Skirmish at Pemiscot Bayou

Location: Pemiscot Bayou, Big Lake Township, Mississippi County
Campaign: Expedition from New Madrid, Missouri
Date: April 6, 1864
Principal Commanders: Major John W. Rabb (US); Colonel Clark (CS)
Forces Engaged: Detachments of the Second Missouri Cavalry, Companies I and K (US); Guerrilla forces presumed to be under the umbrella of the Seventh Missouri Cavalry (CS)
Estimated Casualties: 3 killed, 7 wounded (US); Undetermined numbers killed and wounded (CS)
Result: Union victory

Throughout Mississippi County and the adjacent Missouri counties of Dunklin and Pemiscot, bands of guerillas harassed Union forces, raided farms and communities, and terrorized the citizenry with acts of violence during the Civil War. Composed primarily of Confederate deserters and civilian sympathizers, these combatants hid within the dense swamplands and canebrakes that dominated the landscape, making it difficult for Union forces to pinpoint their exact locations.

Determined to disperse these groups and limit their activities, Major John W. Rabb spearheaded an expedition from New Madrid, Missouri, to Mississippi County on April 5, 1864. At 11:00 p.m., with a force of approximately 200 men, he embarked on a steamer and sailed down the Mississippi River to Barfield’s Point (Mississippi County), where he ordered a detachment headed by Captain W. C. F. Montgomery to disembark and march toward Chickasawba Settlement—now known as Gosnell (Mississippi County)—on Pemiscot Bayou. Rabb and his remaining forces (100 men) continued down the river, landing twenty miles south at Osceola (Mississippi County).

Learning that guerrillas had just raided the town, Rabb marched his men immediately toward Pemiscot Bayou at a point approximately ten miles below Montgomery’s target. By nightfall (April 6), they had covered twelve miles, reaching the farm of Mark Walker, a professed Confederate sympathizer. After setting up camp, a discussion took place between Rabb and Walker, leading Rabb to believe that he would be attacked at daylight. Therefore, he posted pickets in and around the house as well as fifty yards away. After leaving instructions with his troops in the event of an attack, Rabb and his lieutenants turned in for the night.

Shortly afterward, it began to rain. Waking at approximately 3:00 a.m., Rabb conversed briefly with one of his lieutenants and then lay down once again. However, within five minutes, he heard a voice at close range demand that he surrender the entire command. Responding in the negative, Rabb was immediately fired upon. At this point, his troops awakened to discover that they were under fire from approximately 100 guerrillas who had crept into the camp under the cover of the darkness and rain. After a fight lasting no more than five minutes, the Rebels retreated. Rabb decided it would be foolish to follow them in the darkness, confident that they would return for another attack at daylight.

However, a second attack never materialized; therefore, Rabb gathered his troops, including the wounded, and began to march toward a rendezvous with Captain Montgomery. Rabb’s report describes this march as “the most laborious march I ever made,” as the fatigued troops carried their wounded through a “very bad” swamp for nearly six miles until they found some teams to convey the wounded. Rabb eventually reconnoitered with Montgomery, back to Barfield’s Point, where they embarked on another steamer that delivered them back to New Madrid.

In his report filed on April 10, 1864, Rabb included copies of papers that Captain Valentine Preuitt (CS, Company M, First Missouri Cavalry) took from the body of a guerrilla captain known only as Williams. These papers revealed a number of different commands within the area, leading Rabb to postulate that nearly 1,000 guerrillas were in the area. It was his recommendation that a heavy cavalry force be assigned to effectively shut down their operations. Later reports indicate that Federal troops, led by Lieutenant Colonel John T. Burris (US, Tenth Kansas Infantry) conducted an expedition into southeastern Missouri and northeastern Arkansas between July 18 and August 6. This expedition was successful in its goal to clear the area of any remaining guerrillas and seriously check their operations.

For additional information:
The War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series I, Vol. 34, Part I, pp. 872–874. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1891.

The War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series I, Vol. 41, Part I, pp. 77–80. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1893.

Toney Butler Schlesinger
Granite Bay, California


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