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David Fisk (Lens of
Fort Davidson and the
Battle of Pilot Knob
Civil War fortification, Fort Davidson was built by Union forces about
300 yards from the base of Pilot Knob Mountain. The hexagonal earthwork
fortress was the target of the Battle of Pilot Knob in 1864 during General
Expedition through Missouri.
In September, 1864, Major General Sterling Price led his
troops into Missouri with the goal of capturing
St. Louis. Leading some
12,000 troops from Camden,
Arkansas, Price began his
Missouri Expedition, moving north toward Ironton, near the terminus of
the Iron Mountain Railroad from
St. Louis. On September 27th, the troops,
along with seven large cannon, arrived just outside Pilot Knob,
Fort Davidson and Pilot Knob Mountain.
Davidson was a tempting target and the troops began to bombard the
fortress. Led by
Brigadier General Thomas Ewing, the
Union troops, though outnumbered by more than ten-to-one, the managed to repulse repeated Confederate assaults on their
earthwork fortress. The fort occupied a strong defensive position, with
hexagonal walls nine feet high and ten feet thick, surrounded by a dry
moat nine feet deep. Two long rifle pits ran out from the walls, while a
reinforced board fence topped the earthworks. Access could only be had
through a drawbridge on the structure's southeastern corner.
Price's attack came as a massive assault from several
directions. Though his troops engulfed the small Union force stationed
within the town of Pilot Knob and another attacked and took control of
Shepherd's Mountain, southwest of the fort, they would be unsuccessful in
taking the troops at the fort itself. The guns at fort Davidson were
directed at the Confederate forces, but, under fire and finding the
earthworks too steep to climb, they were forced to retreat. The
Confederates then made preparations to attack again the next day, building
scaling ladders. In the meantime,
Ewing began to assemble his
troops for an escape and the soldiers slipped away during the night by
exploiting a gap in the Southern siege lines.
The next day, the
soldiers were furious to find that the
Union troops had gone and demanded that Price pursue them. However, the
General had already lost over ten percent of his army and three precious
days in this fruitless exercise. The Confederates took possession of the
fort, but the attack resulted in a useless waste of men and ammunition,
and ended Price's dream of seizing
St. Louis for the Confederacy.
Although the exact number of Confederate casualties are
unknown, historians estimate that total Southern losses at the Battle of
Fort Davidson were approximately 1,200, while Union losses were about 200.
troops then advanced northward to Jefferson City, the state capital, but
when they found it too heavily fortified moved west, fighting their way
toward Kansas City, eventually suffering a crushing
defeat at Westport. They then moved southward into
defeated once again at the
Battle of Mine Creek, before finally returning
to Arkansas, having lost half of their troops.
Today, the battle is commemorated at the Fort Davidson
State Historic Site in Pilot Knob, Missouri. The earthworks of the fort
are still generally intact, surrounding a huge hole that was caused by a
powder explosion. The dead were buried in a rifle pit in a mass grave,
which is marked by a granite monument. A visitor's Center at the
site provides detailed information and artifacts from the battle.
of the Battle of Pilot Knob is conducted annually.
State Historic Site is located in Pilot Knob, Missouri
off Highway 21 on Highway 221 in Iron County.
The Battle of Pilot Knob
Fort Davidson State Historic Site
P.O. Box 509
Pilot Knob, Missouri
of America, updated May, 2010.
Fort Davidson today, Kathy Weiser, April, 2010.
Visitor Center at Fort Davidson, Kathy Weiser, April, 2010.
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