September 26, 1864 – Major General Sterling Price’s Confederates advanced on Fort Davidson as part of their final attempt to wrest Missouri from Federal control.
Price, a former Missouri governor, had won approval from General Edmund Kirby Smith, commanding the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department, to raise a force that would claim his home state for the Confederacy. Price’s new “Army of Missouri” consisted of three cavalry divisions led by Major General James F. Fagan, and Brigadier Generals John S. Marmaduke and Joseph O. “Jo” Shelby. Price joined Fagan and Marmaduke at Princeton, Arkansas, in late August, and then moved to join forces with Shelby early this month.
Price was backed by the “Order of American Knights,” a pro-Confederate group connected to various partisan bands in Missouri. The O.A.K. leaders planned to coordinate partisan and civilian uprisings in support of the advancing Confederates. Federal authorities seized many O.A.K. leaders before they could stir up civilian unrest, but the guerrillas continued raiding throughout the state.
In mid-September, Price’s Confederates crossed the White River and joined Shelby’s troopers at Pocahontas, near the Missouri border. Of Price’s 12,000 men, no more than 8,000 carried arms, but Price hoped to supply them from captured Federal weapons along the way. The Army of Missouri also had 14 guns.
The troopers crossed the border from northeastern Arkansas in three columns, and the incursion began with skirmishing at Doniphan. Price’s force headed north toward Ironton, terminus of the southern railroad out of St. Louis, and captured Keytesville the next day. Price’s continuing advance included fighting at Fayetteville, Jackson, and Farmington. They reached Fredericktown on the 25th, one day’s ride east of Pilot Knob, Price’s objective.
Price soon learned that Major General William S. Rosecrans, commanding the Federal Department of Missouri, had dispatched cavalry under Major General Alfred Pleasonton and infantry under Major General Andrew J. Smith to stop the Confederates. Smith’s 8,000 Federals defended St. Louis against a potential attack.
Price dispatched Fagan and Marmaduke to attack Ironton while Shelby’s men destroyed railroad track between that town and St. Louis. Confederates reached Fort Davidson outside Pilot Knob on the night of the 26th. Brigadier General Thomas Ewing, Jr., commanding the Federal District of St. Louis, happened to be at the fort for an inspection. Ewing was heavily outnumbered, but he refused demands to surrender.
While Confederates skirmished at Arcadia, Ironton, and Mineral Point, Price ordered his main body of about 8,000 men 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. After six hours, the Federals lost about 200 of their 1,200 men, but they inflicted 1,500 enemy casualties and held the fort.
That night, Ewing held a council of war to decide whether to abandon the fort. The Federals were still greatly outnumbered, and Ewing knew that if captured, the Confederates would execute him for authoring last year’s infamous General Order No. 11, which herded Missourians into concentration camps to combat guerrilla attacks. Ewing and his officers agreed to evacuate; the Federals destroyed all their guns and munitions, and slipped away in the darkness at 2:30 a.m. 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 panic in St. Louis intensified as the Confederates closed in. But Price opted not to attack Smith’s Federals guarding the city; instead his men turned northwest and moved along the Missouri River. Price hoped to capture the state capital of Jefferson City and install a pro-Confederate governor. However, Federals throughout Missouri began joining forces to stop 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; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 783, 787; Smith, Dean E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 502