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Saturday, Apr. 30, 2016

Battlefield Dispatches 230: 'Portfires Light the Way'

Friday, September 3, 2010

Traveling by the darkness of night during the Civil War was often fraught with danger and could be hazardous to one's health.

This was especially true when traveling on rough roads or roads that passed through heavily wooded areas or swamps at night. The following after action report describes how one creative "Union" Major used antiquated ignition devices known as "portfires" to "light" the way as his patrol or scout passed through a thickly forested area in southeast Missouri in the dark of night. A "portfire" was similar to a modern "road flare" that burned very hot and bright and before the Civil War it was used as an ignition device in firing a cannon. It was probably named a portfire because in a way it is "portable fire". By the time of the Civil War, portfires were obsolete because they had been replaced with "friction primers", but they were still carried in the artillery ammunition chests as a secondary means of ignition in case the friction primers failed to work, were lost or the supply was exhausted.

The following after action report is located on Pages 550-551 in Series I, Vol. 22, Part I, Reports of the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion.

"Headquarters, 1st Battalion, 2nd Mo. State Militia Cavalry,

Cape Girardeau, August 20, 1863.

Sir: In compliance with your instructions of the 9th instant, I marched with my battalion and one company of the 2nd Arkansas Cavalry under the command of Lieut. W. F. Orr, at 9:30 p.m. the same evening to re-enforce Major Montgomery, commanding the Post at Bloomfield, whom you had informed me you supposed to be in imminent danger. I marched all night, though with some difficulty, having in several instances, owing to the DARKNESS and thickly wooded glades, to LIGHT the "PORTFIRES" (belonging to the mountain howitzer [small cannon] which I brought with me) to enable the drivers (teamsters driving wagons) to keep to the road and arrived the next day at Bloomfield.

I telegraphed you from Bloomfield that, from all the information and indications, I thought Major Montgomery need have no fears of an attack and on the 12th received orders from you to move my command through the Ash Hills, in the direction of Pocahontas, [Ark.] to obtain all the information possible touching rebel forces in the southern tier of [Mo.], counties; and should I find no body of rebels, was to proceed no farther south than the Ash Hills and return via of Greenville or in that direction to the Cape.

In obedience to the above instructions, I moved in the direction indicated the same evening. Marched all night, to avoid the intense heat, resting a few hours at Camp Pool, near Saint Francisville, to rest and feed. Then, moving forward, we crossed the Saint Francis River at Indian Ford and proceeded down the Ash hill road 10 miles along the west bank of the Saint Francis and entered Ash Hills country about 5 p.m. on the evening of the 13th.

At this point, hearing of no enemy and my men and animals being very much fatigued, I took Captain P. D. McClanahan and two men in advance to select and lay out our camp, when, coming to a short angle of the road, we met face to face, about 80 ARMED GUERRILLAS. The column being about 200 yards in [our] rear, we CHARGED them with SABER & PISTOL, KILLING 6 on the spot, wounded several & captured several horses; also a large lot of ammunition & arms, when they broke like sheep to the swamp. In the melee I received a shot through the right leg, which proved very painful. Having no doctor or ambulance, I had to ride on horseback five days after being wounded. I also had my horse shot nearly at the same instant that I was wounded myself and he fell heavily upon me, injuring me considerably. The casualty occurring to myself and horse was the only one received by my command during the entire scout. About 2 miles from the scene of the skirmish we went into Camp McClanahan and rested for the night; distance from Bloomfield about 40 miles.

On the morning of the 14th; continued our course through the Ash Hills until we arrived at their base, striking Black River; then moved north on the east bank of the river and arrived & encamped at Poplar Bluff, 25 miles from Camp McClanahan. Came up with 3 more GUERRILLAS during the day, who were KILLED.

On the morning of the 15th, we marched up 6 miles on the west bank of the Black River, crossed the ford and proceeded in the direction of Greenville, encamping at Camp Law, on Otter Creek, 25 miles from Poplar Bluff.

On the 16th, broke camp at daybreak, passed through Greenville and went into Camp Rogers, 18 miles from Dallas and 25 from Camp Law.

August 17, reveille at 3 a.m. left Camp Rogers at 4 a.m. and marched to Camp Thomson, within 23 miles of the Cape.

August 18, left camp Thomson at 4 a.m. and arrived safely in camp at Cape Girardeau about 3 o'clock the same day.

From Bloomfield to Saint Francisville the road leads across a high and rolling country, but from Saint Francisville to Ash Hill there is little or nothing but glades and swamps, which, at any other season of the year would be utterly impracticable for artillery. The roads through Ash Hills are indistinct and wretchedly bad & again upon striking the river, there are about 10 miles of glades to pass through before reaching Poplar Bluff. The little howitzer that I had with me was the first thing in the shape of artillery that ever passed over that road. I think the distance from Bloomfield to Poplar Bluff via of Ash Hills is about 50 miles.

Forage out of the question, the men in that country preferring BUSHWHACKING to HONEST LABOR. The roads from Poplar Bluff to Dallas mostly pass through rolling BARREN & UNINHABITED SECTIONS, but are good and must be at all times practicable for the heaviest artillery. I found great difficulty procuring forage enough for my command between Poplar Bluff and Dallas, as Marmaduke's [Confederate] and General Davidson's [Union] commands having consumed everything within reach. New hay is plenty between Dallas and the Cape and the farmers at those points are assiduously at work raising good crops of corn.

From all the information I could collect, I have good reason to believe that there are no considerable armed bodies of rebels in the State, as I had good information that they were all ordered south to ward the line of Texas and those that now remain are merely MUTINEERS or GUERRILLAS, who have refused to obey orders, taking it as a subterfuge that they belong to the old [Mo. Confederate] State Guard and cannot be taken out of the State. I should have no hesitancy to take one squadron and move in any direction through this portion of the State.

To the officers and men under my command I tender my sincere thanks for their good conduct and cheerfulness throughout the trip. During the march of 200 miles I never heard a murmur, although we frequently marched twenty-four hours without eating.

I especially recommend to your notice Captain McClanahan and Buglers E. Z. Shannon and W.C. Thatcher for their unflinching courage and bravery in following me where none but the brave and true could have fought and lived. To them, I owe my life and a never-ending debt of gratitude.

I am colonel, very respectfully, your obedient servant,


Major, Commanding, 1st Batt,

2nd Missouri State Militia Cavalry."

Now then, in a commanding a successful scout of 200 miles, using "Portfires" to illuminate the darkness of night to assist in safe travel and mentioning the good conduct of the men under his command, Major Poole clearly demonstrated some of the characteristics of an excellent officer and of course the War Went On!

Arnold W. Schofield
Battlefield Dispatches