Battle of Newtonia (1862)

The First Battle of Newtonia took place September 30, 1862. It was the first battle in the Trans-Mississippi West since the Battle of Pea Ridge, on March 7-8, 1862, in northwestern Arkansas. The late spring and summer of 1862 hadn’t been without warring activity; skirmishes and guerrilla violence marked the southwestern Missouri Ozarks, and the constant movement of army columns, scouts, and bushwhacking gangs were a constant reminder that the War was still going on, even in the absence of massive Army encampments.

The Union Army had been occupying the southwestern Ozarks of Missouri since the spring of 1862. The 6th Missouri Cavalry had been present on scouting missions, and in early June, the 37th Illinois Infantry and 1st Missouri Cavalry moved in to support the 6th, as rumors of encroaching Confederate forces took root. The 6th Kansas moved in and would remain stationed at Newtonia for the duration of the War. Coming in from Kansas, as well, to support the Union effort, were its first Native American soldiers, in the Indian Home Guard. They would meet their fellow Indian Territory tribesmen at Newtonia.

In August, the Union Army established a garrison at Newtonia. There were several reasons for Newtonia’s importance. Likened to the “granary of the Ozarks,” extreme southwestern Missouri was flush with grist mills and cereal crops, and their importance of daily foodstuffs for a growing and hungry army cannot be understated. The lead for ammunition coming out of nearby Granby was also essential to both Armies. Additionally, with the proximity to Kansas, Indian Territory, and the Confederate State of Arkansas, the Union Army regarded Newtonia and the surrounding counties as instrumental in quelling the growing guerrilla activity endorsed by the Confederate government. If the Rebels were going to come into Missouri and stake a claim, it would likely be through Newton County, or one of the surrounding areas.

The Civil War in the Ozarks had been, thus far, between regiments of either Army, under military leaders who devoutly subscribed to traditional protocol. The War in the Ozarks, after early 1862, would change all of that. With the advent of the Union Army’s successful establishment in the Ozarks — to include garrisons, regular supply trains, and certainly not least of all the support of the citizenry – the Confederacy’s tactics took a turn for the illicit. Secessionist minded men, not content to let overwhelming numbers speak for their lost cause, gathered into bands of marauding raiders.

The Confederate sanctioning of “partisan raiders” was the result of their creative interpretation of military law. It was simply another name for guerrillas, which was only another term for bushwhackers, and their illicit activities had been going on for years. That the Confederate Government stepped up to name their organizations, and essentially give them free rein to impede Union success whenever and however they saw fit, gave the Union Army fits of their own.

The widespread presence of the guerrillas came not long after Missouri was essentially secured for the Union, and on the heels of decisive victories for the Union in northwestern Arkansas. Confederate military men such as Sterling Price, a former Missouri Governor, strove to attain what foothold they could, in whatever way possible. Price was not alone in wanting to reverse the defeats of early 1862, and the Confederate Army would likely have enjoyed the spoils of the southwestern Missouri harvest as well.

A garrison at Newtonia wasn’t enough to stop the Rebel forces from moving in and plundering the increased Union supplies, and to have raised the Stars and Bars over the garrison would have been even more creditable to the Confederate military men at that time. The rumors of Rebel incursion into Newton County in mid September were substantiated. Of course, an accurate head count of a collection of bands of roving, armed men would have been difficult to verify; nevertheless, the Union assessed the Confederate threat as valid.

The celebrated Confederate Colonel Joseph “Jo” Shelby organized his forces and established a training camp at Camp Coffee, just south of Newtonia, in the second week of September, 1862. Shelby had about 1500 Missouri cavalrymen at Camp Coffee. A skirmish on September 13 killed one of Shelby’s officers, Col. Upton Hays. Command of the 6th Missouri Cavalry, CSA then went to Lt. Col. Beal G. Jeans. During this skirmish, the 6th Missouri State Cavalry, of the Union garrison, was driven to Mount Vernon. Shelby was known for his nerve and military prowess, and was operating as part of Cooper’s Brigade, under the auspices of the District of Arkansas. Shelby apparently had the full support of Cooper, who moved the Texas & Indian Brigade to join Camp Coffee on September 26. The next day, the 31st Texas Cavalry and the 1st Cherokee Battalion moved in to occupy Newtonia.

The men were geared up for battle, and the rumors went both ways. Word reached the Federals that Rains, Shelby and Cooper had joined forces, amassing 11,000 Rebels to fight the Yankees. As Cooper’s men were moving in, so, too, were Brig. General James Blunt’s two brigades sent out of Fort Scott, Kansas in mid-September. The incursion of the Army of Kansas was additional fodder for the Confederate zeal: they must certainly have been feared, and causing worry, if all those Union forces were moving in to defend Newtonia. On September 29, Union scouts were chased away from Newtonia, and sent toward Granby.

Thus on the next to last day of the month, the Union Army found out that not only were the Confederates occupying Newtonia, but at least 8,000 were camped south of the town gearing up for a fight. Union forces, and their plans to converge from Fort Scott, Baxter Springs, Springfield, and Mount Vernon, were scurrying to move in and break up the amassed Rebels. What they didn’t know was how poorly armed the Rebels were. Nor could they have known what follow up to an actual battle the Rebels would have. Would they fight, and surge forward, taking Union held lands? Or would they put on a loud and destructive show, only to retreat back into the mountains of Northern Arkansas?

At seven a.m. on September 30, the fighting began. The Union outgunned the Confederates 5 to 2, but the bluecoats were unable to silence the Rebel pieces.1 The Union Army came in, then the Confederate forces surged. The Union retreated, and then was met with reinforcements and returned to fight the Rebels. Just when the Confederates were lagging, their reinforcements arrived. By dark, the Rebels were chasing the Yankees out of Newtonia, some all the way to Sarcoxie, nearly twelve miles away. The organized Union retreat, brought on by the perception of being outmanned and outarmed by the Rebels, turned into a rout, as the Yankees dropped their arms and fled. Some were captured, some were killed, and the Rebels added to their sorry arms supply with the discarded weapons.

The casualties were minimal, compared to major battles of the day. The numbers vary, from on the scene correspondence between the officers of each side, but it is estimated that the Confederate representation was as much as 11,000, and the Union Army force as great as 7,000. Likely, those numbers are on the high end. The Rebels reported 12 dead, 63 wounded and 3 missing, out of Cooper’s report of roughly 4000 engaged. And while Cooper would estimate that his men fought a Federal force of 6-7000 men, no report of losses was filed by General Salomon.2 Colonel Weer, however, would report that “Four whole companies of the Ninth Wisconsin, except about ten men, are killed, wounded, or captured, besides others of the Sixth and Ninth Kansas and Third Indians.”3 It is estimated that the Federal casualties numbered somewhere around 245, with Confederate losses closer to 100.

The Confederates may have won the battle, but they were unable to maintain a hold of the area, given the large Union Army presence in the region. They retreated to northwest Arkansas, and in a familiar conundrum, were unable to capitalize on their victory at Newtonia, just as they had not been able to the previous year at Wilson’s Creek.

Confederate victory reached its peak in southwestern Missouri at Newtonia. After that early autumn day, Confederate victories in southwestern Missouri would evaporate, as the only persistent Rebel presence in that part of the Ozarks would be through the bands of partisan raiders the Confederacy endorsed to do their jobs.

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  1. Edwin C. Bearss, The Army of the Frontier’s First Campaign: The Confederates Win at Newtonia. (reprint by courtesy of Missouri State Historical Society, Missouri Historical Review 60 (April 1966), 12.
  2. Bearss, The Army of the Frontier’s First Campaign, 25.
  3. Bearss, The Army of the Frontier’s First Campaign, 25.