Looking for more from Sean McLachlan? He also hangs out on the Midlist Writer blog, where he talks about writing, adventure travel, caving, and everything else he gets up to. He also reproduces all the posts from Civil War Horror, so drop on by!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Battle of Mount Zion Church

Brig. Gen. Benjamin Prentiss was making a sweep through Boone County looking for rebels. He found them just outside the town of Hallsville on December 27, where a company of his cavalry came across a much larger force of the enemy and had to beat a hasty retreat, leaving their captain and a private in the hands of the rebels.

Prentiss set out with his entire force of 440 men at 2am the next morning, 150 years ago today. He marched 16 miles in the predawn darkness and passed through Hallsville, heading west. At 8am his vanguard encountered a company of rebels guarding the road.

Prentiss tried to surround this force, but the move was spotted and the rebels withdrew. Some prisoners told him the main rebel body was at Mount Zion Church, one-and-a-half miles further on, and numbered about 900 under the command of Col. Caleb Dorsey. Prentiss immediately moved forward and a lively battle ensued. The rebels enjoyed good cover in some woods near the church and the Union troops had trouble dislodging them. After much firing the battle descended into a hand-to-hand fight for half an hour before the timely arrival of the rest of Prentiss’ troops, who seem to have been delayed in their maneuvers, made the rebels quit the field around 11am.

The Union troops captured 90 horses, 105 stand of arms. Prentiss reports his total loss over the two days of fighting as 3 killed, 17 severely wounded, and 46 slightly wounded. The rebel loss was 25 killed and 30 captured. No reports on rebel wounded.

Only the Union side gave a report of the battle, so the above is from that perspective. The History of Boone County, published in 1882, includes a report by an unnamed participant on the rebel side. The entire account can be read here.

This participant states that not all the rebels were armed, and that the rebels retreated only after their ammunition was exhausted. Considering the chronic rebel supply problems that’s probably true. He gave Dorsey’s loss as 5 killed, 35 wounded, and 10 prisoners. He estimated Prentiss lost 30 killed, 60 wounded, and 10 prisoners. Such precise figures twenty years after the fact (and probably several battles later) should be taken with a grain of salt. In general, though, his account agrees with the report Prentiss gave.

It’s interesting that this aging rebel showed no ill-will to his former adversaries and made a point to say “Gen. Prentiss in every respect acted the gentleman and the soldier, in regard to the Confederate wounded, affording all the assistance in his power, and detailing a guard from his own command to keep soldiers out of the church. [where the rebel wounded lay]

The Battle of Mt. Zion Church was typical of many smaller engagements early in the Missouri Civil War. A Union force of trained soldiers would disperse a larger force of rebels who suffered from lack of training, organization, and weapons. With most of the Missouri State Guard in southern Missouri with General Price, the raw recruits the Union army was mopping up in central Missouri weren’t ready for a serious fight.

That doesn’t mean they always broke and ran. At Mt. Zion Church they fought hard for three hours. The rebels retreated some distance and then after a rest of a couple of days Col. Dorsey ordered his force to “scatter”. Most probably went home, while others probably did some guerrilla fighting guerrilla or made their own way south to Price. The Boone County history reports that in February “the major portion of the command crossed the Missouri and made its way to Price’s army”.

Defeats like this didn’t stop the secessionist cause in the area. The rebels continued to gather, and another small battle would come within two weeks. You’ll just have to stay tuned for that one.


  1. You really know your history. I get a lesson every time I visit.

  2. Interesting post, Sean.
    Oh, I got a Nook for Christmas and tried to purchase A Fine Likeness but couldn't find it. Will it be available on Nook soon?

  3. Donna,
    It's already up on Smashwords and well as Amazon and has been approved for the Smashwords Premium Catalog. That means it will soon be available at B&N and other outlets in a couple of weeks. No idea exactly when, though. I'll be sure to make an announcement here, of course.
    Thanks for thinking of me!


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