In September of 1861, Kansas Senator Jim Lane, newly appointed a Union General by President Lincoln, entered Missouri at a point near Trading Post, Kansas. His orders were to lay waste to as much of western Missouri as he could. In Abraham Lincoln’s own words, he was to “put it through.” General Lane had a force of about 1,500 Kansas Red Leg Jayhawker troops to get the job done. Osceola, Missouri, the county seat of St. Clair County was to be his principle target. Osceola was the main riverboat terminal on the upper reaches of the Osage River. It was the jewel of commerce for all southwestern Missouri. The despotic, paranoid Lane would change that, forever.
Lane proceeded down the Marais des Cygnes River to the Osage. At Papansville in southern Bates County, Lane crossed the Osage and proceeded east along the south side of the Osage River through St. Clair County to Osceola. A Union militiaman from Cedar County named Obie Smith, guided Lane to Osceola… It has been said that Confederate Guerrilla, William Quantrell ran into Obie Smith two years later and killed him with his own gun.
The Jayhawkers pillaged and burned anything in their path. The path of 1,500 violent men would cut a large swath indeed. Confederate General Price had left Osceola with only a handful of Home Guard to protect it while he moved on Lexington. The small force retreated after a short engagement. Lane’s men pillaged and stole over a million dollars in goods and money. Lane himself stole a fine carriage and had a piano and some silk dresses loaded into a wagon for his wife. It is said that a Rev. Hugh D. Fisher, one of Lane’s chaplains, made off with the alter, pews, and pulpit of one of the churches. He used them to furnish a church he was building in Lawrence, Kansas.
The pillaging went on through September 22 and 23. By the 24th the town was burned to the ground. A once prosperous community was now left destitute. Only one house was left standing in Osceola. Speculation was that it was just overlooked. Many people left and never returned.
Lane’s army left with a long train of stolen wagons full of stolen goods and commodities. They took with them 350 horses and 400 head of cattle. According to Lane’s report to his superior officers, he returned to Kansas by way of Clinton, Pleasant Gap and Butler.
It is reported that there was so much political backlash over the infamous attack on Osceola that Lane was never given another command by the Union. The politicians finally figured out that Lane was unstable and unfit for command. In 1866 Lane took his own life while visiting his wife’s sister and her husband at their farm in eastern Kansas.
Here lies another bit of history: An orphan teenage boy from Iowa was staying with the sister’s family that winter and going to school. He did chores for his keep. The boy’s name was Billy Dixon. Billy said the family were the best and kindest people, and he held them in high esteem all his life. Billy was there when Lane went out to his buggy, got his gun and shot himself. Yes, frontier history enthusiast, he was the Billy Dixon of Adobe Walls fame: The Buffalo hunter marksman, later awarded the medal of honor for bravery in performance of his duties as a frontier army scout.
The immense hatred for Union General Lane and his Kansas Jayhawkers made St. Clair county a fertile place for recruitment of Confederate soldiers. Let us go forward to the Battle of Clear Creek, fought in St. Clair County. It was almost a year after Jim Lane’s infamous raid…
The battle occurred on the north bank of the creek about six or seven miles southwest of Taberville. Taberville is on the north bank of the Osage River. Clear Creek runs into the Osage a few miles east of Taberville. Local historians have said the battle location was one and one half miles up the creek west from Short’s Ford. There is a bridge at Short’s Ford now. That location would put the battle site almost to the St. Clair/Vernon County line and just north of the Cedar County line. That would be approximately a mile or two north of the frontier hamlet of Eaton in Cedar County. Eaton was destroyed during the civil war and never built back. In my research, I have never determined when the town was destroyed, but a good guess would be when Lane came through in 1861. Both an 1865 and an 1874 map show a trail through Eaton and in the vicinity of the battle site.
It was the morning of August 2, 1862. A Captain Hancock was in St. Clair County recruiting soldiers for the Confederate army. He had recruited about 200 men. Only 70 had arms which consisted of shotguns and squirrel rifles. Hancock had only one keg of black powder. Hancock figured that the Federals were aware that he was in the area, so on the morning of August 2, he called his men together and announced that they would march to Greenfield in Dade County, Missouri and then on into Arkansas. Greenfield had recently fell into Confederate hands.
Indeed a detachment of 135 men belonging to the Command of Col. Fitz Henry Warren, First Iowa Cavalry, was in the immediate area. The detachment was commanded by captains Caldwell and Heath. The Federal advance found five of Hancock’s men eating breakfast at a local farm. They captured four of the men, but were soon put to rout by the fifth man when he charged them with a six shooter in each hand. The federal advance skirmishers raced back to report and the breakfasting rebels raced back to their camp to warn Hancock.
Hancock began immediately to deploy his men for an ambush. Almost all the Confederates were inexperienced local recruits. A road ran along Gordon’s Farm to Clear Creek. A deep ravine followed one side of the road. Fences and heavy brush on each side made the road on the banks of Clear Creek a perfect ambush site. Hancock positioned his 70 men with weapons along the ravine. Horses were secreted further back into the woods and brush, out of sight and out of harm’s way. The unarmed men were interspersed among the armed, so they could pick up the arms of fallen comrades or those of the downed enemy. Powder from the keg was rationed out to each armed man. A decoy squad on horseback was to go back up on the prairie and induce the Federals to chase them down the road into the timber. One of the squad would hang back using the ‘crippled bird’ trick in case they hesitated to follow. They were to lead the Federals through and in front of the hidden ambushers. Then the squad would wheel into the the cover of the timber and provide flanking fire on the enemy.
The Federals, thinking they had an easy kill, rode right into the trap. A Confederate broadside of withering fire at thirty yards was bound to take a toll. Even if it was from shotguns and squirrel rifles. One story has it that the Confederates were able to reload their muzzleloaders twice and fire three volleys before the confused Federals could take cover and protect themselves.
Now we find one of the ambiguities we often find in civil war history. Let us first review excerpts from the Federal commander, Col. Warren’s report to his superiors as found in the The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.
“I have the honor to report that a detachment of my command under Capts. J.W. Caldwell and Heath, consisting of 135 men, made an attack on a body of from 400 t0 500 guerrillas, near Gordon’s farm, on Clear Creek, corner of St. Clair County.-”
“-Heath took fire on his flank and fearing for his horses fell back. When he was assured of the safety of his rear, he moved up for a second attack and found the enemy had disappeared. -4 men killed and 9 men wounded including Captain Heath.”
The informal Confederate report:
“Out of 200 Federals that came down the valley of Clear Creek, only about 120 escaped unhurt. Nearly 80 fell dead in their tracks. Captain Hancock lost one man killed and two wounded. The dead man’s name was Lee Bradley, of Bates County. He was buried there, near Clear Creek, before Hancock’s men moved on to Greenfield. Local tradition has it that Bradley’s family retrieved the body from the grave near Clear Creek and reburied Bradley in Bates County.”
In 1950 my parents purchased a farm in Vernon County near Clear Creek. It was two miles or less, as the crow flies, southwest of the battle site. I spent many happy hours in the early 1950’s hunting and fishing on Clear Creek. I mostly hunted the upper reaches of the creek. I can remember following coon hounds to the Short’s Ford vicinity twice. Usually we went down one side of the creek and up the other. I am sure I have walked over the Clear Creek Battlefield and maybe even the site of Eaton. I have hunted ducks on the creek and later along the sloughs of the Osage River. I have shot Quail in St. Clair County.
Again, we have touched history along the Sundown Trail.