February. For Prentiss’ men, the Union victory at Mount Zion Church resulted in the securing of central Missouri. Not until Price’s 1864 Campaign would this region be threatened by a Confederate army. The Third Missouri Cavalry went on several patrols across Missouri, eventually serving in Arkansas. For Birge’s Western Sharpshooters, Mount Zion was the first of many large battles they would fight in. These men would later serve at Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Iuka, Corinth, Chattanooga, and through Georgia. They even marched at the Grand Review in Washington, DC in May 1865.
History of Boone County, Missouri. St. Louis: Western Historical Company, 1882.
“Report of Brig. Gen. Benjamin M. Prentiss.” The War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Ser. 1. Vol. 8. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1882.