By Gary Stevens, Missouri Civil War Museum
The Christmas spirit in mid-Missouri didn’t always last very long during the Civil War. The Battle of Mount Zion Church was fought on December 28, 1861.
The Battle of Mount Zion Church took place in Boone County near Hallsville, north of Columbia. Boone County and the other counties along the Missouri River in the central part of the state were largely pro-Confederate territory and were fertile ground for Rebel recruiting efforts.
About 900 Rebels under the command of Col. Caleb Dorsey of the Missouri State Guard were encamped at Mount Zion Church. Many of them were new recruits, some of whom were unarmed.
Upon learning from Union spies about the Rebel camp at Mount Zion Church, approximately 400 Federals marched out of the town of Sturgeon at 2 a.m. on December 28th. A force of five companies of the 3rd Missouri Cavalry under Col. John Glover and five companies of Birge’s Sharpshooters under Col. John Birge went looking to break up the Rebel camp. Both units were under the command of Brig. Gen. Benjamin Prentiss.
Around 8 a.m., the Federal cavalry and sharpshooters encountered one company of Rebels on the road from Hallsville to the church and drove them back onto the main body of troops. The Federals then approached the main Rebel battle line and were repulsed. A second Union charge was also beaten back. During the third charge, the Rebels ran low on ammunition. This third Union charge was successful, and the Rebels were driven from the field, leaving their dead and wounded behind.
Accounts of the battle consider it lasting anywhere from a half-hour to three hours, although most lean towards the three-hour time frame. Precise records of the battle are sketchy and sometimes vary considerably, but all accounts agree that the Rebels suffered higher casualties than the Federals. A reasonable estimate seems to be that the Rebels suffered in the range of 150-175 casualties, while the Federals suffered about 70 casualties. The Federal forces also captured 90 horses and a large supply of weapons and equipment.
This Union victory, along with several other actions in the area, limited Confederate recruitment in central Missouri for a while. After the battle, Dorsey and his command retreated west of Hallsville. In early 1862, Dorsey and the rest of his troops crossed the Missouri River and headed south to join up with the Confederate army.
In a final postscript to the battle, Mount Zion Church did not survive the war. A detachment from an Iowa regiment burned the church to the ground in September of 1862.