Drywood: The 'Battle of the Mules'

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Special to the Herald-Tribune

Why a Civil War marker at Deerfield? Two reasons in particular, another just in general: Contrary to popular conceptions, Vernon County was as embroiled in that great event as any out-of-the-way comer of Virginia. Little tragedies and stirring dramas took place almost everywhere. The two bigger brushups are known to history buffs by name. And both of them took place in the Deerfield vicinity, more-or-less book-ending the war between them.

Missouri, seeking to mark all Civil War sites in the state, leading up to the war's sesquicentennial in 2011, has at last gotten around to commemorating those two.

On Nov. 15, Jim Denney of the Department of Natural Resources met with others at Leon Emery's truck stop and planted the plaque pointing out for buffs and other bypassers' benefit that a battle took place off this-away. and a skirmish off thataway.

The skirmish came first, and it's already had its reminder. A few years ago the Sons of Confederate Veterans erected in the old jail yard in Nevada a monument, one of a series honoring the Missouri State Guard and the engagements it fought. The back side explains the State Guard, the front the Battle of Drywood, actually only a skirmish, though the winners blazoned it proudly on unit flags, along with Carthage, Wilson's Creek, and Lexington.

The 19 out of 20 Vernon Countians who in summer 1861 "favored the Southern cause" sent forth more than one MSG unit, but most notably the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the 8th Division, including some 483 county men, most of them by now "known but to God," under the command of 30-year-old Nevada attorney Col. DeWitt C. Hunter.

They "first smelled powder" at Carthage, and played a pivotal if mercifully unbloody part at Wilson's Creek, where word reached them that things might not be well at home, Jayhawkers "committing all sorts of excesses" against their defenseless families. Softhearted Gen. Sterling Price let them return home, himself soon following with an eventual 12,000 men.

They camped first near Montevallo, then near Nevada. Early on Sept. 1, 1861, Price sent out a large force, guided by some 75 of Hunter's men, to feel out Federal strength at Fort Scott. It was Sunday. The "Army of Kansas," really just Jim Lane's private killing and pillaging gang, was holding services in a grove in the Marmaton Valley.

The Rev. Capt. James Montgomery, sometime Campbellite preacher, as usual was passing out hellfire when the 75 Rebels got between the Kansans and their horses and mules. "Yelling like Comanches" they herded 86 mules home eventually into Price's camp. From this farcical beginning the whole engagement to come would at times be humorously known as "the Battle of the Mules."

Lane determined to abandon Fort Scott. Trading his Bible for a Sharps rifle, Montgomery led 448 men out to confront the Missourians and cover his leader's retreat.

Meanwhile, the Rebel scout group reconnoitered across Big Drywood Creek at Hogan's Ford, a mile or so south of tiny Deerfield. Soon the enemies sighted each other. The Missourians showed their inexperience.

"Incautious and unwary," some future notorious Bushwhackers were captured. Price himself arrived and ordered up his artillery.

It, too, proved amateurish, and was "well-nigh silenced" by a lone howitzer manned by future famous Sgt. Thomas Moonlight. A rifle and pistol duel broke out. Price here showed the caution or sluggishness that often would prove his undoing, standing on the defense till at last, an hour and a half into the fight, it dawned on him the Kansans had only a fifth his numbers, and ordered his line to advance.

Considering his purpose accomplished, Montgomery turned tail, back toward Kansas in good order. Vernon County's Maj. W. W. Prewitt, "who knew the ground well," led the pursuit. But the chase was "desultory and ineffective, and soon called off." Price's whole army camped on the field, traditionally the earmark of the victors. But Price hadn't achieved much, except to panic the Kansans, especially Fort Scott itself. The Missouri loss was two killed and 23 wounded, that of the Kansans, five killed and six wounded: pretty much of a draw.

Not all the Vernon Countians took part; many being still scattered in their homes, on furlough. Price himself was dining with Col. Sample of Deerfield Township, 3 miles east, when he first heard cannon fire, mounted his horse, and rode to the scene.

At Fort Scott, pandemonium prevailed. Price, with his 12,000, was expected at any instant. Citizens fled in droves. Lane completed his evacuation in a heavy rainstorm, ordering Montgomery with 800 mounted men to hold out as long as possible, and then burn everything. The would-be protectors passed their last hours tipsily hurrahing and pillaging the town, proving a far worse foe than Price, who at that time had no thought of invading Kansas.

In his Drywood camp, all was drenched. So many guns were discharged in cleaning that "at a distance it seemed as if a skirmish were in progress."

The next day, Sept. 4, the Missourians resumed their march north for Lexington, hoping to recapture the heart of their own state. They reached Lexington on the 12th, and on the 20th, following a fabled siege, the town surrendered. It was the highwatermark of Southern fortunes in the Western theater. Within weeks, Price reluctantly pulled back south, behind the Osage, to spend the late fall days of 1861 in the so-called "Sauk River Camp," around the scenic overlook west of Osceola, recruiting and training for all-too-soon-to-come battles.

Price's diversion to Drywood failed to achieve its aim of preventing the Jayhawkers from "forming an army to fall in behind him and harass his rear." While he was waging conventional war at Lexington, the Kansans were heroically torching Osceola and other towns, "clearing out everything disloyal, from a Shanghai rooster to a Durham cow." This "mutinous rabble" hauled home from Osceola wagonloads of women's dresses and grand pianos. The "regimental chaplain" lugged stolen altar furnishings to equip his own unfurnished Kansas church.

Drywood didn't protect Vernon County long, either. At news of the fate of Osceola and Price's pullback, "all roads leading southward were fairly thronged with fugitive families," till hardly a Southern family was left west of Nevada. Not long after the Drywood fight, the first "Federal" troops (some of Montgomery's bravoes) entered Nevada. They murdered a civilian and drove off a herd of horses, no doubt making up for those 86 mules!

Editor's note: Another account of this battle was described through the eyes of a soldier in "Battlefield Dispatch-es," a column by Arnold Schofield, Fort Scott, in the Sept. 2 edition of the Herald-Tribune. The surprise attack and capture of the Kansas mules also is in the 1887 "History of Vernon County" A rescue mission failed to bring those mules home.