January 7, 1862 (Wednesday)
Captain Milton Burch wasn’t sure what to make of the news. He and 100 men from the 14th Missouri State Militia Cavalry (US) had left the defended town of Ozark, Missouri on the 5th, moving south towards Arkansas. Hoping to find reinforcements to bring back with him, he instead found two Rebels, both of whom became his prisoners.
They told him some wild tale of 6,000 Confederates riding north under General John Marmaduke. Fearing the worst, Burch immediately sent a messenger back to both Ozark and Fort Lawrence. He and his men, moving only slightly slower, made it to Fort Lawrence, a two story log structure, well before dawn on this date.
Fearing that the 6,000 Rebels would soon reach Ozark, forty-five miles away, he asked the garrison commander if his men were in any shape to act as reinforcements. As it turned out, they really weren’t, having no transportation to speak of. After sending out scouts to keep an eye on the roads leading to the fort, Burch caught a bit of sleep.
At dawn, he was up again, and readying his own troops to pull out for Ozark. They saddled up and began to move, but before they got too far, Rebel infantry opened upon them. This was rather unexpected. For one, the Rebel prisoners made no mention that any of their 6,000 comrades planned to hit Fort Lawrence. And for another, none of the scouts had reported the Rebels’ imminent arrival.
This was because the scouts were all dead or captured. Somehow or another, a small band of 300 Confederates under Col. Emmett MacDonald had been watching the fort as the dawn broke. When they saw three Union pickets about to sound the alarm, they killed two and captured one.
The skirmish was a quick one. MacDonald’s Rebels dismounted and stormed the fort, whose inhabitants almost immediately broke and ran. As the fort had no transportation, MacDonald was compelled to put it all to the torch. Within ten minutes after the first shot was fired at Captain Burch’s battalion, the fort, commissary, and quarter master’s buildings were in flames. They captured fourteen prisoners and 300 stand of arms, which they buried (the arms, not the prisoners).
Burch and his band, it seems, decided not to stick around for any of this. After a few shots were fired, they made their way as quickly as they could to Ozark. After paroling the prisoners and burning all he could, MacDonald and his Rebels followed.
Meanwhile, near Ozark, about fifteen miles south of Springfield, General Marmaduke’s main force, actually only about 1,500-strong, were slowly approaching. So slow were they, in fact, that Burch and his men were able to make the forty-five mile ride in time to save the garrison.
When Burch arrived, well after dark, he ordered all the men and as many supplies as they could carry to be toted across Finley Creek, running just north of the town. There, they awaited orders from Springfield.
Around the time Burch was leaving towards the north, Marmaduke and his Rebels were arriving from the south. Unsure whether or not the fortified town had been abandoned, Marmaduke send a regiment around to the other side of the town, to cut off the Union line of retreat towards Springfield, should anybody in blue remain.
“I soon found that the nest was there and it was warm, but the birds had flown, and nothing remained to do but apply the torch to fort and barracks,” reported Col. Joseph Shelby, commanding under Marmaduke. “Soon the red glare of flames burst out upon the midnight sky, and the cold, calm stars looked down upon the scene.”
The town was vacant, but for a few Federals who were unlucky enough to be captured. Marmaduke and Shelby, like MacDonald at Fort Lawrence, gathered what they could and set fire to the rest.
By midnight, the Rebel column was marching north to Springfield, which was commanded by General Egbert Brown and 1,500 or so Federal troops. Around 7pm, before the Ozark garrison retreated, Brown heard the reports of Marmaduke’s raiders, which, due to the less than truthful Rebel prisoners taken by Burch, was numbered at 6,000.
Calls went out to all the area troops to reinforce Springfield, but little hope was held, believing the attacking force, marching through the night to attack them at dawn, outnumbered them many times over.
“It was an intensely cold night, that of the 7th,” recalled Shelby, who was riding north with his men, “the frost hung heavy and chill on the garments of my devoted brigade, marching onto the stronghold of the enemy with a determination in their hearts rarely surpassed.”
((Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 22, Part 1, p 183, 194, 200, 208.))