Vol. IV, No. 4, Spring 1991 / Vol. V, No. 1, Summer 1991

Civil War In the Ozarks:

An Introduction and Chronology

by John F. Bradbury Jr. and Richard W. Hatcher III

The Ozarks region as a theater of the American Civil War has not been much written about. This issue of OzarksWatch, together with the map "The Civil War and the Ozarks," opens the subject.

The Ozarks was a victim of the Civil War. For four violent years small armies, and smaller military organizations, fought hundreds of "military actions" in the region. Thousands died, thousands more were wounded.

The culture and society of the Ozarks was altered forever; mills, courthouses, towns, and farms were destroyed; crops were confiscated or burned; entire areas and communities were depopulated; fathers, sons, and brothers were murdered, taken prisoner, or simply disappeared.

Unfortunately, this tragic story will never be completely told. Hundreds of "military actions" were not recorded; nor does sufficient information exist to locate just what happened, or where. However, records do exist on hundreds of incidents. The map marks many that have been confirmed.

Geography shaped military strategy, as it does in most wars. The Federals sought control of the Mississippi River, sought to keep Missouri "in the Union," sought to defend southern Missouri from invasion or raids mounted from Confederate Arkansas, sought to prevent secessionist Missourians from joining or otherwise aiding the enemy, and finally sought to attack and invest the State of Arkansas itself. These considerations insured that the Ozarks would be involved in the war, despite the belief of many of its residents that the region's isolation, low population density, lack of development, poor transportation, etc. would protect them.

They were right in part. The swampy terrain of northeast Arkansas and southeast Missouri, and the tendency for the largest armies to avoid the roughest interior Ozarks terrain, shifted the focus of large scale military activity to the western side of the Ozarks. It was on the region's western flank, where armies could be maneuvered and subsisted, that the largest battles and engagements took place.

But they were partly wrong too. The roughest hill country proved eminently suitable for guerrilla warfare. The narrow, isolated stream valleys and mountain coves afforded secure areas of refuge and bases for raids on targets of opportunity such as wagon trains and militia garrisons. Small, active bands of Confederate guerrillas required presence of Union outposts and the efforts of countless Union patrols in the interior of the Ozarks.

Federal military strategy in 1861-1863 was to secure the southern border of Missouri and to eliminate any Confederate threat from northern Arkansas. This was the period of greatest Confederate strength in Arkansas, and it was the period of the three great Ozarks battles: Wilson's Creek, Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove. The combatants were primarily midwestem volunteer infantrymen from Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, and Wisconsin, and their counterparts from Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas. Ozarkers from Missouri and Arkansas served in the armies of both sides in numbers which probably fluctuated and which are difficult to estimate. Their battlefields were in a corridor between Springfield and Fayetteville, an area which also marked the effective limits of overland supply for the respective armies.

In 1863-1865, Union soldiers operated on the strategic defensive in Missouri. They functioned in northern Arkansas primarily to gather information and to break up rebel concentrations whenever discovered. The composition of forces differed from the earlier phase of the war. In the latter period, the Federal order of battle was composed primarily of volunteer and Missouri State Militia cavalry, rather than infantry as before. Instead of pursuing and fighting large armies of Confederates, the volunteers and militiamen acted as an armed constabulary in Missouri, and engaged in counterinsurgent activities all across the Missouri-Arkansas border. It was a chronic, low-grade, yet deadly small unit warfare which consumed an inordinate amount of Union manpower and effort to the war's end.

Union control of the northern Ozarks was based on a system of military districts and associated headquarters at Cape Girardeau, Ironton, Rolla, Jefferson City, and Springfield. Due in part to the limitations of 19th century horse-powered logistic support, Fayetteville and Batesville were never permanently occupied by US forces. Fayetteville was occupied only after 1863, and Batesville was occupied only intermittently in 1862 and 1864. Supplies for Union troops were furnished from the railheads at Rolla and Pilot Knob-Ironton. Springfield, the largest and most important interior depot for the north, received its supplies by overland freight down the Wire Road from Rolla.


The largest headquarters posts were flanked by satellite outposts to which they were linked by often-primitive roads. Soldiers at these garrisons patrolled the supply lines, escorted wagon trains, scouted the adjacent countryside, and pursued the elusive enemy. In addition to their offensive potential, the small posts also acted as "trip wire" defensive positions which would alert authorities to any significant rebel threat. The small garrisons could be consolidated quickly in times of danger, which happened most notably during Price's Missouri Expedition of 1864.

Confederate strategy in Missouri was complicated from the outset by the state's political status. At Wilson's Creek, Missourians fought as Missouri State Guardsmen who were only allied with Confederate forces. After an ordinance of secession was passed (at Neosho, October, 1861 ), many guardsmen enlisted in regular Missouri Confederate units. Others did not join, however, and wound up in small semi-independent forces which were cut off from their native state. Their anomalous situation complicated confederate command and supply problems. After the defeat at Pea Ridge in 1862, Confederate military authorities in the East exacerbated the problems in northern Arkansas by drawing off the most effective units to war theaters east of the Mississippi River. The Confederate high command never formulated an effective strategy for the Trans-Mississippi region.

In 1861-1862, the Confederate sought to bring Missouri into the Confederacy with armies of invasion. They won at Wilson's Creek but met defeat at Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove. After 1862, Confederate forces were pushed further south into Arkansas. After the capture of Little Rock in September 1863, the rebels could not maintain a significant presence in northern Arkansas, and were limited to spectacular but largely ineffective cavalry raids into Missouri meant to divert Federal attention and manpower.

The most dramatic raid was Price's Missouri Expedition of 1864, which, although it caused anxiety and considerable inconvenience for the Federal command in Missouri and Kansas, did not gain appreciable advantage for the Confederates. Indeed, it ended with the complete destruction of Sterling Price's army.

The final year of the war was anticlimactic and saw only isolated actions against small bands of guerrillas and bushwhackers.

Military Operations and Combat Actions

By war's end there had been over 500 combat actions in the Ozarks. Military authorities used a specialized terminology to describe such events and to indicate their relative intensity. In this scheme, combat events were described as 1) Battles, 2) Engagements, 3) Attacks, 4) Actions, 5) Skirmishes and 6) Affairs. Although there were no strict definitions, they indicated a range from greater to lesser intensity, size, and severity. Large armies figured in

battles and engagements, while attacks, actions, skirmishes and affairs generally involved smaller units--regimental strength or less. Only three battles and a dozen or so engagements occurred in the Ozarks. Attacks and actions were assaults by significant forces upon permanent positions or towns, such as those that occurred at Cape Girardeau and Fayetteville.

The remainder of the 500 events were skirmishes and affairs which may have involved anywhere from a handful of men to several hundred. Skirmishes were most frequent in 1863-1864, and were usually by mounted cavalrymen. Often they ended in withdrawal, sometimes precipitously, by one group or the other. Affairs might denote less-than-gallant conduct such as the surrender of a garrison, the capture of a wagon train, or the shooting of prisoners or civilians. These loose definitions should be borne in mind while studying the map or reading the list of principal events which follows. Terminology follows the designations in The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington, DC: 1880-1902).

Chronology of Military Events


June 13: From St. Louis, Union forces under Gen. Nathaniel Lyon begin a campaign to seize control of Missouri. The main thrust is up the Missouri River to Jefferson City, which is occupied on June 15. June 14: Troops of the "Southwest Expedition" seize the Southwest Branch of the Pacific Railroad and occupy the railhead at Rolla.

June 17: Engagement at Boonville, Missouri, is a defeat for the pro-secession Missouri State Guard led by Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson and General Sterling Price. They begin a retreat to the southwest as Union troops at Rolla march to Springfield to cut off avenues of retreat into Arkansas.

July 5: Engagement at Carthage, Missouri. Missouri State Guard forces defeat Union troops of the "Southwest Expedition" led by Franz Sigel.

August 10: The Battle of Wilson's Creek, near Springfield, Missouri. Union troops are defeated and General Lyon is killed by a combined force of Missouri State Guard and Confederate troops. Southwest Missouri is abandoned by the retreating Federals. The secessionists cannot, however, follow up on their victory.

September 22: Osceola, Missouri is burned by Kansas jayhawkers. William Quantrill's raiders will sack and burn Lawrence, Kansas, in retaliation on August 21, 1863.

October 17: Engagement at Fredericktown, Missouri, a defeat for the Missouri State Guard.

October 28: Missouri's pro-Confederate state legislature passes an ordinance of secession at Neosho, Missouri.

November 2: Maj. Gen. John C. Fremont is relieved of command at Springfield, Missouri. His large army is broken up and dispersed. Union forces once again abandon southwest Missouri.


February 13: Springfield, Missouri, is reoccu-pied by northern troops, this time by the newly reorganized army under Gen. Samuel R. Curtis. It is the beginning of Federal occupation which will last for the duration of the war.

March 6-8: The Battle of Pea Ridge, near Fayetteville, Arkansas, results in the defeat of the Confederate army led by Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn, and ensures control of Missouri by the Union. Northwest Arkansas is abandoned by the Confederacy as troops are ordered east of the Mississippi River.

September 30: Engagement at Newtonia, Missouri, a tactical defeat for the Union Army of the Frontier and the beginning of increased combat with a resurgent Confederate army reorganized by Maj. Gen. Thomas C. Hindman.

December 7: The Battle of Prairie Grove, near Fayetteville, Arkansas. Hindman's Confederates catch the Union army dispersed and nearly defeat it in detail. A division at Springfield marches 105 miles in three days and arrives in time to help win the field for the Union.


January 1-25: Confederate cavalrymen under Gen. John S. Marmaduke make their first raid into Missouri. Skirmishes precede the Engagement at Springfield on January 8, in which Union forces successfully resist an attack on the city. The Engagement at Hartville results on January 11 as the withdrawing Confederates clash with troops from Houston, Missouri.

April 17-30: Marmaduke's second raid into Missouri. The Action at Cape Girardeau on April 26, in which the Confederates are repulsed, is the most significant event of the raid.

April 18: Action at Fayetteville, Arkansas. Confederate forces attack the Federal garrison but are repulsed after sharp fighting. Ultimately, the Union commander decides to abandon Fayetteville, which is not reoccupied until the end of 1863.

July l: Engagement at Cabin Creek, Indian Territory.

July 17: Engagement at Honey Springs, Indian Territory.

August 17: Missouri State Militia forces from Pilot Knob, Missouri, capture Missouri State Guard Gen. M. Jeff Thompson and his staff at Pocahontas, Arkansas.

September 10: Little Rock is captured by U.S. forces.

September 22-October 26: Confederate Gen. Joseph O. Shelby makes his raid into Missouri.

Skirmishing occurs all along his routes across the western flank of the Ozarks.


August 29-December 2: Gen. Sterling Price's Missouri Expedition. The last hurrah for the Confederacy in Missouri begins at Pocahontas in northeast Arkansas. The Engagement at Pilot Knob (Fort Davidson) on September 27 is a costly defeat for Price's army. The Confederates continue northward to threaten Jefferson City, but the fiercest fighting takes place outside the Ozarks. Price's broken army streams south along the Missouri-Kansas line into the western Ozarks. Price's Engagement at Newtonia, Missouri, on October 28 is the last significant action of the Civil War in the region.


May 11: Gen. M. Jeff Thompson signs an agreement at Chalk Bluff, Arkansas, arranging the surrender of Confederate forces in northeast Arkansas. They later turn themselves in at Wittsburg and Jacksonport. All Confederate forces remaining west of the Mississippi River are surrendered at New Orleans on May 26.

Note on the Ozarks and Civil War Strategy

In the fall of 1861, after the abortive campaign of Union Gen. John C. Fremont, Union forces of Missouri Volunteers were withdrawn from the state for service east of the Mississippi. Some were in the Battle of Shiloh, Tennessee. After the Battle of Pea Ridge, both Union and Confederate troops were sent east. Infantry units so removed were in Gen. Halleck's Corinth, Mississippi, campaign, and in the battles of Stone's River, Chattanooga, Chickamauga, and other Tennessee and Georgia activities.

Similarly, after the Battle of Prairie Grove, the Union withdrew most of its infantry from Missouri and Arkansas and sent them to the siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi. Monuments standing today along the siege lines there bear names and designations of those units. Confederate Gen. John S. Bower's Missouri and Arkansas troops fought unsuccessfully to repel Grant at Grand Gulf and Port Gibson, Mississippi, below Vicksburg. Subsequently, these and other Missouri and Arkansas veterans served in the Atlanta campaign and Sherman's march to the sea.

The fall of Vicksburg opened not only the Mississippi River to the Union, but the Arkansas River as well. Union forces in Arkansas needed no longer to be supplied by the long and tortuous route from St. Louis through Springfield and Fayetteville. Thus Union control of that state was hastened.

"Gen'l Sturgis' Army on the Prairie. Scene near Bolivar, Mo." Sketch by Alex Simplot, Harper's Weekly artist. Courtesy Dr. Tom Sweeney.


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