Thursday, October 4, 2007

Battle at Fort Davidson

On September 26th, 1864, General Sterling Price and his Army of Missouri move west toward Pilot Knob, the southern terminus of the St. Louis and Iron Mountain Railroad. Pushing through Ironton the advance skirmishes with Federals on the courthouse square leaving bullet holes in the courthouse walls that may still be seen. Three miles further west is Fort Davidson.

About ¼ mile south of Pilot Knob this is a 6-sided fort with 11 cannon, garrisoned by a bit over 1000 soldiers and 150 armed civilians under US General Thomas Ewing, Jr. The fort is easily dominated by the hills surrounding it. The only veterans in the fort are the 5 companies of the 14th Iowa: about 550 men. Nevertheless, Ewing determines to stall the Confederate advance as long as he can. 2 rifle pits are dug on either side of the fort, stretching 200 yards north and south and facing east toward Price’s advance.

On the 27th, Price attacks the fort with the divisions of Marmaduke and Fagan. Shelby’s division has swept north of the fort and town to cut the railroad and prevent reinforcements from entering the fort or Ewing to leave it. At 2:00 PM the uncoordinated attack begins.

Fagan’s Arkansans run down the slope of Pilot Knob hill in a drizzly rain and into the fields around the fort. They are well ahead of Marmaduke’s Missourians who attack across rocky Shepherd Mountain capturing a dozen Union soldiers and placing 2 cannon to shell the fort.

Fagan’s men are met by a withering fire and most break for the rear. The exception, William Cabell’s brigade, fight their way into the ditch surrounding the fort. There the Federal defenders toss paper-finned hand grenades over the parapet until Cabell’s men are forced to withdraw as well, losing most of his casualties in the retreat. Marmaduke’s men, viewing the carnage in front of the fort, take cover in a dry run at the foot of the mountain and advance no closer.

Ewing has lost 200 men – few compared to the Confederate 1000, but more than he can afford. Knowing that Price will continue his assault in the morning he decides to withdraw overnight. After midnight, muffling the ground with tent canvas, the surviving soldiers and civilians decamp on the Caledonia road to the north passing uninhibited between 2 Confederate bivouacs. At 2:00 am a slow fuse ignites the fort’s powder magazine with a tremendous roar, leaving a huge crater in the center of the fort that is still visible today.

Price’s pursuit does not start until almost noon the next day, September 28th. Finally organized, but far from aggressive, it starts north toward St. Louis. The battle at Fort Davidson has cost 1000 of his best men, shown an aversion to fighting in those remaining and has dropped Confederate morale considerably.

If Ewing decided to hold an untenable position and Price was troubled in coordinating his attack, that takes nothing away from the men that fought in the ditch and on the parapet of Fort Davidson. Today 300 unknown Americans from both sides are buried in a common grave stretching out from the walls of the fort into the surrounding field.

The battlefield is a Missouri State Historical Site with a museum and interpretive center with relics, a film and a very nice fiber-optic map. The fort remains, its parapets and rifle pits plainly visible, along with the crater from the exploding magazine.

Interesting note: U.S. Grant received his commission as Brigadier General while moving through Ironton in 1861. A monument commemorates the event on the courthouse square.

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