Field Trip Fridays: Pilot Knob, Missouri

26, September 2014
Camp Blood"Camp Blood, Near Pilot Knob, Missouri." Wood engraving by unknown, 1861. Missouri History Museum. This view shows a Union camp at Pilot Knob early in the war, before the earthwork defense of Fort Davidson was constructed in 1863.

On Field Trip Fridays, an occasional series, we’ll suggest places to visit that have some connection to the exhibit 250 in 250. They can relate to any of the 50 People, 50 Places, 50 Moments, 50 Images, or 50 Objects in the show.

Editor’s note: In the 50 Images section of 250 in 250, there’s a photo of the Missouri State Guard. Although he is not in the picture, Sterling Price was major general and commander of the Missouri State Guard for almost a year. As such, he led his troops in the victorious battles of Lexington and Wilson’s Creek in 1861. After continuing his command in the South for a time, Price made his way back to Missouri 150 years ago this weekend—and there will be a full-scale re-enactment of the Battle of Pilot Knob at the Fort Davidson State Historic Site on Saturday and Sunday. Here’s the story of Price’s Raid.

In an attempt to turn the tide of the Civil War, Confederate general Sterling Price planned an invasion of Missouri that took place in September and October of 1864. His primary objective was to capture St. Louis and its stores of arms, equipment, and goods, but Price’s superiors believed it might also divert Union troops from the war’s eastern theater, thereby reducing some of the unremitting pressure the Confederate armies there had been under.

Sterling PriceSterling Price. Photograph of a painting, 1861–1865. Missouri History Museum.

The Battle of Pilot Knob, also known as the Battle of Fort Davidson, was the first major battle of Confederate general Sterling Price’s raid into Missouri. On September 27, 1864, a much smaller Union force under Brig. Gen. Thomas Ewing Jr. held Price’s Army of Missouri at bay and made an escape to Rolla. Ewing lost fewer than 100 men, but Confederate casualties numbered as many as 1,500. The battle delayed Price’s army long enough for St. Louis to solidify defenses and foil Price’s plan to attack the city.

Price utilized guerrillas as a diversionary force to occupy the Federal army in one part of the state as he took his soldiers to another part. But disagreements in strategy among Price and his division commanders, Gen. James F. Fagan, Gen. John S. Marmaduke, and Gen. Joseph O. Shelby, caused the expedition to be mismanaged almost from the start. Price’s forces burned and foraged as they moved from Arkansas up to within 30 miles of St. Louis and then across the state to the western border and down again. Ill conceived, badly executed, and poorly supplied—nearly a quarter of Price’s army had no weapons—the expedition failed miserably and marked the end of major combat in the state.

—Jeff Meyer, Collections Manager

You can read more about Price from the memoirs of a man who traveled with him (and did not have high regard for him), Thomas C. Reynolds. The manuscript is housed in the Missouri History Museum’s collection and was published in book form (General Sterling Price and the Confederacy) by MHM Press in 2009, with annotation by editor Robert G. Schultz.