Confederate General Kirby Smith’s sweeping triumph over Union forces in Arkansas and Louisiana during the Red River Campaign in the spring of 1864 emboldened him to authorize a daring cavalry raid into Missouri in September. Smith chose Major General Sterling Price to lead the foray. Price’s objectives were to divert Union troops away from Richmond and Atlanta, enlist Confederate recruits, capture and destroy Union war materials, and, if possible, capture St. Louis or Jefferson City. Smith also hoped that Confederate successes in Missouri would damage President Abraham Lincoln’s reelection hopes.
Confederate Army of Missouri on the Move
During the summer, Price assembled three divisions of cavalry, mounted infantry, and supporting artillery, commanded by Major General James F. Fagan, Major General John S. Marmaduke, and Brigadier General Joseph O. Shelby. Price’s force, known as the Army of Missouri, totaled roughly 12,000 ill-provisioned men. Perhaps as many as 4,000 of them were unarmed.
Price’s Expedition began on August 28, 1864, when the Army of Missouri departed Camden, Arkansas. On September 19, he led his men into Missouri near Doniphan and headed north toward St. Louis.
Battle of Fort Davidson—September 26-27, 1864
Eager for a morale-boosting victory early in the campaign, Price decided to attack Fort Davidson, a lightly defended Union garrison, about eighty miles south of St. Louis on September 26.
During the summer of 1863, a group of African-American Freemen helped Union troops construct Fort Davidson on a plain southwest of Pilot Knob, Missouri. The hexagonally shaped structure featured earthen walls, roughly six to nine feet tall, covered with wooden planks. Each of the six walls was between 100 to 150 feet long. A ten-foot-wide dry moat, about six to eight feet deep, surrounded the enclosure.
Manned by local militia and federal volunteer infantry, the fort was armed with four large cannons and several smaller ones.
When Brigadier General Thomas Ewing, the deputy commander of the St. Louis district, learned of Price’s approach, he led two companies of Iowans south to help defend the fort. Attempting to block Price’s approach, Ewing stationed forward pickets at Ironton, roughly two miles south of Pilot Knob.
On the afternoon of September 26, the vanguard of Price’s army attacked the federal pickets in Ironton. As more Confederates arrived on the scene, the Yankees gave ground and eventually fell back inside the fort. That night, the Rebels camped south of the fort as Price planned a major assault for the next day.
The next morning, Price surrounded the earthen fortress and stormed it from multiple directions. Because the Confederates did not coordinate their strikes, the federal defenders had time to redirect their fire and ward off the attackers. Despite being outnumbered eight to one, the 1,500 Yankee defenders held, inflicting severe casualties on the Confederates.
The high watermark of the Confederate assault occurred when the last of three charges made by Brigadier General William L. Cabell’s Brigade (Fagan’s Division) succeeded in crossing the fort’s moat. The Yankee defenders, however, drove the Rebels back and prevented them from breaching the fort’s walls.
Running low on ammunition, Ewing ordered his men to evacuate Fort Davidson during the night. Before doing so, the Yankees removed several cannons and then blew up the fort’s arsenal. Under the cover of darkness, the Federals retreated toward Rolla, Missouri.
Despite Ewing’s withdrawal and the demolition of the fort’s arsenal, the Battle of Fort Davidson was a strategic Union victory. Price suffered roughly 1,100 casualties—over ten percent of his army — trying to subdue a relatively unimportant federal outpost. Ewing lost only about 100 soldiers.
In addition, Ewing’s stubborn holdout secured valuable time for Union officials to strengthen their defenses around St. Louis, forcing Price to abandon plans to strike his primary objective.
The State of Missouri Department of Natural Resources currently maintains the battlefield as the Battle of Pilot Knob State Historic Site.