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Saturday, Aug. 30, 2014

No. 238: Consumed by Fire

Thursday, November 4, 2010

During the Civil War or in any war, "fire" or the act of burning something of the enemy was and is common practice.

Normally use of fire is part of the carnage and chaos of war that included the burning of buildings, barns, bridges, fences, homes, towns and anything that could and did provide aid and comfort to the enemy. However, on occasion, "fire" was used as a weapon on a battlefield and this occurred near the end or immediately after the Battle of Mine Creek on Oct. 25, 1864. At that time the prairie grass was 4-5 feet tall and as dry as wheat straw. Therefore, a fire with this as fuel would be a deadly raging inferno. No one knows for sure who specifically set the tall prairie grass on fire, but bum it did. The fires could have started during the chaotic battle or they could have been deliberately set by the Confederates to create a "smoke screen" that would assist in their withdrawal from the battlefield. This is of course what the "Union" troops believed. It does not matter how or who started the fires, because they, the fires, had a fatal affect on both the troopers in Blue and Gray and that is described in the conclusion of this column. All of the following quotations that describe the aftermath of the Battle of Mine Creek are located on Pages 221, 222, 225 and 226 in Captain Richard Hinton's book entitled the "Rebel Invasion of Missouri and Kansas in 1864."

The (Mine Creek) Battlefield with its hideous concomitants (circumstances) of death and suffering was veiled by the intervening timber. Beyond the valley, bodies of troops, dimly discernible, were pressing forward to join the pursuit. Thin columns of smoke, wreathing upward in the soft summer haze, told of the desolation that the invader had wrought behind us. Before (us) were rising denser and fresher the same black tokens, and the van of their march was plainly distinguishable by ruddy masses of cloud which told of burning prairie, hayricks and buildings. As the bugles along the line blared forth the advance, the division moved in the direction of the Little Osage (River), near which, some four miles distant, the enemy's main advance could be seen. Halfway upon the prairie, fresh smoke was rising densely, telling of some new horror. When our skirmishers moved past the house, the bloody form of a young man, just shot down, was to be seen at the threshold. It was a well cultivated farm. The extensive ricks of hay and corn stalks which were stacked in the barnyard were burning, while all the adjoining prairie was fast blackening with the flames which ran along its swells. The house had been stripped.

The young man was a member of the Linn County Militia, who knowing the enemy's march would be by his dwelling, had left his command and reached it, only in time to be murdered. Further to the west some miles, a heavy volume of smoke could be seen rising from a dense body of timber.

Our march down the (state) line had been so rapid and work from the previous three day's fighting so great, that but few of the surgeons were with the pursuing troops. Surgeons Ashmore and Twiss, of the 11th and 15th Kansas, were left to take care of the wounded. The resident practitioners. Doctors Bender and Hiatt, heartily cooperated. Every suitable building at Mound City was converted into hospitals for our own and the rebel wounded. About two hundred rebel dead were buried by the citizens on the field at Mine Creek. For days after, bodies were found in the long grass and brush fringing the stream, where the wounded had dragged themselves. Sixty wounded rebels were conveyed to Mound City and there received every attention that humanity demanded. A number of our own wounded were also moved hither, as afterwards others were taken to Fort Scott. The noble women of Linn County labored unremittingly in full gratitude for their rescue.

The wanton burning of the prairie, in which the rebels indulged, was in the end mainly injurious to themselves. These fires swept the fields of Mine Creek and the Osage, burning the bodies of their wounded and charring the remains of their dead. At Mine Creek, many of their wounded were burned to death.

The 1st Division found many of the charred bodies as they passed. In one instance, a man was lying on his face and his clothes had all been consumed except his pockets, which were protected by his body. In the pockets were found some Confederate script, a few dollars in specie (currency) and a pass which the soldier had received from his commanding officer, allowing him to visit home for a week. This proved afterwards the means of recognizing the dead man. At Fort Scott, where the rebel prisoners were collected and a good deal of inquiry was being made by them concerning the fate of various comrades, the Union soldier who had taken this pass from the pockets of the dead rebel, walked up to the line (of prisoners) and inquired if any of them knew of such a man, calling the name found on the pass. "Yes" eagerly replied one of the rebels coming forward. "Was he taken prisoner?" "Why, what do you want to know for?" "He was my brother," was the quick response. "Well," said the Union soldier, "All I can say is, that you have burned your own brother to death; I found this in his pocket.

Did the previous conversation actually take place or was it a bit of literary license used by Captain Hinton? Hinton's book is considered to be an excellent accurate work by historians so realistically there is know reason to doubt his word. However, know additional independent accounts of this conversation /incident are known to exist which would make it more believable.

Therefore, we do know that "fire" was used as a defensive weapon to assist in the Confederate withdrawal from Mine Creek and of course the War Went On!



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Arnold W. Schofield
Battlefield Dispatches