When it comes to the Civil War, the Pacific Northwest isn’t exactly dripping in history. So when I was in Missouri recently I didn’t want to pass up the chance to visit a battle site.
I have visited a few battle sites along the Eastern Seaboard and those tend to consist of a big field with a few buildings left over, which doesn’t make for the most exciting touring, especially with a 14-year-old with us.
The one reason Fort Davidson intrigued me is because the battle (also referred to as the Battle of Pilot Knob) features remnants of the fort.
The general background of this battle is that in the fall of 1864 the Confederates were desperate to embarrass President Abraham Lincoln and hoped he would be defeated in the election, sowing discord in the North.
General Sterling Price was chosen to try and take St. Louis to accomplish the Lincoln embarrassment. As they marched north through Southeast Missouri, they came upon Fort Davidson near Ironton, Missouri. Despite outnumbering the Union soldiers 10-1, the Confederates suffered heavy casualties trying to take the fort.
The fort was built almost like a castle. It featured a nine-foot deep dry moat with 10-foot thick earthen walls rising nine-feet in the air to a battlement where cannons sat – not only to shoot at advancing troops in the fields surrounding them, but also at anyone who gained the high ground on the mountains surrounding the structure. There were also rifle pits near the cannons, giving the defenders a tremendous advantage. The only access was through a single drawbridge.
Scores of Confederate soldiers died trying to mount the walls, being repelled not only by the rifles but also homemade hand grenades that Union soldiers rolled down the walls. Today there are signs instructing you not to climb the walls – if only those had been present in the 1860s!
Eventually, the Confederates withdrew to camps surrounding the fort, and the Union soldiers under the leadership of Brigadier General Thomas Ewing, decided they had better escape under the cover of darkness. The fort featured a huge amount of ammunition, so the Union soldiers blew up the magazine with a long fuse and escaped north to St. Louis.
The daring escape by Ewing and his men made headlines throughout the North and he eventually received thanks from Lincoln himself.
General Price decided he had lost too many men to advance north and instead headed west to try and take Kansas City. There they were rebuffed again, and were forced to retreat to Arkansas having only embarrassed themselves, not Lincoln.
Today the earthen works of the fort remain and the giant hole in the ground where the magazine was destroyed features a lake with frogs, turtles and other critters. It is a haunting site to imagine standing behind that wall having an enormous army coming at you.
There are estimated to be more than 1,000 soldiers buried in a mass grave at the site as well as a monument imploring visitors to honor both sets of soldiers – something I’m not too keen on, but that’s another blog for another time.
We went into the museum on a whim to get out of the heat and it is worth the visit. There are biographies on many of the soldiers who fought in the battle and in Missouri in general. Cannons, rifles and cannon balls used in the battle, replicas of the hand grenades and much, much more.
– Craig Craker