Many Missourians who follow the Civil War know the book Pilot Knob: The Thermopylae of the West. The 1914 work describes the 1864 Battle of Pilot Knob and its aftermath. The most remarkable feature of this episode was the cross-country retreat of the Union garrison to the safety of the railroad at Leasburg, Missouri. The Union General commanding the garrison, Thomas Ewing, claimed to have covered 66 miles in 39 hours. The authors of Thermopylae of the West accept his estimate; a survey of the garrison’s likely route confirms that the distance traveled by Ewing’s column was not less than 60 miles. The amount of time consumed by the march is accurate, judging by the reports and correspondence in the Official Records. The arithmetic cannot be challenged. These men averaged 37 to 40 miles per day.
Peterson and Hanson, the authors of Thermopylae of the West, make a striking claim that Ewing’s retreat lies in the top rank of history’s great forced marches of infantry. The claim is incredulous, particularly when one considers that Ewing brought with him a couple dozen civilians who had fought with him at Pilot Knob. In his report, Ewing claims that refugee women and children accompanied him on the march as well.
There are many things that Peterson and Hanson exaggerate in their account of the battle and retreat. No less an authority than General Henry Halleck, “Old Brains” of the old army, provides some independent verification of the extraordinary nature of Ewing’s retreat. In his 1846 classic Elements of Military Art and Science, Halleck includes his own short list of great forced marches. “In 1803 Wellington’s cavalry in India marched the distance of sixty miles in thirty-two hours.” That’s cavalry, mind you. Halleck comments that infantry can be counted on to march 30 miles a day in spurts of two or three days, but only with the advantage of favorable roads.
Ewing had cavalry with him: six companies of the Third Missouri State Militia Cavalry. This hardly accounts for the rapidity of the march of the companies of the 14th Iowa Infantry and the 47th and 50th Missouri regiments of infantry. It is true that Ewing’s retreat was an astonishing feat.
The Third Missouri State Militia Cavalry figures into the subject of this piece. Peterson and Hanson give us a reference to a young cavalryman of the Third who stopped to marry his girl during the retreat. According to one of Peterson’s post-war interviews, the man was Aleck Adams and the young lady made the harrowing trip to Leasburg with the army. It is time we gave her a name.
Mary Elizabeth Gibson was born in Virginia in 1835. She was raised in southeast Callaway County. At age twenty, in Portland, Missouri, she married a man named Jacob Detwiler. Little is known of Jacob, except that in her Civil War widow’s pension application Mary recounts that he was an itinerant shoemaker. Mary divorced him, and was left to raise a young daughter on her own. Late 1863 found Mary working in a Hermann, Missouri hotel or tavern. William Alexander Adams, nine years her junior, was in Hermann recuperating from a battle wound. The next year, on September 14, 1864, Aleck and Mary wed. She went to live with Aleck’s father at his home in northern Iron County, very near the road that connects Ironton to Caledonia. Not two weeks later, Ewing used this road (modern State Highway 21) to escape the clutches of Price’s army. Mary was in the right place and at the right time. Adams’ family tradition, passed on by great grandson Ken Lilly, confirms that Mary was on the retreat to Leasburg. As reported in Thermopylae of the West, she rode Aleck’s horse a good deal of the way, he leading his bride on foot.
After the war, Mary and Aleck moved to Mokane, Missouri, in Callaway County. They had six children of their own. Aleck passed away in 1905. Mary survived until 1920, when she died in Mokane at the age of 85. Aleck has a veteran’s stone in the Mokane Cemetery. Mary’s resting place is not marked.
If General Ewing’s report can be believed, Mary Elizabeth Gibson Adams was not the only woman who took part in one of the great forced marches of our Civil War. At least her story can be preserved for posterity, for which special thanks is due Bruce Ketchem, former administrator of the Deutschheim State Historic Site in Hermann.
Now, if the Duke of Wellington had some Missouri women with him in India . . .