January 8, 1863 (Thursday)
Nearly a year and a half of terrible conflict and blood had slowly flowed by since Springfield, Missouri had last witnessed the horrors of the battlefield. Much had changed since August of 1861, when Confederate forces of the west defeated the Union army at Wilson’s Creek, just south of the city. A few months later, Northern arms retook the town, but now, it was threatened again.
After a day of successful raids and the burning of the two Federal strongholds of Ozark and Fort Lawrence, the Confederate cavalry under General John Marmaduke was at Springfield’s door.
In command of Springfield was General Egbert Brown, who, despite the rumors placing Marmaduke’s numbers at 6,000 (they were really only 1,500), decided to stay and defend the town, the armory and the supply depot. He took precautions, by moving the supplies to Fort No. 1, in the far northwest outskirts of the town (still only about a half mile away). He also made plans to set fire to the armory, two blocks south of the square, should the Rebels win the day.
Before dawn, Brown sent scouts and pickets south to suss out how soon the Rebels would arrive, and to hopefully delay their coming.
“The sun came up on the morning of the 8th like a ball of fire,” wrote Confederate General Joseph Shelby, “and the day was gloomy and chill; but Springfield loomed up before us in the distance like a beautiful panorama, and the men, catching the inspiration of the scene, forgot all their trials and hardships, and were eager for the rough, red fray.”
Springfield was defended by several forts, but the main concentration of Federals was at Fort No. 4. A line was formed to the northwest, ending at Fort No. 1. Artillery, though not much of it, was ready at both.
To the south, around 10am, a smattering of musket fire could be heard two or three miles distant. Exchanges between the advancing Rebels and Union pickets caused the latter to come tumbling back. To slow down the Confederate advance, Brown ordered two cavalry regiments of Missouri militia to ride and meet the coming foe, but soon they too were thrown back by the tide of Rebels.
“With flaunting banners, and all the pomp and circumstance of war, the Federals had marched gaily out to meet us, and taken their position in our front,” recorded General Shelby after the battle. With two of his cavalry regiment dismounted as infantry, he formed line of battle and prepared to attack.
Shelby, in his official report, set the scene:
There lay the quiet town, robed in the dull, gray hue of the winter, its domes and spires stretching their skeleton hands to heaven, as if in prayer against the coming strife, and, drawing near and nearer, long black lines came gleaming on, while the sun shone out like a golden bar, uncurling its yellow hair on earth and sky, stream and mountain, and lent the thrilling picture a sterner and fiercer light. My skirmishers advanced steadily, and now continual shots in front tell that the enemy are found and pressed sorely.
When his men came under the range of Union artillery, Brown opened upon them, and the Rebel artillery (two guns) responded in kind. All the while, the small arms fire increased as more from each side joined the fight.
Hours slipped by until it was early afternoon. A Federal regiment near Fort No. 4 made a sharp charge against the Rebel right, but was driven back. Shortly after, another Union regiment hit the Rebel center, meeting the same fate.
On the Union right, a regiment of Confederate cavalry, commanded by Col. Emmett MacDonald, just in from Fort Lawrence, scouted and then attacked south of Fort No. 1. They drove back the Union line, capturing several houses.
Fearing that the retreating Federals would soon be reinforced, Shelby ordered a much larger assault. “Gallantly it was done, and as gallantly sustained,” he wrote. “At the command, a thousand warriors sprang to their feet, and, with one wild Missouri yell, burst upon the foe; some storm the fort at the headlong charge, others gain the houses from which the Federals had just been driven, and keep up the fight, while some push on after the flying foe. The storm increases and the combatants get closer and closer.”
In the surge, the Rebels captured a piece of artillery and took possession of a half-finished fort (Fort No. 2) near the center of the Union line. Shelby had been right, soon, the pushed back Federal line received reinforcements and was able to regain much of the ground that was taken.
But not the houses. Through the windows, Confederate sharpshooters picked off any exposed Union soldier they pleased. This included General Brown, who, upon seeing his line wavering, was riding forward to steady his men. He was shot in the shoulder, and though it wasn’t thought to be life threatening, he was taken behind the lines. Union command fell to Col. Benjamin Crabb of an Iowa regiment.
The battle, now with a deafening roar, ebbed and flowed as each side charged and counter charged. In one last bid for victory, Marmaduke and Shelby hit the Union center and right, hoping to break the line wide open.
For thirty minutes, the Rebels pressed and finally the Federal line began to give way. A Missouri militia (US) officer ordered his men to mount up and retreat, which they promptly did. This caused even more men to get out while the getting was good. But before the Rebels could take advantage, Col. Crabb was able to rally his Federals back into line.
More Union reinforcements helped bolster their confidence, and a quick flank attack upon the Confederate right by Union cavalry led to wild cheering and stayed the Rebel advance.
But it was dusk that ended the battle. Or, as Shelby penned: “Night came down with weary, brooding wings, laid her dark brow across the cloudy sky, and threw her sable mantle over fort and wall and house and men, checking the bloody strife, and calming the furious passions that had been at war all day.”
The Confederates backed off a bit, taking shelter in the captured, but unfinished, fort. When full darkness was upon the field, they retreated even farther, several miles to the south.
Union losses were fairly light with 30 killed, 195 wounded, and 6 missing. The Confederates, doing the attacking, lost around 80 killed, 200 wounded, and 12 missing. Marmaduke would decline to renew the attack the following day.
((Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 22, Part 1, p182, 184-186, 196-197, 200-202, 208.))