Missouri Civil War Battle of Pilot Knob

In September 1864, an army of Confederate soldiers 12,000 strong marched into Missouri from Arkansas, led by Major General Sterling Price. Headed north toward St. Louis, this massive cavalry soon arrived at the southern terminus of the St. Louis and Iron Mountain Railroad in Pilot Knob. There, a federal fort, Fort Davidson, stood, garrisoned by only 1,500 Union soldiers led by Brigadier General Thomas Ewing Jr. Seeing a chance to obtain arms for his 3,000 unarmed soldiers and to gain combat experience for the nearly 6,000 untested draftees, Price sent men to rip up the tracks to the north, cutting off Union reinforcements to the fort.

Though not nearly large enough to support the entire 1,500 man garrison, as more and more Confederate troops piled into the nearby town of Ironton, many Union soldiers were forced to withdraw to the safety of the fort. Its hexagonal walls—nine feet high and ten feet thick—were surrounded by a dry moat up to nine feet deep, allowing access only from a drawbridge in the southeastern corner. Two long rifle pits ran out from the walls, and for 300 yards in every direction there was a clear field of fire for the four huge siege guns, three howitzers, and six field artillery pieces that were fed by the buried powder magazine at the heart of the fort.

Feeling one swift assault would overwhelm the fort, Price ordered his men to divide up and move in from different directions. One brigade went over the top of Pilot Knob Mountain, taking the small Union force stationed there, while another went over Shepherd Mountain with plans to use the cannons atop the mountains to fire on the fort as the attack began. A third brigade went around the base of Shepherd Mountain, toward the northwestern sides of the fort, and the fourth charged through the valley between the mountains.

Unfortunately for Price, it didn’t work out quite as he had planned. The assaults were poorly timed and the Union soldiers had time to direct their fire at each advancing brigade. As thousands of men charged the fort, gunfire echoed off the mountains and the bloody battle waged on beneath a thick cloud of sulfurous smoke supplied by the cannon and musket fire. Only one brigade succeeded in reaching the fort, but the soldiers were unable to conquer the fort’s steep walls and became victim to assault from wooden-finned impact grenades thrown by the Yankees.

The assault was broken. The Confederates fell back and made plans to attack the fort the next day. As the smoke cleared to reveal the nearly 1,200 dead and wounded Confederates covering the battleground, the remaining Rebel troops were busy building ladders to scale the fort’s steep walls. However, inside the fort, Ewing and his men were making their own plans. Though they suffered only an estimated 100 casualties and 28 deaths, the Union force was low on ammunition for its cannons and wouldn’t be able to hold out for another day of battle.

Using canvas to drape over the drawbridge and hay to muffle the sounds of the horses’ hoofs, along with the helpful cover of darkness, Ewing and his garrison evacuated the fort undetected. As they moved northwest, directly between two Rebel camps, the Confederates (who were busy preparing for battle) mistook them for friendly troops moving into a new position. Almost an hour later, a small group of Union soldiers who stayed behind blew up the powder magazine, for 20 miles in every direction, the ground shook and the night sky was ablaze with light when the magazine exploded, leaving the fort a smoldering crater.

The over-confident Confederate troops believed an accident had occurred at the fort and the survivors would surrender at dawn. However, upon inspecting the fort’s condition the following morning, Price discovered that Ewing and his men were gone. Though they had no victory, they now held the field and the fort. Because of this, the Confederates were responsible for burying the dead and created a mass grave in one of the rifle pits. After taking inventory of the supplies that survived the explosion, Price divided the goods and weaponry that could be taken, then destroyed the rest before moving on to a near-endless string of defeat.

Fort Davidson State Historic Site serves as a memorial to the many soldiers who gave their life fighting for their idea of freedom. The earthworks of the fort are mostly intact and visitors can explore this aspect of the battle as well as a portion of the original battlefield. A full-scale reenactment of the Battle of Pilot Knob is staged, drawing in tens of thousands of spectators to the valley. The next reenactments are in September of 2010, and again in 2014 to coincide with the 150th Anniversary (Sesquicentennial) of the Civil War. A wide variety of activities are available to keep almost anyone satisfied, from infantry artillery cavalry drills, to medical demonstrations and the ever-popular blowing up of the fort. Vendors aim to please, offering refreshing beverages and snacks or period objects and clothing to reacquaint you with life during the war. To see images of the Battle of Pilot Knob Reenactment from the past and to learn about the upcoming events in the future, please click here.

On the site, a granite monument marks the place where the mass grave begins, as well as locations throughout the valley that were significant points on the battlefield. Maps for this self-guided tour are available at the Visitor’s Center and Museum that are also on the site. This free interpretive center provides detailed information about the battle, offering visitors an opportunity to see artifacts found just outside the museum’s walls as well as from the war in general. Visitors also have a chance to view a 25 minute film and a 15 minute audio-visual fiber optics diorama of the battle. Next to the museum is a picnic area and playground, making this a perfect place to get away with the family to learn more about history and fighting for what you believe in.

by Mary Eakins Bullis, November 2007

A series of summer lectures is held at Fort Davidson during the summer months. The schedule of lectures for this year will be posted soon.