Preamble to the Conceptual Development Plan
History and Significance
The "holding action" of the small Union garrison of Fort Davidson, at the expense of the Confederate Army of Missouri, at the Battle of Pilot Knob played a decisive role in Missouri's Civil War experience. Waged on Sept. 26 and 27, 1864, it was one of the largest battles fought on Missouri soil. This battle played a decisive role in the failure of Confederate Gen. Sterling Price's raid on Missouri.
In the spring of 1864 the armies of Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith, commander of the Tras-Mississippi, defeated the two Union armies under Generals Frederick Steele and Nathaniel Banks. With no immediate threat to the Confederacy's western forces, Gen. Kirby Smith decided to attempt to relieve the pressure on his sister armies in the east. He would send a massive mounted invasion far behind Federal lines into the state of Missouri.
Kirby Smith appointed Major General Sterling Price to lead this mounted force. Price was the best known and most respected Missourian in the Confederate Army. He was a former governor of Missouri. He was a hero of the Mexican War. He had won two of the Confederacy's most decisive victories early in the war, the battles of Wilson's Creek and Lexington.
Price had several missions: to divert reinforcements heading towards Sherman's armies at Atlanta, to destroy Federal property, to capture arms and supplies, and above all, to enlist recruits. With his army en route to the St. Louis area, Price decided to attack the weakly defended post at Pilot Knob first. This was a tempting prize. It was defended by only 1,450 men. The vast majority of these were new recruits, home guards and militia. Commanding this force was Gen. Thomas Ewing, Jr., who had issued General Orders #11, which ordered the partial depopulation of 3 1/2 western Missouri counties of their civilian inhabitants. Not only would victory at Pilot Knob be important to the Confederate cause politically, it would materially aid Price's campaign by arming a portion of 3,000 soldiers. It would also prevent Ewing's garrison from reinforcing St. Louis or Jefferson City. Price strategically lost the battle of Pilot Knob. Ewing's army, defending Fort Davidson, killed over 200 or Price's men and wounded over 800. While inflicting this damage the Federals lost only 200 casualties including only 28 killed.
Knowing that his force could not hope to defend Fort Davidson another day, Ewing evacuated the fort at 3:30 a.m. on Sept. 28. He led his force, which was mostly on foot, 66 miles in 39 hours, while being pursued by two divisions of Price's cavalry. Ewing took shelter in some abandoned militia earthworks at the small railroad town of Leasburg until help arrived. Here the Confederates gave up on capturing Ewing's force.
The Battle of Pilot Knob contributed greatly to the failure of Price's raid. Price suffered a repulse at the hands of Gen. Thomas Ewing, Jr. and Col. Thomas Fletcher. This combined with the heavy losses and poor handling of the assault discouraged Missourians with southern leanings from joining Price. Ewing's garrison moved on to Rolla where it freed the Rolla garrison to reinforce Jefferson City. The actions of Sept. 26-Oct. 1 allowed the Union defenses in Rolla, Jefferson City and St. Louis to be strengthened in anticipation of Price's attack. Price did not actually attack Rolla or St. Louis, but did confront Jefferson City before deciding not to attack due to the Capitol's strong defenses. Finally, the losses of men and morale at Pilot Knob crippled the Confederate Army's fighting strength and resolve during the remainder of the campaign.
Today Fort Davidson stands at the heart of the remainder of the battlefield. The fort is a well-preserved example of a Civil War era redoubt. The moat, the walls, the gun platforms and the crater left by the explosion of the powder magazine are still intact. Fort Davidson is an outstanding resource which aids in the understanding of the sacrifices made by Missouri's citizens during the Civil War.
In 1905, a 20-acre tract of the Pilot Knob battlefield was purchased by veterans of the battle to serve as a memorial to those who gave their lives there. In 1938 the tract was donated to the U.S. Forest Service. In 1969 a special use permit was granted by the Forest Service to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) to open Fort Davidson to the public as a state historic site. In 1987 the Forest Service traded Fort Davidson to MDNR, giving the state sole ownership of the site. The earthen fortification, Fort Davidson, the featured resource of the site, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970. The acquisition in 1990 of adjacent city park land more than doubled the size of the site. A small tract at Shut-in Gap also belongs to the site.
The mission of Fort Davidson State Historic Site is to preserve, maintain and interpret the earthworks and historical features of Fort Davidson and the Pilot Knob battlefield, to interpret the events of the Battle of Pilot Knob; and to interpret the impact of the battle on events of the Civil War in Missouri, the war west of the Mississippi River, and the nation.
Doug Eiken, Director, Division of State Parks, 12/30/03
Delecia Huitt, Field Operations Supervisor, Southern Missouri Historic Site, 12/23/03
Walter Busch, Site Administrator, Fort Davidson State Historic Site, 12/16/03