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Saturday, December 17, 2011

Small unit action in the Civil War

As I mentioned in a previous post, the Official Records have some interesting details about all-but-forgotten skirmishes in Civil War Missouri. These small-unit actions are often overlooked by military historians in favor of larger battles, yet these skirmishes can tell us a lot.

The Union sweep through Saline County from 3-12 December 1861 netted numerous prisoners and armaments. Perhaps the most interesting engagement was on December 7.

On that day a detachment left the Union force. Major Marshall and 26 men "proceeded to Roper's Mill, opposite Glasgow, where he had learned a portion of Captain Robert W. Swynne's company were encamped. They took the four pickets he had out prisoners, after giving one of them a hard chase, thus enabling him to surprise all there. Lieutenant Elwell took the left, with 16 men; Sergeant Bradshaw the right, with 5 men; and the major the center, with 3 men. A portion of the enemy were caught playing cards and others getting breakfast. Another portion, which had just crossed the river with the captain, well armed and mounted, started to run, but were soon halted by a few prompt shots."

The report then goes on with a bit of back patting, "It was a finely-conducted surprise, completely bagging the whole of them, 28 in number, and getting their arms, ammunition, teams, cooking utensils, &c. The column then moved north through Cambridge and encamped on William T. Gilham's farm."

Assuming no exaggeration (always a major assumption with the OR) this shows the huge difference in ability and discipline between the two forces. Note that the forces were almost even in number, there were no reported casualties, yet the entire rebel force was captured. Most likely the rebels were new recruits, while the Union soldiers had had at least some training. Major Marshall appears to have had some field experience, perhaps earned in the Mexican-American War.

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