As October began, Major General John C. Fremont’s Federal Army of the West had finally left St. Louis to confront Major General Sterling “Pap” Price’s Missouri State Guards in the southwestern part of the state. This gave Brigadier General Meriwether Jeff Thompson, commanding the First Military District of the Missouri State Guards, more latitude to operate in the southeastern part of the state. Because of the swampy nature of that part of Missouri, Thompson, a Virginia lawyer-turned-military commander, had become known as the “Swamp Fox.”
General Albert Sidney Johnston, the Confederate commander in the Western Theater, had ordered Thompson to “relieve the pressure of the Federal forces on General Price… and if possible to embarrass their movements by cutting their Ironton Railroad.” Thompson started by sending 120 Guards to destroy railroad bridges near Charleston and Bird’s Point along the Mississippi River. Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant, commanding the Federal District of Southeastern Missouri, dispatched a force under Colonel James M. Tuttle to stop the Guards, but the Federals could not pin them down.
On October 12, Thompson broke camp in Stoddard County near Piketon with 2,500 infantry and 500 dragoons (mounted infantry). He planned to destroy the railroad bridge over 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, announcing that his Guards had come to protect them from Federal aggression and urging them to “drive the invaders from your soil or die among your native hills.”
The Guards reached the Big River bridge two days ahead of schedule because, according to Thompson, 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 Federals fled, and the Guards burned the bridge as planned.
The Federals then regrouped and counterattacked, and Thompson reported that the ensuing fight became “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.
Fremont learned of Thompson’s raid while he was leading his army to confront Price. 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.” Thus, Fremont blamed the rise in partisan activity on subordinates such as Colonel Francis P. Blair, Jr., who had been publicly criticizing Fremont’s leadership, and not on his own controversial edict imposing martial law and freeing the slaves of disloyal masters. Fremont detached two regiments from his army to go suppress Thompson’s Guards and vowed 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.” Ulysses S. Grant followed up by dispatching two Federal columns totaling 4,500 men to confront Thompson’s Missourians 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 two Federal forces converged on Thompson outside Fredericktown on the 21st and attacked. Outnumbered nearly three-to-one, Thompson withdrew after a spirited fight, losing one 12-pound cannon in the process. The Federals sustained 66 casualties (six killed and 60 wounded) while the Missourians lost 60. This ended Thompson’s raid and secured southeastern Missouri for the Federals. Although he was nowhere near the action, Fremont reported that he had just fought “one of the most admirably conducted engagements of the war.”
Thompson pulled back 26 miles through the night to Greenville. Despite this setback, 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.
- Cutrer, Thomas W., Theater of a Separate War: The Civil War West of the Mississippi River. The University of North Carolina Press, (Kindle Edition), 2017.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.