The Almost Forgotten Battle
by Robert L. Owens
Reenactment of a Civil War Battle to be held in Cole Camp
Shortly before dawn on June 19, 1861, the second battle in the Campaign to secure Missouri for the Union was fought 3 miles east of Cole Camp. It was critical in that the outcome allowed Governor Jackson to escape to Southwest Missouri to rally forces for the Confederacy. Had it gone the other way the intensity of the battle for Missouri would have been greatly reduced. This battle saw more casualties than most encounters on Missouri soil; 35 Union KIA and 6 Confederate.
But why has it only been in recent years that there has been any awareness of the engagement? The most logical explanation is that the two forces involved were hastily thrown-together, rag-tag outfits with no regular officers or forces involved so there were no reports or details. Also it was surely overshadowed by subsequent events so the battle faded back to become more of a legend than a reality. What is most amazing is the fact that the leading New York news paper carried a very detailed, two part article on the battle a week after it occurred, including names of some of the KIA and correctly reported the number of the KIA.
In 1989 the first detailed and reasonably accurate account of the battle was published and this was followed by two reenactments, 1991 and 1996. The third one is scheduled for June 24-25 of this year as a Max Effort and the town is going all-out to make this one even better. They are even negotiating to have it videoed providing the critical barn can be reconstruction on the site. Failing the barn there will be a walk through and demonstration of events with small groups to show what happened.
Just why did this bloody encounter take place at this non-descript little village of Cole Camp? The town was essentially a "communications hub" at that time with four major roads joining at this location. From the north there was the Boonville Road and the Butterfield Trail which originated at the Tipton/Syracuse area and went through Missouri and the South West to San Francisco. From the east came the Jefferson City/Versailles Road and from the south the Duroc Road, leading from a settlement at one of the major crossings of the Osage River. Jackson, in his retreat south would have had to pass through Cole Camp and hence the battle.
Basically it was a well planned attack by the Confederate Commander, Walter S. O'Kane and a very poor performance by Able Cook, the Union Commander of the Home Guard that was made up almost totally of recent German immigrants. As the New York paper noted, Cook should have been court martialed.
The Union Home Guards initially had about 900 men assemble on June 13 at a near-by farm. Not having been issued enough ammunition or weapons Cook furloughed about half the men who were glad to go home and tend the farm. This left about 450 totally untrained, poorly armed men in the camp. Six days later they were to receive their bloody baptism by fire.
After having the Union camp spied out by the then sheriff of Benton County, a force of about 350 infantry and 100 cavalry marched up the Butterfield Trail from Warsaw to Cole Camp. Enroute, some time around 1:00 a.m. they encountered one John Tyree, a Cole Camp area resident returning to his home near Cole Camp Creek. He was interrogated and eventually recognized as having been in Warsaw the day before and would have seen the attack preparations. Accused of having informed the Union commander, which was true, he was tied to a tree and shot, the first casualty of the Battle of Cole Camp. O'Kane pressed on along the Butterfield Tail then through farm trails to the Union Camp. As they approached the camp they encountered Union guards who did not challenge them because they were carrying a Union flag and the guards were bayoneted to avoid alerting the Union Camp. At the camp the last guard/picket escaped and ran back to alert sleeping Union soldiers but it was too late and O'Kane's infantry were immediately behind him..
From here the Confederated force launched their attack, primarily at the barn and here the largest number of Union were killed. The Confederate force was, however, driven back by flanking fire from a platoon billeted in corn cribs to the north of the barn. Back in the woods O'Kane regrouped and launched a second attack which took the barn and farm house area breaking down the barn door with a rail from a near-by rail fence. The Union platoon was out of ammunition and had to withdraw.
In the mean time a Union force located along a wood line south east of the barn, about 1/4 mile distant, heard the battle and started up the hill to relieve the forces in the barn. Before they arrived the Confederate Cavalry, that had been sent around a ridge to attack another force located on an adjacent farm, but seeing the target of opportunity of the Union force moving up the hill toward the barn charged them in the flank and drove them back into the woods. Here the Union troops put up some what of a defense as the cavalry could not operate effectively in the woods.
Now almost in total command of the field the Confederates, carrying a Union flag, rode around the field shouting and firing their weapons. The Union force at the barn, seeing the Union flag was not sure what the situation was so held their fire. When firing began being directed on them they withdrew from the field leaving the Confederates in total control to take captured weapons and PWs before they moved back to Warsaw.
One of the captives protested, in his broken German, that he was not a fighter, but only the cook. The Confederates believing they had the Union, Home Guard commander, Able Cook, promptly shot him. This hapless victim was named Tomforte, a recent German immigrant.
The next day Governor Jackson and his entourage passed through Cole Camp on his way south. He had taken refuge just outside Florence until his route was cleared, which O'Kane did in fine fashion.
The reenactment will be on the original battle site which is virtually as it was in June 1861, with the exception of some buildings that have been removed over the years.