During the American Civil War, Missouri was considered a border state and had plenty of proponents on either side of the issue. Known more for the border wars with neighboring Kansas, there were a few Civil War battles with some significance. On July 5, 1861, two weeks prior to Bull Run and at the earliest stages of the just declared war, Carthage became the meeting place between 1000 union forces, commanded by Franz Sigel, and 4000 Missouri State Guard, commanded by Governor Claiborne F. Jackson. Although outnumbered, Sigel’s troops were better trained and more heavily armed. After a series of encounters north of Carthage, known as the Battle of Dry Fork, Sigel and his men eventually retreated and ended up in Sarcoxie. There were 13 casualties on the Union side and 40 on the Confederate. The Confederates claimed a victory in the skirmish and this helped in the recruitment of southern forces from then on.
Approximately 103 years later, there was another battle that took place in Carthage. How and why the battle took place is still in question, and like the earlier Civil War battle, minor skirmishes would lead to a final, all out assault.
In those days it wouldn’t be unusual to find in any guy’s car a cache of weapons; bottle rockets, firecrackers, smoke bombs, roman candles and even an M80 or two. These weapons were often used in little spontaneous brush ups with the opposition. In these occasional brush ups, two cars would be traveling down a two way road, side by side; with the occupants of both automobiles intent on sending an explosive device through the window of the enemy’s car (water balloons also worked in these encounters, but fireworks were more interesting). Sometimes, as happened to me in my brother’s car, the lit weapon, for example a bottle rocket, wouldn’t make it out the window and would take off inside the car instead. Pfffsssstt! The bottle rocket ended up under the seat and lucky for me it was a dud.
These minor skirmishes led to a larger battle that took place at the Carthage Municipal Golf Course. Word must have gotten around (pre-cell phone days).
Letter from General Grant to General Lee- “Robert, I’m sending a few of my troops down to the golf course, west of town. How about a little battle?”
Return letter from General Lee- “Ulysses, that’s a splendid idea. I’ll have a handful of my men show up on Friday night; let’s say 10:00 pm.”
The golf course wasn’t exactly a playground, especially late at night, and I’m sure that the officials would frown on a bunch of guys running around on the fairways and greens, but there we were. Due to the fog of war, it was hard to tell how many there were that night and the darkness prevented any identification. There were a handful of us up by the number 9 green and we could see some movement across the fairway down below. It’s unclear who fired the first shot, but suddenly a loud pop was heard overhead and then all h – – – broke loose. Bottle rockets were whizzing overhead, guys were running back and forth across the fairway, some hiding behind trees and some even prostrating themselves on the grass to avoid flying projectiles. Smoke was beginning to fill the air, when suddenly it stopped. Everyone began retreating to their cars and driving away. Apparently someone across the street from the golf course had heard the noise and called the local police and when they began patrolling the area, everyone beat it. The battle would move to the east of town at a location that would become infamous; Morrow Mill.
Located on Spring River, Morrow Mill was still in operation, and appearances led one to believe that it was a pretty big operation in its heyday (it would shut down in 1978). Situated next to a dam on the Spring River, the mill stood tall above the landscape and could be seen for miles. Below the dam was the road, a two lane blacktop, and it crossed the river via a low water bridge. This would be the site of a battle that is still talked about today.
After leaving the golf course, the combatant’s bloodlust had not been satisfied and they had to find a new place to finish the conflict. It was later that night that the cars began to arrive at the mill. The size of the forces on either side had tripled (word gets around quickly in a small town) and the adversaries came much better prepared than earlier in the evening. As I looked across the low water bridge, in the dim light I recognized guys that I considered friends and even some family members. Why we were fighting each other remains a mystery.
The forces on either side of the bridge were maneuvering into place when the first shot rang out. Within moments, the pop pop pop of firecrackers and bottle rockets became deafening, and added to the explosions were the shouts and occasional wails of antagonists being hit by random projectiles. The smoke bombs and roman candles added a visual to the sound that was almost overwhelming in its glory. At one point, some of the opposition became trapped up against the wall of the mill and we mercilessly bombarded them with more bottle rockets and firecrackers from our position across the river. The smoke became so heavy that it blocked out the moonlight and made it difficult to see who we were aiming at, and those trapped against the mill used the smokescreen to retreat to a safer location. There was a lot of shouting and running to and fro as the noise and excitement led to much confusion.
Finally, after all the munitions were spent, the battle was over. There were no casualties other than a few burns, bruises and some smoke inhalation. As we drove away, I could see in my rearview mirror the heavy, blue/gray cloud of smoke lingering over the river and the low water bridge, littered in paper from burned up fireworks. In my imagination I pictured the Battle of Dry Fork those 100 years before. War may be hell, but it sure gets the blood pumping.
This story is an excerpt from Always a Little Heathen, to be released in the fall of 2014.