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Battle of Plattsburg holds fascination for history buff

A jewel rested there in plain sight, at least as visible as anything else on a microfilmed page. To James Crofutt, staring at that gray screen, the words looked golden. The St. Joseph man had long made a study of the Battle of Plattsburg, an 1864 Clinton County engagement that pales historically to, say, the Battle of Atlanta, which began on the same day.

Northwest Missourians, though, have a right to their own record, not to mention an obligation to illuminate it, Mr. Crofutt believes. And the discovery of a firsthand account of a battle participant adds to the narrative.

It also will add context to the battle commemoration Friday through Sunday. Mr. Crofutt has been involved in the Plattsburg Living History Festivals since about 1999, and he occupies a slot at a city park shelter on Saturday morning discussing his evolving research into the local Civil War encounter.

In broad terms, the Battle of Plattsburg amounted to a Union victory, though a leader of the victors, Capt. John W. Turney, became one of the few fatalities in the fighting. The forces in blue turned back the provisional Confederate assembly of Maj. John Thrailkill, a native of Northwest Missouri who had been recruiting troops and raising hell since earlier that year.

Chronicles of the battle had been scant. A version popped up to Mr. Crofutt on a microfilm search, not a contemporaneous account of the fight itself but, in effect, a letter to the editor regarding the initial reporting of the skirmish.

The letter writer, George W. McCulloch, served as a lieutenant in Mr. Turney’s company. His correspondence to The Morning Herald of St. Joseph detailed the volleys, described the fire that killed his commanding office and taunted Mr. Thrailkill, who “led off his men in the greatest confusion.”

It made for a riveting read.

“The information he was giving in that article blew me away,” Mr. Crofutt says of the McCulloch description. “I had to go back and make corrections in my original article.”

The self-made historian found his interest in these topics at a young age. The son of a career military man, his family moved to Missouri in 1980. A television miniseries, “The Blue and the Gray,” aired, and news stations in Kansas City interviewed re-enactment groups.

Seemed like fun, James thought. He slipped into a unit of re-enactors that required members to be at least age 16 to carry a musket. “I was able to get in because I was a big boy,” he says.

Over the years, he embraced the meticulous concerns of those with this hobby, researching the roles they play, absorbing any reference to any detail.

“For some people, it may not be a big deal what type of pants that a unit might have been issued,” Mr. Crofutt says. “For us, as re-enactors, we strive to find that. That’s the type of trousers that we want to wear.”

Now colonel of the U.S. Muddy River Battalion, an outfit of Union re-enactors, he has been to a number of major Civil War battlefields … Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, Shiloh in Tennessee, Chickamauga in Georgia.

At each, the re-enactor has gained a physical perspective on what forefathers experienced, a lay of the land not fully realized from maps or text.

But Mr. Crofutt says the battlefields of Missouri, at Plattsburg and Lexington, at Pilot Knob and Wilson’s Creek, prove as compelling in personal terms. And they give the re-enacting troops a sense, minus the actual bloodshed, of what the events might have been like.

“You might be in the middle of a fight and you’re just so drawn into the moment, you just don’t even notice the spectators watching,” he says. “For that brief, brief moment, you’re really back in 1864.”

As Maj. Thrailkill approached the eastern edge of Plattsburg on July 21, 1864, the Confederate commander sent a messenger with word that he would accept the surrender of the town and treat the Union troops as prisoners of war.

A captain named Benjamin F. Poe of the 89th Enrolled Missouri Militia sent the reply:

“Sir: We are not here for the purpose of surrendering, but to defend the flag of our country.”

For this rebuke alone, the story of the Battle of Plattsburg should be preserved and passed along. But Mr. Crofutt sees a broader importance for commemorating this and other engagements of the Civil War.

“If you don’t know your own history, then it’s hard to look forward,” he says. “We’re trying to keep the history alive. We’re not trying to glorify the war, but we don’t want to forget.”

Ken Newton can be reached

at ken.newton@newspressnow.com.

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