A Wyeth painting and a battle: Westport

Today (October 23) is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Westport.  I’ve offered some “buildup” to this in previous posts about Major-General Sterling Price’s 1864 campaign.  There’s a lot to cover in regard to this battle.  With 30,000 men engaged, this was among the war’s largest actions.  And yet, Westport is often simply dismissed as “The Gettysburg of the West,” being something of importance but ancillary to other lines of study. (I’d submit if a comparison is needed, “The Cedar Creek of the West” would be a better one… but that’s just my opinion.)

But I try to limit posts to reasonable reading lengths.  A 10,000 word essay, refreshed from my college days, would not go over well with the TLDR crowd.  Some topics, like the twenty on one artillery duel, will show up at a later date. But if you are feeling guilty about not knowing much about Westport, let me offer the Battle of Westport Visitor Center page offering battle overview and tour routes.  You can do some touring “virtually” by photos on Civil War Album’s page for Westport. There are events going on this week to recognize the 150th of the battle.   And some battlefield artifacts are on display at the visitor center.

For now, allow me to focus on one aspect of Westport… probably the one item most identified with the battle… this painting:

This is the second of the paintings, commissioned by the state, from N.C. Wyeth.  I discussed the first back in 2011.  Again, I’m no art historian.  So don’t expect me to critique the style here.  I’m looking at this as how the history is portrayed and interpreted.   I would point out, when delivered in 1920 the two Wyeth paintings served as “bookends” to the story of the Civil War in Missouri.

Let us start by considering the painting uncropped, in all its intended glory:

Battle of Westport in Missouri State Capitol

There is an important comparison to make here between “The Battle of Westport” and “The Battle of Wilson’s Creek” (here for visual reference):

See how hazy and foggy Wilson’s Creek is?  On the other hand, we see blue skies and just a small cluster of clouds at Westport.  So does that indicate the war, like the haze which Wyeth used often in his Civil War illustrations, was clearing at Westport?  Maybe, but that’s getting too much into the artist’s head for me to say.  What I would draw your attention to are the authority figures in the paintings.  For Wilson’s Creek, we see a gray clad figure which most interpret to be Price.  But we see no corresponding Federals.  Look at the Westport painting for the counterpoint.

WestportWyeth2

Who is that fine officer leading from the front?  Colonel John F. Philips, 7th Missouri State Militia Cavalry, who commanded the First Brigade of Major-General Alfred Pleasonton’s provisional cavalry division at the battle. Just to his right (seen between Phillips and the horse’s head) is Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas T. Crittenden, another prominent officer of the 7th Missouri, leading the regiment in the battle.   Never heard of those guys?  Then let me offer some back-story.

Philips was not in command of the brigade in the morning of October 23, 1864.  Brigadier-General Egbert B. Brown, then in command, had orders to move his brigade up and push the Confederates at the Big Blue River near Byram’s Ford. But due to the need to resupply the brigade and other difficulties, some of which Brown should have attended, First Brigade was not in position and was not pressing the enemy as Pleasonton wanted.  Not wasting any time, Pleasonton relieved Brown and put Philips in command.

(A “Bud Hall” pause here, if I may. Yesterday I offered a comparison between Byram’s Ford and Beverly’s Ford.  Consider Pleasonton’s presence forward in the action on October 23, 1864 – at the point and dealing with subordinates who did not execute as ordered. Contrast with Pleasonton’s lack of presence on June 9, 1863 at Brandy Station.  Your mileage may vary.)

Philips immediately began pressing his dismounted skirmishers forward.  With “great difficulty and attended with some delay, in consequence of the egress from the creek having been obstructed,” the brigade gained the west bank of the Big Blue.  This opened the door for other elements of Pleasonton’s command to get across.  At that point in the battle, Price was fighting Major-General Samuel Curtis’s Federals to the north, in front of Westport.  With Philips leading, Pleasonton forced Price to fight on two fronts.

WestPort3

After a series of fights with the Confederate rear guard, Philips’ brigade moved to threaten Price’s retreat:

One mile brought us in view of the enemy formed on the prairie. After some maneuvering we advanced on a line at right angles with the old military road, leading from Westport to Fort Scott.  It was discovered that that portion of the enemy’s force which had been engaged with General Curtis at Westport, in the forenoon, were falling back, making a connection with the force in our front; Sandborn’s brigade coming upon our left a charge was ordered by the major-general commanding, and our entire force was hurled upon the enemy in open prairie, routing and scattering him in indescribable disorder, killing and wounding many and taking many prisoners.

That charge was the object of Wyeth’s work.  The Confederates on the left were those of Major-General John Marmaduke’s division, the majority of whom were Missourians.  So the subject captured Missourians fighting Missourians.

Let me stress again the identification of the leaders in the Westport painting.  Both men were war Democrats. After the war Philips had successful political and legal careers.  He was elected as a representative to the US Congress, defended Frank James in a murder trial, and sat on the US District Court bench for twelve years.  He died in 1919.

Crittenden left the service shortly after the 1864 campaign to take the post of state Attorney General.  He also served as a representative (sort of splitting time from the 7th district with Philips).  But his postwar path lead to the Missouri Governor’s mansion in 1881.  Tying in with the James Brothers theme, as governor Crittenden authorized a reward for their capture, leading to Jesse’s death and Frank’s trial.  Incidentally, Crittenden was succeeded in office by Marmaduke in 1885.  After his term as governor Crittenden served as US Consul General in Mexico City in the mid-1890s.  He died in 1909.

Both men, prominent politicians in the post-war state, represented the transition of the state from the war into uneasy peace and thence towards a time when the war’s scars healed.  I think one has to view the Wyeth paintings as a set in order to grasp the nature of that transition – 1861 to 1864; Price to Phillips/Crittenden; haze to clear sky.  But the common thread is Missourian fighting Missourian – one that would be reinforced over and over in the public mind throughout the generations.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 41, Part I, Serial 83, pages 350-1.)

“Ninety-eight of these shells struck the vessel”: Destruction of the blockade runner Flora

At least four different blockade runners used the name “Flora.”  The third of these was an iron steamer owned by the Importing and Exporting Company of Georgia, associated with the Lamars of that state.  On October 18, the Flora left Nassau for her maiden run through the blockade, heading for Charleston.  Bad luck dogged the vessel, as while passing Elbow Key, one of the north-most in the Bahamas chain, a Federal vessel spotted her.  After a chase, which prompted the blockade-runner to drop her cargo, she shook off pursuit.

On the evening of October 22, the Flora neared the South Carolina coast, but again was spotted.  But for the moment, her luck turned good, as Commander Thomas H. Patterson, senior officer off Charleston that evening, reported:

… about 9 p.m. of the 22d instant the Wamsutta discovered a blockade runner going inward. She immediately slipped, fired at her, and made the signal indicating a vessel going outward, which, though very soon rectified by her picket boat, created some confusion and uncertainty as to the course of the stranger….

The Mingoe, the next vessel to the westward, saw but did not fire at the strange steamer, and Commander Creighton says in his report, “She passed in so quickly inshore that before I could slip or get my broadside to bear she was out of sight.”

In turn, the Flora passed the USS Laburnum, USS Geranium, USS Sonoma, USS Acacia, and USS Azalea, none getting off more than couple shots at the blockade-runner.  Remarkably, the Sonoma, standing south of Breach Inlet, did not see the Flora at all.  But those shots, and the movements of the vessels to intercept, forced the Flora to maneuver in the tricky Maffitt’s Channel.  And that’s where her luck ran out – or to be specific, running up on Drunken Dick’s Shoal.

The monitor USS Patapsco was notified of this grounded blockade runner, but did not venture closer in the darkness.  At dawn, she and the other monitors moved up to gain the range on the Flora.  At the same time, the batteries on Morris Island opened on the stranded runner.  Lieutenant-Colonel William Ames provided a detailed report of the destruction of the vessel:

I have the honor to report that at daylight on October 23 a large side-wheel iron steamer with two smoke-stacks was discovered ashore opposite Battery Rutledge, Sullivan’s Island, she having run on a shoal at that point during the night. This vessel was painted lead color, was very long, and appeared to be of light draught. She is probably of about 700 tons burden. The first shot fired at her was from the picket monitor: Fort Putnam opened at the same time with two 30-pounder Parrotts, striking her on the quarter at the second shot. This was the first shot that struck the blockade-runner from either army or navy. Battery Chatfield opened with a 300-pounder Parrott; the third shell from this gun passed through the starboard wheel-house into the vessel and exploded, tearing the wheel and wheel-house all away and breaking up a large portion of her works amidships. Fort Strong opened with three 100-pounders, striking her many times in the hull and on her decks. The navy also kept up a fire upon the vessel from two monitors, doing the steamer much damage.

The name of this vessel was the Flora* ; she was no doubt running into Charleston at the time of getting aground. She now lies a complete wreck. This vessel was distant from Fort Putnam 2,700 yards, from Battery Chatfield 2,600 yards, and from Fort Strong 3,500 yards.

The following amount of ammunition was expended in destroying this steamer: Fort Putnam, 30-pounder shell, 38; 24-pounder shell, 22. Battery Chatfield, 300-pounder shell, 7. Fort Strong, 100-pounder shell, 77. Total, 144. Ninety-eight of these shells struck the vessel.

Thus a brand-new blockade runner met her end in the waters off Charleston.  The sailors of the blockade had some explaining to do, as this was another near-miss indicating not all was air-tight at the entrance to Charleston.  But the Army got in some good target practice.

  • NOTE:  In the printed Army Official Reports, Ames identified the vessel as the Flamingo.  However, in the Navy Official Reports, Ames’ report is printed with the vessel identified as Flora.  There was some confusion between the Army and Navy as to what to call the vessel.  The Charleston Mercury clearly indicates the name was indeed Flora, running mention of the vessel from October 24 through 27, 1864.  The confusion even caught underwater archaeologist and author E. Lee Spence in his book Treasures of the Confederate Coast, where he lists both the Flora and Flamingo as separate wrecks in the area.  Belated apology for not chiming in on the comments when Andy Hall worked through this misidentification some time back while discussing the wrecks off Sullivan’s Island.  I really should follow comments better!

(Citations from ORN, Series I, Volume 16, pages 30-32.)

“You have doubtless exercised your best judgment…”: Pleasonton, Price, and the Big Blue River

On October 22, 1864, as Major-General Sterling Price’s Army of Missouri continued its march westward, skirting Kansas City, the next major obstacle to cross was the Big Blue River.

WestPort1

Minding his wagon train, Price needed a good ford over that river.  The best option for him was Byram’s Ford along the Independence-Westport Road.

The view above looks from the west bank, where federal troops defended on October 22, towards the east, from which Brigadier-General Joseph Shelby’s division attack. Just a small patch of woods in the midst of the Kansas City sprawl today (and not exactly in the most picturesque section either!).  But in October 1864, that crossing point became – say like Beverly’s Ford in Virginia (and you’ll pick up on why I selected that later) – very important to the passing armies.

Major-General Samuel Curtis deployed his forces to cover most of the upper crossing points along the Big Blue River by morning of October 22.

Westport2

When Shelby’s men arrived around 10 a.m. on October 22, they made a frontal demonstration at Byram’s Ford.  That was a distraction which allowed troops to cross elsewhere and flank the Federal position here.  With their position turned, around 3 p.m., Curtis’ command fell back towards Kansas City.  Shelby’s men captured “one beautiful 24-pounder howitzer” and several hundred Federals.  By opening the crossing, Shelby allowed Price some maneuver space.  The Confederate wagons soon turned southwest towards Little Santa Fe (bottom edge of the map above) and the Kansas border.

The fighting at Byram’s Ford, or Big Blue River if you prefer, was the “setup” for the larger battle outside Westport on October 23.  In that light, we might look to what was happening behind the fighting to the east to the other movements that set in motion the events of the 23rd … specifically Major-General Alfred Pleasonton.

Let us look to the exchange between Pleasonton and his superior, Major-General William Rosecrans.  In the evening of October 21, Pleasonton had pushed his way through the Confederate rear guard to reach Lexington and beyond to Wellington.  There he received a set of instructions for operations on October 22 at around 9:30 p.m.:

…Everything confirms the general’s belief that Price is threatening independence with one division, and with his command and train is to-night in the vicinity of Lone Jack. The general wishes you to let McNeil follow Price, and act so as to make him think you are following with your entire command; then, with your other three brigades, march by the shortest route to Lone Jack. Smith will march to-morrow morning to Chapel Hill. He may march in two columns; if so, one will go by Greenton and the other by Wagon Knob. Push your command as rapidly as possible without entirely breaking it down, and, as much as possible, subsist on the country. …

These orders would have Pleasonton moving far to the south, and out of range to directly support Curtis.  Furthermore, as Pleasonton would complain, the cavalry was far too north to be able to execute such a move quickly.  At 7:10 a.m. on the 22nd, Pleasonton received clarification:

The general dispatched you at 9.30 last evening that he was satisfied Price would move south, and that he had directed General Smith to move in direction of Pleasant Hill, and you to send three brigades in same direction; since which your dispatch of 11 p.m. was received this a.m., indicating that most of your command was too far advanced on the Independence road to move as indicated. He therefore leaves to your discretion the route of pursuit, satisfied, however, that Price moved last night, if not before, in a southerly direction….

Rosecrans went on to discuss straggler control.  But the important thrust of these orders was that Pleasonton, then outside Independence and moving west, could operate with discretion and use his own judgement.  (And there are some readers snickering loudly at this point!)

So what did Pleasonton do?  Around 6 a.m., and likely crossing Rosecrans’ morning orders in route, Pleasonton sent this report from the Little Blue River crossing (where Blunt had fought the day prior):

 I have just arrived at this point and find the bridge over the creek destroyed. I am building a temporary bridge over the creek to cross my command. The advance is on the other side of the creek; is skirmishing slightly with the rear guard of the enemy. I shall press forward as rapidly as possible. The indications are that the enemy’s whole force passed on this road except about one brigade, which went on the Lone Jack road. All the citizens say the enemy’s train passed here.

The report from the field directly conflicted with Rosecrans’ assessment of the situation.  The report, along with messages from Curtis, prompted Rosecrans to provide Pleasonton an even longer leash in orders sent at 9:45 a.m.:

Your dispatch 6 a.m. received. Curtis telegraphs me he makes his stand on the Big Blue. I have no doubt but that the enemy will turn south into Kansas, following up the Big Blue. Not knowing precisely where your cavalry may be I cannot direct your movements. I have no doubt if you can you should move on enemy’s left flank, but you must use you’re best judgment.

Around mid-day, and likely not in receipt of the 9:45 a.m. orders, Pleasonton provided another update.  He had made contact with Bunt’s forces out of Kansas City.  Pleasonton’s forces were pressing the Confederate rear guard out of Independence (and though he didn’t recognize it, had temporarily cut off a sizable portion of Price’s command).  By evening, Pleasonton was crowding the Confederates near Byram’s Ford.  In short, he’d done what he DID NOT do at Brandy Station – move forward to command the situation.

How did Rosecrans read this?  At 8 p.m. he sent a note to Pleasonton:

Your dispatches of 12.45 and 1.45 p.m. received duly, as were the two preceding. You are so near Independence that I am sure Price will go out of Jackson County into Kansas to-night. General Smith will be at Chapel Hill and will to-morrow move to Pleasant Hill. You have doubtless exercised your best judgment, but I still think to have threatened at the Little Blue and to have moved south with the remainder of your command to the Independence and Warrensburg road would have been better. By placing you near the enemy’s line of retreat Price’s retreat would then have been a necessity and with the infantry south of you and always behind you you could have swung around in safety. As it is now you must be left to conform your movements to those of the enemy, having in view your supporting force of infantry as well as your union with Blunt’s forces and the position of your depot of supplies at Warrensburg…..

So, Rosecrans was having second thoughts about the discretion given earlier in the day. Rosecrans followed this up with a note at 10 p.m., requesting Pleasonton forward to Curtis, so the two forces might operate in consort the next day:

I am led to believe that Price will have moved by to-morrow morning a.s far south as Hickman Mills, with the intention of going into Kansas and down into the Indian Territory to avoid Steele. He has not procured a remount in Missouri. More than half of his horses are worn down and jaded. He goes into a hostile country to him. Our united forces will, I think, be able very nearly to destroy him. Smith’s infantry is well on the way to Pleasant Hill to-night, and can beat Price’s cavalry moving. Set in now, strain every nerve, and bend every will to bring the raiders to grief. I go to Pleasant Hill to-morrow.

Rosecrans had correctly determined Price’s intent, but he was casting his net too far south, even as information from the fighting on October 22 came into his headquarters.  Let me attempt to reconstruct this on the map:

Price_Campaign_Oct22

Curtis held a line along the Big Blue River (Number 1 on the map) and faced Price’s advance (Number 2).  Able to force a crossing at Byram’s Ford, Price directed his trains south to New Santa Fe.  However to the east, Rosecrans had Major-General A.J. Smith’s column move towards Chapel Hill (Number 3), with the intent of moving forward to Pleasant Hill.  Rosecrans wanted Pleasonton to move up on Smith’s flank to Lone Jack (Number 4, dashed line), but Pleasonton, operating with no small discretion, moved in direct pursuit of Price (Number 5).  It’s hard to be fair to Rosecrans and not be critical of the plans he laid out that evening.  Some have said, with merit, in his mind “Old Rosey” was still fighting at Chickamauga that fall.

I would contend that October 22, 1864 was Alfred Pleasonton’s best day of the war.  He put a cavalry force right where needed most, using his “best judgement” and somewhat in contradiction of his commander’s intent.  Price now faced a strong force in his front and a cavalry force in his rear.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 41, Part VI, Serial 86, pages 158 and 182-5.)