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.