On Sept. 26, Major General Sterling Price, on orders from Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith, attacked Union pickets who were stationed at Fort Davidson at Pilot Knob, Missouri. Price’s goal was the diverson of Union troops east of the Mississippi River in order to gather Confederate recruits and capture or destroy Federal war materials. He also wanted to capture either St. Louis or Jefferson City in what would be the largest cavalry raid of the war.
General Thomas Ewing Jr. and his 1,450 Union soldiers were forced to defend the small hexagonal earthwork fort. In capturing the fort, Price’s 3,000 unarmed soldiers would be provided with needed weapons. The resulting victory would likely rally sympathizers to the Confederate cause.
The guns of Fort Davidson opened fire the following morning, when rebels appeared between Pilot Knob and Shepherd mountains. Price believed a swift assault would overwhelm the fort. But the Confederate assaults were poorly timed allowing heavy fire directed at the attacking brigades. The Confederates fell back to reorganize, preparing a renewed attack for the next day.
Ewing’s troops were low on ammunition. He didn’t think his Union forces could hold out another day and ordered the fort to be evacuated. At 2:30 a.m. Union troops crept past Confederate guards and an hour later, a small group of soldiers exploded the fort’s powder magazine, destroying any remaining supplies. As a result, General Price had no chance to take either St. Louis or Jefferson City.
The Battle of Pilot Knob battlefield is preserved today as the Battle of Pilot Knob State Historic Site.
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