Lieutenant Colonel John Scott’s Report on the Battle of Blue Mills Landing, Missouri
After defeating Union forces at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, Missouri, in August 1861, Major General Sterling Price began moving his pro Confederate Missouri State Guard north in an effort to secure control of that border state for the Confederacy. Price’s force was victorious in a battle with U.S. troops at the Battle of Dry Wood Creek near the Kansas border on September 2nd, and continued north, arriving at the Missouri River town of Lexington on the 11th. Federal troops occupied this town on the southern bank of the river, and were fortifying it to defend against Price’s larger army. As Price had marched north, additional Confederate units in the north and central parts of the state were forming. About 4000 men were gathered at Liberty, Missouri, west of Lexington and on the other side of the Missouri River. Price dispatched Brigadier General David R. Atchison, a former United States Senator from Missouri, to help get these new recruits across the river and on to Lexington. They would cross at Blue Mills Landing, about five miles south of Liberty.
After becoming aware of the Confederate activity at Liberty, Brigadier General Samuel Sturgis ordered Lieutenant Colonel John Scott of the 3rd Iowa Infantry to proceed to Liberty and contest the river crossing of this sizable new enemy force. Scott did not have a large number of troops to accomplish his mission. He had about 500 men of his own regiment, plus about 70 members of the pro Union Missouri Home Guard and one six pounder artillery piece and gun crew. Scott and his troops departed from Cameron, Missouri, on September 15th, marching south to Liberty. Scott’s march was slowed by heavy rains and he arrived at Liberty early in the morning on September 17th.
By this time, Atchison was already getting the new recruits across the river at Blue Mills Landing, using three flatboats. Scott continued on through Liberty, and the Federal advanced skirmishers encountered an enemy picket line a couple of miles north of the landing at 11:00 a.m. The pickets withdrew to the Missouri State Guard defensive line, consisting of 900 troops deployed on either side of the road.
Scott’s men advanced and engaged the enemy line. The Missouri State Guardsmen effectively knocked out the artillery gun crew early, and it was only able to get two shots off. Scott’s vastly
outnumbered infantrymen began a slow withdrawal, stopping to reform their line and fight along the way of retreat. After an hour long fight, Scott had withdrawn and Atchison completed his task of moving the troops and their supplies across the river and onto Lexington.
Lieutenant Colonel Scott filed this after action report on the Battle of Blue Mills Landing:
Hdqrs. Third Regiment Iowa Volunteers
Liberty, September 18, 1861.
Sir: In relation to an affair of yesterday which occurred near Blue Mills Landing, about 5 miles from this place, I have the honor to report:
Agreeably to your orders I left Cameron at 3 p. m. of the 15th inst., and through a heavy rain and bad roads made but 7 miles during that afternoon. By a very active march on the 16th I reached Centreville, 10 miles north of Liberty, by sunset, where the firing of cannon was distinctly heard in the direction of Platte City, which was surmised to be from Colonel Smith’s Sixteenth Illinois command. Had sent a messenger to Colonel Smith from Hainesville, and sent another from Centreville, apprising him of my movements, but got no response. On the 17th, at 2 a. m., started from Centreville for Liberty, and at daylight the advanced guards fell in with the enemy’s pickets, which they drove in and closely followed. At 7 a. m. my command arrived at Liberty, and bivouacked on the hill north of and overlooking the town. I dispatched several scouts to examine the position of the enemy, but could gain no definite information. They had passed through Liberty during the afternoon of the 16th to the number of about 4,000, and taken the road to Blue Mills Landing, and were reported as having four pieces of artillery. At 11 o’clock a. m. heard firing in the direction of the landing, which was reported as a conflict between the rebels and forces disputing their passage over the river. At 12 m. moved the command, consisting of 500 of the Third Iowa, a squad of German artillerists, and about 70 Home Guards, in the direction of Blue Mills Landing. On the route learned that a body of our scouts had fallen in with the enemy’s pickets, and lost 4 killed and 1 wounded. Before starting dispatched courier to Colonel Smith to hasten his command. About 2 miles from Liberty the advance guard drove in the enemy’s pickets. Skirmishers closely examined the dense growth through which our route lay, and at 3 p. m. discovered the enemy in force, concealed on both sides of the road, and occupying the dry bed of a slough, his left resting on the river and the right extending beyond our observation. He opened a heavy fire, which drove back our skirmishers, and made simultaneous attacks upon our front and right. These were well sustained, and he retired with loss to his position. In the attack on our front the artillery suffered so severely that the only piece, a brass 6-pounder, was left without sufficient force to man it, and I was only able to have it discharged twice during the action. Some of the gunners abandoned the piece, carrying off the matches and primer, and could not be rallied.
The enemy kept up a heavy fire from his position. Our artillery useless, and many of the officers and men already disabled, it was deemed advisable to fall back, which was done slowly, returning the enemy’s fire, and completely checking pursuit. The 6-pounder was brought off by hand, through the gallantry of Captain Trumbull, Lieutenants Crosley and Knight, and various officers and men of the Third Iowa, after it had been entirely abandoned by the artillerists. The ammunition wagon, becoming fastened between a tree and log at the road-side in such a manner that it could not be released without serious loss, was abandoned.
The engagement lasted one hour, and was sustained by my command with an intrepidity that merits my warmest approbation.
I have to regret the loss of a number of brave officers and men, who fell gallantly fighting at their posts. I refer to the inclosed list of killed and wounded as a part of this report. The heaviest fire was sustained by Company I, Third Iowa Volunteers, which lost 4 killed and 20 wounded, being one-fourth of our total loss.
Major Stone, Captains Warren, Willett, and O’Neill were severely wounded, and also Lieutenants Hobbs, Anderson, Tullis, and Knight. The latter refused to retire from the field after being three times wounded, and remained with his men till the close of the engagement.
Among the great number who deserve my thanks for their gallantry, I might mention Sergt. James F. Lakin, of Company F, Third Iowa, who bore the colors, and carried them into the thickest of the fight with all the coolness of a veteran.
The loss of the enemy cannot be certainly ascertained, but from accounts deemed reliable is not less than 160, many of whom were killed. His total force was about 4,400.
Your most obedient servant,
Lieutenant- Colonel Third Iowa Volunteers.
S. D. Sturgis, Brigadier- General, U. S. Army
Scott would be promoted to Colonel of the 32nd Iowa Infantry in August of 1862. He would lead that regiment during the Red River Campaign in the spring of 1864.
With the reinforcements brought by Atchison, Price surrounded Lexington and compelled the vastly outnumbered Union defenders to surrender on September 19th. More and more Federal troops began to arrive in Missouri, and Price withdrew from Lexington just a month or so after capturing the town.
The Civil War in Missouri: A Military History by Louis Gerteis
The Civil War on the Border, Volume I by Wiley Britton
Iowa Colonels and Regiments: Being a History of Iowa Regiments in the War of the Rebellion; And Containing a Description of the Battles in Which They Have Fought by A.A. Stuart
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume III
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