October 12, 1861 – Brigadier General M. Jeff Thompson led 3,000 secessionist Missourians in disrupting Federal operations and engaging in several skirmishes in southeastern Missouri.
Meriwether Jeff Thompson became known as the “Swamp Fox” for commanding the First Military District of the Missouri State Guards, which covered the state’s swampy southeastern region. Thompson had received orders from General Albert S. Johnston, commanding Confederate Department No. 2 (the Western Theater), to “relieve the pressure of the Federal forces on General Price (in southwestern Missouri) … and if possible to embarrass their movements by cutting their Ironton Railroad.”
In compliance, Thompson began a preliminary movement on October 2 by dispatching 120 Guards to destroy railroad bridges near Charleston and Bird’s Point along the Mississippi River. Federal Colonel James M. Tuttle, dispatched by Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant, searched for the Guards around Charleston but could not pin them down.
Ten days later, Thompson broke camp in Stoddard County near Piketon with 2,500 infantry and 500 dragoons (mounted infantry). His objective was to destroy the railroad bridge spanning the Big River and capture Ironton by the 20th. Thompson issued a proclamation to the people of Washington, Jefferson, Ste. Genevieve, St. Francois, and Iron counties, urging them to “drive the invaders from your soil or die among your native hills.”
His Guards arrived at the Big River bridge two days ahead of schedule, ostensibly because of Thompson’s report that they were “more anxious to fight” than expected. They charged a small Federal force guarding the span, killing some and capturing 45 while losing eight (two killed and six wounded). The Guards then burned the bridge as planned.
Another Federal force launched a surprise attack on the Guards, and the ensuing fight became, according to Thompson, “one of those bush whacking fights which proved the mettle of my men.” Ordering his men “to go in on their own hooks,” the Missourians sent the Federals fleeing. They sustained several casualties including four killed, but Thompson reported that “we killed another lot of the enemy and took 10 prisoners.” Because Thompson could not accommodate the 55 prisoners he now held, he “swore them to refrain from fighting the Missourians or our allies until regularly exchanged.” Thompson then vowed to capture Ironton.
Major General John C. Fremont, overall Federal commander in Missouri, learned of Thompson’s raid while his Federal Army of the West was advancing into southwestern Missouri to confront General Sterling Price’s Missouri Guards. Through his “acting aide-de-camp,” Fremont asserted that “the effect of the special Washington dispatches to the New York Tribune on Missouri affairs has been to stimulate the rebels to great activity and aggression in the city and State.”
By this flawed logic, Fremont blamed the rise of partisan activity in Missouri on critical subordinates (particularly Colonel Frank P. Blair, Jr., who had lobbied to remove Fremont from command), and not Fremont’s controversial edict declaring martial law and freeing the slaves of disloyal masters. Fremont detached two regiments from his army to go suppress Thompson’s Guards, vowing that his Federals “will whip them.”
The next day, Thompson’s 2,500 infantry clashed with Federal cavalry near Fredericktown, with Thompson leading 500 cavalry in support. Thompson reported that just as the Federals began advancing:
“My horsemen came with me at full gallop, yelling like Indians. My infantry received us with three cheers, and, as we thundered over the bridge with 500 horses, it had the effect of a Chinese fight, and the enemy retired at a double-quick. My horses were entirely too much worn-out to take advantage of their retreat, but we nevertheless followed them for several miles.”
The Federals fell back, but they received infantry support and set a trap for Thompson’s advancing Guards. In the ensuing ambush, the Guards “suffered severely and rode back with heavy loss.”
Grant followed up by dispatching two Federal forces totaling 4,500 men to confront Thompson’s Guards at Fredericktown. Grant directed Colonel J.B. Plummer to move out immediately: “It is desirable to drive out all armed bodies now threatening the Iron Mountain Railroad, and destroy them if possible.”
The Federals converged on Thompson outside Fredericktown on the 21st and attacked. Thompson withdrew after a spirited fight, pulling back 26 miles through the night to Greenville. The Federals sustained 66 casualties (six killed and 60 wounded) while the Missourians lost 60. This virtually ended Thompson’s raid toward St. Louis, but he issued a proclamation that was printed in local newspapers:
“Soldiers from Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, Go Home! We want you not here and we thirst not for your blood. We have not invaded your states, we have not polluted your hearthstones, therefore leave us, and after we have whipped the Hessians and Tories, we will be your friendly neighbors if we cannot be your brothers.”
Allardice, Bruce, More Generals in Gray (Louisiana State University Press), p. 220; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 88; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 70, 72-73; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 126-27