December 18, 1861 (Wednesday)
Four thousand poorly-equipped Rebel recruits of the Missouri State Guard, only half of which were armed, were hardly a match for Union General John Pope’s troops, who spent the previous day scattering the lot of them across southwestern Missouri. By dawn of this day, the last remaining five hundred or so were dispersed after midnight near Johnstown, fleeing towards Butler and Papinville to evade capture.
Pope then turned his force north, on the road to Warrensburg, to await the return of the many details of cavalry that had been sent out to chase down the recruits. A bit after dawn, they arrived, as did one of Pope’s spies.
The spy told him that another large body of the Missouri State Guard was marching south from Waverly and Arrow Rock, two towns along the Missouri River. They planned to encamp just south of Milford, near where the Clear Fork reaches the Black River, ten miles north of Warrensburg. Pope decided to intercept them. He stretched his own 4,000 from Warrensburg, east to Knob Noster, covering all routes south. He then dispatched Iowa and Regular Cavalry, under the direction of the unfortunately named Col. Jefferson C. Davis (no relation to the secessionist President) to Milford in order to turn the Rebels’ left flank, getting into their rear. Another cavalry unit was sent to hit the enemy’s right and rear, uniting with Col. Davis.
All the while, the main body moved four miles south of the Missouri State Guard encampment, ready to move at a moment’s notice. Late in the afternoon, Col. Davis found the Rebel camp opposite the mouth of Clear Fork, driving in the enemy pickets, who escaped across Black River over a long, narrow bridge. Their comrades, a stronger picket line, waited on the other side.
Davis then determined to take the bridge, charging it with his entire command. The Rebel pickets broke and scampered through the woods to their main body. Once across the bridge, two companies of Union cavalry formed line of battle and advanced upon the Rebels, who opened a volley of various small arms fire.
Balls from pistols, rifles and shotguns sang through the air, killing one and wounding eight. Davis pressed the assault and the Rebels began their retreat south. At some point, perhaps a scout or a messenger informed the Missouri State Guard commander that their line of retreat was cut off to the south and west. Realizing that he was surrounded by a larger force than his own, he had no choice by to surrender.
General Pope captured the entire Rebel command, including 1,300 men (and three colonels), 1,000 stands of arms, 500 horses, and seventy-three wagons full of gun powder, lead, tents and other provisions.
As darkness had fallen, both Union and Secessionist troops bedded down for the night, rising to a freezing morning. The prisoners were marched to St. Louis, while Pope’s men returned to Sedalia. Since they set out on the 15th, they had marched 100 miles, capturing 1,500 prisoners and over 2,000 weapons and 100 wagons.1
This little action, though small, was demoralizing to secessionists in western Missouri. General Sterling Price, with the main body of the Missouri State Guard near Osceola, sixty miles south of Warrensburg, realized that his attempts to gather recruits for his army were useless. He was convinced that Missouri had been abandoned by the Confederacy, who had no plans to send any troops into the state.2