Re-Visiting History: The Battle of Pilot Knob, Missouri


At the invitation of good friends who live in Farmington, my husband and I took a scenic drive this past weekend out of St. Louis, over the Ozark Plateau and into the beautiful Arcadia Valley to attend a 150th Anniversary Re-Enactment of the Civil War Battle of Pilot Knob, Missouri/ aka The Battle of Fort Davidson (

IMG_20110616_143539It’s difficult to get a sense of the Civil War Era in St. Louis outside of specific landmarks – the Chatillon-DeMenil Mansion, The Campbell House and Eugene Field House Museums, the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site at White Haven or The Old Courthouse (pictured at the left), where in some respects time stands still. St. Louis has changed so greatly since that time.

We were eager to view this re-eanactment on the actual battle field where it took place, which is preserved by the State of Missouri as The Fort Davidson Historic Site, in a mountainous area little changed since 1864.


Every third year The Battle of Pilot Knob is staged where Confederate and Union soldiers lie buried in a common grave, in what had been the fort’s long rifle pit.


Fort Davidson is a hexagonal earthwork constructed by the Union  Army three hundred yards from the base of Pilot Knob Mountain,* adjacent to what was during the Civil War the southern terminus of the Iron Mountain Railroad; its purposes to protect the rail line and defend the City of St. Louis from attack by the Confederate Army.

Pilot Knob is part of the Saint Francois Mountain Range in southeast Missouri, which takes its name from the river originating in the mountains. Granite from these mountains was used in the manufacture of cobblestones on the St. Louis Levee and the piers James Eads sunk to bedrock when he constructed the first bridge across the Mississippi at St. Louis; granite shipped from Iron County on board the Iron Mountain Railroad.**


Although Pilot Knob, Missouri is located eighty miles south of St. Louis, incidents in both places related to the Civil War, impacted the other greatly.

601px-St-louis-riot1Chief among these were an event that took place in St. Louis in May of 1861 that inflamed thousands of rural Missourians to enlist in the Army of the Confederacy, and Maj. Gen. Sterling Price’s failure in September of 1864 to capture arms and ammunition from Fort Davidson at Pilot Knob, which would have enabled him to lay siege to St. Louis with an army of 12,000.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861 St. Louis was the only city in the State of Missouri.

The Federal Arsenal of the West, which produced an enormous amount of ammunition was located here on the west bank of the Mississippi River. After the war Ulysses Grant wrote that had the Federal Arsenal at St. Louis fallen to secessionists in the spring of 1861 the Union could not have won the war.

Nathaniel_Lyon_on_horseback_1General Nathaniel Lyon, a Connecticut native and graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, is the Union officer credited with preventing that from happening. Two monuments dedicated to him stand in Lyon Park, immediately east of the St. Louis Arsenal grounds.

The riot that broke out as the Federal troops ordered by Lyon to surround the Missouri Militia at Camp Jackson, resulted in the wounding and killing of not only soldiers but many civilians including children.

The Camp Jackson Affair was sensationalized by newspapers around the nation as The Massacre at Lindell’s Grove, fueling enlistment in the Confederate Army.


Nathaniel Lyon was killed in the first major battle of the Civil War in Missouri, the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, on August 10, 1861 precisely three months to the day since the incident at Camp Jackson.


There remains to this day, a haunting sense in the mountainous areas of southern Missouri, where a Trail of Tears was forged by thousands of the Cherokee Nation in 1830.


And where thousands of American soldiers and Missouri residents lost their lives during the guerrilla warfare that racked this part of the state between 1861 and 1864.

71D1+HjD47LPaulette Jiles’ novel, Enemy Women, is one of the most lyrically powerful tellings of the Civil War in Missouri that I’ve ever read.

Her story takes place between Doniphan County (a little south of Pilot Knob) and the City of St. Louis, where main character, Adair Colley is imprisoned for months with other women refugees from various parts of Missouri.

As shocking as this was to me while reading the novel, more shocking still was confirmation that women were indeed imprisoned at Gratiot Street and later in what became known as the Chestnut Street Womens Prison.

Watching the battle re-enactment at Pilot Knob and observing re-enactors (some who live in the area and many others from around the U.S.) walking to and fro in period dress, chatting over campfires or interpreting history from numerous stations like that of the Women’s Aid is a moving experience.

20140927_134634 - Version 2

Such historic re-enactments are curious and important events. There is something surreal and unforgettable about having the past and present flow concurrently around you, as you sit on a plastic chair capturing a 19th century battle scene with a camera or cell phone.


Events that dramatically shape history like the Civil War, the deadliest man-made disaster in the history of this nation, should never be forgotten. Lest they be repeated.





Whatever it is that inspires individuals (over 1,400 in this event) to re-enact history as a spectacle for others to experience, engage in and learn from, is truly marvelous.



Over this two-day Re-Enactment of the Battle of Pilot Knob ( spectators were estimated to exceed 40,000 in number. Twenty-five thousand saw the Saturday event alone.****



Confederate Maj. Gen. Sterling Price’s plot to seize weapons and ammunition from the Federals at Fort Davidson in southeast Missouri failed.

20140927_142155Although his army of 12,000 won a victory over the 1,450 Federal troops stationed there under the command of Gen. Thomas Ewing, Jr., it was a hollow one. All but twenty-eight of Ewing’s force escaped, the last blowing up the Powder Magazine on their way out, while a thousand of Price’s troops were killed or wounded.

Price left Missouri for the final time during the Civil War after his army’s defeat in the Battle of Westport (today Kansas City) on October 23, 1864. There 30,000 men engaged in the largest battle fought west of the Mississipppi River with the Union Army carrying the day. Maj. Gen. Sterling Price is buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery, St. Louis.


Special thanks to Tiffany and Allan, Christian and Cameron Smith, for their warm and generous hospitality, and for luring us to the Arcadia Valley for this momentous event.


References: *, gleaned from The Missouri Department of Natural Resources; **, U.S. Geological Survey,*** Enemy Women by Paulette Jiles, William Morrow Publisher, an Imprint of Harper Collins, 2002; ****Sept. 13, 20014 article by Tim O’Neil in the St. Louis Post- Dispatch:

Illustration Credits: Book Illustration of Union General Nathaniel Lyon, St. Louis Riot at Lindell’s Grove/Camp Jackson in St. LouisThe Battle of Wilson’s Creek Mural and The Battle of Westport Mural – from the State Capital Building of Missouri, and 1863 Map of Pilot Knob, MO and Vicinity – all in the public domain at Cell phone captures of the Diagram of Fort Davidson in the Missouri State Park Museum at Pilot Knob, and Exhibit Depicting Maj. Gen. Sterling Price – Maureen Kavanaugh.

PilotKnob03 - Version 2

Photo Credits: Rotunda of The Old Courthouse at St. Louis Hung with Replica of the U.S. Flag Flying Over the Courthouse When the Civil War Broke Out in 1861 – used with the kind permission of John Powel Walsh; View towards the Saint Francois Mountains of the Missouri Ozarks from the top of Knob Lick Mountain -“Knob lick view-26aug06” by Wikipedian Kbh3rd – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –;two vintage black & white images: Civil War Hospital and Camp Life – in the public domain – Shmoop Editorial Team, “The Civil War,” Shmoop University, Inc. , 11 November 2008, (accessed October 1, 2014).

PilotKnob12Above contemporary photos (excepting those taken with my cell phone) – the 4th, 8th and 10th – by Maureen Kavanaugh, author of this blog.

All other photos generously taken and shared by Thomas Kavanaugh, Sr.

Just click on a photo to enlarge.




About stltourguide

I am a walking tour and narrated coach tour guide in St. Louis, Missouri specializing in the history of the area.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, Books, Civil War, Civil War St. Louis, Happenings, History, Missouri in the Civil War and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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