PILOT KNOB — Hundreds of history enthusiasts have already begun to pour into the Arcadia Valley to either view or participate in the reenactment of the Battle of Pilot Knob this weekend.
The observance on Saturday and Sunday marks the 140th anniversary of a key Civil War battle fought on Missouri soil in which Union troops made a valiant stand against overwhelming odds.
The re-enactment is sponsored jointly by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, the Missouri Civil War Reenactors Association, the Friends of Fort Davidson and the Arcadia Valley Chamber of Commerce. It highlights both civilian and military life in the Arcadia Valley during the Civil War.
Activities begin at 8 a.m. on Saturday morning when both Union and Confederate army camps open to the public. Arts and crafts booths will open at 8 a.m. both days at the Pilot Knob Memorial Park. The actual battle re-enactment will begin at 1:30 p.m. each day.
Beginning at 9 a.m. on Saturday, Civil War-era scenes and stories will be showcased in the army camps. Union and Confederate troops will perform drills and demonstrations, and will re-enact blowing up the fort and the retreat. Other activities on Saturday will include a series of lectures in the site’s museum, tableaus and period entertainment, a luminary ceremony and a Civil War-era concert and demonstration ball.
A battlefield church service will be held at 9 a.m. Sunday, followed by drills, demonstrations, and Civil War-era scenes and stories. Lectures will once again take place until the event comes to a close with the “Final Assault on the Fort” Sunday afternoon.
During the re-enactment, Confederate troops will launch an infantry assault on the earthen fort, Fort Davidson, which is defended by Union troops. Hundreds of re-enactors equipped with horses, cannons and historically accurate weapons will participate in the re-creation of the battle.
While the highlights of the two days are the actual re-enactments of the battle, the two-day observance has far more to offer. There will be story-telling sessions in both the Union and Confederate encampments, lectures at the historic site’s museum, period music, demonstrations and other activities throughout both days.
On Saturday night there is the “blowing up of the fort” and retreat ceremonies. After most Union troops from the fort had slipped through Confederate lines, a squad that stayed behind blew up the powder magazine and then joined in the elusive trek through enemy lines.
The Fort Davidson State Historic Site preserves the remnants of the earthen fort and the battlefield. Information and exhibits in the site’s museum tell the story of the historic battle, in which more than 1,000 men fell in less than 20 minutes.
Today, the Arcadia Valley in Iron County is a peaceful setting in one of Missouri’s most scenic areas. But in 1864, the valley was the scene of one of the largest and most hard-fought battles waged on the state’s soil — the Battle of Pilot Knob.
Confederate Maj. Gen. Sterling Price invaded Missouri from Arkansas, leading an army of 12,000 men. On Sept. 26-27, 1864, while en route to the St. Louis area, Price attacked the weakly defended Union post of Fort Davidson at Pilot Knob.
This proved to be a mistake. Fort Davidson was defended by a garrison of 1,450 men led by Gen. Thomas Ewing Jr., the brother-in-law of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. The Confederates lost nearly 1,000 men in attacking the small earthen fort and its 11 cannons.
Seeing that further defense of the fort was hopeless, Ewing decided on a daring escape for his troops. As the Confederates tended their wounded in every available facility in the area, the Union troops stole away in the night and headed for Potosi. It was not until the following morning did an incensed Price discover the fort had been abandoned.
Price, still having the numerically superior force, gave pursuit but the Union troops had too much of a head start and eventually made it to Rolla after a stopover in Potosi.
Not ready to end this campaign, Price decided to move toward St. Louis but intelligence informed him the Union Army had already brought in reinforcements there. Price then changed course and headed for Jefferson City, but again — because of news of the Battle of Pilot Knob — the state capital had also been reinforced.
Many who study Civil War history believe the stand made by the Union troops at Pilot Knob prevented the Confederate Army from taking either St. Louis or Jefferson City.
Fort Davidson State Historic Site preserves Fort Davidson and the Pilot Knob battlefield where so many Confederate and Union soldiers lost their lives. A visitor center interprets the battle and Maj. Gen. Price’s raid. It features exhibits, a research library, an audiovisual presentation and a fiber optics diorama of the battle.