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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Mud mortars of the Civil War

By mid-December of 1861, things had calmed down somewhat in Missouri. The Union command still worried that General Price would return from the southwestern portion of the state with his Confederate army, but there was no real sign he would do so. So while they waited, Union troops busied themselves with sweeps through northern and central Missouri to capture bands of secessionists harassing the area or heading down to join Price.

One of these sweeps is detailed in the Official Records. Major George C. Marshall's command, composed of 300 men of the regiment Merrill's Horse and three companies of regular cavalry, moved through Saline County on December 3-12. They fought several skirmishes and took prisoners almost daily. Some were rebels who had skirmished with them, others were not so designated and were probably civilians suspected of supporting the South. Searching houses as they went, the Union cavalry found several caches of gunpowder and other items of war.

On December 5 they proudly encamped on the farm of the secessionist Missouri governor Claiborn Fox Jackson (who had long since fled with Price), "and raised the Stars and Stripes over the traitor's house."

December 9 found them near Waverly, home to J.O. Shelby, who had not yet made a name for himself as one of the Confederacy's greatest cavalry raiders. As the Union troops camped that night, "Shelby brought his company down that night to try to annoy us by firing at our pickets and to try to scare us by bombarding us with a 10-inch mortar loaded with mud. Lieutenants Kelly's and Gordon's companies were called out, and soon scattered them and silenced their formidable battery."

I've never heard of a mortar being packed with mud. I would assume Shelby was a victim of the nagging ammunition shortage of the Confederacy, and simply used whatever he had at hand. One would think rocks or gravel would prove more effective! In my book on Shelby, I describe how the raider used many tactics to fool his enemies. Once he held up shipping on the Missouri River with a sinister-looking log. Not a hollowed-out log converted into a cannon like at the Battle of Athens, Missouri, just a log.

The next day the Union troops proceeded on into Waverly and "found 9 kegs of powder concealed under a platform in Shelby's store. The celebrated mortar was found and taken."

And thus ends the saga of the Civil War mud mortar.

Photo courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

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