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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Battlefield Dispatches No. 280: 'The Battle of the Mules'

Friday, September 2, 2011

On Sept. 2, 1861, a small battle occurred near the present town of Deerfield, Mo., that was the conclusion of a two-day engagement that has two names. This engagement has been called the Battle of Drywood because of its proximity to the Big Drywood Creek and the Battle of the Mules because of the capture of 200 "Union" mules and horses.

It was a Confederate victory because the "Union blue-bellied Billy Yanks" were forced to retreat to their beloved "jayhawker" state of Kansas without approximately 200 horses and mules that had been captured from them near Fort Scott on the previous day, Sept. 1, 1861.

The following account of this battle was recorded by Col. Thomas Moonlight in his personal "Civil War Journal." The original journal is located in Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. It was transcribed by two colleagues (Kip Lindberg and Matt Mathews) and published as an article in the 2003 spring issue of the "Arkansas Historical Quarterly." The account of the Battle of the Mules is located on Pages 7-9.

"On the afternoon of the 1st of September (1861), while still encamped at Fort Scott, Col. Stein of the rebel army with a regiment of cavalry charged our camp (Note: "Union" camp was located approximately two miles east of Buck Run on the open prairie.), stole 200 head of horses and mules and retired in good order (back) into Missouri from whence he came.

Next morning (Sept. 2) early, a cavalry command started in pursuit numbering 445 men and myself with howitzer and nine men, under the command of Col. Montgomery, started in pursuit of Col. Stein. (Note: At this time Col. Moonlight was a "captain," commanding the "Union" artillery that consisted of a single 12-pound howitzer and gun crew.)

By noon we struck the Drywood Creek and, at the same time, a regiment of rebel cavalry, supposed to be Stein's. No time was lost in forming a line, but at them we went, pell mell and away they went helter skelter, through the timber, across the creek and onto the open rolling prairie, a distance of about two miles, and us close at their heels.

(Note: This is the only "Union" advantage which changes rapidly, broaching on disaster.)

Into battery I came, loaded with canister (for I was in advance of our line and not over 200 yards from the regimental flag) expecting to extinguish the entire (rebel) line of cavalry at one discharge, when much to my astonishment, right in front of me, hidden by the rolling nature of the ground, was a whole Rebel battery of nine guns ranging from a 12 pdr. field piece down to a 4 pdr. (Note: Being outnumbered by nine to one cannons was not good for the "Yanks.")

During the time I was coming into battery, loading, etc., the (our) cavalry ranged up on each side and dismounted and were a shot could be fired on our side, the rebel batteries opened with all kinds of shot. Fortunately for us, they overshot their mark.

I shall never forget the look of consternation depicted on the faces of all around, (for) not one man from the colonel commanding (Montgomery) down knew the presence of the enemy (was) in greater force than the cavalry command we had been pursuing and but a very few of (our) command had ever stood before muzzles of an enemy battery.

Our position was a trying one, and I acknowledge I felt doubtful of ever seeing my six pounder (cannon) left with Bickerton. Having judged the terrain difficult, I felt my charge of canister was useless, but to give courage and cheer up our side of the fight and show the rebels that we could sport a battery.

"Bang," "whish," sent the canister in the direction of the enemy. (Note: Cannister for a 12-pound Mountain Howitzer consisted of a tin cylinder containing 78 lead balls, each nearly 1.4 of an inch in diameter. When fired at close range, it had a "deadly killing" effect of a shotgun, and when fired at long range, it was often ineffective.)

The Sharps rifles of our men began to crack lively on every side, and from that moment until the retreat was ordered, no man ever thought of his personal safety. My first discharge of a shell dismounted (severely damaged) a six pounder of the enemy, thus reducing their number to eight guns.

The fight lasted for one hour and one half, during which time I changed position of my gun 12 times and fired 39 shells and canister shots with killing effect on the enemy, as the distance was exactly united to a mountain howitzer but too close for the enemy's longer ranged guns. The distance between us was about 300 yards, and it is owing to this alone that we were not cut to pieces.

The rebels suffered terribly, and soon the retreat was ordered; his battery was silenced, for as we afterwards learned, their artillery officers were all killed or wounded as well as their cannoneers, and they had not a horse left to drag the pieces off out of range.

We just retreated in time, for (enemy) infantry and cavalry were surrounding us on all sides, and we lost a number of men ere we could effect our retreat. The whole affair was brilliantly conducted and I say today, that southern Kansas owes her salvation to that fight.

I have never been able to understand why so large a rebel force should get so near to us without the knowledge of our brigade commander.

Nor have I ever heard of any explanation of the circumstances, be it as it may. There was Sterling Price with his whole army of 7,500 men, infantry, cavalry and artillery and against the entire army did 448 cavalrymen and 9 artillerymen with one mountain howitzer, fight one and one half hours, having only 20 killed, wounded and taken prisoner besides a number of horses, while the enemy buried 55 men on the field, left some 47 dead horses, besides hundreds wounded slightly and seriously which were carried off and left at different farm houses on the march to Lexington.

After the Battle of Drywood our force retreated to Fort Lincoln on the Little Osage. Gen. Price abandoned his idea of invading Kansas, for these reasons:

First, on account of the weather, the rain came down in torrents the evening of the battle and continued for several days rendering it next to impossible to drag along artillery, particularly as he would in Kansas be in an enemy's country and could not move by detachments (small units).

Second, he had by reports been led to believe that Lane had about 10,000 men at Fort Scott and Fort Lincoln and that the latter was a strongly fortified place.

Third, so obstinate had been the resistance he had met with from a mere handful of men on Drywood, that it looked like madness to fight an equal force and hope for success.

He had tested the mettle of Kansas soldiers at Wilson's Creek where on the southern side every man was strained to hold their own, instead of wiping out the hireling Lincolnites as they called them.

On Drywood a mere handful of men had not only offered battle to his whole army, but had held that army at bay for 1 1/2 hours, inflicting such punishment as caused the rebel chief to think twice before he entered Kansas once (again)."

The first two of Moonlight's reasons for the Confederates not invading Kansas in September of 1861 are accurate. The third and concluding paragraph are biased literary rhetoric of the day.

Today, based on research and other "Civil War" accounts, in September of 1861 Gen. Sterling Price never planned to invade Kansas. His major objective was to reach the Missouri River, which he did.

Therefore, the Battle of Drywood or "the Mules," whichever you prefer, would not have happened if the Confederate reconnaissance force had not been pursued after it successfully captured the 200 horses and mules.

The facts are that it did happen and, this time, the Johnnie Rebs from Missouri defeated the Billy Yanks from Kansas and, of course, the war went on!

Arnold W. Schofield
Battlefield Dispatches