Tuesday, October 15, 1861
General Jeff Thompson, of the Missouri State Guards, planned a northward push towards St. Louis, Missouri. His main goal was to destroy the Ironton Railroad and distract some Union forces away from General Sterling Price in the southwest corner of the state.
Thompson and 3,000 troops (500 cavalry, 2,500 infantry, including some from Mississippi and some Indians) left Piketon on the 12th and arrived at Blackwell Station, on the Big River almost two days earlier than he expected. He attributed the speed to his cavalrymen “being more anxious to fight” than he anticipated. Riding through the night, they reached the large, three-span railroad bridge they wanted to destroy at daybreak. The infantry was in the vicinity of Fredericktown.
Guarding the bridge was a small Union force commanded by Captain Elliot. Most of his men were behind a stone redoubt on the north side of the bridge. Thompson sent a regiment around the bridge to attack it from the north, while another regiment stormed the bridge from the south.
Within ten minutes, Thompson’s men took the redoubt by a frontal assault and charged over the bridge, sending Elliot’s Union troops scrambling for a safer spot. They killed a few Yankees and captured forty-five, while only suffering two killed and six wounded. They were also able to procure sixty-six muskets and more than enough overcoats thanks to the Union commissary.
While the bridge burned, he and his troops divided up their haul inside the train station at Blackwell. As they were decided which soldiers got new muskets and overcoats, they were attacked by a company of Elliot’s men who had apparently regrouped.
Though they were caught unprepared, and though most of the officers were nowhere to be seen, Thompson rallied his force and put up, as he described it, “one of those bush whacking fights which proved the mettle of my men.” As the enemy fell upon them, Thompson ordered his men “to go in on their own hooks.” It was every man for himself and in ten minutes they had the Union assailants in full flight.
The fight at Blackwell Station was deadlier for Thompson than the skirmish at the bridge. He suffered four killed and several more wounded, “but we killed another lot of the enemy and took 10 prisoners.”
Thompson’s Missouri State Guard had no means for conveying fifty-five prisoners, so he “swore them to refrain from fighting the Missourians or our allies until regularly exchanged.” They did, however, keep the officers.
This week, promised Thompson, they would take Ironton.1
How to Lose Mason and Slidell
The CSS Nashville, was not carrying James Mason and John Slidell, Confederate envoys to Europe. Nevertheless, that’s the ship the United States Navy was looking for.
It is reported that the steamer Nashville has run the blockade at Charleston, with Messrs. Mason and Slidell on board. Have you a fast steamer that can be spared? If so, let her be dis- patched to intercept the Nashville.
-Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy to Flag-Officer S. F. Du Pont
Immediately Du Pont dispatched the USS James Adger and USS Curlew. “The Department is anxious to have this vessel intercepted and taken,” wrote Du Pont to the commander of the Adger, “the speed of your steamer and her supply of fuel and your own intelligence offer the best chance of doing this of any vessel at my disposal.”
Du Pont sent the Adger east with orders to dock at either an English or French port for refueling.2
Mason and Slidell, however, were not aboard the CSS Nashville headed (directly) to Europe, but aboard the CSS Theodora, heading towards Cuba. On this date, they were somewhere around the Bahamas being helped through the waters by a Spanish ship.3
Harpers Ferry Wheat for the Union
Along the Potomac River, north of Washington DC, sat the much-coveted Harpers Ferry. Since Bull Run, the town had been sort of a no man’s land, sometimes occupied by the South, sometimes the North. By mid October, the farms around Harpers Ferry were harvesting their wheat. Over 20,000 bushels sat unguarded in a mill owned by Abraham Herr on Virginius Island, just south of town.
Herr contacted Union General John Geary, telling him of rumors that Confederate infantry under Turner Ashby were about to swoop down and steal it for themselves. If it was going to be taken, figured Herr, he’d rather see it go to the Union.
Geary was determined not to leave town until he collected all 20,000 bushels. His 600 men worked tirelessly refining the wheat and loading it on a barge in the Shenandoah River. As word of Ashby’s advance spread through the ranks, Geary realized that he would need his men to take up defensive positions around the town. He sent a detail door-to-door, impressing any able-bodied men they could find into the service as millers.
By the evening of the 15th, Herr’s Mill was completely cleaned out. Geary decided that at daybreak, he and his 600 men would recross to the Maryland side of the river, missing Ashby’s men completely.4
Sherman Returns Escaped Slaves
The Confiscation Act of 1861, signed by President Lincoln on August 6, granted a sort of freedom to slaves that had been impressed into service by the Confederate government. It did not, however, concern the slaves held by private citizens who had nothing to do with the war effort. In those cases, federal and state laws were still to be upheld.
When General William Tecumseh Sherman heard that escaped slaves were being sheltered in the camp of one of his regiments, he quickly put a stop to it by writing to the regiment’s Colonel.
The laws of the United States and of Kentucky, all of which are binding on us, compel us to surrender a runaway negro on application of negros owner or agent. I believe you have not been instrumental in this, but my orders are that all negroes shall be delivered up on claim of the owner or agent. Better keep the negroes out of your camp altogether, unless you brought them along with the regiment.5