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at Fort Davidson State Historic Site

The Battle of Pilot Knob

In the fall of 1864, Confederate armies east of the Mississippi River suffered an almost endless string of defeats. Ulysses S. Grant and the Army of the Potomac had trapped Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia in the trenches around Petersburg, Va., and Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman captured Atlanta on Sept. 2. However, Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith's army, encamped west of the Mississippi River, faced no immediate threat. In an attempt to relieve the increasing pressure on his fellow armies to the east, Smith sent a massive mounted raiding force far behind Federal lines into the state of Missouri.

Smith appointed Maj. Gen. Sterling Price, Missouri's most famous Confederate, to lead the raid. Price's goals were to divert Union troops from east of the Mississippi River, gather Confederate recruits, capture and destroy Union war materials and, if at all possible, capture St. Louis or Jefferson City. Price entered Missouri on Sept. 19, 1864, with an army of 12,000 men headed for St. Louis. This was the largest Confederate cavalry raid of the war.

While en route to the St. Louis area, Price decided to attack the weakly defended post of Fort Davidson at Pilot Knob. Fort Davidson was a small hexagonal earthwork fort defended by Gen. Thomas Ewing Jr. and his 1,450 Union soldiers. Capturing Fort Davidson would provide arms for Price's 3,000 unarmed soldiers, prevent Ewing's garrison from reinforcing St. Louis or Jefferson City, and provide combat experience for the nearly 6,000 untested Confederate draftees.

Price's leading regiments engaged Union pickets at 1 p.m. on Sept. 26, driving into the town of Ironton. As the rebel strength grew, the small Union force was pushed back toward the fort. During the night, the Confederate army camped south of the fort and prepared to strike the next day.

On the morning of Sept. 27, the Confederates attacked. Two Union regiments fell back from their advance line near Ironton and retreated to the slopes of Pilot Knob and Shepherd mountains. As the rebels appeared between the two mountains, the siege guns of Fort Davidson opened fire.

The Confederates pressed the attack. Price and his commanders felt that one swift assault would overwhelm the fort. Confederate cannons on Shepherd Mountain fired on the fort as four brigades of Southern troops charged. Union troops still defending Pilot Knob Mountain were engulfed, while those on Shepherd Mountain safely retreated to the fort with the Confederate wave cresting behind them.

Unfortunately for the Confederates, the poor timing of the assaults allowed heavy fire from the garrison to be directed at each attacking brigade. Only one Confederate brigade reached the fort. It advanced one mile under murderous fire, halting only when it reached the fort's moat where the Yankees threw hand grenades down on them. The assault was broken. The Confederates fell back to reorganize and prepare for a renewed attack the next day.

Ewing, low on ammunition for his cannons, knew his Union forces could not hold out a second day. He ordered Fort Davidson evacuated. The soldiers silently exited the fort at 2:30 a.m., traveling north past Confederate guards under cover of darkness. At 3:30 a.m., a small group of soldiers exploded the fort's powder magazine, destroying the fort's remaining supplies. Ewing escaped Price's pursuing columns, marching 67 miles to the hamlet of Leasburg. From Leasburg, Ewing headed to Rolla, freeing that city's garrison to reinforce Jefferson City.

The Confederates paid a heavy price during the Battle of Pilot Knob. As many as 1,000 troops were killed or wounded, and more importantly, Gen. Price no longer posed a threat to St. Louis. The Union force suffered 200 casualties, with 28 killed.

Price continued his advance into Missouri following the battle. Eventually, he encountered two Union armies at the battle of Westport, near Kansas City. It was there, in the largest battle fought west of the Mississippi River, where he was defeated and forced to return to Confederate Arkansas.