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Archaeologists' findings affirm Battle of Boonville site

Wednesday, June 15, 2011 | 6:43 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Lead bullets, fragments of cannonballs, an artillery canister and a few buttons.

These were some of the items that helped a team of archaeologists determine the location of the First Battle of Boonville.

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In November 2007, a team lead by Douglas Scott, an archaeologist and professor of anthropology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, conducted a study at and around the Willard Avery farm on Rocheport Road near Boonville. They were looking for evidence of the battle, which, according to historical accounts, was fought there in 1861.

When they analyzed their findings, it became certain that the main exchange of the battle had occurred at the Avery property. Now, the farm is set for a re-enactment to mark the sesquicentennial of the First Battle of Boonville from June 17-19.

The archaeological investigation was part of an initiative undertaken by the Missouri’s Civil War Heritage Foundation to correctly identify Civil War locations in central Missouri.

Greg Wolk, president of the Heritage Foundation, said Scott and his team had also helped his organization in similar investigations at other places in the state such as Centralia, Marshall and Waverly.

Wolk said such investigations and support from local historians helped his organization develop the Gray Ghosts trail — a driving route that runs across the state from Danville to Marshall with Civil War battle sites, museums and cemeteries along the way.

Scott said the investigation at Boonville was not a “full-blown archaeological study,” but rather a reconnaissance investigation to locate and identify the battle locations.

“One of the things we do as a volunteer archaeological group with the foundation is to come in and sweep the area, with the owners’ permission, to find evidence for the battle and to precisely locate elements that identify where the battle lines were,” Scott said.

Other than Scott, the primary team had two more members, archaeologist Thomas Thiessen and Steve Dasovich, an associate professor of anthropology at Lindenwood University in St. Charles.

Thirteen volunteers, some of them from the Heritage Foundation, helped the team with the field work.

The team used metal detectors to sweep the battle site. It found 15 Civil War-era bullets of different calibers from the Avery farm and a canister round — a short-range projectile usually fired from cannons.

Dasovich said the Avery farm was the prime location in the battle, according to the findings, but since the troops kept moving, the actual battle site stretched out more than a mile.

The team found more bullets, spherical balls possibly fired from muskets, fragments of small cannonballs, canister rounds and some non-military equipment such as brass buttons and buckles from the surrounding areas.

The team used a forensics technique called firearm identification to analyze the evidence, Scott said.

“Shoulder arms such as rifles leave an impression on the bullets,” he said. “By examining the bullets, it is possible to determine what kind of weapon was used.”

Scott said the team used historical accounts of Civil War weaponry to confirm that the evidence came from that period. They used information about the kinds of weapons together with estimated firing ranges to determine where the battle lines were formed and where the actual fighting took place.

Dasovich said that, based on the evidence uncovered, they were able to locate two Missouri State Guards battle lines and one Union troops battle line.

The second State Guards battle line was an indication that some troops tried to make a stand after their initial retreat under attack from the Union troops.

Four battles were fought in Boonville during the Civil War. The first battle, however, is considered most significant because it meant that Missouri's pro-Confederate forces weren't able to secede from the Union at the onset of the war, ensuring that Missouri's resources remained under Union control, according to the Boonville Civil War Commemorative Commission. The commission is in charge of organizing the re-enactment and other commemorative events.

Wolk said his organization had been trying to attract visitors to the Civil War sites in Missouri, and the Boonville re-enactment is a chance to highlight Missouri's significance during the Civil War period. 

“It is an opportunity for us to show the whole country that if you want to see the Civil War, you don’t have to go to Virginia,” he said.

Scott said this was the first investigation done at this battle site with professional archaeologists. Previously, some private collectors had found artifacts at the site and surrounding areas, but archaeologists can bring more out of the same data, he said.

“It’s not just about finding artifacts but about analyzing artifacts in relation to their location and the land forms surrounding them,” Scott said.

Scott will be giving a talk about his archaeological and historical investigations about the First Battle of Boonville at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Boonville Civil War re-enactment site. 


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