The Battle of Dry Wood Creek

Gen. Sterling Price

Shortly after the Union defeat at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek in August 1861, Confederate General Sterling Price marched his 10,000 man Missouri State Guard north from southwest Missouri toward the Missouri River valley. Price intended to capture Fort Scott, Kansas, in the southeast corner of that state a little west of the state line and clear the Kansas and Missouri border area of any Union troops. He would then march to central Missouri, where he would also link up with a Confederate force from the northern part of the state, and recruit more soldiers while securing that part of the state.

With the withdrawal of Union forces out of southwest Missouri after Wilson’s Creek, there were no Federal troops in western Missouri except for a couple of regiments in the Missouri River valley. Two Kansas regiments that had fought at Wilson’s Creek had been ordered elsewhere, leaving eastern Kansas vulnerable to attack. General James H. Lane, who was also a U.S. Senator from Kansas, requested and received the go ahead to recruit five more regiments. Although the ranks of individual companies were quickly filled with Kansans and unionist Missourians who had fled that state, they had not yet been organized into full regiments as the threat from Price emerged. Lane ordered these companies and partial regiments to Fort Scott, where they formed a unit called Lane’s Brigade.

Aware of Price’s northward movement, Lane prepared an ambush despite being greatly outnumbered with his roughly 600 man brigade. He deployed his men along the wooded banks of Dry Wood Creek, a location in Missouri about 12 miles east of Fort Scott.

As Price’s main column approached, the well hidden Federals caught them by surprise. The two sides had a spirited exchange of gunfire, with the Kansans holding their own despite the enemy’ssuperior numbers. After about two hours, Lane was compelled to withdraw across Dry Wood Creek and retreat to Fort Scott. In the process, the Kansans left behind their mules and the supplies they were carrying, which were captured by the Missouri Guard; as a result, this Battle of Dry Wood Creek is sometimes referred to as the Battle of the Mules. Lane listed his casualties as five killed and six wounded; Price’s casualties are unknown, though are thought to be low as well, despite Lane’s claim in a report that the enemy “suffered considerably”.

Lane believed that an attack on Fort Scott was imminent, and that he had insufficient forces to hold it. Leaving an 800 man garrison at Fort Scott, he ordered the rest of his command to retreat north. His brigade crossed the Little Osage River, about 14 miles north of Fort Scott. Lane’s men prepared breastworks and other fortifications at the location, which Lane called Fort Lincoln.

But Price changed his plans and declined to attack Fort Scott, or pursue Lane into Kansas. Instead, he resumed his march north, with the intention of attacking Lexington, Missouri, in the Missouri River valley.

Map of Missouri 1861

Lane submitted these reports on the fighting at Dry Wood Creek and his preparations for defense at Fort Lincoln:

FORT LINCOLN, September 3, 1861.

I informed you that we drove back the advanced guard of the enemy and of the loss of Weer’s mules. My cavalry engaged the whole force of the enemy yesterday for two hours 12 miles east of Fort Scott. It turns out to be the column of Price and Rains, numbering from 6,000 to 10,000, with seven pieces of artillery, some 12-pounders. I last night fell back upon this point, leaving there at midnight. I left my cavalry to amuse the enemy until we could establish ourselves here and remove our good stores from Fort Scott. I have ordered Major Dean to join me by forced marches. I am compelled to make a stand here, or give up Kansas to disgrace and destruction.

If you do not hear from me again, you can understand I am surrounded by a superior force. When thus situated, I trust the Government will see the necessity for re-enforcing me. My loss so far is about 5 killed and 6 wounded. The enemy has suffered considerably.

The fight yesterday was a gallant one on our part. Colonel Montgomery and Colonel Weer behaved admirably. In fact, all the troops engaged behaved steadily. Lieutenant Hollister is here, and is making himself useful. I can only try again. Send me re-enforcements.

Yours, truly,
J. H. LANE,
Commanding Kansas Brigade.

Captain PRINCE,
Commanding Fort Leavenworth.

HEADQUARTERS KANSAS BRIGADE,
Fort Lincoln, September 4, 1861.
Capt. W. E. PRINCE, Commanding Post Fort Leavenworth:

Gen. James H. Lane

SIR: I dispatched Lieutenant Hollister to you to intelligently post you as to the situation of affairs on this border. I also inclose you a note from Colonel Montgomery, the last dispatch from him. I am holding Fort Scott with a cavalry force, regular and irregular, of about 800 men within 4 miles of the border and 12 miles of the enemy’s position. I am holding Barnesville, 12 miles northeast of Fort Scott, within 1½ miles of the border, with an irregular force of about 250 men, stationed in log buildings, and am now strengthening their position with earth intrenchments.

I have here a regular force of about 1,200 men, and an irregular force I am now organizing, amounting in all to about 400 or 600 men, and am strengthening the position to stay. I have before given you all the information as to the strength of the enemy. All sources of information concur that their force is in the neighborhood of 6,000; that they have fortified themselves on the Dry Wood, 10 miles northeast of Fort Scott, and are rapidly re-enforcing; that they have seven pieces of artillery, either one or two 12-pounder howitzers, and the balance 6-pounders; that they have already 1,000 mounted men, that are increasing much more rapidly than their infantry. The cavalry that we engaged are armed with minie rifles, and from the prisoners we have taken we learn the entire force is armed with the same. In their artillery are some of the guns taken from our army at the battle near Springfield. To retake those guns it seems to me would benefit the cause of the country as much as any other event that could transpire. Cannot this Government supply me without delay with sufficient artillery and men to destroy that army and capture those guns? It is within 15 miles of me, with a smooth prairie between us. In twelve hours after being re-enforced I can be upon them, give peace to Kansas, confuse the enemy, and advance the cause of the Union. I have detailed Lieutenant Hollister to the command, in the absence of Colonel Johnson, of the two companies of Iowa troops, and should like to retain him here in that command and as mustering officer. He has proved himself a gallant officer.

Rumors that the enemy is moving are coming in, but I do not fully rely upon them.

I send you the last note from Montgomery.
J. H. LANE,
Commanding Kansas Brigade

Sources:

The Civil War in Missouri: A Military History by Louis S. Gerteis

The Civil War on the Border, Volume 1 by Wiley Britton

Official Military History of Kansas Regiments During the War for the Suppression of the Great Rebellion, W.S. Burke, Publisher

Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume 3


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