December 28, 1861 (Saturday)
Two days before Christmas, the commander of Union forces in Missouri, General Henry Halleck, began to crack down upon secessionist bridge burners in the northern part of the state. To suppress the insurrectionists, he placed General Benjamin Prentiss in charge of the troops near the Northern Missouri Railroad. His orders were to “kill or capture” the bridge burners.1
Prentiss left for the town of Sturgeon the next day, though six inches of snow had freshly fallen upon the frozen ground. Four hundred cavalrymen accompanied the General on his trek, with other units in close cooperation.2
The Unionist bridge burning in Eastern Tennessee, though well organized and even supported by the United States government, did not have the numbers behind it that the secessionist bridge burnings in northern Missouri had. All told, there were maybe several hundred Unionists in Eastern Tennessee who took up arms against the Rebels. In northern Missouri, however, thousands had attempted to enter into the service of the Missouri State Guard, but had been hampered by the Union troops blocking their way to General Sterling Price’s secessionist force, now holed up near Springfield.
On Christmas Day, Col. George Todd of the 10th Missouri (US) reported that there were possibly as many as 1,000 in and around Danville, a small town eighty miles west of St. Louis.
General Prentiss’ journey to Sturgeon took every bit of two days, arriving on the evening of the 26th. The next day, he received word of secessionists in Hallsville, ten miles south of Sturgeon. That morning, Prentiss sent a troop of cavalry under Captain Howland to reconnoiter the town. But when Howland got to Hallsville, no Rebels could be found.
Undaunted, he pushed a few miles farther, where the he stumbled upon the secessionists, organized into a regiment under Col. Caleb Dorsey, marching away from Hallsville. Dorsey’s Rebels had been marching towards Mt. Zion Church, five miles southeast of town, to establish a camp. Howland pecked at their rear guard just as the church was coming into view. Two Rebels went down with the first Union shots, but Howland’s men, seeing they were outnumbered, retreated.
Dorsey’s Rebels gave a hot chase, catching up with their enemy a mile or so from Hallsville, where a sharp, ten minute skirmish echoed over the fields.3 One Union soldier was mortally wounded, but through the lightening surprise that only cavalry can bring, Howland managed to take nine secessionists prisoner.
Soon, however, the overwhelming body of Rebels poured a great fire into his scattering lines. Howland’s horse was shot out from under him, while another bullet crashed into his leg, and he was captured.
The rest of his men turned quickly to retreat from the Rebels, who did not pursue. Howland’s men made it back to camp at 6pm, giving Prentiss the bittersweet news. The enemy position had been uncovered, but at the cost of a Captain.
Prentiss took immediate action and ordered the remainder of his men, 470 souls, to march on Hallsville. By 2am, they were en route and reached the town just after dawn. An hour or so later, Prentiss found the advance Rebel picket line on the left of the road near Mt. Zion Church.
Prentiss sent two companies of sharpshooters to pass around the Rebels and hit their rear, while a company of cavalry assaulted their front. The secessionist pickets saw the flanking maneuver, and retreated towards their main body at Mt. Zion Church, but not without taking some heavy losses (five killed, seven captured).4
The main Rebel body near the church was, according to General Prentiss’ account, 900 strong. According to the Rebels, however, they numbered around 350 with some of the men being unarmed. The differing stories did not end with numbers.
At first, three Federal companies (one cavalry, two sharpshooters) tried to break the Rebel line, but failed. They tried again, and failed. At this, another company joined the fray and both sides slugged it out for thirty minutes, pushing the Rebels back into their camp. Col. Dorsey’s secessionists were running dangerously short on ammunition and were compelled to retreat, leaving behind ninety horses and 105 stand of arms, as well as their wounded.5
As was usual, each side overestimated the others’ losses. Prentiss put the Rebel loss at twenty-five killed and 150 wounded, while the Rebels claimed the Union lost thirty killed, sixty wounded. In reality, Union losses were three killed, sixty-three wounded. The secessionists lost five killed thirty-five wounded. Ten men on each side were taken prisoner.6
The first steps to halt the organization of Rebel forces in northern Missouri had been taken.
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 8, p459. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 8, p460. [↩]
- The History of Boone County, Missouri, 1882. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 8, p44. [↩]
- The History of Boone County, Missouri, 1882. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 8, p45, as well as The History of Boone County, Missouri, 1882. [↩]