Vol. VIII, No. 3, 1995


Incident at Cowskin Prairie

in Story, Literature, and History

Edited and introduced by Donald Holliday, annotated by Leo Huff



The following article appeared in the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch, Sunday morning, November sixth, 1894. The Civil War had been over thirty years. Newspaper headlines and front pages no longer blazed with stories of the latest battles, nor did inside pages contain long lists of casualties. But the Civil War was still news, the stuff newspapers are made of, but no longer news as it "broke," perhaps not even news that had anything to do with actual events.

The story is literary on several levels. First, the story is oral literature dressed up in the literary language of much nineteenth-century journalism. It's difficult to imagine Hunt Wilson speaking the polished cliches which characterize the story. Second, Hunt Wilson was a story teller, a raconteur known for his skill and wit in spinning a yam. The story-telling occasion behind this article is not the first time the reporter has sought a story from him (Nor is it the last.In a sequel, Wilson and the same reporter tell how the cannon featured in this story is dragged up Lookout Mountain). Hunt Wilson not only does not disappoint him, but gives him a story of heroic derring-do, a popular subject of both oral and written adventure, especially in western and military saga. If story telling could have won the Civil War, Hunt Wilson might have won the War single handedly. Third, Hunt Wilson has been remembering, and perhaps disremembering, perhaps for art's sake, for thirty-three years a story whose facts he may never have had a complete grasp of to begin with. Fourth, Colonel Leo Huff, Civil War historian, annotates some of the facts and some of the fancy of Hunt Wilson's story.

Beyond the actual events, even the remembered events, of Cowskin Prairie lies the human imagination, and hopes and dreams, of what was, or wasn't, or what might have been.

A LIVELY JUNE MORNING ON COWSKIN PRAIRIE

One of the Stirring Early Incidents of the Civil War in Missouri.

Picturesque Skirmish Between Some of Price's Men and the "Kansas Jayhawkers."

Hunt Wilson Tells How Rock Champion and Lieut. Barlow, With one Gun and Sixty Irish Infantrymen, Successfully Resisted Four Hundred Union Cavalrymen--A Fight in the High Grass--Barlow's Novel Observatory--Rescued by Rains' "Blackberry Pickers."

Hunt P. Wilson of St. Louis was Sergeant of a gun detachment of Guibor's Battery1, C.S.A., during the Civil War. His service as one of Guibor's artillerymen dates from the organization of that battery at the beginning of the war until he was mustered out of service at the close, and his record as a non-commissioned officer of an organization which had more than its share of hard fighting is of the best.

During a considerable part of that service, Hunt Wilson had the pleasure of handling a six-pound brass gun which had a large proportion of silver in its composition, a piece of field ordnance captured from Santa Anna during the Mexican War. The result of this generous mingling of precious metals with brass that as far as the sound of Guibor's battery in action could be heard, one could distinguish the aristocratic ring of Sergt. Hunt Wilson's gun, mellow and sweet as a bell. Hunt named the silver-toned cannon after his sweetheart and even now he recalls with exceeding pride how golden-clear that one piece would shine on dress parade, the "belle of the battery." Also, owing to a slight variance from the standard preponderance of such guns, this one when fired had a knack of dipping down on its trunnions and then swaying gracefully back to its proper position on the gun carriage. For this reason the piece was known sometimes as "Old Politeness," because it invariably bowed to the enemy after each fire. But all this has nothing to do with the present story, save that it may help to show why Guibor's men so stubbornly stood by their guns in many desperate actions, rescuing them many times over from tight places where other batteries might have been abandoned to the enemy.2

[20]

I have had frequent talks with Hunt Wilson about old army days. He is as full of interesting reminiscences as an egg is of meat, and he tells war stories in such a graphic way that you can almost see the scene he is describing, the ground, the men, the horses and guns, the wounded, and even the lifting of the smoke every now and then, letting in the sunlight. Its a great gift, that of bringing such pictures back before the eyes of living men, and one can sit and listen to Hunt for hours, when he is in humor for exercising that gift. The pleasure is akin to the charm of reading one of Robert Louis Stevenson's stories of adventure, or, say, "'The White Company' of Conan Doyle."

During this past week I dropped in on Hunt Wilson again and we sat down in his paint-shop, which has war pictures hung all along the walls, and smoked together in exceeding peace and comfort. And, while we were smoking, he told me another story, the story of how Rock Champion and Lieut. Barlow3, with one gun and sixty infantrymen, held off 400 Kansas "Jayhawkers"4 for half a day in the high grass of Cowskin Prairie.

It was in June, 1861, said Hunt Wilson, shortly after Guibor and Barlow met up with Price and Jackson and took charge of the four six-pounders from Liberty Arsenal5, of which Capt. Guibor told you last week. Those four guns constituted Guibor's battery, as it was first organized, but the battery was afterward increased to six guns.

At the beginning of the trouble in Missouri, before actual hostilities had opened, a stray cannon and some powder in kegs had been safely stowed away down in Southwest Missouri, with the idea that they might come in useful should war be declared.6 Well, the time came when Gen. Price wanted both the powder and the gun, and a little expedition was sent to snatch them away from the borderline and bring them safely back to Price's army.

This expedition consisted of about sixty of Kelly's infantrymen and one gun detachment from Guibor's newly organized battery under the command of Rock Champion of St. Louis and the gun detachment was officered by Lieut. Wm. P. Barlow, also of St. Louis, who joined Price at the same time as had Capt. Guibor.

Never was there a happier lot of daredevils sent out on independent service. Barlow then was about 24 years old, a born artillery-man, fearless and eager for chances to distinguish himself. Rock Champion was about 26 years old, handsome, dashing and game to the core. His chosen arm of the service was the cavalry, in which he rose to the rank of Colonel, Barlow reaching that of Major of Artillery, and both were sworn comrades. Champion's one great hero was Murat7, Napoleon Bonaparte's favorite cavalry leader, and I remember now as though it were only yesterday how Rock was always talking about Murat and that daring Frenchman's deeds in the Napoleonic wars. It was pleasant to hear him, and I have no doubt the gallant fellow was still emulating the work of his great model when, at the battle of Bolivar, Tenn., he was killed at the head of his men, leading a charge against a Union regiment.

Kelly's infantrymen were all St. Louis Irishmen, reckless, hard fighters, difficult to manage between fights, insubordinate and mischievous unless there was some fighting to be done, but game as possible from the moment the first gun was fired in action and never happier than when the action reached its hottest. Guibor's Battery was also composed largely of Irish, and I remember that on this very expedition I am telling you about, three of our best gunners were Jim DeVine, "Bat" Leahey and "Red Pepper" Keefe, all of St. Louis. The latter was a genuine "repparee" Irishman, not afraid of the devil himself, and owed his nickname of "Red Pepper" alike to the color of his hair and the quality of his temper.

The expedition promised to be monotonously peaceful. We had not had much fighting then---only the Battle of Boonville and a few skirmishes--and the boys were always on the lookout for a chance to fight. But it looked like there was to be no chance on this raid. We found the gun and the powder all right, and putting the former into wagons, we started back northeast to rejoin Price, who was then, if I remember aright, at or near Sarcoxie. In crossing the Sac and Fox Rivers8 the water reached the wagon beds and dampened some of our powder, but until we reached Cowskin Prairie, in the southwestern corner of the State, no other incident out of the ordinary marked our progress.

Going through Cowskin Prairie, however, the ball opened. We were a funny sort of "flying column." The stray gun was drawn by oxen at a slow walk. The powder wagons and the caisson9 also boasted oxen as motive power. Men and officers were on foot, the gun detachment, with their one cannon, Rock Champion's Irish infantry leading the march. And while we were in this formation traveling the country road through Cowskin Prairie we were met, about 9 o'clock in the forenoon, by a farmer, who at once hailed with a frantic signal to halt.

"The grass ahead of you is full of Feds !" he cried.

This was an easily possible fact. The Indian grass that flourished on Cowskin Prairie then stood higher than our heads. We might have been within twenty paces of a body of men off the road and never have known it. As the man stopped us with his warning Lieut. Barlow sprang at once on the middle chest of the caisson, and standing there took a survey of the ground in our front. The next minute came his command placing the gun in battery.

"Action front! Load!"

At this command the gun was unlimbered, the muzzle brought around 180 degrees, the limber taking its position in rear of the piece, the gunners sprang to their posts, the infantry under Rock Champion forming on the left of the gun and covering the front of the powder wagons. As all this was done Barlow called down to Champion:

[21]

"There's a regiment of 'em, Rock. / Cavalry."

Now, here is what Lieut. Barlow had seen as he stood erect on the caisson chest. Almost due south of us, and coming in our direction, there was a long line of cavalrymen in blue uniform. Their figures were just visible above the high grass of the prairie, and Barlow estimated there were 400 of them in all. Being so close to the border line of Kansas and Missouri he knew they were Kansas Jayhawkers10, duly enlisted in the Union army, and he knew, furthermore, that we were in for a fight, as the two columns were bound to meet. It is doubtful if up to that time they had seen us or knew anything of our being in the neighborhood.

"Load with scrap shot,''11 Barlow instructed his gunners. "We'll give 'em that for the first shot."

The advancing body was well within range--close range---of the gun. Its officers had caught sight of Barlow towering above the Indian grass and pointing in their direction, and there were indications that the Kansans were gathering for a charge. They could have no idea, however, of what force we might have, as they could not see us, nor, for that matter, could any of us except Lieut. Barlow see them. The grass was like a jungle.

With a few motions of his hand Barlow directed the gunners until the piece bore full on the distant cavalry and had what he considered the proper elevation. Then he gave the command: "Ready--fire!'

The scrap-shot went howling through the grass and then above it and then full into the ranks of the enemy. Artillery fire was a surprise to them, but in another moment after the shot had crashed into them they had reformed in a long line, fired one volley at the spot in the prairie where they saw Barlow and the smoke of our gun and then charged down on us.

"Load with solid shot!" cried Lieut. Barlow from the caisson chest. "Ready--fire! Champion, let your men give 'em a volley!"

The ring of the discharge from the minie-riflesl2of Rock Champion's Irishmen was the response to this. Both their firing and our own was controlled as to direction solely by the motion of Barlow's hand from the caisson chest.

None of us could see what we were firing at.

Did you ever hear a six or twelve-pound solid shot going through the air hot from the muzzle of a gun? No? Well, the noise it makes sounds like a peculiar combination of a subdued railroad whistle and the flaring of a torch in a high wind; a nasty, venomous kind of noise. That's the way that first solid shot of ours sounded, and it went plump into the ranks of the advancing cavalrymen.

That, followed by the infantry fire, caused the line to swerve, the momentum of the charge was lost, and the next minute the Federals had swerved to the left and then drawn back further from us than at first, but firing a volley as they did so. They were armed with Sharpe's rifles13 [sic], and their fire was directed at the spot where Barlow stood.

It would be difficult to imagine a more remarkable or a more picturesque scene than that we gunners and infantrymen witnessed from this moment of the opening of the skirmish until its close. In the first place, it was all framed in by the Indian grass of Cowskin Prairie, growing to the height of a man's head. On the right of our little line stretched along the edge of the road was our one gun in action, its muzzle smoking, the gunners springing about their work of loading and firing. On the left was Rock Champion's company of infantry keeping up a lively rifle fire. The shots of both cannon and rifles were directed straight through the high grass, beyond which we could see nothing. Just back of Champion's infantry were the four wagonloads of powder. Directly in rear of our gun, as a matter of course, was the limber chest, and back of that the caisson. This was the proper formation.

And on the middle chest of the caisson stood Lieut. Barlow, the only man who could see the enemy, or whom the enemy could see. Standing at that height, he was much higher than a man on horseback, and made a splendid target for the Sharpe's rifles of the Kansas cavalry. In fact, he made a peculiarly vivid mark, for it so happened that he wore a broad-brimmed white hat and a red flannel shirt14 His saber was strapped to his side, and as he stood erect on the caisson chest, directing our fire, Barlow, dark, light of figure and full of the animation of one of his first fights, made a picture I shall never forget.

But all this is what I took in during the whole progress of the fight. As that first solid shot and volley from the infantry was fired, turning the direction of the enemy's first charge, Barlow leaned down from his position and called out to his Sergeant:

"We've only got a few charges of canister.15 Don't use them until I give the order for their use. If we can't keep'em off with solid shot I'll give the order for the canister when I see they are bound to come down on us and we can get in at least three rounds of canister before they reach the gun."

The next moment came another volley from the Kansans, who charged within range, and it was answered by another solid shot from our gun and a volley from Champion's men. This time one of our oxen was killed and a gunner badly wounded by the enemy's fire. And let me tell you a remarkable thing right here. Between the volleys during this fight our oxen grazed at the road side behind us as placidly as though they were in some peaceful meadow 100 miles away from the sound of firing.

[22]

Lieut. Barlow's instructions about the use of canister indicated how desperate our position was. If the enemy had been aware of our real strength----or, rather, our real weakness--they could have charged down and over us, capturing the whole command. Four hundred cavalrymen opposed to sixty infantrymen and a gun detachment of nine cannoneers is big odds, too big for successful resistance as an ordinary rule. But it was here that the Indian grass helped us, as, of course, the enemy could not see how small a body we were.

The third attack revealed a change of tactics on the part of the Kansans. They began the Bedouin maneuver of riding around us in a semi-circle, their direction tending from south to east. They fired as they rode, and to meet their change of direction our gun was turned by degrees, the formation of Champion's company on our left changing in accordance and all movements being directed by Lieut. Barlow from the top of the caisson chest.

This new trick did not do the Jayhawkers much good. As they swept along the prairie to the eastward, firing as they rode, Barlow managed to rake them several times with solid shot from the cannon, and the minie-balls from Rock Champion's infantry rifles also did some execution. The only damage to our side was the killing of another ox. Lieut. Barlow's clothing was pierced in several places by bullets from the Sharpe's rifles of the Kansans, but, remarkable to relate, he was not once wounded. Throughout the many advances made by the enemy, and during the heaviest firing, he never left his post on the caisson chest. It was absolutely necessary for some one to occupy that point of vantage, as otherwise we could have had no knowledge of the enemy's movements and Lieut. Barlow remained there all through the fight.

It was a little amusing to watch Rock Champion with his Irishmen. You must remember that this was at the very beginning of the war and no one had as yet seen much service. Well, when a rank of men on foot is kept firing pretty steadily it is a natural thing, if they are not veterans, for them to lose a little ground after each fire. That Champion's men, or Kelly's rather, for Champion was by right a cavalryman, were brave there was no doubt. They proved their courage in every fight they went into. But in this little skirmish they were untried men, and some of them were unconsciously losing ground in the action. So Rock Champion amused himself going up and down the line all during the fight and whenever he came to one of his men who had fallen back a pace of two, Rock would expostulate with that man in no gentle terms and force him to the front again. In this way he kept the line dressed all right, but it was funny to hear the arguments he had with some of them while he was doing it?

After a time the Kansans seemed to have tired of trying to force us from our position, and contented themselves with remaining at long range and keeping up a dropping fire. Their guns were of longer range than those of our infantry, but we sent a solid shot over to them now and then, and so kept them freshly reminded of the fact that the artillery was still in good working order.

But several hours had now elapsed. It was noon of a pretty warm day, and the Jayhawkers made no sign of leaving the field. It was impossible for us to escape on the march, as, with the gun, caisson and powder wagons drawn by oxen and all the men on foot, we would have been at the mercy of our mounted enemy. The situation promised to grow embarrassing, even though we were lucky in saving ourselves from capture as it was.

Shortly after noon Barlow suddenly called out from the caisson chest:

"By George, Rock! I believe they are going to leave us!"

He stood silent for a moment following this, watching the enemy intently. Then he cried again:

"Yes sir, they're moving off! And they seem to be in a pretty big hurry, too!"

A cheer went up from our men at this, but it had no effect in stopping the Feds. Barlow still stood on the caisson chest watching them and keeping us posted of their movements. Then, just as he was about to spring to the ground, he chanced to turn until he faced southwest. The minute he did this there came a yell from him.

"There's a body of cavalry coming towards us from down there. They're some of Price's men boys! The Feds have seen them and that's why they drew off."

The little skirmish in the high grass of Cowskin Prairie was at an end. Barlow was right; the advancing cavalry were some of Price's men; a party of Rains' command. They made no attempt to follow the Jayhawkers, who by that time were far ahead on the prairie making for the Kansas line, but came straight to us. In a few moments more our gun was limbered up, the oxen were harnessed and once more we began the march to the Southwest to join Price. We reached his army without further adventure, in good time to take part in the battle of Carthage. And, as was only natural, we felt rather proud for some time of our little feat of having stood off 400 of the enemy's cavalry with one gun, nine cannoneers and sixty infantrymen for three hours in an open prairie where they could easily have charged on us and captured the whole outfit if they had only possessed the necessary nerve.

Hunt Wilson flipped the butt of his cigar to the floor and set his foot on it. He was laughing to himself.

"What's the matter?" I asked him. "Oh, I was just thinking about Rains' men, who came to our rescue that day. They were very good soldiers, and Rains was a brave officer, a West Pointer, but his command earned a funny sort of nickname that makes me laugh now when I think of it.'17

[23]

"What was the nickname?" I asked again.

"After the battle of Carthage," replied Hunt, "they were known all through Price's army as the 'blackberry pickers.' You know we were surprised at the beginning of that battle, the enemy reaching us before we knew it. Well, Rains' men were the first they reached, and nearly all of Rains' men happened to be picking blackberries, which grew very plentiful thereabouts. The first they knew the feds were on them, and while they were not stampeded they came hustling out of those blackberry bushes in pretty quick order. They rallied all right afterwards, and fought well, but the joke was too good to lose, and so the name of the 'blackberry pickers' stuck to them for a long time after that. But, after all, it was only one of those many jokes that soldiers got on one another, and the name did them no harm."

The next minute the old artilleryman pointed to an oil painting on the wall, showing a handsome young officer in gray uniform galloping across a battlefield.

"That's Rock Champion," he said. "And he did the bravest deed that was

done during the whole war, but the story of it has been published many times."

"Was that when he rescued Guibor's battery at the battle of Elkhom Tavern?" I asked. "By charging a regiment of Union cavalry, 700 strong, with only twenty-two men, and driving them from the battery's flank?"

"That was it," said Hunt, "and I have yet to hear of anything braver."

Guibor had told me the story of Rock Champion's charge. And for years after the war no soldier of Price's could hear unmoved the name of this gallant young St. Louisan, one of whose first engagements was that little skirmish on Cowskin Prairie of which Hunt Wilson tells above.

>

NOTES

1 Guibor's Battery, organized and commanded by Captain Henry Guibor, made a name for itself at the battles of Wilson's Creek, Lexington, and Pea Ridge. Hunt P. Wilson is best known perhaps for his famous painting of his battery in the yard of Elkhom Tavern during the Battle of Pea Ridge.
2 The famous "silver cannon" was also known as "Old Sacramento," presumably of Mexican War origin.
3 Lt. William P. Barlow was officially second-in-command of the battery, and commanded the battery during most of the Battle of Wilson's Creek after Captain Guibor was cut off by a Union patrol and unable to rejoin his unit.
4 During the Kansas-Missouri border wars of the 1850's, Missourians called any armed Kansan a "jayhawker.' The term was revived during the Civil War, and often any Union general in Missouri was called a Jayhawker. The term is now applied mainly to Kansas University athletic teams.
5 These artillery pieces were seized by Price's Missouri State Guard from the lightly guarded Federal arsenal at Liberty, Missouri in the spring of 1861.
6 The question of where and how the "stray cannon" and powder were obtained, and who concealed them in southwest Missouri, remains unanswered. Apparently they were stowed somewhere on Cowskin Prairie in the corner of the state near the Kansas or Indian Territory border.
7 Joachim Murat was a French general, later Marshal, and a famous cavalrycommander. He was a brother-in-law of Napoleon.
8 The starting point of the expedition is unknown. The location of the Fox River is not known and the Sac River is nowhere near Cowskin Prairie. Perhaps Wilson's memory was faulty about the name of the river. Perhaps it was a local name of the time which has faded from use.
9 A caisson was an ammunition chest on a two or four-wheeled vehicle. During combat the caisson was normally kept well to the rear of the gun in a protected place. Its associated "limber" was a two-wheeled detachable vehicle at the forepart of the gun carriage used to transport ammunition. A gun could only be moved by hand when it was "unlimbered," or detached from the limber. The position of the limber was in the immediate rear of the gun.
10 The bhie-clad troops were surely from Kansas but Barlow's estimate of 400 may have been much too high, es pecially when they were virtually un seen because of the tall grass. Men tend to become more heroic and enemy 1 numbers increase after the passage of
11 more than thmy years. Small scrap iron pieces might be loaded into a cannon in a pinch, even old nails or pebbles. Hence the term"scrap shot."
[24]
12 A Captain Mini6 of France had invented a conoidal, i.e. cone shaped, lead bullet with a hollow base which was the bullet of choice by the beginning of the Civil War. The rifle-musket and "minie-ball" thus replaced the old smooth-bore, short-range, and highly inaccurate weapon of infantry tradition. It was a revolution in infantry warfare.
13 The Sharps rifle was one of the few successful percussion breech-loaders, and one of the first to be put on the market. Invented by Christian Sharps, it played a role in the Kansas-Missouri border wars.
14 Some Southerners, even generals, wore red flannel shirts, known as war shirts, in combat. The Missouri State Guard had little in the way of uniforms, so this red shirt made Barlow very distinctive. It is incredible that 400 Jayhawkers armed with the very accurate breech-loading Sharps rifles, firing for three hours at a lone red-shirted man standing on a caisson chest, sometimes at short range, could miss their target. I suspect Hunt Wilson was "pulling the leg" of the reporter; but of such stories legends are made.
15 Canister was much more effective than solid shot at short range against close formations. Canister shot are small lead balls packed in a metallic cylinder the size of the bore. When fired the artillery piece is like a huge shotgun and deadly up to 75 yards against infantry or other troops in close formation. Early in the war the Missouri State Guard had very little canister so they cut up iron rods into about one inch pieces to use as canister, as they did at Wilson's Creek.
16 It was a natural reaction, even among many trained soldiers, after firing a shot, to step back a pace or two when reaching for a new cartridge or ramrod while reloading.
17General James Rains, a Jasper County politician, was in command of the Missouri State Guard mounted troops. After the flight of Rains' troops in the skirmish at Dug Springs a few days prior to Wilson's Creek, Confederate General Ben McCulloch, in command of the Southern army, had nothing but contempt for Rains and his mounted Missourians.


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