Calwood group dedicates memorial at recently discovered Civil War grave

Monday, July 28, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:01 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 29, 2014
A Civil War group believes to have found a mass grave containing eight or nine Union and Confederate soldiers who died during the bloodiest battle in Callaway County. The site was dedicated with a memorial service including cannon fire and reenactors who traveled from several states.

*CORRECTION: Dyers Branch is the creek near the site of the Civil War memorial at Calwood. An earlier version of this article had the creek's name wrong.

Where are the Fields of Potter?
Where do their bodies lay?
They lay beneath the fodder.
Those men of blue and gray.
-David Chaltas, "Where is the Potter's Field?"

CALWOOD — Smoke hovered over the green field and carried the scent of gunpowder down into a nearby creek*.

A crowd of spectators looked on in silence. Some were dressed in woolen gray or blue uniforms, their hands clenched around replica swords and rifles. Others wore jeans and rebel flag T-shirts.

The second round of cannon fire shattered the hallowed silence.

At least 200 Civil War re-enactors, history enthusiasts and Callaway County residents gathered Sunday afternoon in a Calwood field for the dedication of a memorial at what is believed to be a grave containing the bodies of eight or nine Confederate and Union soldiers.

The ceremony, hosted by the Elijah Gates Camp No. 570 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, honored men who died just down the road fighting the Battle of Moore's Mill. It was at once a somber and celebratory afternoon, an occasion more than 150 years in the making.

The Battle of Moore's Mill

On July 28, 1862, Col. Odon Guitar led two companies from the Ninth Cavalry of the Missouri State Militia north along Auxvasse Creek, near present-day Calwood. Guitar, a successful lawyer-turned-military officer from Columbia, was leading the men on a hunt for bands of guerrilla fighters who had been roaming mid-Missouri recruiting men for their fight.

Near a mill owned by a man named Moore, Guitar and his roughly 270 men walked into an ambush. About 260 Confederate soldiers and guerrilla fighters under the command of Col. Joseph C. Porter sprang from the bush, starting the deadliest Civil War battle fought in Callaway County.

The four-hour firefight at Moore's Mill almost ended in a Confederate victory until Union reinforcements led by Lt. Col. William F. Shaffer arrived from the east side of the creek, accompanied by Lt. A.G. Armington from the 3rd Indiana Light Artillery who had two brass 6-pound cannons.

The combined forces under Shaffer and Guitar managed to drive Porter's troops out of the field and into retreat. But exhausted from the afternoon fight under the July sun, Guitar's men remained at the battlefield to rest and collect the casualties from both sides.

There were 92 casualties — those missing, injured or dead. A total of 16 Union and eight Confederate soldiers were killed, including those who died of wounds a few days later.

Some of the dead were sheperded home by soldiers who recognized them or whose families came to claim their sons. According to accounts from Guitar and others, there remained eight or nine bodies of men whose homes and families were unknown. Guitar and his men buried these soldiers in a single grave down the hill from the battleground.

Finding the boys

No marker was placed on the grave. The only accounts mentioning the location of the grave were vague, and for many years its location was impossible to determine.

"I'd speculate that the locals knew where the bodies had been buried, but by 1900 it must have just been forgotten," said Noel Crowson, commander of the Elijah Gates Camp.

In 1908, the historian Joseph A. Mudd interviewed Elijah Hopper, a Missouri State Militia soldier from Columbia who fought under Guitar.

The interview held clues for the location of the grave. Mudd quoted Hopper saying, "We collected the dead — both sides — after the fight and buried them near a store on the 29th."

The location of the mass grave remained a mystery for many years. In September 1958, local probate judge and amateur historian Hugh P. Williamson published an article in the Fulton Sun-Gazette claiming to have located the grave. He referenced a highway and gave specific distances from a road and measurements for the grave size. Like Hopper, he also mentioned that it was a short distance from a store.

In the early '90s, the founding members of the Elijah Gates Camp became interested in locating the grave. Allen Connor, Mark Douglas and Mark White followed Williamson's directions to the grave, but the land owners at the time would not grant anyone permission to dig around on their property.

In the spring of 2013, interpretive panels for the Fulton Gray Ghosts trail were installed in Calwood. Members of the local Elijah Gates Camp again began to wonder why there was no memorial to the mass grave at Moore's Mill.

In July, Crowson and his group began an increased effort to locate the grave, again using Williamson's article as their guide.

Because both Williamson and Hopper referenced a store in their accounts, Crowson though it was reasonable to assume that the Wright Brothers Store at the intersection of highways Z and JJ in Calwood might sit where a store had been located in 1862. They followed the two highways in each direction, searching for a spot the distance away from the road specified by Williamson that could look like a grave.

About a mile northeast of the store, on land bordering Auxvasse Creek, they found a recessed area that could match the description of a large burial spot.

But they still weren't satisfied. So they collected donations and in April hired St. Louis-based Ground Penetrating Radar Systems Inc. to survey the land.

The Sons didn't tell the radar team the exact spot where they thought the grave might be. They just took them to the area.

The radar technician surveyed the land, determining a place where the ground had been disturbed and man-made anomalies were present beneath the soil.

It was the same spot where their calculations had placed it.

The dedication

The dedication ceremony had been in the works since they renewed their search for the grave, Crowson said.

Crowson and fellow Elijah Gate Camp member Kevin Wenzel wrote a book about the mass grave especially for the dedication. Wenzel, a member of the Audrain County Area Genealogical Society, used military records, property records and census information to write biographies of the commanders in the battle. He said he traced many of their family histories back to the commanders' own grandparents.

"I really felt like I knew these people," Wenzel said.

As the crowd of spectators watched with reverence, Betty McAtee and Deby Fitzpatrick, two members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy wearing homemade black mourning gowns complete with veils, laid wreaths at the the foot of the memorial, a large gray grave stone. 

Although the ceremony resembled a military funeral, it had an air of celebration. State Rep. Jeanie Riddle, R-Mokane, and Callaway County Commissioner Gary Jungermann both read resolutions congratulating the Elijah Gate Camp for their efforts to locate the grave, as well as for raising $5,000 for the memorial grave stone.

Some spectators traveled great distances to honor the dead.

"Both sides were Americans, brothers and sons," Ron Royer said. Royer has been involved with re-enactments since 1976 and came from Belleville, Ill. for the dedication. He came with a group representing the 11th Mississippi Cavalry, a group that wasn't involved in the Battle of Moore's Mill. Like Crowson, he felt it was important to honor men who sacrificed their lives.

"It's all family in that hole, and they all deserve to be remembered," Royer said.

Janita Fisher, also dressed in a mourning gown, came down with the the 3rd Iowa Cavalry Reenactors, who represent a company that fought with Guitar at Moores's Mill.

"We have our own boys in there," she said, motioning toward the grave.

The mass grave

After the radar survey, no one ever dug into the recessed area of earth for evidence of bodies, clothes or artifacts — a fact that didn't seem to bother anyone at the symbolic ceremony.

"These bodies weren't buried in caskets," Crowson said. The group elected not to excavate the graves for fear of disturbing or destroying whatever remains of the bodies. "These boys deserve to rest, it's important to give them a proper funeral," he said.

For Wenzel, there are lessons in the history that the memorial represents, regardless of whether it is the correct location. He's traced his own family history, a process that revealed a relative who owned 96 slaves.

"It's something that takes a lot of time to wrap your head around," he said.

Wenzel said studying history, particularly the mistakes people have made, is important.

"Whether it's right or wrong, it's who we are," he said. "If we can understand the bad parts, we won't do it again."

"The records prove these people existed," Wenzel said, dressed in the long gray coat of a Confederate officer. "But there's no way to be 100 percent sure that's the grave."

The land the memorial sits on is currently owned by Gus Guthrie. He said he had always heard rumors of the mass grave of Civil War casualties around Calwood, but not being a history buff, he'd never looked into it. 

When the Elijah Gates Camp asked to examine his property for a grave, he said, "Go ahead." When they wanted to bring in the ground penetrating radar, he said, "Go ahead." And when the Sons wanted him to sign an easement, ensuring that the memorial wouldn't be removed if he sold the land, Guthrie said, "OK."

"It's important to show respect for those people," Guthrie said. "Now they'll be there forever."

Information in this story came from the books "Guerrillas in Civil War Missouri" by James E. Erwin and "With Porter in Northern Missouri" by Joseph A. Mudd. Additionally, Noel Crowson and Kevin Wenzel conducted more than 500 hours of research on the Battle of Moore's Mill.

Supervising editor is Joe Guszkowski.

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Sharon Kelley August 2, 2014 | 8:36 p.m.

It was an excellent commemoration, and we enjoyed our stay in Fulton, Missouri. Congratulations to Elijah Gates Camp for a job well done.

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