Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Gifford: "WHERE VALOR AND DEVOTION MET: The Battle of Pilot Knob"

[Where Valor and Devotion Met: The Battle of Pilot Knob by Douglas L. Gifford  (Historynutt Books, 2014). Softcover, maps, photos, footnotes, appendices, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:222/252. ISBN:978-0-578-14600-3 $19.99]

Of the many battles and skirmishes fought during General Sterling Price's 1864 Confederate campaign in Missouri, the Union army's successful defense of Fort Davidson and miraculous nighttime escape is among the best documented. For decades, the standard account has been Bryce Suderow's Thunder in Arcadia Valley: The Battle of Pilot Knob (SEMO University Press, 1986)1 and the book under consideration here, Douglas Gifford's Where Valor and Devotion Met: The Battle of Pilot Knob, is a more than worthy successor.

With its iron ore industry and rail connection to St. Louis, it's easy to see why Missouri's Arcadia Valley attracted the attention of both sides. In 1864, the valley's defense was anchored by Fort Davidson, an enclosed hexagonal earthwork located between the town of Pilot Knob to its immediate north and Ironton a short distance through Ironton Gap to the south. Shut-Ins Gap formed the southeastern entrance to the valley. The fort was protected by a deep ditch and well stocked with heavy siege guns, its weakness being its potential to be commanded by a pair of steep eminences, Shepherd Mountain to the west and Pilot Knob to the east.

With Jo Shelby's Confederate division operating to the north isolating the Arcadia Valley and blocking possible Union reinforcements, the Battle of Pilot Knob began when one brigade of James Fagan's Confederate division captured Shut-ins Gap and attacked Ironton. The next day, Fagan's entire command and the third division of Sterling Price's Army of Missouri under John Marmaduke surrounded Fort Davidson. Inside the earthworks and also deployed just outside the fort walls in rifle pits were 1,500 Missouri and Iowa troops augmented by white and black civilian volunteers, the entire force under the command of General Thomas Ewing. During the battle, Price's artillery was dominated by the Union siege guns and the piecemeal Confederate dismounted cavalry assaults against the fort were all repulsed with heavy losses. Low on artillery ammunition, Ewing was determined to evacuate the fort during the night instead of surrender.  He marched his command right through Confederate lines, the rear guard blowing up the fort's magazine. The next morning, Marmaduke's division pursued but was unable to bring Ewing to heel before the Union command reached safety at Leasburg2. Demonstrating solid grasp of the valley terrain as well as the tactical movements and command dilemmas of both sides, Gifford covers all of the above events with clarity and skill. The initial Arkansas phase of the campaign is also ably summarized. While the published literature hasn't advanced a great deal in the intervening period between Thunder in Arcadia Valley and today, Gifford's integration of a much larger body of archival material into his lengthier narrative makes Where Valor and Devotion Met a richer and more satisfying learning experience.

The author's deft analyses of the command decisions made at each stage of the operation are among the book's best features. On the Union side, Gifford is sharply critical of Arkansas district commander Frederick Steele's remarkable passivity in allowing Price to arrive at the Arkansas-Missouri border undamaged. One can only wonder how much lingering memories of near disaster earlier in the year during the Camden Expedition affected Steele's command mindset.  Ewing gets high marks but is also credited with an incredible turn of pure good luck.  The more famous Spring Hill incident has nothing on the Fort Davidson garrison's passage through Confederate lines unchallenged along the Caledonia-Potosi Road during the night of the 27th-28th. In equally fortuitous fashion, when the men tasked with blowing up the fort did so right as the tail of the column was leaving instead of two hours later, the Confederates didn't even bother to investigate. On the retreat, Ewing did make an excellent decision to reroute his foot bound column along ground unfavorable to Confederate cavalry, but luck in the form of an unusually passive Shelby and impeccable timing again emerged. Like other writers, Gifford lauds Lt. David Murphy's handling of the siege artillery, his gunners blasting to ground each assault and smashing every Confederate attempt to mount their own inferior weight guns on the high ground above the fort. The skill and bravery of Major James Wilson on the Pilot Knob battlefield is duly recognized, but the author correctly admonishes the unfortunate officer for failing to properly scout the approaches to Arcadia Valley and keep Ewing informed of the strength and location of Confederate forces beyond the immediate environs.

On the Confederate side, the command assessment is much more negative. Price conducted yet another undisciplined operation, not keeping his forces concentrated and taking no preventive measures to limit looting of homes and businesses. The dispersed Confederates missed a golden opportunity to surprise the Union defenders and maybe even catch a large proportion of the garrison outside the walls of the fort. Fagan attacked Ironton on the 26th with a force too small to carry the position and too big to keep secret the presence of Price's army. With Marmaduke too far away to join the fight until the following day, Ewing was able to perfect his defenses. On the 27th, Price's plan of attack was conventional yet too optimistic in its timetable, with the outnumbered defenders able to repel each attack in turn.  Most assaults did not reach the ditch in front of the fort and some (especially those of Slemons and McCray's) were truly feeble attempts. As mentioned above, how Archibald Dobbins's brigade, camped just off the very road utilized by Ewing to escape, missed the passing Union column during the night is unexplainable.

Where Valor and Devotion Met does discuss many of the enduring controversies surrounding Pilot Knob. The strength of Price's army is the focus of some debate, especially recently3. In the text, Gifford goes with the traditional 10-12,000 figure, mentioning in the footnotes but not addressing critically Fort Davidson State Historical Site resource manager Walter Busch's claim that Price took twice that many men into Missouri. The author challenges the conventional view that much of the newly conscripted strength of Price's army was made up of inexperienced men. No sources are provided to back up this assertion, but Gifford's conjecture that many of the men rounded up by Shelby in NE Missouri during summer 1864 were discharged soldiers, deserters, or guerrillas sounds plausible. Unlike many of Price's modern critics, Gifford has more sympathy for the measured pace of Price's movements during the early Arkansas and Missouri phases of the expedition, which wasn't a raid in the traditional sense. Although he doesn't present a detailed explanation of his view, the author dismisses the claims of other writers that St. Louis could have been captured if Price had moved faster. Rather than dooming once and for all Confederate chances at capturing St. Louis, Gifford finds the real significance of Pilot Knob to be its role as savior of Union controlled Jefferson City, with the time and blood expended in Arcadia Valley allowing the Missouri capital to be transformed from ripe plum to impregnable. On a similar note, the author might have explored in more depth the Confederate option of bypassing Pilot Knob altogether. Finally, wide disagreement remains over Confederate casualty figures for the Pilot Knob battle, with some modern estimates as low as 500 and contemporary figures running as high as 1,500. Gifford is very skeptical of the lowest figure, though given how quickly most of the assaults went to ground that number seems reasonable to this reviewer.

Maps are plentiful in Gifford's study. Though they lack scale and are a bit raw in execution, they do adequately provide the terrain and troop movement information necessary for readers to understand the battle. The greatest complaint lies with the unpolished state of manuscript, with its frequent typographical errors and other editorial missteps. However, the positives of Where Valor and Devotion Met far outweigh shortcomings in presentation. In content and analysis, Gifford's book offers the best treatment to date of the September 1864 clashes in Missouri's Arcadia Valley and how the results of these battles affected the conduct and outcome of the greater campaign across the state.

1 - A revised and much expanded 2nd edition of this study has just been released by Southeast Missouri State University Press under the new title The Battle of Pilot Knob: Thunder in Arcadia Valley. Gifford's book raises the bar of Pilot Knob studies and the ball is now in the court of the new Suderow-House edition to raise it even further.
2 - Gary Scheel's Sixty-Six Miles in Thirty-Nine Hours: The Retreat from Fort Davidson, Pilot Knob to the Battle of Leasburg (Author, 2002) is a nice account of this phase of the battle.
3 - See Busch's Fort Davidson and the Battle of Pilot Knob: Missouri's Alamo (2010). Busch backs up his astonishing claim by citing a list of names compiled by park staff over a ten year period.


  1. Drew:

    Another solid, thorough review.

    This brings to the fore again something which I've always thought about - information sharing where two authors undertake essentially the same project in the same time frame. The first that comes to mind is Cozzens and Sword on Chattanooga and there have been others. This seems to be the latest. Since most readers are unlikely to purchase a "duplicate", it would seem to be in publishers' interests, at least, to avoid "cannibalizing" each other given that most of these books are directed at a specialized audience. I have in the back of my mind a few nstances where somebody backed off his project for that reason (names not currently coming to mind). This one really seems to be splitting a small target group of consumers.

    1. Thanks. Yeah, I always go back and forth on this. Another example is when Clemens was miffed about Pierro's version of the Carman papers. I don't think I would ever want to discourage parallel projects, because we all know countless examples of books never getting finished (and then we have nothing at all).

    2. True dat. I think there's a middle ground. I'm trying to think of the one a couple of years back where one of the potential competitors got wind of the other's project, which had an earlier ETA, and turned over some of his work. Exactly how you'd want this to work in a perfect world. There was also a recent discussion on Dave Powell's site where Brad Butkovich suggested that he may ditch his Resaca project in favor of Scott Patchan's, which is apparently underway.. And sometimes the "duplicates" are different enough that both ought to go forward. I mentioned Cozzens and Sword because those were virtually simultaneous and indistinguishable, at least for me.

  2. Hi, is there maps in this book the cover the retreat and battle of Leasburg? That was something that was sadly missing from Scheel's account. Thanks.

    1. No map of Leasburg itself but there are two that trace the retreat route.

    2. I ended up ordering Suderow's for perhaps an odd reason (in addition to the fact that he's a "known quantity"). In the introduction to Gifford's which i accessed on Amazon, and so far as I could tell, he addresses all of the previous works on the battle and the campaign, with one exception - Suderow's. That's unconscionable, IMHO, or it means that he missed it (highly unlikely). I assume that when an author does that, he can't justify his book or make a favorable comparison. That's probably not accurate in every case, but the wise author acknowledges the other works and explains where his/hers fits in. "Wise" because otherwise he/she is costing themselves a sale. I take the same approach to anything about Gettysburg, for example - "why should I buy your book?" I note, by the way, that Suderow apparently did acknowledge a guide by Gifford.

  3. In preparation for a recent trip to the Pilot Knob battlefield, I read 'Where Valor and Devotion Met: ...' just after reading the staff ride guide of the same battle also written by Mr. Gifford. I found the former a great read and the latter just what I need to prepare for and accompany me on my "tramp". I have since read Mssrs. Suderow' and House' revised edition of 'Thunder in the Arcadia Valley' and found it to be a very informative work as well. Next on my reading list is the old stand by 'Pilot Knob Thermopylae of the West'. I am a member of that 'specialized audience' so, for me, the more works on the subject the merrier.

    The account of the retreat to Leasburg was an unexpected delight.


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