BATTLE OF CAPE GIRARDEAU
FOUGHT 140 YEARS AGO TODAY
GEN. JOHN McNEIL
McNeil was 47 and the president of an insurance company in St. Louis when the war broke out. He acquired the nickname "The Butcher" for his summary execution of prisoners of war in northern Missouri in 1862. He commanded the Union troops at Cape Girardeau in 1863. After the war, he served as both sheriff and clerk of the criminal court in St. Louis County.
GEN. JOHN SAPPINGTON MARMADUKE
A Brigadier General by the age of 29, Marmaduke was the son of a Missouri governor and was educated at Harvard, Yale and West Point. During the war, he killed another general in a duel, but was nevertheless elected Governor of Missouri when the war was over.
GEN. M. JEFF THOMPSON
"The Swamp Fox" was the colorful leader of the rebels in Southeast Missouri. The mayor of St. Joseph, Missouri before the war, as a General he wore a white hat with a plume, carried a Bowie knife in his belt, rode a spotted stallion named Sardauapalus, and had an Indian orderly named Ajax.
As the sun rose on April 26, 1863, 5,000 Confederate soldiers under Brig. Gen. John Sappington Marmaduke took positions on a battle line on the western edge of Cape Girardeau, poised to attack. Six of the eight companies of rebels under Col. William L. Jeffers were Cape County boys, preparing to bombard and liberate their own hometown.
Ready to fend them off were 3,000 Union soldiers under the command of Gen. John "The Butcher" McNeil, who watched the Southerners advance as Cape Girardeau civilians rushed to the waterfront, frantically boarding steamboats to cross the river to the safety of the Illinois shore.
As the sun climbed higher in the sky, Marmaduke gave the command to attack. Fierce rebel yells and deafening cannonade soon filled the air.
When the Civil War broke out, Cape Girardeau was a town of 6,000 people. It was bounded by Henderson Street on the west, Washington Street on the north, and Jefferson Street on the south. Its residents were evenly split between northern and southern sympathies.
With the fall of Fort Sumter on April 13, 1861, the people of Cape Girardeau were forced to pick sides. Some joined the north, like Lt. Col. Lindsay Murdoch, who fled to Cape Girardeau from Bollinger County and raised four companies called the Fremont Rangers; others joined the south, like William L. Jeffers, a Mexican War veteran residing in Jackson, who organized a cavalry called the "Swamp Rangers."
In July 1861, Union forces began an occupation of Cape Girardeau that lasted until the end of the war. They imposed martial law. All citizens of Cape Girardeau, including those whose relatives were off fighting for the South, were required to take oaths supporting the Union. Those who refused to take it were jailed. Those who violated it faced punishments including jail, banishment, confiscation of property, or death. One spy was hanged on Themis Street after having been hauled to the gallows astride his own coffin.
In early August, Maj. Gen. John C. Fremont arrived in Cape Girardeau for a tour of inspection. Finding the town unfortified, he ordered the immediate construction of four formidable forts. Lt. Col. Lindsay Murdoch warned "the rebel sympathizers" residing in Cape Girardeau that "if the town was attacked by the rebels, I would certainly demolish their houses with the guns of Fort A."
Cape Girardeau remained a Union stronghold as the whirlwind of the Civil War raged across Missouri. By August of 1861 the Union had 3,000 soldiers stationed at Cape. Union patrols rode out daily. As Murdoch recalled: "We were employed in doing the cavalry service and picket duty. We scouted through Southeast Missouri. We had frequent encounters with Rebel bands."
Gen. M. Jeff Thompson was the leader of the rebels operating a guerilla war out of the Mingo Swamps in Southeast Missouri. "The Swamp Fox" would lead his men in ambushes and skirmishes with Federal patrols, but would then disappear into the swamps when larger forces pursued him. A Wisconsin Cavalryman named Edmund Newton wrote from Cape Girardeau: "This country is infested with marauding bands that murder and plunder all that come in their way. There are some swamps where men can skulk and hide and it is impossible to ride a horse that they have the decided advantage."
Col. William L. Jeffers, a "prominent" local citizen before the war, was now referred to in Cape's Union newspaper as "a notorious bushwhacker and horse thief of Jeff Thompson's gang." The same paper reported that Matthew Moore, the former publisher of the newspaper, was now a Confederate Colonel. His property in Cape had all been confiscated and his wife had died "of a broken heart."
On August 28, 1861, Brig. Gen. Ulysses Grant was placed in charge of Southeast Missouri. Shortly after his first inspection of Cape Girardeau on September 1, 1861, he led his men to victories at Fort Donelson and Fort Henry. In the bloody battle of Shiloh in April 1862, his 43,000 forces eventually prevailed over 40,000 southerners.
By April, 1863, all large southern armies had been driven from the state, yet the smaller packs of rebels and bushwhackers still harassed Union fortifications, patrols and sympathizers across Missouri. The stage had been set for the Battle of Cape Girardeau.
In April, 1863, the South sent John Sappington Marmaduke and 5,000 cavalrymen on a raid from Arkansas into Missouri. The plan was for him to secure provisions for his men, and to take Cape Girardeau, thereby forcing the Union to weaken its forces in the South by sending men back to Missouri. A fringe benefit would be the killing or capture of Union Gen. John McNeil, nicknamed "The Butcher" for his ruthless execution of rebel prisoners.
Marmaduke's 5,000 men were not quite as formidable as the figure sounds. "My whole strength was about 5,000 men, eight pieces of field artillery, and two light mountain pieces. Of this force about 1,200 were unarmed and 900 dismounted. Of those armed, the greater part had shotguns; some were armed with Enfield rifles and Mississippi rifles, and some with common squirrel rifles."
Marmaduke split his forces as he rode into Southeast Missouri. Half headed in the direction of Rolla, to disguise their true objective. The other half attacked a small Federal force at Patterson, and then attacked McNeil and 2,000 of his men at Bloomfield.
From captured correspondence, Marmaduke knew that McNeil had orders to go to Pilot Knob if attacked, so the Southern force that had started toward Rolla veered suddenly to Fredericktown, where it lay in wait to ambush McNeil.
Instead of heading to Rolla, McNeil and his men fled back to Cape after being attacked. Col. George W. Carter and 2,000 Texas cavalrymen chased them to the outskirts of Cape Girardeau, but pulled up when the Federals reached the safety of the fortifications. Carter boldly sent a formal demand for surrender to Cape Girardeau, giving 30 minutes for reply.
McNeil frantically sent word to General Samuel R. Curtis in St. Louis: "General: I am attacked by 8,000 men under Marmaduke. Expect to be stormed tomorrow. Can you send me two regiments of infantry and a field battery with supply of ammunition?"
Marmaduke and the rest of his men hurried to reinforce Carter, arriving at Cape Girardeau just in time for the battle. As Confederate Col. Gideon W. Thompson recalled: "We marched through the entire night and as red-eyed morning peeped out of the cloud-curtained window of the east, our advance entered the sleeping town of Jackson. Pushing on to a point 4 miles from town, the command was halted, where both men and horses partook of a hasty meal, during which a heavy fall of rain drenched to the skin my weary men. At about 8 o'clock [a.m.], I received orders from Col. Jo Shelby to move my command [into battle formation]."
The Battle Begins
From the heights of the Union forts, Federal soldiers waited nervously for the fight to start. Lt. Colonel William Baumer had been instrumental in preparing the plan of defense: "My idea was to meet the enemy outside the fortifications, and, [if] overpowered, to fall back to Fort B, and from thence to Fort A, which place could be held against any force of the enemy. The position selected by me was west of Cape Girardeau, about 3/4 mile from Fort B. The troops had made up their mind to defend the place to the last man, and never surrender to the rebels."
The Confederate forces advanced across fields at the base of a chain of hills on the outskirts of town, along a battle line extending roughly from what is now St. Mary's Cemetery near Capaha Park, across the general area of Clark Street near Central Junior High School, all the way to Bloomfield Road.
The main attack was made northwest of Broadway, near its intersection with Perryville Road. The Confederates quickly found themselves in a cross-fire from cannon at Fort B (the area now Academic Hall) and cannon on the hills where Southeast Hospital is now located.
Union Col. Baumer reported: "The guns of Fort B opened fire. The cross-fire of the artillerists so much skilled and intrepid, that the enemy could not advance from the ambush." Lindsay Murdoch recalled: "I was detailed to serve in Fort B, where the attack was first expected to be made. I was stationed at a siege gun manned by Lt. Zepp. I had a field glass and could easily locate the movements of the rebels. I observed a large field piece and indicated the position to Lt. Zepp, and he exploded a shell in the immediate vicinity of the gun, dismounting the same and killing three horses and wounding and disabling the whole battery."
From the rebel perspective, Col. Thompson said: "Captain Collins' battery, although greatly exposed to a cross-fire from the enemy's heavy guns, gallantly maintained its position and thundered forth a reply. The roar of artillery now became constant. The enemy's heavy guns from the forts on the apex of the hill overlooking our extreme left hurled their heavy shot and screaming shell furiously at our little battery."
Confederate Major John N. Edwards wrote: "A terrible artillery fire opened upon the advancing division, now wholly unprotected in the valley below. Collins rushed his battery to the front and engaged the heavy guns at close range, suffering so greatly that volunteers were called for to man his pieces. They came in dozens, and melted away almost as fast as they came."
Col. Thompson's description was poetic: "The enemy's forts and batteries continued to play upon our battery for more than one hour without intermission, and now and then swept the woods with shell and shot, canister and grape, while the mineballs came hissing a treble to the music of the roar."
The artillery duel lasted five hours, punctuated by charges the Union soldiers made from their positions behind the fortifications.
As Union Col. Baumer recalled: "The left flank, on Bloomfield Road, was protected by the First Wisconsin Cavalry. Three of their companies dismounted and fought the enemy on foot with their carbines."
Confederate Major Edwards described the battle evolving into far more than an artillery duel: "Shanks and Elliott, in a large peach orchard on the extreme right, were charged fiercely by a regiment of Federal cavalry, but they drove it back with loss after ten minutes of hot fighting. The enemy left their fortifications at last, and came down to grapple Shelby's command in the open field. The onset was destructive and lasted half an hour, but the Federals did not gain an inch by their determined efforts, and retired again to the comparative security [within the forts]. Around the battery and among the peach trees where Shanks and Elliott fought, the dead lay thick and in clusters."
Meanwhile, Union reinforcements were arriving by steamboat. Edwards recalled: "All [throughout] the hot hours of the fight the incessant screaming of steamboat whistles told of arriving reinforcements, and the departure of non-combatants for the Illinois shore. Commissary and quartermaster supplies of all kinds were piled in the streets and saturated with turpentine in expectation of defeat."
As Col. Shelby's men drove toward Fort B, Marmaduke sent him more men. "I deemed it necessary to bring Carter's column up to his support. I moved rapidly toward Shelby's column, and on arriving found that Shelby had driven the enemy's pickets and advanced into their works; that the enemy were admirably posted, possessing great natural advantages in position, supported by four large forts mounted with heavy guns, field artillery, and about 3,000 infantry and cavalry."
Faced with the risks inherent in charging the well-fortified Fort B, Marmaduke decided to retreat.
Col. Thompson agreed with the decision: "In my judgment it would have been impossible to have taken Cape Girardeau without charging it in force, and to have done this, under the circumstances, would have been wanton butchery and slaughter."
Edwards wasn't so sure: "The word 'charge' rang along the lines, and Shelby's skirmishers dashed up the large hill on which stood the nearest fort, almost to the guns, but the order was countermanded by General Marmaduke . . . A united attack by Marmaduke upon the forts with his entire force might probably have resulted in their capture. This was Shelby's opinion."
Once the decision to retreat had been made, the Confederates fell back to Jackson. The Union forces, now heavily reinforced by both 5,000 men under General William Vandever from Rolla, plus another 2,000 by steamboat from St. Louis, pursued them, attacking them at both Jackson and Bloomfield. The rebels headed south for Chalk Bluffs, Arkansas, where Gen. Jeff Thompson and Major Robert Smith had forged ahead to make a temporary bridge over the St. Francis river. Major Edwards later wrote: "The infantry, that is, the dismounted men, barely managed to cross on it -- one at a time -- like Indians on a war-trail; the horses were pushed in below, and made to swim over, while a huge raft was constructed by Major Lawrence for the artillery, and, piece by piece, slowly and laboriously it was ferried over." The rebels escaped across the river, before destroying the bridge to thwart the Union pursuit.
"The Swamp Fox" later recalled an unusual aspect of the retreat: "An interesting feature of the trip was the number of snakes seen. The whole country being under water except the sections of this road, the snakes for miles had congregated here to sun themselves, and it is not exaggeration to say that there was one to every ten feet, or five hundred to the mile for the whole length of the road."
Meanwhile, back in Cape Girardeau, the dead and wounded lay upon the field. Although exact figures are unknown, reported Federal casualties were 23 dead and 44 wounded. Marmaduke stated in his official report that his loss from the Cape Girardeau expedition was "some 30 killed, 60 wounded, and 120 missing." Major Edwards wrote that "over 100 of our men were badly wounded and left in hospitals."
With the Confederates in retreat, McNeil's tone in his communications with General Curtis turned cocky: "The attack of the enemy has been brilliantly repulsed. I think you may give yourself no concern about Cape Girardeau. Do me the favor to keep my family advised with the progress of events."
Sources/Read More About It
William J. Crowley, Tennessee Cavalier in the Missouri Cavalry: Major Henry Ewing, CSA of the St. Louis Times (1978).
John N. Edwards, Shelby and His Men or The War in the West (1867).
James E. McGhee, Campaigning With Marmaduke: Narratives and Roster of the 8th Missouri Cavalry Regiment C.S.A. (2002).
John C. Moore, Missouri, in Clement A. Evans (ed.) Confederate Military History (1899).
Lindsay Murdoch, Narrative of the Services of Lindsay Murdoch in the War of the Rebellion From 1861 to 1865 (Typescript), Kent Library, Southeast Missouri State University.
Stephen B. Oates, Confederate Cavalry West of the River (1961).
Jerry Ponder, Major General John S. Marmaduke, C.S.A. (1999).
Felix Eugene Snider & Earl Augustus Collins, Cape Girardeau: Biography of a City (1956).
M. Jeff Thompson, Brig. Gen. M. Jeff Thompson: His Story (Edited by his daughter, Marcie A. Bailey), Missouri Historical Society, Columbia, MO.
W.L. Webb, Battles and Biographies of Missourians or The Civil War Period of Our State (1900).
Bennett H. Young, Confederate Wizards of the Saddle: Being Reminiscences and Observations of One Who Rode With Morgan (1958).
The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the War of the Union and Confederate Armies, 128 volumes (1880-1901).