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Search may shed light on Civil War battle site near Marshall

Friday, October 8, 2010 | 4:51 p.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS — One of the nation's leading battlefield archaeologists fanned out with volunteers in central Missouri on Friday in hopes of pinpointing the exact spot of a Civil War battle that ended one of the divisive war's most famous and longest raids.

Those involved say the search could be a boon for Missouri's quest to draw in Civil War buffs as the 150th anniversary of the divisive conflict between the North and South fast approaches. Led by forensic archaeologist Doug Scott, they hope to find bullets, pieces of horse harnesses and other evidence from the 1863 Battle of Marshall — a skirmish that happened 147 years ago next Wednesday.

Missouri's place in the war is undeniable: The state trails only Virginia and Tennessee in the number of Civil War battles fought. Those states, along with Pennsylvania, have been savvy in erecting battlefield monuments that lure thousands of visitors each year, boosting their tourism revenues.

As anniversary observances of the war loom, "every year is going to be a matter of interest, we hope, to neighbors from other states" when it comes to the Battle of Marshall, said Greg Wolk, president of Missouri's Civil War Heritage Foundation, one of the sponsors of the dig expected to extend into the weekend.

"Many people don't realize the extent we had a war here in Missouri," he added.

That's something he hopes historians can rectify with the search of property near Marshall, the 12,400-resident Saline County seat where charming, ornate Victorian homes harken back to the period when federal forces confronted Confederate ones just north of town on Oct. 13, 1863.

Information gleaned from Scott's efforts may eventually be used to develop a walking tour of the site for tourists.

The skirmish generally is remembered as the culminating event of Confederate Col. Joseph Shelby's famed raids into Missouri with 1,200 horseback soldiers. During a day marked by aggressive charges back and forth, with both sides using timber and ravines for cover, Union Gen. Egbert Brown and his 1,800 troops managed to divide and eventually turn back Shelby's men, sending them galloping back into Arkansas with Brown's troops in hot pursuit.

Because of the natural cover, casualties were minimal, with a handful of Confederate deaths and none on the Union side, according to James Denny, a retired Missouri Department of Natural Resources historian who detailed the battle in a historical abstract last decade.

Along with the head-high, thick brush that shielded the combatants from the flying bullets, "probably no one really wanted very badly to get killed," Denny said Friday from his home near Jamestown. "In this case, they just didn't get close enough to see the whites of their eyes to do any real damage, and both sides were pretty happy with that. All (Brown and the Union) wanted to do was get Shelby out of the state, and they did that."

That doesn't diminish the battle's significance, Denny said: After weeks of Shelby running roughshod through Missouri, Brown brought him to battle for the first time and sent him retreating. And in nearly textbook fashion, Brown's troops managed to divide Shelby's forces — one of the great breaches of the rules of warfare.

"Brown had a chance to crush him and let him slip through his fingers," Denny said. "You don't necessarily have to have a high body count to have a great battle. It's a fascinating battle, but it may be more fascinating for what didn't happen than what did."

The battle's importance may be reflected in Scott's interest. An adjunct University of Nebraska anthropology professor and native Missourian, he's credited with helping ferret out what happened in June 1876 at Montana's Little Big Horn, famously known as "Custer's Last Stand."

With more than four decades of work on battlefield sites, the retired forensic archaeologist for the National Park Service said he hopes the unfolding search near Marshall will provide evidence that can help historians identify exactly where specific events took place. Still, he and his helpers will have limited access to some of the sprawling battlefield where houses have been built.

"That's the issue — where did things happen during this moment of the whole turbulent period in America's past," Scott, whose ancestors fought in the Civil War, said in a telephone interview moments before the search began. "We won't find it all. We'll just get pieces of it. But it's always exciting."


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