Volume 33, Number 3 & 4, Spring 1994
Editors note: In July 1861, the Union struck a devastating blow to the morale of the White River Confederacy at Forsyth. The Union occupation of Forsyth destroyed the town which remained desolate until rebuilding began after the war. During the Union army trip south from Springfield, Mr. Thomas Baker, gave them considerable "refreshments" and room to camp and rest on his farm near James River; he returned the favor on the return trip north. A Union prize at Forsyth was the capture of property taken from Union families and stored in the courthouse for Confederate use.
The following letters from Union correspondents were selected from W. J. Bennett, Jr., and Jeffrey A. Blakely, Archeological and Historical Investigations Old Forsyth Site (23TA41) Taney County, Missouri (Little Rock: Us. S. Army Corps of Engineers, 1987).
The Dubuque Herald
July 27, 1861
Army Correspondence No. 28
Springfield, Mo., July 19, 1861
Saturday. This morning an expedition has been ordered against some point south of this, and for the purpose 2000 men have been detailed, who, as I write, are filing past the "Bailey House." Among the 2000 are the Governor Greys, F. J. Herron; Iowa City Company, Lieut. Graham, commanding; Davenport Guards, Capt. Mentz; Burlington Zonaves, Lieut. Abercrombie, commanding, Jackson Guards. Capt. Gotteshail; Mt. Pleasant Greys, Capt. Wisein all 500all of whom will be recognized as Iowa Companies. We are going southward some distancehow far Iknow not, and I am thus equally in the dark as to the purpose of the missionhowever it probably has something to do with breaking up a Secessionist camp reported to be in that direction. We have also along 200 Regular Cavalry, and Captain Tottens Battery of four pieces. If we dont have a fight, we shall at least have the excitement of a march and the exploration of new scenes, and the possible acquaintance of the rankest secessionists in Missouri.
The news of Captain Matthies, of Burlington being appointed Lieutenant Colonel, was received at once with pleasure and regretpleasure that the choice had fallen upon so fine a soldier and so perfect a gentleman, and regret that the 1st. Iowa Regiment will be deprived of the services of an officer so able and popular. He leaves to-morrow for Burlington and will carry an order for the immediate appearance at this point of the 5th and 6th Iowa Regiments, if they are ready for action. From this it will be seen, as well as from the past, that Iowa is doing her share towards subduing secession in Missouri.
Several companies, including Capt. Conrads, left for St. Louis to-day, accompanied by a long train of wagons. The latter are designed to return with supplies.
But I must get upon my mule, and as for the present
The New York Herald
July 31, 1861
Occupation of Forsythe, Missouri
Our Forsythe Correspondence
The March from Springfield to Forsythe - The Rebels Baffled - Union Cavalry Surprise the Town -Successful Charge of Infantry Up the Hill - The Rebels Run - Caption of Forsythe.
Forsythe, Taney Co., Mo., July 23, 1861 On Saturday morning last Brigadier General Sweeny, commanding in Southwestern Missouri, received orders from Major General Lyon to proceed with a proper force to Forsythe, a small town on the White River, and within twelve miles of the Arkansas line. It had been ascertained that a rebel force of from eight hundred to one thousand men had gathered at
that point and were daily expecting reinforcements from Arkansas and Tennessee, Forsythe being at the head of navigation of White river, and accessible by steamboat from the Mississippi at the present stage of water. General Sweeny, on receiving orders, at once made selection of Companies C and D of First cavalry, under knead of Captain B. S. Stanley; one section of Captain Tottens battery, under Lieutenant Sokaiski; one company of Kansas mounted men, Captain Wood; five hundred men of the Iowa First regiment, Col. Merritt, and five hundred of the Kansas Second, Colonel Mitchell. A squad of eighty Home Guards accompanied this expedition, joining it some ten miles from its starting point.
The whole left Springfield about noon on Saturday and took up its line of march for Forsythe, fifty miles distant. On breaking up camp on the morning of the 22d, we were twenty-eight miles from the place of our destination, a heavy rain, which fell on the 21st and continued through the day, having made our previous marches very short. The road, with the exception of seven miles of prairie near Springfield, passes the entire distance among the Ozark Mountains, and is in many places exceedingly rough.
After our noon halt, twelve miles from Forsythe, General Sweeny sent forward the entire force of mounted men to a small hamlet within three miles of the town, where the enemy was said to have a mounted picket of fifty men. These advanced, and with them your correspondent, but no picket could be found. Captain Wood, with ten men, went along the road to reconnoitre, while an orderly was sent back to General Sweeny for further commands. In a short time he returned, bringing orders for the cavalry force to advance upon Forsythe, and if an enemy were found there, to hold him in check till the artillery and infantry could come up. Captain Stanley gave the word to move forward, and we advanced at a gentle trot, meeting about two miles from town four of Captain Woods men, with two pickets of the rebels, captured within a mile of Forsythe. The pace was then quickened to a gallop until we reached a small stream called Swan Creek, which skirts the town on the north and west.
Forsythe is situated in a romantic glen upwards of a mile in length and about three fourths of a mile in width. On the south side flows White river. Swan Creek strikes the town lines at the northeast corner, and after flowing along the northern and western boundaries, falls into the first-mentioned stream. On all sides bluffs, from one to four hundred feet in height push themselves abruptly from the edge of the town site, some of them precipitous and others with a regular but steep ascent to the summit. The road from Springfield enters on the northern side of the town, crossing Swan Creek and winding for some twenty rods directly under the edge of a high cliff and opening into Forsythe in the rear of the Court House. It was supposedcorrectly as the sequel provedthat the rebels had posted men along the cliff who would be able greatly to trouble our troops passing beneath, and be themselves but little exposed. Accordingly Captain Stanley turned from the road before reaching the cliff, and passed through a small copse of oaks, entering a corn field, where the corn, some twelve feet in height, completely screened his men from view. Our distance from the cliff was some thirty rods, too far for the guns of the rebels to have any effect provided we had been in sight. Passing through this cornfield it was necessary to recross the creek. At the ford the bank which we descended was so steep that our horses did not attempt to walk to reach the waters edge, but planted their feet firmly in position and slid down upon the moist clayey soil, with all the grace of a schoolboy enjoying his winter holiday on his favorite coasting track. On the opposite side was a level ground plat of sufficient width to form the cavalry in line. This was the work of the moment.
The advance was sounded, and the whole column of regular cavalry made a dash into town at full gallop, entering by the Springfield road, while Captain Wood, with his Kansas rangers swept around to the right and joined Captain Stanley near the Court House. The village was completely deserted, all the inhabitants, anticipating trouble, having moved away some days since. Fire was opened upon us from the bluff, on the northeast and from the south bank of White river, the stream being about a hundred yards in width. The most rapid firing was from across the river, and the cavalry made for the northern shore, dismounting and advancing on foot. A row of bushes skirting either bank concealed both bodies of combatants, but the firing was
intensely hot, and many of the men had marched 11 miles before reaching Springfield the soldiers gave out by scores,several among whom was Lieut. Marvin of Company D had sun strokesthe dust was suffocating, and after marching seven miles, we camped on both sides of James Fork of White River. That night it rained as if the Indian Ocean had been upset on us the thunder roared through the mountain tops, as if ten thousand devils were howling from each peak, while the whole sky seemed for hours one incessant blaze of white ghastly flame. I generally enjoy quiet "family" thunder showers, but this was considerably too much of what generally may be considered a good thing, especially in the country. A hard shell Baptist Church saved a majority of the men for protectiona hundred or so got in the covered bridge of the River, and a squad of reporters, enjoyed the hospitalities of the roof and fireside of an ardent secessionist in the vicinity who rejoiced in the euphonic designation of Abner Dabbs.
The next morningSundayit still rained only a good deal harder, as if the Atlantic had been emptied into our Indian Ocean shower. We made fifteen miles that day, and halted, when for the first time since the night before the rain "let open." That night I staid with an old fellow of 53 named James Varnyn, who owns a fine farm, and "heaps" of niggers right in the mountains. He had 12 children by his first wife, and now has another wife of 22who lately rejoiced the frosty headed sire by presenting him with a couple of "tip top" first-class babies. The much boasted of feat, of Sarah, isnt so much ahead after all.
From this point to Forsyth it is 30 miles, along which on Monday our men pushed on with alacrity. The road lay down the mountainsnow, winding along a stupendous edge, now skirting a ravine of dizzy depths, running up almost perpendicular ascents for miles, or crossing mountain torrents, or I ran between vast heights along the rocky channels of the dried-up streams.
At 2 P. M. we had reached a point four miles from Forsyth where the cavalry halted to allow the infantry and artillery to come up. I rode half a mile and stopped at the house of an old woman, who asked which side I was on. I told her Prices (Price was the leader or one of them of the secession forces at Forsyth) when she said it was all right, and a few minutes after said that three men on foot, just before passed on a run towards Forsyth. I communicated this to Capt. Wood, who just then came up, and he instantly sent ten mounted men ahead to catch the fellows if possible. Not doubting they would give the alarm, Gen. Sweeny ordered the column to advance. Companies C and D of dragoons under Capt. Stanley took the lead, or rather followed the reporters of the New York Herald, Dubuque Herald, and the St. Louis Democrat, who spurred on in advance. After the dragoons came the mounted volunteers, then the artillery and infantry.
We started on a walk, and a half mile ahead, met two of the ten men coming back at the top of their horses speed. One of them led a horse upon which was strapped a young Missourian, while close behind came the other with a cocked revolver in one hand. They halted a momentthis fellow was one of the three advanced pickets of the enemythe other two had escaped and probably were in town ere this. The word was passed back to Gen. Sweeney and in about five minutes came the orders to advance. The road was down a steep ridge that terminated only at the town. Away we wentfirst a trot then a gallop, till the hills shook with the thundering tread of the squadron of five hundred horsemen, dashing in column down the rocky descent.The stones and gravel flew, and so did we, and in next to no time, we rounded a bend in the road that brought us a full sight of the town.
Thinking the Regulars might be aggrieved if the reporters kept ahead, I suggested to my quill-driving comrades that we should fall in behind themgive them the first chance at the gloryand the bullets. This was consented to, Company C and D went ahead, Capt. Wood advanced to the right of the Regulars, and then straight through a piece of timber, down through a cornfield, we charged at them. Swan Creek ran between us and the town, and a long time was spent in getting over, as the banks were thirty feet down and steep, and the water breast high. However companies
C and D got across first, and formed on the other side, each man cocked his Sharpes rifle and revolver, and then with a tremendous cheer the men dug their spurs into their horses, and broke through the town.
From Swan Creek the land rises gently for three hundred yards to the centre of the village, and then slopes away gradually for a like distance to White River, which runs along the south side of the place. As the squadron reached this ridge, they caught sight of the coat tails of 150 of the cavalry as they disappeared in a woods lying some two hundred yards from the further bank of the river. The squadron galloped on towards the bankI followed some six yards behind, congratulating myself as I saw the chivalry "putting" for the timber that a battle wasnt so dangerous after all. Just then twe-r-r-r-r went a bullet straight from the direction I was going and close by my head, and the next instant it was tw-r-r-r-r tw-r-r-r-r tw-r-r-r-r, as if the whole air had suddenly become alive with invincible snakes or reptiles with peculiar hissing propensities. I drove in the spurs, and put a substantial log house between myself and the bullets, satisfied to lose the beauty of the same providing I could avoid the necessity of meeting some of the leaden devils that were diving through the air, as if vicious in their tendencies.
Off went the Dragoons from the horses, and as the Infantry advanced up to the bank and commenced a rapid fire upon the enemy, who secured somewhat by the trees were letting drive at us vigorously from the other side. Seventy-five or a hundred shots seemed sufficient for them, and they quit firing. I was standing on the north side of the log housethe enemy was on the south side of the river, to the east was a tremendous bluff. I was just congratulating myself upon my taste in selecting a house apparently so bullet-proof, when, whiz came a shower of bullets from the bluff. Here was a pretty fix! If I went round the house to get out of this fire I should be exposed to the other, and there was no particular choice as to being shot at the gable end or in front of the house that stood near a dilemma with neither more preferable.
Down went Capt. Stanleys horse shot through the lungs, another went tearing around with a bullet in its a leg, a third eat up some wildcapers as a ball ploughed through its nose. And the men, too, seemed uncomfort-
ableone fellow did some tall swearing over a bullet hole that appeared "clean" through the calf of his leg, another making wry faces over a similar orifice that suddenly went through his shouldersa third unbuttoned his coat to find a half inch furrow ploughed straight across his chest. And Iwell I expected it in the leg, head, back, arms, chest, somewhere every second, andI confessjust wished myself out of town, say a couple of miles.
For about two minutes the bullets came spattering into the fences and tearing up the ground when Capt. Stanley gave the word charge. The bugle rang out a few shrill notes, and the next instant Capt. Stanley, at the head of Co. D, and Lieut. Kelly leading Co. C, breasted the bluff, and rolled up it like a hurricane. Chivalry immediately betook itself to its heels, and "broke" for deeper timber, which, thank Heaven, was the last seen of them from that direction.
The Court Housea fine three story brickstood in the centre of the town, and leading my horse into a blacksmith shop, I tied it, and walked into the Court House. The lower story was filled with benches and rifles, which the secessionists had abandoned in their haste. Accompanied by Capt. Callaway of the Home Guards and a Kansas Sergeant, we proceeded to the upper floor, which was filled with clothing.
The Sergeant seated himself at a table, the Captain and I entered into a small-talk conversation whenwhang!For a second I thought the bluff had tipped over on the Court House-next that the Comet had collided with mother earth, but finally concluded that somebody had sent a shell through the Court House. Through the dim media of flying brick and mortar I perceived the captain bolting for the door-the Sergeant was getting himself unmixed from the bricks in whose embraces he had rolled on the floor. Another second and we were doing "tall traveling" after Captain Callaway, only pausing the briefest part of a second to notice an immense opening in the wall through which had broke the shell, passing between the Captain and myself, at about the hight of our knees, and then tearing on, had smashed through the partition beyond.
Down stairs forty steps at a leap for all I, but not more than half downmyself in the rearwhen again another tremendous whang, and something tore through just over my head, tearing things all to splinters, and sending me without further effort on my part to the bottom of the stairway. I got up, and dizzily staggered on and reached the door just as another shell tore through the lower story making kindling of a score of benches and burying itself in the south wall without exploding. I found a severe wound on the back of my head from which the blood ran in streams, and for the moment supposed myself killed, as I felt so weak and unsteadya mistake, however, as the writing of this letter (with a very sore head though) some thirty-six hours after will abundantly demonstrate.
But to return. About the time I entered the Court House the Artillery came up to a point in the road that overlooked the town, and Gen. Sweeney gave orders to have the pieces brought to bear on the town. This was misunderstood by Lieut. Sokalski, who supposed it was to fire on the town. Instantly he unlimbered his twelve pounder and sent three shells into the Court House before the mistake was discovered. Just then a body of Secessionists made their appearance on the bluffs, and commenced a fire on the battery, which was flanked on the left by the Gov. Greys, under Capt. F. J. Herron and the Davenport rifles, under Capt. Mentz. Lieutenant Sokalski immediately put his 12-pounder to a better use than firing shells at a Reporter by sending three charges of grape into the enemy, all of whom but four or five left instanter and have not since been visible. The four or five that staid, stay there yet if their friends have not carried them away.
And thus ended the "battle" of Forsythor a "skirmish," or "affair," as the case may be. The Greys and Davenport Rifles were under fire for a few minutes, and stood the initiation with perfect composure. The men were all anxious for a fight, for when the word was passed back to the Infantry to hurry up, they struck into double-quick and ran a distance of over three miles, notwithstanding that they had already traveled twenty-seven long and tedious miles the same day. Two men, one of whom was a corporal, from some Iowa Companies, were away behind among the wagons when the head of the column began the attack. They were both lame, and could scarcely hobble along when word came back of the fighting in frontthey tried to run and broke down, and just when they passed an old, half-starved mule tied by a halter to the
bushes. In a trice both were on her bareback, and next instant were going down the column at as tremendous a gallop as their indifferent steed could be induced to afford at the suggestion of a well-plied cudgel and ropes end. In the sick wagon were a dozen or more men, completely used upword came back that they were fighting ahead, and in a second, half of them were out and on a dead run for the scene of the conflict. These and a dozen other similar instances which I might relate, will serve to show the spirit of our men, and their anxiety for the fight.
The result of our victory was the capture of two prisoners, and a large amount of clothing, blankets, rifles, swords, and a quantity of lead which was fished from a well into which it had been thrown by the Secessionists just before leaving.
The operation is important as it breaks up a force of 400 men, who have been drilling for weeks at that place under Captains Price and Jackson, and who have created much disturbance in a large extent of country by their operation. If Gen. Sweeny had only made a detour with his cavalry and surrounded the town, he would have captured every soulwhy he did not I am unable to state. I apprehend that Gen. Lyon will press for information on this point at an early opportunity.
The command remained till Tuesday noon, and then set out on its return, and will probably reach here by noon to-morrow. I left there at 3 P. M. yesterday, and came through to Springfield in six hoursbringing the intelligence of the skirmish.
The trip is not one of great interestthe road is wholly through a mountainous countrythe houses are far betweenthe inhabitants generally of a class but little above intelligent dogsthe married women mostly smoke, and a respectable minority chew tobacco, while five-sixths of the most interesting young ladies I saw were either smoking a short corn-cob pipe or nursing a babyeither operation being sufficient to destroy all the romance connected with a gentle Miss of sweet sixteen or thereabouts.
We lost two horses and had three men (without including myself) slightly woundedthe enemy lost five killed and thirteen woundedamong the former was supposed to be Capt. Jackson, their leader.
The Dubuque Herald
August 4, 1861
Army Correspondence No. 28.
Springfield, Mo., July 29, 1861
In my last I left our command on its way hither from Forsyth, having accomplished the object of the journey to that point. They reached home with no further adventure of interest than being fired upon from an ambuscade while passing up a deep valley a few miles this side of Forsyth. The shots were fortunately all too high and none of our men were wounded; while the well-directed fire of our troops in return, placed three of the enemy hors dii combat.
Upon our return we were delighted to welcome Quarter-master Guelich of the 1st Iowa Regiment, who came here direct from Hannibal, bringing with him the mail that had accumulated at that place, and at Keokuk after our departure. The mail contained Heralds up to the 15th and Times up to the 26th of June, and a vigorous thumbing did these sheets get, till every particle of their contents, advertisements and all, was committed to memory.
The same arrival brought us letters up to June 22d, and you can well imagine the avidity with which their contents were devoured. A majority of us had not heard a single word from home since we left Keokuk; and doubly welcome came these white-winged messengers laden with assurances of the health of those we "left behind", and filled with that delicious news-gossip of things and places at home. Old were they, but more precious to the travel-worn soldiers than aught else, save perhaps the actual presence, and clasping of the dear hands of those who wrote them.
Do, good people at home, write! write! write !The men can stand in comparative comfort and indifference, the bare feet, dirty rags, insufficient food, and laborious duties of a soldiers lifeit is only the long, dreary wastes of your Silence, that utterly discourage them, and whose survey gives them heart and soul-sickness. Write anything, but write often...
Rumors are abundant as to the force and movements of the Secessionists gathering in the Southwest and upon the Arkansas line. I saw a man who had just made his escape from Arkansas, and he assured me that about 1,000 men were gathered at Yellville and
not less than 10,000 at Camp Walker, Ark., who propose to effect a junction with a view to operations upon this place. It is believed all through Arkansas that Jackson with an immensely superior force, put to rout Seigel at Carthage, and hence they have not a doubt as to their ability to march straight through to St. Louis taking Springfield in their route. As in all other portions of the South, each Arkansas man, armed with a flint-lock musket, a revolver and Bowie knife, believes himself a match for any three, or at a pinch seven of the dd Dutch and Yankee Abolitionists...
The latest intelligence from the direction of Camp Walker shows quite conclusively that this insane idea of the Secessionists, is being carried into effect. It is not certain that the main body is advancing upon us although this is believed by manyyet there is no doubt of the racket that detached parties are slowly advancing in considerable force with a view to operate upon Springfield. At any moment their may be a fight and a severe one. Thanks to the red Tapeism we are just now in the worst possible condition for a conflict. Our entire available force does not exceed 6,000 men and 18 pieces of artillery. For the last fortnight the men have lived on half rations and hence have no stomach for a fight. One or two, sometimes three crackers two cups of coffee with a moderate supply of beef or salt pork, make up a days foodfrequently even this is cut down to one half. Sometimes there is sugar, vinegar, pepper rice and beans, but still more frequently none. Potatoes, green corn and in short vegetables of all kinds are never given outif the men buy them or private use at farm houses they have them otherwise not..
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