Across the Wide Missouri

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The Contest for Missouri and Arkansas 1861-'62

The Civil War in Missouri & Arkansas

The Civil War in Missouri & Arkansas.

In 1861, Lyon’s decisive maneuvers triggered armed struggle, deprived Missouri’s secessionists of weapons, broke up their organization and denied them time. Water and rail links gave the Union interior lines, but the Confederates were able to maintain an army in the lush Arkansas River valley and launch raids off the western prairie.

Operations in 1861 and in 1862, including battles at Wilson’s Creek & Pea Ridge, pushed Southern forces and their Indian allies southwest into Arkansas. Confederate leaders, from the vantage point of Richmond, determined to pull Missouri and Arkansas troops out of the Trans-Mississippi into the defense of the Mississippi Valley and western Tennessee. Confederates across the river were left helpless and nearly unarmed.

CS General T. Hindman’s attempt to reverse this state of affairs with an active offensive came to grief at Prairie Grove. Thereafter, the Missouri-Arkansas region was a backwater, scarcely affecting the wider war. Bitter guerrilla combat wreaked havoc and trained a generation of Western outlaws, train and bank robbers. Northern reaction, in the form of “Redleg” militia cavalry, only increased the misry of the hapless inhabitants.

In 1864, Sterling Price made one last foray to assert Confederate power in Missouri and to disrupt the Federal election of 1864. Price’s Raid, like its predecessors, devastated Missouri and ended in Southern defeat. But that is another story.

Missouri in 1860

When Lincoln took office, Missouri was the second largest slaveholding state, with just over 1 million free inhabitants, and 114,000 slaves. It had 3157 manufacturing establishments of $41.8 million dollars’ value, second in the South, after Virginia. Much of this wealth centered in St. Louis and a strip along the Missouri River known as “Little Dixie”. Missouri had almost 300,000 military age white males — she would eventually generate 30 regiments and 7 battalions for the Confederacy, and 94 regiments for the Union. St. Louis’ shipyards and links to the great east-west rail lines meant the city’s value as a Union transportation hub was incalculable. The Federal war effort in the West hung on control of the Missouri & Mississippi River valleys.

Initially Missouri asserted neutrality, though her governor, Claiborne Fox Jackson, wished to align with the slave states. Nevertheless, Missouri’s Secession Convention voted unanimously to remain in the Union.
However, the convention authorized a State Guard to enforce neutrality, and Gov. Jackson chose its officers carefully. He and his Guard commander, Major General Sterling Price — Mexican War hero, former Governor and US Representative, slaveholder and leader of the neutralist party --— set out to create an army which could defy the Federal government if necessary.

Enter Nathaniel Lyon

Amid this politicking, Captain Nathaniel Lyon, Frontier Regular and West Point graduate, was assigned with his company of regulars to guard the Federal arsenal at St. Louis. Lyon became convinced that Jackson intended to sieze the arsenal, and that Missouri’s Union commander, Brigadier Harney, wasn’t doing enough to prevent it. Forming an alliance with the powerful Republican Blair family, Lyon succeeded in spiriting the arsenal’s 15,000 stand of arms across the Missouri to Illinois, where they equipped new Federal regiments.

As a reward for this extra-legal initiative, Lyon was promoted brigadier and appointed to succeed Harney. He promptly alienated Jackson and Price, renounced the de facto truce Harney had in place, and led Union Home Guard regiments of immigrant Germans — formations as irregular as the Missouri State Guard was legal — to surround and capture an encampment of Jackson’s state militiamen performing their annual muster. The militia had imprudently accepted Confederate field artillery “loaned” to help Missouri protect her “neutrality.” As the prisoners were marched through St. Louis in triumph, someone fired, and Lyon’s German troops shot into the crowd. Jackson retired to Jefferson City to mobilize the State Guard.

The Booneville Races

Lyon, who was nothing if not energetic, mustered the German regiments, loaded them and a contingent of U.S. Army Regulars, onto steamboats, and hurried upriver to surprise the Southern sympathizers at Jefferson City. The Guardsmen fired a couple of rounds and ran for their lives. In a lightning campaign of hard marching, but little fighting, Lyon’s tiny command raced around Missouri, dispersing the Guard as fast as it formed and securing much of the state. Jackson fell back to the southwest to join with such contingents as managed to get themselves away from Lyon’s men. Outside the tiny town of Carthage, the fledgling Guard drove off a Union column under Colonel Franz Sigel.

Sigel’s claim to military prominence began in Germany when the young graduate of Karlsruhe kriegsacademie undertook to lead a military revolt against the Prussian-led North German Confederation, after which followed his defeat and urgent decision to immigrate to the United States. His ex-countrymen, now a large part of the population of St. Louis and surroundings, were impressed that he performed as well as he had in Germany; a brilliant and almost bloodless retreat to safety. At Carthage Sigel’s talent for dazzling retreats served him again.

Ben McCulloch & the Texas-Arkansas Brigade

Amid this turmoil, Arkansas siezed the Little Rock Arsenal and seceded, calling up an army of State regiments, and also sending many men into Confederate service. A brigade of the latter, with Texas and Louisiana troops, moved north to watch the Arkansas and Texas border. Their commander was Ben McCulloch, erstwhile Mexican War hero and later Texas Ranger Captain. McCulloch dreamt of military glory. His men believed him the very model of a Texas General.

McCulloch’s orders didn’t envision intervening in Missouri’s struggle, especially since the state was still in the Union. However, Jackson & Price, who were undeniably friendly to the South, were slowly being pushed out of their state; so the condition of the northern border increasingly drew his attention.

Wilson’s Creek

Lyon’s army, including Sigel, established itself at Springfield MO, with a line of communicatons stretching back to the railhead at Rolla, 100 miles to the east. Springfield was a Union town, home to a large militia contingent, later to become Phelp’s Independent Regiment. In August, lack of modern equipment and military training limited its utility.

The new Union commander in St. Louis, John C. Frémont, was desperately trying to deal with a whole host of problems. Pushing Union control into the Ozarks was far down his list of priorities. Lyon’s men were 9 months volunteers and his army was due to evaporate within weeks. Furthermore Lyon’s 5500 men included a large proportion of the Federal Regular Army, whose troopers, in the estimation of those tasked with defense of the U.S. Capitol, were needed more urgently in Washington.

Worse, Ben McCulloch chose this moment to join Price, giving the Southerners 10,000 infantry, 5000 cavalry and 2000 recruits they couldn’t give arms to.

The combined Southern force halted outside Springfield. Everyone bedded down along Wilson’s Creek, where energetic farmers grew enough corn and forage to feed the army. Foragers collected food, wagons, mules, harness, clothing and lead from local mines. With armies this close, Lyon was pinned – unable to advance & unwilling to retreat.

Faced with the necessity to do something or undergo assault by an overwhelming force, Lyon characteristically decided on attack. His plan, to smash at the Confederate army, then fall back while they were off balance, was something of a forlorn hope. Colonel Sigel attempted to improve upon it by suggesting his veterans hit the Southerners from behind. Lyon agreed, and the two began a maneuver a Napoleon might hesitate to undertake. On the evening of August 9, they set out.

Coincidentally, Price and McCulloch also decided to attack. Price waived his supposed seniority (he was a Missouri Major General; McCulloch a Confederate Brigadier) and vested command with the Texan. The army began its move on August 9, but rain showers threatened to soak Price’s powder, as his men lacked cartridge boxes. Everyone slept in battle formation, waiting for the rain to end.

At dawn, a Missouri cavalry patrol reported the prairie was alive with Union soldiers. By afternoon the fight was over, Lyon dead, the Union army retiring, and the Confederates nearly out of ammunition.

Battle of Wilson's Creek

Wilson’s Creek
Aug 10, 1861.

Nathaniel Lyon pre-empts an attack from an army thrice his size. Lyon’s plan came unstuck when Sigel’s brigade, attacking the Southern rear, routed and dispersed. The remaining troops held off furious counterattacks on Bloody Hill until depletion of ready ammunition and Lyon’s death convinced the survivors to draw off. There was no pursuit.

Price’s Invasion of Missouri

Sterling Price was delighted with the victory and urged immediate invasion of Missouri by the entire army. McCulloch demurred, claiming he had no resources and no way to support such a move. Price angrily moved on with only the Missouri State Guard. He was initially successful, taking Lexington, 3500 prisoners, and as many much-needed rifles.

Stung and alarmed, Frémont assembled 38,000 new troops and drove the reinforced Guard back to southwest Missouri, where, at Neosho, Gov. Jackson’s rump legislature passed an ordnance of secession on Nov. 3.

Frémont was relieved in disgrace. His successor, General David Hunter, fell back to secure the rest of the state. Price & McCulloch passed the winter quarrelling.

Matters remained quiescent over the turn of the year. On February 10, Henry Halleck, new Federal military commander, set in motion an unorthodox winter campaign. The small Army of the Southwest, 12,000 men under engineer General Samuel Curtis, moved toward Springfield and Price’s Missouri State Guard. Alarmed and outnumbered, Price wrote emotionally for help, then raced his army south into Arkansas. Because the Confederacy had laid no telegraph line, the Union advance was a strategic surprise. Curtis moved steadily forward, overrunning the Confederate supply depot at Fayetteville. Desertion and expiring enlistments soon reduced Price to about 5700 men.

Enter Earl Van Dorn

Now Richmond intervened in the form of a new Department commander. Major General Earl Van Dorn was a West Point Indian fighter currently commanding a Division in Virginia. Davis intended the appointment to quench any bickering and bring order to the theatre. Van Dorn saw opportunity for glory. Summoning Brigadier Albert Pike’s 5 Nations allies, Van Dorn proposed combining McCulloch’s 9,000, Price’s 8,000 and 3500 Indians into an unbeatable army, use it to overwhelm Curtis, then strike for St. Louis.

Reality intervened when Van Dorn met his army at Van Buren, Arkansas.

Rejecting reality, Van Dorn ignored the lack of supplies, the weariness of the Missourians, icy roads and reduced numbers of his new command. Overruling his commanders, he began a forced march to put his men between Curtis and Missouri. His men had no food and little rest, and suffered terribly in the snowy passes. Van Dorn rode in an ambulance, felled by a serious fever.

At Bentonville, on the edge of the western prairie, Van Dorn’s army encountered a Federal reconnaissance in force, commanded by Franz Sigel. The German troops, placed in a wholly unnecessary cul de sac, were extricated by Sigel in another brilliant retreat.

Battle of Pea Ridge

Pea Ridge

Van Dorn’s battle plan used a little known local road, the Bentonville cutoff, to encircle the Union Army. Federal work parties felled trees across his path. His men’s exhaustion caused McCulloch to try a shortcut which precipitated a sharp encounter near Leetown. Initially victorious, an ill-advised scouting party cost McCullough’s Division its senior officers. Pike’s indians did well at Leetown, overrunning a Federal battery. Without firm direction after McCulloch's death, however, they lost interest in the battle. Many deserted. The resulting confusion meant Price’s Missourians fought alone at Elkhorn Tavern against a smaller US force that held precisely long enough to save the day. That evening, Van Dorn forgot to order up artillery ammunition, which remained uselessly in the south.

Next morning Curtis attacked north with his whole army. He cleared his supply line & drove Van Dorn in a rout that lost most of the Southern army from desertion and exhaustion. To extricate his men, Van Dorn retreated eastward, entirely around Curtis’ army.

Price at Pea Ridge

After the battle

When the Confederate remnants returned to Van Buren, Van Dorn gathered up everyone and everything military in Arkansas, including Price & McCulloch’s Divisions, and decamped east of the Mississippi. This force would arrive too late for Shiloh and was too small to influence operations against Grant. It was destined never return to Missouri.

In Van Dorn’s wake, state commanders scrabbled to re-establish a military defense with whatever troops and militia could be raised. Only the mountains and lack of major military objectives deterred the Union from reasserting control of Arkansas. Meantime, small cavalry commands probed into Missouri seeking recruits and stoking the fires of partisan combat that raged throughout the Ozarks.

Prairie Grove Campaign

During late 1862, Union field command in Missouri devolved to Brigadier General John M. Schofield. His Divisions pushed Confederate units out of Missouri into northern Arkansas. Schofield then retired to St. Louis to tend his health and promotion prospects, leaving his army in two wings under Brigadiers James G. Blunt and Francis J. Herron. The two aggressive generals got along famously.

Confederate General Thomas C. Hindman was assembling a small army near Van Buren AR, intending to invade Missouri in the spring. His 11,000 men were within 30 miles of Blunt’s 1st Division, Army of the Frontier. Herron’s men were at Springfield, over 100 miles away. Hindman determined to use his half-trained conscripts to surprise and overwhelm Blunt. On Dec. 3, the army moved out.

When Blunt learned of this, he chose to stand fast and send for Herron. Herron started his relief column on Dec. 4th. By December 6, Hindman’s army was in the vicinity of Prairie Grove Church, starting a turning movement to smash Blunt and drive him out into the prairie. Hindman’s lead cavalry encountered, and overwhelmed, the 1 Arkansas (Union) regiment. Pursuing, Marmaduke then sighted long columns of Federal infantry. Herron had covered the 100 miles in less than 3 days, leaving half his army sprawled on the road behind him.

Stunned, Hindman decided to form and await Herron’s attack, meanwhile deceiving Blunt with a small cavalry brigade to feign imminent assault. After fighting Herron all day, Hindman scented victory, but then the noise of cannon firing to his west announced Blunt’s arrival. Blunt’s evening assault was driven off with great difficulty.
That night, Herron’s footsore stragglers and Blunt’s train guards swelled the Union forces.

Hindman took stock of his dwindling ammunition supply and his conscript’s morale, and decided to retreat. He moved his artillery out, muffling the wheels with blankets. As dawn broke, Hindman sent a parlay flag, requesting a truce to treat the wounded. Blunt suspected it was a ruse to gain time, and offered to initiate hostilities in twenty minutes. When the Federals gained the slopes around Prairie Grove Church, the Confederates were gone. Cavalry pursuit developed the presence of a strong Confederate rear guard, and fighting petered out. There would be no Confederate invasion of Missouri in 1863.

Battle of Prairie Grove Map

Battle of Prairie Grove.

Hindman’s original strategy was to place himself between Herron’s forces at Springfield, then defeat Blunt’s exposed Frontier Division. An incredible advance by Herron brought his troops to battle early Dec. 7. Dumfounded by Herron’s speed, Hindman chose to await attack, detailing one brigade of cavalry to confuse Blunt.

Herron advanced ferociously into what he believed was a delaying force. Meanwhile Blunt moved rapidly to the sound of Herron’s guns, and delivered another viscious attack just before dark. Hindman’s Arkansas conscripts were conspicuously unmotivated – one regiment deserted outright, while other men fired only blanks into the Union lines. December 8 saw a Southern retreat.

Missouri & Arkansas 1863–65

A month after Prairie Grove, Blunt and Herron raided Van Buren, driving Hindman’s remnants toward Little Rock. Federal forces occupied Arkansas Post and fortified Helena, on the Mississippi River, which withstood a Southern riposte in July, 1863. In Sepember, Wilson’s Creek veteran Union Brigadier Frederick Steele staged an invasion out of Helena and occupied Little Rock. For the next year, local military action was limited to cavalry raids. In September 1864, Sterling Price carried Missouri’s Confederate Governor Thomas C. Reynolds around that state to raise troops and enthusiasm for the Southern Republic. In the largest – and last – battle west of the Mississippi, 20,000 Union cavalry and Kansas militia defeated Price’s 12,000 cavalry in the battle of Westport, now called Kansas City, MO.

Strategic Assessment

The contest for the Missouri – Arkansas frontier was undeniably a Union victory. Strategically, it was an economy of force operation for both sides. By late 1861 the North had almost all it wanted from the region and was content to create a backwater while the war went on elsewhere.

Fremont’s failure to secure the Ozarks, and Washington’s later reluctance to authorize a Federal drive into the Arkansas River valley, allowed Confederate horsemen and their Indian Nations allies to stage across the mountains and raid into Missouri every fall, when the corn crop and prairie grass allowed horsemen to range freely across the state.

This insecure frontier exacerbated the strains left by a decade of conflict along the Kansas border. Partisan bands brought misery to the Ozarks, and quasi-military gangs like Quantrill’s and Bloody Bill Anderson terrorised local residents all the way into southeastern Kansas, as the sack of Lawrence attests.

General Thomas Ewing’s notorious General Order #10, relocating the population of the Ozarks, was one Federal attempt to deny partisan support and concentrate the loyal population where they could be defended.

Other palliatives, like the Union Missouri State Volunteer Militia, a scheme to arm and concentrate volunteers for local defense, worked to a limited extent. MSVM Cavalry regiments eventually attained considerable combat efficiency and proved to be a worthwhile investment. Still, the majority of Missouri Union troops were tied to local duties. Their overall contribution to the war effort did not match their size.

US Military victories secured St. Louis and maintained a link to Kansas and the far West. Missouri river valley produce went North; St. Louis turned out steamboats, not Confederate rams to dispute the Mississippi.
Richmond saw Missouri’s abundance only as a resource to succor more vital areas. President Jefferson Davis’ bias against political-generals and his personal antipathy toward Sterling Price magnified an unfortunate tendency to write off Missouri.

Southern military power in the Missouri-Arkansas was almost wholly indigenous. The victory at Wilson’s Creek and Price’s subsequent campaign was self-sustaining. Only when Curtis drove Price across the Boston Mountains did the South furnish a resource — Earl Van Dorn — who ended the Confederacy’s hopes in Missouri and fatally compromised Arkansas’ defenses. In any case, Missouri and Arkansas soon sent their best armed and trained brigades east to defend Vicksburg, stripping the region of the officers and men who might have sustained a more active strategy.

When Thomas Hindman attempted to resurrect Confederate power, his draconian edicts brought only recriminations and his abortive invasion only defeat. Perhaps no one could have done more. After the Federal government cleared the Mississippi in mid-1863, the Confederacy’s regional commander, Kirby Smith maintained local defense and occasional raids, but barely affected the larger war.

A more aggressive initial Southern policy, combining early assistance in arms with an active defense by feints and cavalry raids, might have enabled Missouri’s wealth and manpower to tie down larger Union forces far away from the Mississippi Valley. The experiment was never attempted. The Arkansas-Missouri region and its strategic possibilities remain an absorbing backwater of the Civil War


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