After the Battle of West Plains - One Hundred Sixty-One Years Ago

In my last article, I ran out of space reviewing the Battle of West Plains and its aftermath one hundred sixty-one years ago. We looked at the attack as described in the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, a compilation of reports from both sides published two decades after the war. These reports, however, were contemporary with the times, and we considered one filed by Lieutenant Colonel Samuel N. Wood. When looking at these reports, we must remember the writer was interested in his role in the battle and likely wrote to please his superiors. 
Wood wrote his superior officer just before the expedition, "of course, we must change our course to suit circumstances at the time, for if the Secesh Devils are this side of Arkansas, we are going to make them fight. Keep an eye open for News."
Glory in the newspapers was often a goal of Sam Wood. A staunch abolitionist, in his pre-war life, he had been the founder and editor of an abolitionist newspaper in his home state of Kansas. Wood had often been in the news there, moving to Kansas from Ohio before the war to participate in the struggle to determine if Kansas would be a free or slave state. When the war started, Wood came to Missouri to fight enemies he had been fighting for years. 
Not everyone was on board with Wood's description of the fight. First, we look at the other Union troops participating fully in the skirmish. Their commander, Major William C. Drake of the Third Iowa Cavalry, wrote his commander Colonel Cyrus Bussey, describing the fight differently. His after-action report, again part of the Official Records, written at Salem, Missouri, on March 4, 1862, stated:
"I have been unable to make regular reports of my command, owing to absence on sundry and divers scouts, &c. At the time our last report should have been made, we were out on a scout in force."
"On February 17, 120 of my command were attached to Lieutenant Col. S. N. Wood's battalion of 120 men, under orders to scout through Dent, Shannon, Howell, and Texas Counties. We returned, bringing with us 100 prisoners, 80 horses, mules, &c., 80 rifles and shot-guns, 2 kegs of powder, a large lot of commissary stores, and other contraband articles, including wagons, ambulance, buggy, &c., most of which were captured at West Plains, the county seat of Howell County, and the balance at Houston, the county seat of Texas."
West Plains could not have had more than one hundred people left when two hundred sixty-two uniformed Union soldiers on horseback showed up and grabbed everything and everyone. One of those was State Representative Thomas Jefferson Howell, the man for whom our county was named. 
The quantity of loot taken from West Plains was a problem for Wood. Before the war and his first days of fighting here in Missouri, he had garnered a reputation as a "Jayhawker." He wrote many missives to his men about taking things that didn't belong to them. Thievery was rampant. 
Major Drake continued in his report, "West Plains was the headquarters of Colonel Coleman, the guerrilla chief of this country. He had there at the time of our descent about 40 infantry, forming a nucleus for a regiment of Price's army. Himself and his cavalry force were absent on a scout. At about a mile and a half before reaching the town Colonel Wood's battalion and ours separated, to enter the town from different sides. Our boys got there first and made the attack, resulting in 6 killed and 10 wounded of the enemy and the rest prisoners. After the fight was all over, Wood's men came up."
Here Drake may be laying it on a little thick. In retaliation for Wood's not mentioning his men's involvement, he returned the favor and discounted Wood and his men's participation. Since Wood had the cannon that played a pivotal role in getting the Confederates out of the courthouse, both men and their commands deserved credit.  
"Our boys behaved like veterans and did credit to your command. We expected to find Coleman and his mounted men there and looked for quite a brush, but we were disappointed. At Houston we expected a fight, but found no one there to oppose our entry. Took possession of the town; remained there over Sunday, and returned on Monday to Salem. Colonel Wood took prisoners and property to Rolla. General Halleck telegraphed to General McClellan that Colonel Wood had driven the rebels from Dent, Shannon, Howell, and Texas Counties. The Third Iowa Cavalry was not mentioned, at which the boys feel highly indignant after doing all the work. For state of my command would refer you to accompanying report. With great respect, I am, your obedient servant, William C. Drake, Major, Commanding."
Six Confederate soldiers were killed in the fight at the Howell County Courthouse. There were no Union causalities in the battle. The identity of the men who died that day is unknown. While records exist for some of the men injured, none were kept for the killed. Coleman's recruiting efforts included conscription or the involuntary induction of military-age men into his regiment. His records of the early formation of this regiment, if any were kept, did not survive the war. Upon surrender of Coleman's regiment at the war's end, rosters were made, and many of the names and details of those injured or captured were obtained then. These records indicate that most men were from counties to the north, including Texas, Dent, and Laclede. Some of the men were from the Arkansas counties bordering South Central Missouri.  
It is, therefore, likely the men killed that day were not local. In other skirmishes, local men killed were identified, and friends and family members marked gravesites. Since the Union troops remained in town another day, Coleman and his men probably did not recover the bodies, and they were buried by the Union troops or local citizens soon after they were killed. Their comrades, forty in number, ten injured, were taken from the scene as prisoners. It appears the identity of the deceased Confederates quickly faded from memory.
From the field, we have the bravado of a letter likely written by a Third Iowa trooper and published by the Missouri Democrat in St Louis. By the way, the Missouri Democrat was a Republican newspaper, and the Missouri Republican was Democrat-leaning. The soldier wrote:
"Our boys have been resting after their long and wearisome scout-not thinking they had done any very 'great-shakes.' They are able, ready and anxious at all hours of the day or night, as the doctors say, to undertake a contract for delivering to headquarters at Rolla any number of secession beasts, either 'neat' or on the foot. That's what they left Iowa for. That's what's the matter."
"To make the record right, a few words about the scout south seem appropriate. This is done with no wish to pluck a leaf from the laurels of Wood's Cavalry or 'any other man.' ..On the afternoon of the third day (of the patrol), after much tribulation and privation, from having too much weather and too little material for the digestive apparatus to amuse itself with, they arrived at a secession hole and recruiting station, called West Plains, in Howell County, having cleared their way from here to that place of all rebels and other 'varmints,' taking care that nobody went ahead of them with the news."
"According to programme, Major Drake, with his command, made a detour around the town, while Lieutenant Colonel Wood stationed himself half a mile this side (north) to trap such individuals as might try to give leg bail in that direction. Major Drake and his men charged into town on the opposite side and did up their business so rapidly and in such good style that Wood's men had nothing seriously awful to do. Major Drake's men 'went in' like veterans, and for a while had Fort Donelson on a small scale." 
"They entirely killed seven rebels, wounded ten to give them a chance to repent, and took fifty prisoners in out of the damp. They had taken a contract for increasing Price's band of marauders but couldn't fill it. Shotguns, pistols, rifles &c., a large number of horses and mules, and three other rebel commissioned officers were seized as contraband. Several mule and ox teams were also levied on." 
"After the town had been thoroughly cleansed of all nuisances, Lieutenant Colonel Wood brought up his mountain howitzer and punched a hole through the Courthouse, and on the next day, our forces marched to Judge Alsop's, where they found a great rarity in that section - a good Union family and a hearty welcome. The judge was of great service to our men."
Ben Alsup, who lived just south of present-day Willow Springs near the junction of modern highways 60 and 63, was to pay a high price for his professed loyalty. Soon after the Union forces vacated the area, around the first of April 1862, a Confederate squad sent by Colonel William Coleman arrested Alsup, who had served on the county commission and earned the name "Judge." The Springfield, Missouri, Weekly Patriot in March 1874, while he was serving in the Missouri House of Representatives, profiled Alsup, writing, "During the war, Alsup acted as guide and spy for the Sixth Missouri Cavalry. While so serving, he was captured by Coleman's band of guerrillas and taken to Little Rock, Arkansas, where he was confined in the penitentiary as a convict for one year. Some of his hard duties there are represented to be 'playing horse' in running a bark mill. In the latter part of May 1865, he was exchanged at the mouth of Red River after spending time as a prisoner at Camden, Arkansas, and Shreveport, Louisiana."
On at least two occasions, Union authorities attempted to trade a prisoner for Ben Alsup. The first was our State Representative Tommy Howell, and the second was a Confederate-sympathetic neighbor named John Elkins. The Confederates refused, and Alsup remained a prisoner until the war ended. 
We don't have much from the other side. Two prisoners wrote of their capture after both were wounded in the battle. One carried a musket ball in his shoulder for the rest of his life. None give any details of the fight from the southern perspective. 
Colonel Wood and Major Drake were back in Howell County less than a month later on their way to a fight near Spring River Mill, today's Mammoth Spring, Arkansas. It was a much longer battle than West Plains, and the Union forces lost three men killed and twenty-one wounded. The Confederate loss was estimated at one hundred. Wood and Drake worked together to achieve a significant victory, and Wood commended Drake for his gallant conduct.
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