An Ozark Surprise in Pilot Knob

The Ozarks are full of surprises. That’s true even when the surprise has signage on a major road and its own webpage.

Last weekend my wife, my dog, and I headed out for Taum Sauk Mountain. We’re all three more than a little stir-crazy from the pandemic, but the two humans of us are also trying hard to not let our guard down when we’re so close to being fully vaccinated. Since mountains tend to be out of doors and well-ventilated, we figured that a visit to a mountain top would be a safe way to get out of the house.

Taum Sauk Mountain was glorious, of course, but that wasn’t a surprise to us. It’s the highest point in Missouri, and it overlooks the St. Francois Mountains of Ozarks. You know the view from Taum Sauk is going to be great, no matter the day or season. There were lots of other folks there with us, but the mountain is big and the trails are ample, so it was easy for us to keep our distance from all of our fellow sightseers, aka potential germ-mongers, as we enjoyed the fresh air and the clear views. And, as a lover of visual puns, I got to take a picture of my pup at the peak and declare her “top dog” for the state of Missouri due to her elevation.

Sasha on Taum Sauk Mountain, March 2021

Taum Sauk Mountain was a predictably fun time. I have much praise for the park and no complaints, but there were no surprises waiting for us there on that particular Ozark peak.

The surprise came when we were done on the mountain and ready to return home. As we were leaving through the Arcadia Valley, my wife spotted a sign pointing the way to the Battle of Pilot Knob State Historic Site. She didn’t see any indication as to how far it was to the site, but given that both the town of Pilot Knob and the mountain having the same name were near at hand, we figured it couldn’t be too far. So we made a detour to seek out the old Civil War battlefield, figuring that if it wasn’t close we’d just turn around and continue on our way. Turned out, it was real close. We’d scarcely turned off Highway 21 when we spotted a pair of cannons beside the road and concluded that we’d found what we were looking for.

I had no idea what to expect as we were parking. I didn’t know a darn thing about the Battle of Pilot Knob other than that there was, in fact, a Battle of Pilot Knob during the Civil War. Despite being a fan of history in general, Missouri history in particular, and Ozark history most of all, I’ve never done a deep dive on the details of the Civil War in the Ozarks. I probably should, but the fact is that the Civil War is still a divisive topic around here, even as I write this in 2021–but not because many folks are sore about who won the war.

Back in the day, the Gibsons were squishy Unionists. According to family lore, my Great-Great-Great-Grandpa Gibson claimed to have served in the Union army, but the circumstances of that claim make me suspect he was more of a deserter or a draft dodger than an enthusiastic soldier in Ulysses S. Grant’s army. Be that as it may, though, he at least told everyone that he’d served in the Union army, and apparently he’d seemed sufficiently proud of his alleged service when he spoke/lied about it that he was counted as a Unionist. The other branches of my family aren’t quite so clear as to where their ancestors stood in the Civil War, which isn’t surprising given the messy emotions the War Between the States still evokes around here.

The Civil War was a bloody and all too often deadly experience for Ozarkers who would have preferred to have been left alone. Without large farms or even much topsoil to speak of, it’s not as if Ozarkers had much cause to enslave anyone to work the land like the plantation owners of the Confederacy did, so few Ozarkers craved the chance to fight and die defending the South’s Peculiar Institution. Plus, most Civil War era Ozarkers were descendants of Scots-Irish immigrants, people who described their ethnicity as “American” (both then and now) because this was the only country where their people (my people) had been welcomed. By and large, Ozarkers were not of a mind to overthrow their beloved America in defense of a chattel slavery system built for the benefit of distant patricians. On the other hand, the Missouri Ozarks were adjacent to rebellious Dixie, and Arkansas and her Ozark counties even joined the Confederacy. Those were cultural connections that pulled some Ozarkers to support the South, often despite practical and economic reasons tugging in the other direction. And of course there wasn’t any love in the hills for Eastern bankers and the proto-Robber Barons associated with the Union. It all created a culture of ambivalence over the Civil War that’s still palpable around here.

Most of all, though, as I understand it the Civil War was horrible for Ozarkers, the sort of thing that’s not pleasant to remember. Nothing good came from the armies marching around the hills, but the guerrillas on both sides were doing far worse than marching. Farm families, shopkeepers, millers, blacksmiths, and other ordinary folks in the Ozarks experienced enough atrocities from the irregular forces on both sides of the war, as well as some outright opportunistic thugs, to make the Civil War a dark time best forgotten.

So, when I say that I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about the local history of the Civil War, that’s not to say that I’m uncertain as to whether the war was worth it for our nation or whether I’m glad the Union won; I harbor no such uncertainty. I just know that for my people it was a difficult time. Even in my family of storytellers, where we have tales going back to the generations that were alive during the time, our family lore goes dark for the Civil War itself. Even my Great-Great-Great Grandfather who claimed to have served in the Union army told stories to explain why there’s not much record of him serving in uniform, but apparently he told no stories of battles and glory during the war itself. I suppose that even if he truly did fight to preserve the Union, stories about that service would have only stirred up bad memories around here.

With that long prelude explaining why I arrived at the Battle of Pilot Knob State Historic Site with considerable ignorance concluded, I can now report that the visit itself and the surprises it held for me. The battlefield was beautiful, albeit in that weird way that juxtaposes solemn sacrifice, a rugged landscape, and modern commerce. Beneath the surrounding peaks, there’s a modern looking restaurant right across from the battlefield where men fought, bled, and died over 150 years ago. Because we were trying to avoid unnecessary COVID risks and also had an enthusiastic dog with us, we stayed out of both the restaurant and the official building that houses the museum at the historical site. We stuck to the outside portions of the site, joined by a handful of other guests similarly enjoying the day. We marched all around the field reading the placards detailing how soldiers advanced and retreated back and forth through the very mountains that were rising before us. We read about how the location was strategically important because of the nearby mines and railroad, as well as it serving as a waypoint on the route to St. Louis. As we moved from sign to sign, we learned that the Union had built Fort Davidson to secure the area, but the Confederates had shown up with an overwhelming number of men seeking to capture fort and the surrounding area for the South.

As we were nearing the end of the loop of signs, snapping pictures as I went, I began to wonder why there was an unsightly earthen dike on the piece of land adjacent to the field we were walking through. What kind of person would mound up dirt near a battlefield like that? Then I read the next sign, which explained that Fort Davidson was built with earthen walls, and I immediately felt like an idiot who needs to read more Civil War history. Those dikes weren’t an unsightly attempt at flood control near the battlefield; they were what remains of the very fort the battle was fought over. I chuckled a bit as I confessed my error to my wife, and she admitted that she’d been having similar thoughts. I guess we’re a pair that way.

Fort Davidson, Pilot Knob, MO, March 2021

Then, with bated breath, we followed the path over the mounded earth walls of old Fort Davidson, and there before us was a clearing within the walls where Union soldiers had hunkered down to fight off the Confederate onslaught. There was also an enormous hole in the center filled with water. Having learned from our recent mistake of confusing the historic fort with a levee, neither of us asked why someone had dug a gigantic hole in the middle the fort. Instead, we just went and read the next sign.

Turns out, upwards to 20 tons of gunpowder had been stored in the magazine at Fort Davidson. Knowing that they couldn’t hold out much longer against a force that outnumbered them about 10 to 1, the Union soldiers had fled Fort Davidson under the cover of darkness. Not wanting their 20 tons of gunpowder to fall into Confederate hands, a few Union volunteers remained behind as their brothers in arms snuck away into the night. Once their friends and colleagues were clear, the volunteers lit a fuse to the magazine. Then they ran like hell.

The resulting explosion was one of those Ozark surprises I started this story with. Blowing up Fort Davidson’s magazine terrified the townsfolk, befuddled the Confederates, and left an enormous crater in the middle of the fort. The hole where 20 tons of gunpowder exploded remains there to this day. It’s still ready to surprise park visitors like me, despite over a century and a half of weathering and erosion since the explosion was set off.

I still don’t know much about the Civil War in the Ozarks, but, thanks to an unplanned visit to Pilot Knob and what’s left of Fort Davidson, I now know a little bit more.

The Ozarks are full of surprises. Sometimes the surprise is an educational detour. Sometimes the surprise is 20 tons of gunpowder exploding in the night. It’s really all just a matter of timing.

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