September 26, 1864 – General Sterling Price’s Confederates advanced on Fort Davidson as part of their final attempt to wrest Missouri from Federal control.
Price, the former Missouri governor, advanced from Arkansas to take his home state back from the Federals. In mid-September, Price’s Confederates crossed the White River and joined General Joseph O. “Jo” Shelby’s cavalry at Pocahontas near the Missouri border.
Price now had 14 cannon and 12,000 men in three divisions led by Generals Shelby, James F. Fagan, and John S. Marmaduke. No more than 8,000 men carried arms, but Price hoped to supply them from captured Federal weapons along the way. This “Army of Missouri” crossed the border in three columns, with skirmishing at Doniphan starting the incursion.
The Confederates headed for Ironton, terminus of the southern railroad out of St. Louis, and captured Keytesville the next day. The advance continued as Price’s men fought at Fayetteville, Jackson, and Farmington. They reached Fredericktown on the 25th, one day’s ride east of Pilot Knob. Price soon learned that some 8,000 Federals under General A.J. Smith had been dispatched to defend St. Louis.
Price assigned the Confederates under Fagan and Marmaduke to attack Ironton while Shelby’s men destroyed railroad track between that town and St. Louis. Price reached Fort Davidson outside Pilot Knob on the night of September 26. The Federal commander of the District of St. Louis, Brigadier General Thomas Ewing, Jr. (brother-in-law to Federal Major General William T. Sherman), happened to be at the fort for an inspection. Although vastly outnumbered, Ewing refused demands to surrender.
While Confederates skirmished at Arcadia, Ironton, and Mineral Point, Price ordered his main body of about 8,000 to attack Fort Davidson on the 27th. Price did not call up his artillery train and instead committed his men to a series of uncoordinated assaults. The 1,200 Federals inflicted about 1,500 casualties in six hours and held the fort. The Federals lost about 200 men killed or wounded.
Ewing held a council of war that night. Being outnumbered and knowing he would not be taken alive since he had authored last year’s infamous General Order No. 11 (which herded Missouri civilians into concentration camps to reduce guerrilla attacks), Ewing and his officers agreed to abandon the fort under darkness. At 2:30 a.m., the Federals slipped away after destroying all their ammunition and cannon. They covered 66 miles in less than two days, preventing Price from giving chase.
Despite their repulse, the Confederates continued north on the 28th. They skirmished at Leasburg and Cuba the next day, and citizens of St. Louis began panicking as Price approached. However, Price considered Smith’s Federals too strong to attack, instead turning west and moving along the Missouri River. Federals throughout Missouri began gathering to pursue him.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 12085-116
- Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 494-96, 499, 501, 503
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 571-72, 574-75