Monday, 25 September 2017

In the Missouri Artillery

Benjamin Von Phul was born on May 21st 1840, in St. Louis, Missouri, the son of Henry Von Phul, a successful St Louis business man and steam boat owner, whose ships included the Henry Von Phul, mentioned by Mark Twain. He was also nephew of the painter Anna Maria Von Phul.

In May 1861 Missouri was deeply divided between Union and Confederate supporters, and this was especially so in the city of St Louis. St Louis also had another complication, over half of the population was composed of recent immigrants, mainly Germans who had fled the unsuccessful revolts of 1848, and who were therefore both often politically inclined and non-English speaking. Relations between the German immigrants and the Missourians were not always good, and this was to have an effect on what happened next.  It must presumably have had an effect on the Von Phuls, despite Henry being born in the US in 1784, in Philadelphia, the son of an immigrant from Westhofen.

Henry Von Phul
The state government had voted to stay in the Union, or rather to be neutral in any civil war, but the Governor, Claiborne Jackson, favoured the Confederacy, and he assembled the State Militia, including Benjamin Von Phul, in a camp near St Louis, Camp Jackson with the aim of seizing the arsenal in St Louis, which had the largest collection of arms and ammunition in the state. Unfortunately for them, the local Union commander, Nathanial Lyon, had heard about this and surprised them in their camp with a joint force of Union troops and pro-Union militia, containing a majority of German soldiers. The would-be Confederates were captured and marched into St Louis where a crowd assembled and started haranguing the Union militia, and somehow this led to shooting, with 28 of the crowd being cut down. This in turn led to several days of rioting, and rumours that the Germans planned to massacre the Missourian population of St Louis, rumours that were taken so seriously that many wealthy St Louis fled to Illinois, or the interior of St Louis, depending whether they were pro- or anti-Union. The rioting only died down when Union troops arrived from out of state.

The Camp Jackson Massacre

Ben Von Phul had been captured at Camp Jackson with the rest, but was exchanged and joined Guibor’s Missouri Battery of the State Guard. Guibor's Battery officially entered Confederate, as opposed to Missouri, service in early 1862 and was combined with Montgomery Brown's Louisiana Battery on June 30, 1862. Benjamin rose to the rank of First Lieutenant.

Flag of the Guibor Battery, presented in January 1863
Artillery at the time was in a state of transition, with quite a few types and sizes, with size generally being defined by the weight of the ammunition, such as 10 pdr, 20 pdr etc. One of the commonest types was the Parrott rifled cannon, invented by an American, Captain Robert Parker Parrott. Despite only being patented in 1861 it was used extensively by both sides in the Civil War. Although Parrotts were still loaded down the muzzle like previous cannons, they were rifled inside and made of a mixture of cast and wrought iron, making them much more accurate, if more fragile.
 Parrott gun at Vicksburg

In February 1863 the now Captain Von Phul was placed in charge of a battery assembled using men from Brigadier General David Frost’s Brigade, at Little Rock, Arkansas, as part of the defence scheme for Little Rock. The battery was attached to Frost’s Brigade and initially consisted with one bronze 24 pdr, and two 6pdr Parrotts, but by the end of that month the battery had six guns and 70 men at Fort Pleasant, guarding the river approach to Little Rock.

In June, a section of the battery together with two other batteries accompanied a small mixed force under Col. Clark, a fellow Missourian and veteran of the siege of Carthage and battle of Pea Ridge. Their mission was to attack Union shipping on the Mississippi. On June 22nd Von Phul’s battery and the two others attacked a convoy of the Union Gunboat Little Rebel (!) and three transports. The forward battery of the Little Rebel was knocked out and one of the transports, the Prima Donna (who named these ships?) was severely damaged. Clark's command then moved south and attacked another convoy, damaging several transports. They then returned to Fort Pleasant, and then joined the defences of Little Rock on Aug 17th. But by mid September the Confederates had to abandon Little Rock following defeats at Helena and Bayou Fouche, and fall back to Washington, Arkansas.
In November Von Phuls Battery was at Camp Bragg, Arkansas, before being formerly disbanded in December. By this stage it included two 12 pdr Howitzers and two 10pdr Parrotts. Raids on shipping on the Mississippi were still going on, and Benjamin’s father’s ship, the Henry Von Phul, was severely damaged by Texan troops in December.

The Henry Von Phul
In April 1864 Von Phul was wounded south of Little Rock in the pyrrhic Confederate counterattack through the mud at Jenkins ferry. 

And in April 1865 Confederate forces surrendered. Life went on. Still only 27, Benjamin married Martha Lape from Mississippi, who was 22, on 3rd September 1867 in Jefferson Missouri.  In 1880, Benjamin and Martha Von Phul and their three children, Genevieve, Henry and Ben Jr. were in St Louis, where Benjamin was working as a real estate agent.
Benjamin died on December 18th 1909, in St Louis, Missouri.

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