During the early months of the Civil War, the Missouri State Guard and the Confederate Army combined to win the Battle of Wilson’s Creek on August 10, 1861, and the State Guard claimed a victory at the First Battle of Lexington on September 18–20. However, the Federals rallied and drove the Southern forces out of Missouri during the winter of 1861–1862. The Union tightened its grip on the state with its victory at Pea Ridge, Arkansas, on March 7–8, 1862. Afterward, the Confederacy essentially abandoned Missouri, sending most of its troops in northern Arkansas to reinforce beleaguered Confederate forces east of the Mississippi. During the summer of 1862, fighting in Missouri was reduced mainly to skirmishing between the occupying Federal troops and local guerrillas or other irregular forces. By late summer, Confederate leaders, alarmed by the inroads into Arkansas that the Union had made after Pea Ridge, became determined to halt the Federal advance and to reestablish an official presence in Missouri. The effort to carry out this objective culminated in the First Battle of Newtonia in the southwestern corner of the state.
Confederate General Thomas C. Hindman, commanding the District of Arkansas, which included Arkansas, Missouri, and Indian Territory, was ordered to concentrate his forces near Fort Smith, Arkansas, and then push north into Missouri. Arriving at Fort Smith in late August, he was greeted by a ragtag army of regular Confederate soldiers, Missouri recruits, and Native Americans who had aligned with the South. Moving north, the Confederate forces soon occupied a line roughly approximating the southern border of Missouri. Meanwhile, former Missouri State Guard officers Joseph O. “Jo” Shelby, Upton Hays, and John T. Coffee, who had been in Missouri on recruiting duty, retreated from the Kansas City area and went into separate camps in the vicinity of the Newton-McDonald county line in southwest Missouri.
From his camp at Big Spring in the southeast corner of Newton County, Hays marched seven miles northwest to Newtonia around the first of September, took possession of the small community, and supplied his men with grain from the local mill. A village of about one hundred people, Newtonia was founded in the early 1850s by Mathew H. Ritchey, a prominent Newton County citizen and staunch Unionist. He lived in a two-story stone residence and owned a three-story stone barn across the road. Both buildings were surrounded by stone fences. Ritchey had located his settlement at the junction of three important roads that led to Granby, Neosho, and Sarcoxie. Granby was particularly important because of its lead mines. Thus both sides during the Civil War valued Newtonia due to its strategic location, its mill, and the stone structures that offered a defensive stronghold.
On September 9, Hindman met Shelby, Hays, and Coffee at Elkhorn Creek twenty miles southwest of Newtonia on the Pineville Road, mustered their recruits into Confederate service, and commissioned Shelby as colonel of the Missouri Brigade. Hindman ordered Shelby to move north and act as a front guard for the rest of the Confederate forces who were congregating farther south. On September 13 a Union battalion under J. M. Adams marched from Sarcoxie and briefly took possession of Newtonia, but Shelby advanced and attacked the Federals the same day. Although Colonel Hays was killed in the skirmish, Shelby drove the Federals out of town and recaptured Newtonia for the Confederates. Later in September, Colonel Douglas H. Cooper of the Confederate Indian Brigade camped south of Newtonia and, as senior officer, assumed overall command of Southern forces in the area.
To counter the concentration of Confederates in and around Newtonia, Union forces began amassing in the Sarcoxie area. Brigadier General Frederick C. Salomon arrived in Sarcoxie on September 22 in command of a brigade that included his own Ninth Wisconsin Infantry, and Colonel William Weer, commanding a brigade that included his own Tenth Kansas Infantry, joined Salomon a few days later. Colonel William A. Phillips’s Federal Indian Brigade and a Missouri State Militia brigade were also within supporting distance. By September 28, the total Union force in the Sarcoxie area numbered about four thousand men. To the south in the Newtonia area, less than twenty miles away, about five thousand Confederate soldiers lay in wait.
On the morning of September 29, General Salomon sent out a scouting party under Colonel Edward Lynde of the Ninth Kansas Cavalry to reconnoiter Newtonia. When the reconnaissance party encountered resistance as it approached the town, Lynde’s cannoneers opened up with two mountain howitzers, driving the pickets into Newtonia, but Lynde declined to launch a further attack when he learned from two captured Confederate soldiers that he was greatly outnumbered. Retreating to Sarcoxie in the late afternoon, Lynde met a patrol under Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Jacobi; Salomon, upon hearing the distant thunder of artillery fire, had sent out the patrol to ascertain the situation and reinforce Lynde if necessary. After consulting with Lynde, Jacobi continued toward Newtonia and camped about five miles north of the town while Lynde returned to Sarcoxie.
Jacobi roused his men and resumed the march toward Newtonia shortly before daybreak on the morning of September 30. Encountering Confederate pickets at the edge of town, the Federals drove the sentries into Newtonia, where the defenders took shelter behind the stone fences and inside the stone barn. Jacobi’s patrol consisted of two companies of the Ninth Wisconsin Infantry, a forty-five-man detachment of the Sixth Kansas Cavalry, fifty men of the Third Indian Home Guards, and three pieces of the Twenty-Fifth Ohio Volunteer Light Artillery under Lieutenant Julius L. Hadley. Jacobi stationed his artillery on the high ground northwest of Newtonia, from where the big guns opened up on the Confederate position, and deployed the rest of his troops in battle formation facing the enemy. The Confederate force at Newtonia consisted of the Thirty-First Texas Cavalry under Colonel Trezevant C. Hawpe, the First Cherokee Battalion under Major Joel M. Bryan, and a two-gun battery under Captain Joseph Bledsoe of Shelby’s brigade, about five hundred men in all. As soon as he realized he was under attack, Hawpe sent a messenger to Big Spring, where the main Confederate force was camped, to request reinforcements.
Meanwhile, Colonel Lynde, who had awakened his men at Sarcoxie in the wee hours of the morning for a return march to Newtonia, reached the scene of battle at about 7 a.m. and took charge of the Federal forces. His and Jacobi’s combined command consisted of about five hundred men. Seeing that Hadley’s big guns were ineffective from long range, Lynde ordered the artillery to take up a position closer to the stone barn, where Bledsoe’s battery was stationed, and the battle raged for the next hour primarily as an exchange of cannon fire. Having left Colonel Shelby in charge at Big Spring, Colonel Cooper was on his way to Granby to take possession of the lead mines there when he heard the roar of guns at Newtonia on the morning of the thirtieth. Accompanied by Colonel Almerine M. Alexander’s Thirty-Fourth Texas Cavalry, Cooper galloped toward the battle, and upon his arrival he found the Confederates “hotly pressed by superior numbers of the enemy.”
Despite the arrival of Alexander’s cavalry, the Federals continued to advance. Hadley’s gunners finally dislodged Bledsoe from the stone barn, forcing the Confederate battery to fall back to a position behind the Ritchey mansion. Under the cover of the Federal artillery, Jacobi’s infantry gradually crept closer to the Confederate soldiers in the barn and behind the stone fences. In answer to Hawpe’s early morning call for reinforcements, Colonel Shelby sent his own Fifth Missouri Regiment under Lieutenant Colonel B. Frank Gordon and Cooper’s First Choctaw and Chickasaw Regiment under Lieutenant Colonel Tandy Walker out from Big Spring. The Union infantry was still pressing forward when the reinforcements reached the scene on a gallop. Leading the way, Walker’s Indian regiment rushed straight into the fray “singing their war-songs and giving the war-whoop,” according to Cooper, and the Native Americans helped beat back the Federal advance.
Persuaded to retire, Lynde dropped back in good order across the prairie under the cover of skirmishers, but when his troops reached a narrow lane through the Shoal Creek woods about three miles north of Newtonia, the pursuing Confederates pressed forward and nearly surrounded the retreating Federals. The Union artillery and cavalry made it through the lane virtually unscathed, but the infantry, stalled by the narrow passage, received a deadly fire and were “entirely cut to pieces or taken,” according to a correspondent to the Leavenworth Daily Times. Colonel Weer said in his after-action report that “Four whole companies of the Ninth Wisconsin, except about ten men,” were either killed, wounded, or captured. Most of the Federal losses for the entire battle occurred during this incident.
Once all the Federals who were not killed, captured, or seriously wounded got through the lane, Lynde continued the retreat. He was met a couple of miles north of Shoal Creek by three hundred men of the Sixth Kansas Volunteer Cavalry under Colonel William R. Judson, whom General Salomon had sent out from Sarcoxie. As soon as Cooper learned of the Union reinforcements, he ordered his men to retire to Newtonia. Judson pressed forward and skirmished briefly with the retreating Confederates, but then the battle settled into a midday lull that lasted several hours.
Following Judson, Colonel Phillips reached the outskirts of Newtonia with his Third Indian Home Guard at about 2 p.m. The Kansans and the Native Americans drew up in a line of battle and waited. General Salomon reached the scene an hour later with his infantry and artillery, and the two sides soon began exchanging cannon fire, although Salomon declined to launch a general assault. He decided instead to wait until Colonel George H. Hall’s Fourth Missouri State Militia reached the scene so that he could throw his entire force at the Confederates. Hall had been camped that morning on Center Creek several miles east of Sarcoxie and was making his slow way toward Newtonia.
Colonel Cooper, however, grew tired of waiting. After the dueling artillerists fired at each other for some time, he sent his cavalry out to engage the enemy. The Federals advanced to drive back the Confederate horsemen, and fighting soon raged throughout the field. The First Battle of Newtonia marked one of the few times during the Civil War that Native American units of regimental size fought against each other, and at one point during the afternoon portion of the battle, Phillips’s Third Indian Home Guards directly faced Colonel Walker’s First Choctaw and Chickasaw Regiment, reinforced by another Confederate Indian regiment, the First Choctaw. In the words of Cooper, “The engagement soon became general between the two Choctaw regiments and the jayhawkers and hostile Indians.”
After about two hours of intense fighting, the Federal line finally began to waver, and General Salomon, prompted in part by the approach of darkness with no sign of reinforcements, ordered a withdrawal. The Confederates pursued the retiring Federals across the prairie, threatening to reenact the morning scene at the narrow lane. However, Salomon stationed his artillery near the entrance to the woods and prevented the Confederates from once again turning the lane into a shooting gallery. Not wishing to press the pursuit in the darkness, Cooper soon retired to Newtonia, while the Federals continued their retreat toward Sarcoxie. North of Shoal Creek, Salomon met Hall and his dilatory command, and the Missouri militia helped cover the Federal retreat. In his after-action report, Salomon largely blamed Hall’s late arrival for the Union failure at Newtonia, while Hall claimed Salomon’s unclear and confusing messages to him accounted for his tardiness.
The First Battle of Newtonia was a strategic as well as a numerical victory for the Confederates. Not only did they repel the Federal attacks in both the morning and afternoon, but they also suffered considerably fewer casualties. An estimated 225 to 250 Union soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured during the battle, while Confederate losses numbered less than 100.
But the Confederate victory was short-lived. Bolstered by heavy reinforcements from Springfield and Fort Scott, the Federals marched back to Newtonia to launch a new attack on the morning of October 4. Cooper, having gotten word of the overwhelming Union numbers, was already in retreat, forced to abandon the position his troops had fought so hard to hold four days earlier. The Federals chased the retreating Confederates all the way into Arkansas over the next several days, leaving Newtonia and the entire state of Missouri once again firmly in Union control.
Bearss, Edwin C. “The Army of the Frontier’s First Campaign: The Confederates Win at Newtonia.” Missouri Historical Review 60, no. 3 (April 1966): 283–319.
Gerteis, Louis S. The Civil War in Missouri: A Military History. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2012.
Wood, Larry E. The Two Civil War Battles of Newtonia. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2010.
Published September 20, 2021; Last updated September 27, 2021
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