A Fatal Detour, Part One

This week I’m featuring part one of two about a Civil War battle that celebrates its 149th anniversary this week.  Yes, I could wait a year and post this, but I hope to attend the 150th reenactment and post about that instead in 2014.

Battle:  Fort Davidson (Union)/Pilot Knob (Confederate/Most Used Locally)

Campaign:  Missouri Expedition (official)/Price’s Raid of 1864

Dates: September 26-27, 1864

Major Players:


  • Union: 1,500 troops.
  • Confederate: 12,000 upon leaving Arkansas; gained 3,000 more while marching in Missouri; 15,000 troops total.

Confederate Goals:

  1. Capture St. Louis and its weapon arsenal.
  2. Disrupt the upcoming November gubernatorial and presidential elections.
  3. Restore the Missouri Confederate Governor, Thomas C. Reynolds, who was in exile, as governor and to capture, Jefferson City, the capital.


  • Location: Pilot Knob, Iron County, Missouri.
  • Fort Specs: Earthen hexagonal fort with nine foot high walls and a ten foot wide, seven-foot deep dry moat; north and south rifle pits; two sally ports.  On a plain between Pilot Knob Mountain, Cedar Mountain, and Shepard Mountain.
  • Fort Armaments:  Three 24-pounder howitzers, six 3-inch ordnance rifles, four 32-pounder siege guns, and a huge powder magazine.

Before the Battle:

Price’s forces began their march in northeast Arkansas and split into three separate columns near the Missouri border before rejoining at Fredericktown, Missouri.  Price and Reynolds traveled with Fagan’s division.

Diagram of Fort Davidson

Diagram of Fort Davidson

When Rosecrans heard that Price’s army had entered Missouri, he sent reinforcements by train to Fort Davidson, the only Union defense on Price’s route (Cape Girardeau and its four forts were deliberately avoided).  Ewing led the reinforcements which consisted of the 14th Iowa Infantry and the newly formed 47th Missouri State Volunteer Infantry.  Once at Fort Davidson, Ewing took command with orders to evacuate and destroy the fort if Price’s entire army was in the area.  Prior to the reinforcements, Fort Davidson was commanded by Major James Wilson with six companies of the Third Missouri State Militia, known as Wilson’s Calvary.

Once the Confederate troops reached Fredericktown,they debated on their next move.  It was decided that Fort Davidson’s troops couldn’t remain at the forces back while en route north, so they planned to attack the fort.

The Day Before:

On September 26th, 1864, the battle began.  Price ordered Shelby to go ahead and destroy the St. Louis and Iron Mountain Railroad to cut off Ewing’s retreat.  Fagan was ordered to begin the assault on the fort. Meanwhile, Ewing sent two companies, led by Wilson and Campbell, to patrol the road leading to Fredericktown at Shut-Ins Gap (likely modern-day Amidon Conservation Area; not the more famous Johnson’s Shut-Ins).  Those two companies ran into Fagan’s advance force.  At first the Union troops pushed the Confederates back, but the Confederates were reinforced pushed the Union troops back to Ironton, near Pilot Knob.

The Main Battle:

The rest of the Confederate troops made their way through Shut-Ins Gap during the night.  In the morning, The Federal riflemen briefly opened fire on the Confederates from the sides of Pilot Knob and Shepard Mountain as the Confederates passed through the mountain pass.  The Confederates followed Price’s plan to attacking the fort from the south and west. Around noon on September 27th, Price asked Ewing to surrender.  Ewing refused.

The view of one of the three mountains from the fort.

The view of one of the three mountains from the fort.

Next was “the silence before the storm.”  Ewing ordered the cannons trained across the field and formed gun loading details. Meanwhile, the Confederates were at the bases of the three mountains waiting for the battle to begin. The valley was silent for an hour.  

At two o’clock the Confederates finally attacked.  Ewing had the union riflemen hold fire as the cannons erupted in deadly fire.  Outside the fort, the rifleman, including Fletcher who commanded the north rifle pit, left the rifle pits and tried to enter the fort, but they congregated near the drawbridge.  The Confederates kept on attacking the fort, charging closer and closer each time.  When the Confederates were at thirty yards from the fort, they fell back.  The Union riflemen kept firing throughout at the Confederates and received new guns passed out of the fort.

The Confederates reformed and charged one last time.  This time some Confederates made it into the dry moat.  The Union troops wired artillery shells together like grenades and dropped them into the moat.  Then Price’s men turned and fled under the fire of the riflemen.  Within these twenty minutes, the day’s battle was over.

The inside of Fort Davidson.  The flat areas are where the cannons were placed.

The inside of Fort Davidson. The flat areas are where the cannons were placed.

After the smoke around Fort Davidson cleared, it must have been a terrifying sight.  Bodies, both wounded and dead, lay everywhere around the fort.  All in all, 1,684 men were casualties in those twenty minutes of fighting: 184 Union troops and 1,500 Confederate troops.  Historian Dr. Richard Brownlee described the destruction as “In those short minutes, one of the greatest carnages of the Civil War had taken place.”

Don’t forget the check back next week to see the next stage of the battle, the battle’s effects, and further reading/sources!  In the meantime, do you have any questions?  Would you like to predict the outcome?

Link to Part Two


3 thoughts on “A Fatal Detour, Part One

  1. Pingback: A Fatal Detour, Part Two | Amy's Scrap Bag: A Blog About Libraries, Archives, and History

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