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Marshall’s part in the Civil War historically small but locally significant

Battle of Marshall 150: Battle Recreation: Sept. 13-15, 2013!

Originally published Sunday, June 12, 2011, in The Marshall Democrat-News


Note: As the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War gets closer, communities everywhere are paying more attention to how the war touched them and what their role was in that passage of the country’s history.

Marshall is no different.

The Battle of Marshall

But the 145th anniversary of it’s claim to Civil War fame — the Battle of Marshall — passed with little if any fanfare on Monday, Oct. 13.

State and local historians do work to keep alive the story of the battle and of Saline County’s Civil War history.

Actually, the word “battle” may be overstating the nature of the encounter between Confederate Col. Joseph O. Shelby and Union Gen. Egbert B. Brown. It might have been more of a skirmish, but which it was depends on whose account you read.

James Denny, a historian for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, puts it this way in an essay about the event:

“Anyone who studies this curious battle comes away with the impression that there were two Battles of Marshall. There is the one that emerges from the reports and accounts of protagonists of both sides, and we have seen the descriptions of desperate fighting, daring charges, and corpse-strewn battlefields.

“This battle seems to be almost entirely imaginary.

“The real affair turned out to be two forces going through the motions of a battle without actually fighting one. Modern-day reenactments of this battle might well produce more casualties than the real one did.”

In the 1881 “History of Saline County,” after a lengthy quote from a Confederate source, a publication called “Shelby and his Men,” the historian offers this judgment:

“It is almost a pity that the foregoing lurid and exciting account of Shelby’s passage through Saline county, and especially the ‘battle’ of Marshall, is not altogether accurate and faithful. It reads very prettily in some parts and the author’s shrieky, and at times, delirious style is quite agreeable to some people.”

Also from the 1881 history is the assertion that nothing like the savage clashes of armies fought in the southeast occurred in Marshall and the terrain — the encounter occurred between Marshall and Salt Fork Creek on land that currently includes Indian Foothills Park — actually thwarted the soldier’s efforts to do damage.

“Firing was mere pastime; it was not at all dangerous; lead enough was thrown to kill and maim a division, but the protection afforded by nature, the inaccuracy of the Federal fire, being mostly delivered from muskets, and the distance of the Confederates from their foes, prevented any very great slaughter, for which we may all now be very thankful.”

According to Denny, “This description is seconded by George T. Maddox, one of Shelby’s Raiders, who actually participated in the battle: ‘The ground was so situated that it seemed to give us all the advantage. There was a ravine every fifty or sixty yards, and brush about as high as a man’s head … We were so scattered they could scarcely see any body to shoot at.’”

Denny notes that no Union soldiers died in the battle and probably only four or five were lost by the Confederates.

Still, the town of Marshall did not escape unscathed. The county history concludes its account of the battle by noting that “two or three bombs from Shelby’s cannon came into town. One struck a horse … another hit a church, and one hit a store building.”

Perhaps the best battle story in the 1881 history involves heroics not of the warriors involved but of a farmer out to fetch his cow “which had strayed between the lines of the contending forces.”

The cow’s owner, a man named Mitchell, apparently pursued the animal “while and where the bullets flew thickest” and drove her home.

The history quotes Mitchell as shouting to the Union troops, “Stand back out of the way and let this blamed old cown pass.”

The soldiers apparently did, and “Mitchell saved his cow.”

However the accounts on both sides might have been embellished, the battle still had some significance in the war.

Shelby had been on an extended raid through Arkansas and Missour, attempting to cause enough disruption to force the Union to draw on its regulars deployed in the east, thereby improving the situation for Confederate armies.

Brown, though he had a well-earned reputation for timidity, according to Denny, did manage to nearly surround and defeat Shelby. His hesitation to really engage the Confederate forces allowed Shelby a chance to escape, which he took full advantage of.

But his raid’s forward progress was stopped, and Brown gets credit from historians for getting the better of a better commander.

The courthouse burns

Marshall became the county seat in 1839 and shortly thereafter a courthouse building was constructed on square in the middle of town, but that first courthouse was a casualty of the Civil War.

According to the 1881 county history, Union troops who had used the courthouse were moved from Marshall to Lexington, leaving the building unused.

After the Federals were gone, Confederates under the command of Col. W.S. Jackson moved in and took over the building.

Apparently, one of the soldiers lit a piece of hay and tossed it through a window, where it ignited hay that had been left in the building by Union troops. The building was soon fully engulfed in fire and was destroyed.

The author of the history defends the act, noting that as it had been used by Union troops for military purposes “it was therefore lawful for the Confederates to destroy it. It was not the only court-house burned in Missouri by either the Confederates or the Federals.”

The author then describes — and laments — the harsh reprisals visited upon locals by Union troops.

A number of women were arrested by Union Col. Lazear for “harboring, feeding, and furnishing information to the bushwhackers.”

The history also includes an account of one of Jackson’s men being shot in the ankle by Lazear’s men, and unable to escape, taken into custody.

He was taken to Arrow Rock, where he was “tried by a drumhead court-martial, and sentenced to be shot” for allegedly taking part in the burning of the courthouse.

Because he could not stand, he “was propped up against a fence, and riddled with musket balls.”

Four bloody years

The execution was far from the only one in Saline County during the war.

Denny and Michael Dickey, administrator of Arrow Rock State Historical Site, gave a presentation March 1 about how the county fared during the war.

By 1863 the county was largely under Union control, but guerrilla bands from both sides continued to roam the county, each demanding loyalty and assistance from civilians, who may have born the brunt of the conflict.

According to Dickey, there was so much guerrilla warfare in the area that “Union men found it safer to serve in the military than to stay home in Saline County.”

The county definitely was sympathetic to the Confederacy, especially at the war’s start. Slavery was an important part of the local economy.

At a time when 9 percent of the state population were in slavery, nearly one-third of Saline County’s population was enslaved, Dickey said.

“Abe Lincoln didn’t get a single vote in Saline County” in the 1860 election, according to Dickey. That changed by 1864. According to the 1881 history, Lincoln and Johnson outpolled McClellan and Pendleton 170 to 98.

The author of the history cheered the political shift.

“What a wonderful change had taken place in the county in four years! In 1860, it would have been extremely perilous to vote for Lincoln; in 1864, it was dangerous to vote against him.”

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