The Fight at Jackson Fairgrounds:
Confederate Victory Against the Odds
©2003 Kirby Ross
with an Introduction by James E. McGhee, ©2003
|The Fight at Jackson Fairgrounds: Confederate Victory Against the Odds © Kirby Ross|
|Author’s Note & Introduction|
|Ch 1 – Lindsay Murdoch||Ch 6 – Playing a Squally Game of Marbles|
|Ch 2 – Chasing Phantoms||Ch 7 – Aftermath|
|Ch 3 – Closing In||Ch 8 – Mopping Up|
|Ch 4 – Hell Breaks Loose||Epilogue|
|Ch 5 – To the Death||Bibliography|
|Return to Civil War St. Louis|
In the course of researching the Federal Missouri State Militia and its counter-insurgency operations in Missouri, I ran across the obscure story of the Skirmish at Jackson, Missouri. The event itself was not unusual for the state—as Missouri historian and writer James E. McGhee mentions in his Introduction that follows this note, over 1000 military engagements took place there during the Civil War. What is unusual, and even remarkable, is the level of documentation that exists concerning the Jackson affair. It did not take long for me to see that this was a story waiting to be told—a story that might just be one of the most detailed accounts of a small-unit action existing in regard to the Trans-Mississippi Theater. So detailed, in fact, that it has even been possible to deduce who killed whom in the fighting.
Despite the fact the number of soldiers that participated in the Jackson Skirmish barely totaled 90 men, no fewer than eight first-person eyewitness accounts relating to it have surfaced—most of which have been gathered through the work of Jim McGhee. Where one personal anecdote would fade off and leave the reader wondering what happened next or what happened on other parts of the far-flung field of battle, lo and behold, another version would surface, until finally a very comprehensive, all-encompassing picture emerged. While my efforts in weaving each account into a seamless, cogent, single story was at time quite trying and entailed more than a few rewrites, I believe the final result that is embodied in the story that follows is an accurate depiction of what transpired in and around Jackson, Missouri, on the first days of April in 1862.
By Charley Hester, Edited by Kirby Ross
available for pre-order at Amazon.com
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Missouri was the scene of over 1,000 engagements during the American civil war, ranking it third behind only Virginia and Tennessee in the number of military encounters that occurred within its boundaries between 1861-1865. Some of the Missouri battles were large affairs that decided important strategic issues, involved sizeable numbers of troops, and resulted in great loss of life. The bloody combats at Belmont, Lexington, Pilot Knob, Wilson’s Creek, and Westport fall into that category. Much of the warfare in the state, however, consisted of little fights between small groups of men simply intent on killing one another. The skirmish at Jackson in April 1862 is a classic example of the type of fighting that most often happened in Missouri during four years of internecine warfare.
The engagement at Jackson, sometimes referred to as the “Battle at the Fair-Grounds,” was a chance encounter between a small group of Confederate recruits and a Union militia detachment from Cape Girardeau determined on driving them from the area. Barely mentioned in the official records of the war, it has been nearly forgotten, even by the people of Jackson. But the skirmish at the fairgrounds was important to local residents in 1862 for at least two reasons. First, the fight brought home the dreadful reality that war was not necessarily something that occurred elsewhere; the townspeople actually heard the exchange of fire between the contending parties and later viewed the blood and pain of wounded soldiers first hand. Secondly, the men who fought that day, especially on the Confederate side, were “their” boys, members of the local community that were suddenly seen in the unfamiliar role of soldiers. Doubtless the war never seemed quite the same to Jackson residents after seeing it so close to home.
After the fight at Jackson the Union troops of the Missouri State Militia that were involved returned to Cape Girardeau. Their unit would undergo several reorganizations over the succeeding months and spend the remainder of the war fighting local guerrillas and Confederate raiders that occasionally penetrated Missouri.
The center of attraction at the Jackson fight—the small contingent of Confederate recruits commanded by William L. Jeffers—formally organized a company on April 16, merely a few days after leaving Jackson. It had Jeffers as captain; William E. “Button” McGuire, as first lieutenant; Richard J. Medley, as second lieutenant; and John A. Bennett, as third lieutenant—all of whom figure somewhat prominently in the following story by Kirby Ross. Operating initially as an independent company, their unit was driven from the state into northeast Arkansas in May. It eventually was attached to Lieutenant Colonel Charles Matlock’s Arkansas Cavalry Battalion on June 16. When Matlock’s troopers were dismounted in July, Captain Jeffers resigned his commission. He returned to southeast Missouri to recruit again, and was soon followed by Lieutenant McGuire and other members of his company.
Jeffers’ recruiting efforts were very successful, aided no doubt by a Federal order commanding all men to enroll in the Missouri (Union) militia. Unwilling to fight against the South, men flocked to Jeffers’ standard in sufficient numbers to create the 8th Missouri Calvary Regiment. The balance of the war saw the 8th raiding Missouri with Generals Johns S. Marmaduke and Sterling Price, and vainly contesting the Federals for control of Arkansas. Throughout, Colonel Jeffers led his men from the front rank during its combat history. As Luther Jenkins would recall, with Jeffers in command “It was never ‘Go on,’ but ‘Come on, boys.’” The regiment finally surrendered, with the men receiving their paroles at Shreveport, Louisiana, in June 1865.
Years after the war, when Colonel Jeffers died, survivors of his regiment initiated a campaign to erect a monument in his honor at Jackson. Although the process was slow, the monument was finally dedicated at the Jackson Homecoming celebration of 1908. It stands today at the south end of High Street at the entrance to the Old City Cemetery near Jeffers’ final resting place. In the northwest part of the cemetery is a stone that marks the burial place of William E. McGuire, Jeffers’ lieutenant. It makes no mention of his Confederate service, or of the fact that he died shortly after being released from the hell that was the military prison at Alton, Illinois. Remembered on the opposite side of the same stone is John W. McGuire, William’s son, who fell while charging a Federal line at Glasgow, Missouri, on October 16, 1864. Other troopers of Jeffers’ little recruit command are buried nearby. And to the southwest, only a short distance away, is the Russell Heights Cemetery, once the fairgrounds, where Jeffers’ squad boldly won their spurs in combat and then rode away into history.
Kirby Ross has rescued the fight at Jackson in 1862 from historical obscurity. He has diligently researched the official records, various memoirs, muster rolls, and newspapers in a whole-hearted effort to reconstruct the events of the engagement as accurately as possible. It must be said that he has accomplished his goal in admirable fashion. The men and events come alive in a fast paced and well written narrative that places the event in its proper historical context. It is a fine, well balanced battle account, and a fitting tribute to the men in blue and gray that fought at Jackson on a quiet spring day in 1862—for cause, honor and survival during some of the dark days in the history of our great republic.
James E. McGhee