Monroe City Battle


Monroe City Civil War Battle

Can you imagine going to watch an actual battle in progress? Many people did, during one of the early battles of the Civil War in northeast Missouri.

War clouds over northeast Missouri had grown steadily darker. Federal troops were stationed at Palmyra to guard the railroads and to see that no slave or Free Negro uprisings took place. A large part of the population sympathized with the South, the rest with the North. Companies of the State Guards had been or­ganized to back up Governor Jackson’s Secessionists’ sympathies.

The Honorable Thomas A. Harris had been appointed Brigadier General in the Confederate Army and had established headquarters at Florida in Monroe County. By July 5, 1861, he had about five hundred men in his company.

Scouts and spies had kept the Federal authorities informed about the movements of these State Guards, and Colonel Smith, stationed at Palmyra, was ordered to march his Federal troops to break up the camp.

On Monday evening, July 8, Colonel Smith’s troops went into Monroe City by train. They intended to march by night, and attack General Harris’ camp at day­break. A severe storm came up and they stayed the night in Monroe City.

Before they left on Tuesday morning, the men had told half the people in Monroe City of their destination and intention. Either feeling sure of his influence or inexperienced in the ways of warfare, Colonel Smith didn’t leave a single guard at Monroe City to protect the town, the railroad, and his own ammunitions.

The troops marched out over the prairie and through Swinkey Hills. At Hagar Hill they met about fifty mounted Secessionists under Captain Clay Pierce, and after a minor skirmish Colonel Smith retired to the Hagar farm for the night.

During the afternoon and night reports came in, telling Colonel Smith that he had stirred up a veritable hornet’s nest. Seces­sionists were swarming all around him. They had gotten to the rear of his forces and were playing havoc with Monroe City. Early on Wednesday, July 10, Colonel Smith began his retreat. Emerging from Swinkey, they discovered the station, its outbuildings, six passenger cars and ten or twelve freight cars in flames.

Colonel Smith marched his ‘Federal troops on into town and took refuge in a two story brick building known as the Seminary. Here they undertook to hold off the State Guards under General Harris.

The State Guards fought ineffectively for three days. The Federalists’ ammu­nition ran short, but they really didn’t need it. A messenger had been sent to Palmyra for help from the Federal troops there, and General Harris had sent for a cannon the Secessionists had hidden near Palmyra.

 People gathered on the street. They came in buggies, in wagons, and on horse­back. It was like a picnic or a holiday. Since there were no serious casualties during this period of fighting, it can be believed the battling troops were being considerate of their audience, or perhaps just inexperienced.

 General Harris was a veteran speech maker. It was said he would give a speech, given two people for audience. He didn’t pass up this golden opportunity. At noon Thursday, July 14, the cannon he had sent for hadn’t arrived. He told his audience that it would be foolhardy to try to take the Seminary without that cannon. Many noble lives would be sacrificed. It was his opinion that ‘the best thing to do was to retreat. Colonel Smith was expecting a large reinforcement of Federalists at any time. General Harris closed his speech by ordering his troops to disperse and retire to their encampment and await his further orders.

The troops refused. The cannon arrived and the fighting resumed at one o’clock. The cannon was a nine pounder, and only a few nine pound balls were on hand. After they had been shot . . . doing little damage . . . six pound balls were used. The State Guards hadn’t been too accurate with the nine pound balls. With the six pound ones, it was said the only safe place was immediately in front of the gun. One shell struck the road about thirty feet in front of the muzzle of the gun, ricocheted to the left one-fourth mile, struck a blacksmith’s shop and dispersed a crow of onlookers. They fled to safer quarter declaring they couldn’t stand being fir on by their own men as well as the Yankees.

About 4:40 a train was seen approaching slowly from the east. General Hart had neglected to tear up the railroad tracks as thoroughly as he should have Salt River bridge had been burned, but a transfer had been made easily to get around it, the tracks easily repaired, and the train bearing Federal troops and a gleaming brass cannon was coming to the rescue of Col. Smith’s men. Although the train had been fired upon by Secessionists, only a slight rifle wound in the en­gineer’s arm had resulted.

As the beleaguered Federal troops at the Seminary set up a loud cheer, the Federal soldiers on the train opened up the cannon with grape shot . . . and the State Guard broke rank and skedaddled in short order. On no order at all. Eye­witnesses described the scene as highly ludicrous. The many spectators came in handy. Would-be soldiers hid their guns and sought safety in the buggies and wagons with the women and children. Others galloped away, wildly.

The prairie swarmed with buggies, wagons, horsemen, and retiring soldiers on toot. The battle . . . or picnic . . . was over. Wild rumors of the battle had been circulated and reinforcements had been sent out from Illinois. By Friday, July 15, the day alter the battle, two thousand Federal troops had moved on to Palmyra, on the way to Monroe City. Colonel U. S. Grant arrived and moved on to Mexico when he learned the battle was over.

So began and ended, the first Civil War Battle in northeast Missouri. Prob­ably one of the very few battles in history to have women and children as interested spectators from choice. badly executed. They landed here in eighteen cars and went off on their expedition, leaving them without guard.