Wednesday, October 6, 2010


[ Fort Davidson and the Battle of Pilot Knob: Missouri's Alamo by Walter E. Busch (The History Press, 2010). Softcover, photos, illustrations, notes, appendices, index. 191 Pages. ISBN: 978-1-60949-023-2 $21.99 ]

Prior to last month's publication of Walter Busch's Fort Davidson and the Battle of Pilot Knob, readers seeking a book length treatment of the bloody beginning to Sterling Price's 1864 Missouri Raid had a pair of studies available, the classic Pilot Knob: The Thermopylae of the West by Cyrus A. Peterson and Joseph M. Hanson (1914) and Bryce A. Suderow's excellent modern tactical history Thunder in Arcadia Valley: Price's Defeat, September 27, 1864 (1986). Busch, natural resources manager for the Fort Davidson State Historic Site, initially sought only to reproduce in print a trio of memorial pamphlets for publication, but the addition of more information, including several chapters dealing with background material as well as post-war memorial efforts by veterans, resulted in Fort Davidson and the Battle of Pilot Knob.

Fort Davidson, by 1864 a strong pentagonal earthwork armed with siege guns, guarded the terminus of the Iron Mountain Railroad at Pilot Knob, Missouri. The route passing through Arcadia Valley was important for its iron ore mining and transportation, and Union forces occupied it in late 1861. The first four chapters of Busch's study discuss the economic and military significance of the region, as well as, briefly, the September 27, 1864 sanguinary failure of General Sterling Price's army to capture the fort from General Thomas Ewing's defenders. The action is also recognized for the dramatic planned detonation of the fort's magazine and the improbable concurrent escape of the garrison during the night. The rest of Busch's narrative, a pair of chapters, are devoted to post war efforts to commemorate the battle, primarily through the veteran spawned Pilot Knob Memorial Association. These men held reunions and GAR "campfires" on the site, and led serious efforts to purchase the fort site for preservation. Lobbying efforts to make Pilot Knob a national battlefield failed, but other government entities would take the reins and Busch summarizes the lengthy process that led to the creation of the Pilot Knob State Historic Site in 1987.

The other two-thirds of the book's main body comprise transcribed Pilot Knob Memorial Association anniversary booklets 1904-1906 (to include illustrations). Typical content is a series of addresses by prominent public and private individuals, but there is other information useful to historians such as lists of survivors present. There was also an attempt to compile a list of Union casualties. An interesting series of heated newspaper editorial exchanges between a Confederate and Union Col. David Murphy (the Pilot Knob artillery commander) discussing Confederate numbers and losses appears as an appendix to the last booklet. In addition to the three pamphlets is an 1882 Iron County Register article outlining the events of the battle.

A number of photographs and period illustrations are placed throughout the book. Busch also compiled a list of Federal units that operated in Arcadia Valley during the war. His other two appendices comprise extended photo captioning and the text of the proposed bill to create the Pilot Knob National Battlefield. While Bryce Suderow's book easily remains the best narrative history of the battle, Busch's contributions are of a different nature*. In addition to the publication of obscure veteran memorial booklets, Fort Davidson and the Battle of Pilot Knob does have enough original information to merit purchase by a broader reading audience. Those studying the memorialization of Civil War battles and battlefields, one of many hot topics among today's scholars, might also take a keen interest in the title.

* - Busch does make some controversial assertions in the book. He places Price's strength at 20-25,000 men, far above the traditional figure in the neighborhood of 12,000. The author also declines to view the overall raid as a disastrous failure, instead claiming that the war was substantially lengthened by the diversion of Union forces from more vital theaters. Neither is well supported by evidence presented in the book, perhaps forming the germ of another study.


  1. Thank you for your kind review. I only wish to answer the two comments you make near the end.

    Unfortunately, book length did not allow me to write much about the 20-25,000 soldiers of Price's Raid. Over the past 10 years, Fort Davidson staff has compiled a list of soldiers from known units, prisoner records and guerrilla information for those acting in unison with Price. We have over 22,000 names for which we have eliminated as many duplicate names as possible. Even if 10% of the list is in error, he still has 20,000 men with him by the time he reaches Westport.

    As to the lengthening of the war, that is indeed a topic of some of my talks. Part of that coincides with Bryce Suderow's comment on page 133 of Thunder in the Arcadia Valley that Price's Raid delayed the Mobile expedition as it pulled troops from that theater of war which delayed the capture of that last vital port for up to four months. Some historians consider the fall of Mobile as the final nail in the Confederate coffin. If so, Price truly lengthened the war and his raid is not an utter disaster.

    Again, thank you for the kind comments about the book and I am glad you picked up on the research about memorial associations. This project allowed me to collect a lot more information about the Pilot Knob Memorial Assoc than we realized was out there.

    Walt Busch

  2. Walt,
    Thanks for commenting. I hope you try to publish your findings someday. I would be interested in reading them.



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