An Official Look at the Battle of West Plains, February 1862

It seems every year about this time; my thoughts turn to the Battle of West Plains, which occurred on February 19, 1862. It isn't the anniversary of the fight that triggers my attention; it is the weather. The sleet storm we just endured in Howell County is much like what the combatants experienced that fateful day. Though I spent a minimum amount of time outside the past week, I got more than enough of the cold and wet to make me appreciate how harsh existence can be in the Ozarks in deep winter. 
Documentation of the Battle of West Plains is one-sided and found in the Union "Official Records of the War of the War of the Rebellion." Often abbreviated as the "OR," this massive work edited and published between 1882 and 1901 was primarily taken from field reports and correspondence created during the war. For today's article, we will draw on the report written by Lieutenant Colonel Samuel N. Wood, in charge of a battalion of the Sixth Missouri Cavalry. At the time, three companies were under Wood's command, 152 men, and assisted by a couple of companies of the Third Iowa Cavalry, commanded by Major William C. Drake, consisting of 110 men. 
The editors of the OR labeled the reports as a "Skirmish at West Plains, Mo.," which, in comparison to much larger battles detailed in the reports, was a minor event, but in the minds of the inhabitants of West Plains was the biggest event of the war. It represented the boldest and most violent incursion into our part of Missouri since the war started. Between the summer of 1861 and the end of the year, Howell county had been firmly in control of the secessionists. This fight represented a turning point in the war here, and waves of federal incursions followed, primarily to suppress the recruitment of men for the Confederate cause. Colonel Wood wrote to his superior officer Colonel J.B. Wyman in command of the Union post at Rolla:
Rolla, February 26, 1862.COLONEL: According to your order of February 15, I left camp Sunday, February 16, 1862, with all my available force, consisting of Company A, Capt. S. A. Breese, 42 men; Company B, Captain Hackney, 25 men; Company C, Lieutenants Martin and Hawkins, 27 men; Company D, Capt. E. M. Morris, 29 men; Company E, Captain De Gress and Lieutenant Cole, 29 men; total, 152; arrived at Salem, Mo., 
the same evening, and reported to Major Drake, Third Iowa Cavalry; got what information I could, and we mutually agreed upon an expedition south, and both went to work to get our commands ready to move. 
Major Drake's command consisted of Captain Miller and Lieutenant Cherrie and 60 men, Lieutenant McDannal and 50 men; total, 110 men; making a total force of 262 men; Company A, of my battalion, taking along their mountain howitzer. 
The 262-man task force, with the aid of a short barrel mountain howitzer, would provide a pretty even match against the rebel forces anticipated to be of a similar size. Reports had been received that Colonel William Coleman was recruiting with a heavy hand in South Central Missouri. His commander, General James H. McBride, had decreed that any male living here be compelled to join or be hanged, so often, it was a case of conscription rather than volunteering. As it turns out, Colonel Colemen and the bulk of his men had left West Plains about when Wood left Salem. Coleman likely took the old road north to Rolla while Wood was on his way south and east. Wood had intended to attack Thomasville but received intelligence that Coleman was at West Plains. Neither commander knew of the other's presence, and they passed each other in opposite directions on parallel roads. Wood's report continues:
We camped Monday night, 8 miles south of Salem. Tuesday, we traveled 30 miles, to Roark's store, in Spring Valley. Wednesday morning at 1 o'clock, we were in our saddles and on our way to either Thomasville or West Plains. Eight miles brought us to Harlow's Mill, a notorious rebel rendezvous, and 30 miles from either Thomasville or West Plains. A cold sleet had fallen all the morning. My men were completely saturated and almost frozen. We were compelled to halt and build fires to keep from freezing.
Here I learned that Coleman's infantry was at West Plains, but no troops in Thomasville. Where Coleman himself was I could not learn. I immediately detailed a small wagon guard and with the balance of command, including our mountain howitzer, pushed on 30 miles to West Plains.
There are several Spring Valleys in South Central Missouri. Here the report is speaking of the valley that feeds into the Jack's Fork close to the Jack Cox Hole, a deep pool of water. The area was a relatively busy place with Round Spring a short distance to the north, the location of the seat of Shannon County during the war. Further down the Jack's Fork at Harlow's Mill, north of what is today Mountain View, the troops stopped because the heavy sleet was building on the men's clothing, and the cold was becoming dangerous. Nothing to do but stop and build bonfires and interrogate the locals. Being told Thomasville was empty, but Coleman had been recruiting at West Plains, the group pressed on. A patrol like this, traveling light, could achieve around thirty miles a day. They often crossed creeks and traversed ice-covered hills we would not think of attempting today. Wood continued his report:
I sent Major Drake with the Third Iowa Battalion to take position on the south and east of the town. I sent Companies D, E, and C to the west, and prepared to enter the town on the north with Company A and the howitzer, supported on our left by Company B. At 3 p.m., we thus had the town completely surrounded. We advanced and entered the place, a brisk firing having commenced on our part. Not over half a dozen shots were fired by the rebels, they breaking and running in every direction. Supposing them posted in force in the court-house, Sergeant Moody opened fire upon the building with the howitzer. One shot with canister covered the entire front with bullet-holes. A shell passed through both walls and three partitions and then exploded.
My intent in this article is to let the Official Record (OR) speak, but a little explanation is in order. No trained cavalry unit would attack a fortified position on horseback without garnering casualties. In my opinion, the charge was made up to the spot where gunfire from the courthouse could accurately reach the attackers, where they dismounted and fought on foot. Wood and his men attacked from the north, pulling the mountain howitzer up today's Washington Avenue, where a broadside was fired into the log cabin courthouse. This accounts for the shotgun-like splatter described in the first shot, indicating the howitzer was not far off. When the 12-pound powder-filled ball was fired, the occupants were lucky it passed through the building without exploding. 
Major Drake's men were on the south side of the courthouse and, according to his report, arrived first and began firing. The small force of Confederate troops faced overwhelming odds, and most attempted to flee, as described by Colonel Wood:
The contest was brief. None killed or wounded on our side. Their loss was 5 killed, 1 mortally wounded (died before leaving the place), 8 slightly wounded, and 60 taken prisoners. We remained in town (which is only 10 miles from the Arkansas line) until the next day (20th) at 2 p.m. Of the prisoners taken about 20 were released, as there was no evidence connecting them with the rebel army. We also captured about 40 horses and 60 stand of arms, together with several wagons. 
At 2 p.m. Tuesday (February 20), learning that Colonel Coleman and 30 men were in Texas County, we marched north 20 miles to Hutton Valley, made one or two arrests, sending scouts in all directions to ascertain Coleman's position. We remained in Hutton Valley until noon (21st), but hearing nothing of Coleman we marched 20 miles north to Elk Creek. Saturday, I marched the main command to Houston, sending Captain De Gress and 20 men to Smiley's Mill for flour. Captain De Gress fell in with a party of 11 rebels, killed 2 and took 1 prisoner, arriving at camp at 9 o'clock p.m. Believing that other parties of rebels were in the county, I determined to scout the whole county.
I immediately prepared orders, and from 2 to 4 a.m., Sunday morning had sent out seven scouting parties of from 15 to 20 each. Hearing that Coleman had a fort near Smiley's Mill, I sent Captain Breese and 20 men to ascertain the fact, and if true to destroy it. The captain found a large frame house, the property of Dick Smiley. The inside partitions had been removed. Logs had been put up as high as a man's breast all around the house. Outside of this a ditch had been dug, the dirt being thrown between the logs and the building. A door had been heavily planked and port-holes cut just above the logs, making a position, if occupied by a few men, hard to take without artillery. Captain Breese set fire to it and burned it down. Lieutenant Cherrie returned before night, having found 10 armed rebels at Judge Gilmore's, and captured the entire party. Three or four other prisoners were taken.
Monday morning, being satisfied Colonel Coleman and party had escaped south, and no further work left for us to do, and being out of provisions, I directed Major Drake to return with his command to Salem, taking my own command, prisoners, and horses, and returning to Rolla, arriving here at one o'clock this day. The total number of prisoners is 60.
In conclusion I must bear testimony to the gallantry of the officers and soldiers constituting the command. We started with but five days' rations of sugar and coffee and but two of other articles, depending upon what the country afforded for subsistence. Without tents, traveling 225 miles in ten days, sleeping on the ground, half of the command constantly on guard, yet both officers and men endured it all without a murmur. I have the honor, Colonel, to be your obedient servant,
  S. N. WOOD. Lieut. Col., 
  Commanding Wood's Battalion, Sixth Mo. Vols.
Content Paywall Trunction: 

Howell County News

110 W. Main St.,
Willow Springs, MO 65793

Comment Here