Cape Girardeau, Battle of

April 26, 1863

On the morning of April 26, 1863, after a week-long raid through Missouri, Confederate Brig. Gen. John S. Marmaduke massed his 5,000-man cavalry division west of Cape Girardeau. He had hoped to capture the town and its important Federal supply depot, but found it too well defended by a strongly fortified Federal force under Brig. Gen. John McNeil. Marmaduke decided to withdraw to Jackson, leaving Col. Joseph Shelby’s brigade to create a diversion. The diversion escalated into a battle, and fighting raged for four hours before Marmaduke could break off the action. The Confederates suffered about 50 casualties; the Federals lost fewer than 20. Marmaduke was pursued south, but escaped into Arkansas, having accomplished little during the raid.

Cape Girardeau Prepares for Attack

Late in the day on April 24, Brig. Gen. John McNeil led his command of Federal troops from Bloomfield into Cape Girardeau to make his defensive stand against Marmaduke’s raiders. The town was well fortified. Four earthen forts surrounded the town -- Forts A and D, which overlooked the river, and Forts B and C, which guarded the roads entering from the north, south and west. Two fortified gun batteries and a line of rifle pits stood farther to the west. The defenders were to hold the rifle pits as long as possible, then retire into Forts B and C. If those forts could not be held, they would retreat to Forts A and D near the Mississippi River where gunboats could assist them.

On the morning of April 25, McNeil deployed his 2,500 men for battle. His right flank on the Perryville road was guarded by five companies of infantry from the 1st Nebraska and 32nd Iowa, and two 12-pounder howitzers of Battery B, 1st Missouri Light Artillery. In the center, rifle pits and a gun position south of the Jackson Road were occupied by seven companies of the 1st Nebraska and the rest of Battery B-two 12-pounder howitzers and two 12-pounder guns. They were supported by two 24-pounder howitzers and a 24-pounder siege gun in Fort B, 1,200 yards to their rear. McNeil’s left flank, on the Bloomfield road, was held by cavalry -- the 1st Wisconsin and 2nd Missouri State Militia, supported by two 12-pounder mountain howitzers and the artillery in Fort C.

Soon two Confederate brigades arrived on the Bloomfield road. Their commander, Col. George W. Carter, demanded unconditional surrender, but McNeil refused and continued preparations. Horses and equipment were brought into the city and boats departed with requests for reinforcements.

The Battle Details

As dawn broke on April 26, rain fell in torrents. Marmaduke arrived from Fredericktown with Shelby’s and Col. John Q. Burbridge’s brigades after an all night march. He had learned that 5,000 Federal cavalry under Brig. Gen. William Vandever were closing on his rear from the northwest, and now found the town’s defenses to his front too strong to storm. Retreat was the only option, so Marmaduke sent Shelby’s brigade to skirmish on the Jackson road and distract the Federals while Carter’s command withdrew from the Bloomfield road. All would unite in Jackson, eight miles northwest.

Shelby encountered the Federal skirmishers several miles from Cape Girardeau and pushed them back. At about 10 a.m. his men entered a field at the base of a chain of hills and came under artillery fire. Maj. David Shanks’ battalion and Col. G. W. Thompson’s regiment deployed left of the Jackson road, Capt. R. A. Collins’ battery-two Parrott rifles and two 6-pounder guns were on and to the right of the road, and Col. B. G. Jeans’ and Col. B . F. Gordon’s regiments occupied woods on Collins’ right. Burbridge’s brigade deployed to the right of Shelby but was withdrawn at noon. An artillery duel raged for more than an hour. Collins’ battery concentrated fire on Fort B, which returned fire. Most of the fired projectiles bored into the mud and caused few casualties. The Lacey house, which stood between the lines, was set on fire by a shell, but a slave extinguished the blaze and saved the family sheltering in the basement.

Although Shelby’s men had ridden all night, they pushed forward aggressively. Shanks and Thompson advanced north of the Jackson Road to turn the enemy right, but were forced back by fire from the Perryville road. Jeans and Gordon drove Federal skirmishers from the woods to their front, but were halted by withering volleys from the 1st Nebraska. Thompson’s regiment and Collins’ battery, posted in the open on Shelby’s left, began suffering casualties, so Shelby moved them into shelter in the woods on Gordon’s right. Collins’ guns opened fire on enemy positions south of the Jackson road, threatening the enemy center and left. The Federals responded by deploying two mountain howitzers and several companies of dismounted cavalry from the Bloomfield road. Shell fire from the howitzers soon forced Collins to withdraw.

The defenders of Fort C believed they would be attacked next, but Carter’s and Greene’s brigades, who faced them on the Bloomfield road, had already retired under cover of the demonstration on the Jackson road. Shelby’s mission had been accomplished, but his aggressive skirmish continued to escalate. His men were heavily engaged, and he feared they would be counterattacked if they retreated. Marmaduke was forced to deploy Carter’s and Greene’s men in Shelby’s rear as support. Between 2:30 p. m. and 3 p. m. Shelby’s brigade fell back through their lines and the firing ceased.

McNeil expected the Confederates to renew the attack, so he was heartened when Federal gunboats and reinforcements arrived at the landing. He was further cheered by a message from Vandever, who had followed the Confederates from Fredericktown with 5,000 cavalry and expected to strike them during the night. To cooperate with Vandever, McNeil advanced his cavalry toward Jackson at about 8 p.m.

In Cape Girardeau, April 27 was a day of rejoicing. A local newspaper proclaimed: “Great Union Victory. The Marmaduke raid at an end. He is routed-horse, foot and dragoon.” Evacuees who had fled town before the battle returned and were surprised that little had been harmed one house burned, but not due to enemy action. Although shot and shell fragments littered the town, casualties had been light, 50-to-60 Confederates (mostly from Shelby’s brigade) and fewer than 20 Federals.