Colonel Joseph O. “Jo” Shelby commanded a brigade of Confederate cavalry known as the “Iron Brigade” around Arkadelphia, Arkansas, in the Trans-Mississippi Department. In late September, Shelby’s troopers headed north to wreak havoc in Missouri; this was intended to keep the Federals there occupied so they could not aid the Army of the Cumberland, now under siege in Chattanooga.
Shelby’s force captured the Federal garrisons at Huntsville and Bentonville on October 4, then crossed the border and arrived at Neosho, the former capital of the pro-Confederate Republic of Missouri. The Confederates were opposed by about 400 Unionist militia; Shelby described these men as “a terror to the country, the insulters of unprotected women, and the murderers of old and infirm men.”
The militiamen sought refuge from Shelby’s raiders in the courthouse, but the Confederates unleashed two 3-inch Parrott guns that, according to Shelby, “tore through the brick walls like pasteboard.” The militiamen surrendered, giving up some 400 horses, 800 small arms, and large quantities of food, medicine, and clothing.
The Iron Brigade continued to Warsaw, where the troopers seized 30 wagons, destroyed nearby telegraph wires, and wrecked about 30 miles of railroad track. By the 10th, Shelby’s men had advanced to within 40 miles of the Missouri capital of Jefferson City. They destroyed the Missouri Pacific Railroad at Tipton, burning the depot and wrecking several railcars.
Shelby was achieving his objective, but the Federals were now beginning efforts to stop him. Shelby wrote, “Thus far I had traveled ahead of all information, but now the telegraph flashed out its view-halloo, and the railroads groaned under the dire preparations to meet me.” The Confederates drove off a hastily assembled Federal force at Otterville, but by this time, Major-General John Schofield, commanding the Federal Department of Missouri, was well aware of Shelby’s raid.
Shelby planned to attack Jefferson City until he learned that a large Federal force was waiting for him there. Shelby therefore moved north instead and captured Boonville on the Missouri River. The Boonville mayor and leading citizens greeted Shelby and his men, assured them that they supported the Confederacy, and asked that private property be respected. Shelby complied, destroying only the new bridge over the Lamine River, estimated to be worth $400,000.
By this time, Shelby’s force had swelled from 600 to over 1,000 with the addition of pro-Confederate Missourians joining along the way. The Confederates had also captured Federal horses pulling 300 captured wagons. But Brigadier-General Egbert E. Brown, commanding the 8,000 Federals at Jefferson City, divided his force to meet the threat, and Shelby soon found enemy troops closing in from the north, south, and east.
A Federal force five times greater than Shelby’s tracked the Confederates down and defeated them at Arrow Rock on the 13th. Despite the disparity in numbers, Shelby split his force in two, with the larger portion dismounting to make a defensive stand while the smaller one fought through the Federal line. The larger force eventually remounted and fought through as well, with both forces riding off in separate directions.
The Confederates sustained about 100 casualties, and having used up most of their ammunition, Shelby decided to return to Arkansas. The 200-mile withdrawal was contested by Federals all the way. One portion of Shelby’s force made it back to Arkansas on the 19th, while the second portion joined the first along the Little Osage River the next day. The final clash with Federal forces took place on the 24th at Harrisonville and Buffalo Mountain.
Shelby’s raid lasted over a month, making it the longest of the war. Despite losing a sixth of his men, Shelby had inflicted 1,200 Federal casualties (600 killed or wounded and 600 captured and paroled), destroyed 10 Federal forts, seized nearly $1 million in supplies, and taken nearly 6,000 horses and mules. Thus, Confederate officials in the Trans-Mississippi Department considered this raid a success.
- 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.
- Faust, Patricia L. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (Kindle Edition), 2011.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.