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Monday, August 22, 2011

There's no such thing as an insignificant skirmish

Civil War researcher Carolyn Bartels once counted all the recorded battles and skirmishes in Missouri and came up with about 1,100. The real number was surely higher. Some affairs were so small they recieved only passing mention in a few letters or newspapers so obscure they got missed by even as tireless a researcher as Bartels. Others may not be mentioned in any surviving record at all.

In Missouri we tend to remember only a dozen or so big battles, yet these smaller skirmishes probably account for a higher death toll than Wilsons' Creek, Westport, Lexington, and all the other famous fights combined.

We've just had the 150th anniversary of two skirmishes near Kirksville. I'd never heard of them and until I read Bartels' handy The Civil War in Missouri Day by Day. According to the Official Record, Brig. Gen. Stephen A. Hurlbut, shown here in this Wikimedia Commons image, had sent forward 500 men of the Third Iowa to establish control in and around Kirksville. Another 500 Home Guards (Unionist militia) were also in the Kirksville area. Hurlbut was worried about a nearby rebel force he estimated to number 2,000. Hurlbut soon followed with the rest of his force to Kirksville, but in the meantime the Iowa detachment got in a few skirmishes. Hurlbut's report of August 21 reads in part,

"Before my arrival Corporal Dix, of Company C, Third Iowa, with a few Home Guards, was surrounded by a large body of rebels, and after a most desperate resistance, in which five of the enemy were killed, the corporal was killed and his detachment dispersed. The enemy laid out his body decently, and sent notice to this camp. The body was recovered, and buried with military honors.

Having learned on my arrival that his weapons were in the same neighborhood, and probably in custody of a man named Jackson, on whose ground the rebel camp on Bee Branch was situated, and well known to have furnished large supplies to them, I sent a strong body into that neighborhood, who recovered the weapons, and found at Jackson's house some fourteen rebels, guards on one of their officers, severely wounded in the skirmish with Corporal Dix. The rebels fled, and were fired upon. One, a man named Brown, From Schuyler County, was killed; Jackson wounded in the knee, and brought in, with three others, prisoners. The others escaped. The officer was too severely wounded to be moved, and was left on parole."

As far as I know, no historic plaques mark the spot of these two skirmishes, and no book has been written about them. A military historian would be tempted to shrug off these affairs as insignificant, and I suppose compared to the big picture they are. They certainly weren't insignificant to Colonel Dix, the man named Brown, and the others killed. Or their families. And did that severely wounded rebel officer survive? Did Jackson ever walk again after being shot in the knee?

By focusing on the big battles, we tend to forget the daily fights that led to misery and suffering on both sides. So let's remember just for a moment these two skirmishes, not on the 150th anniversary of when they happened, but on the 150th anniversary of the day when the families of Dix, Brown, and those five other men received the bad news.

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