October 20, 1864: The fallen Federal leaders at Cedar Creek – Bidwell, Thoburn, Lowell and Kitching

The Cedar Creek 150th program was a blast!  Perhaps what was most impressive, for a “young” park in the NPS system, the interpretation came across to the audience as polished and professional.  While some other battlefields, with more than 100 years of interpretive resources to fall back on, might boast more refinement, Cedar Creek’s program was just as potent and insightful.   If you missed those events, there are a few more related to the battle over the next few days.  One of which is the rededication of the Stephen D. Ramseur monument, today – Monday, October 20, at 10 am.

Ramseur’s death receives much deserved attention.  Mortally wounded in the later phases of the battle, perhaps the death of such a young and promising officer symbolized the turn of events to befall the Confederacy.  Likewise, his death among colleagues from West Point who had fought against him that day calls to the reconciliation of a nation. Maybe for those reasons we are drawn to his story.

But Ramseur was not the only leader to fall on the battlefield.  The Federals also suffered the loss of key leaders from the action at Cedar Creek.  Colonel Joseph Thoburn fell while trying to rally his division of the Army of West Virginia.  His commander, Brigadier-General George Crook, lauded his service in the official report of the battle.  A prominent doctor from Wheeling, West Virginia, Thoburn’s body returned home where he was buried in a well attended public funeral.

Brigadier-General Daniel Bidwell, commanding a brigade in Brigadier-General George W. Getty’s division, 6th Corps, held a critical position in the Middletown Cemetery.  A stubborn defense there bought time for the Federals to reorganize.  But during the fight, Bidwell was struck dead.  For his funeral in Buffalo, New York, Karl A. Goehle wrote “General Bidwell’s Funeral March.”

Better known, perhaps only behind Ramseur in recognition, is Colonel Charles Russell Lowell.  Commanding the Reserve Brigade of Brigadier-General Wesley Merritt’s First Cavalry Division (queue here for Don Caughey), Lowell fell while leading his men in the afternoon counter attack.  Like Ramseur, Lowell’s death is recognized by a memorial on the battlefield, though in Middletown:


And just as Ramseur, Lowell died early on October 20.  For his service, Lowell received a posthumous promotion to Brigadier-General.

Another officer who fell that day was also promoted for his service and actions that day.  Colonel J. Howard Kitching commanded a provisional division, which included his own 6th New York Heavy Artillery, in Crook’s corps.  While rallying the troops prior to Major-General Phil Sheridan’s arrival, a bullet struck Kitching in the foot.  He was able to reassemble what was left of his command, but was unable to continue.  Escorted to the rear, he was eventually evacuated and sent home to Dobbs Ferry, New York.  Unfortunately, his wound did not heal.  On January 11, 1865, his doctor recognized the need for a minor operation to ease the pain.

He drew her closer for a moment with a lingering kiss, saying “It will be over in a few minute, darling, and we will have such a nice talk afterward!”

Chloroform was administered, and the operation performed almost instantaneously.  A shadow passed over his face, then a calm, bright smile.  Howard Kitching was “with the Lord.”

Like Lowell, Kitching’s wartime writings were later published.  And the words of these men speak to the conviction they had for ideas… ideas that motivated those men to arms and thence to war.  Far more than stone and metal memorials, those written words weigh upon me, as they should all students of the Civil War….

(Citation from Theodore Irving, “More than Conqueror’ or Memorials of Col. J. Howard Kitching, Sixth New York Artillery, Army of the Potomac, New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1873, pages 232-3.)

“Developed his position, strength, and movements”: Blunt’s day at Lexington, Missouri

September 19, 1864 was a busy day in the Civil War.  Actions in several theaters, not the least of which occurred outside Middletown, Virginia (150th anniversary events I hope to attend today).

As I’ve been following Major-General Sterling Price’s campaign in Missouri, let me turn to activity at Lexington, Missouri, 150 years ago today.  As mentioned yesterday, Major-General James Blunt moved a force into Lexington, arriving on the morning of September 18.  Blunt, and his commander, Major-General Samuel Curtis, were working with poor information about Price’s movements.  And at the same time, a dispute with Kansas Governor Thomas Carney prevented the deployment of some Kansas militia units to the field.  Curtis needed an accurate assessment of the situation before committing to any further plans.  According to Blunt, he was able to gather just that at Lexington on September 19:

Upon occupying Lexington I obtained reliable information that the advance of Price’s army, under Shelby, was at Waverly; that Price was calling in all detachments sent out for recruiting and other purposes and was concentrating his forces to meet an expected attack from the forces of General Rosecrans. On the 19th, at 11 a.m., while I was momentarily expecting the arrival of re-enforcements I had requested to be sent to join me at Lexington, and also to receive an answer to my dispatch to General Sanborn, a courier arrived with dispatches from the general commanding informing me that in consequence of the embarrassments thrown in his way by the Governor of Kansas and others relative to moving the militia out of the State, no re-enforcements could be sent to me. At the same time it was reported to me that my pickets were attacked and were being driven in by the enemy, who were advancing in force in three columns. The pickets were re-enforced and instructed to resist the enemy’s advance, while the command was immediately put in position in line of battle southeast of the city, facing a section of open and undulating country, with cultivated fields extending from one to two miles in our front, with the Independence road in our rear, upon which I designed to fall back whenever it became necessary. As the enemy moved steadily up and massed his force in my front, I became well convinced that the whole of Price’s army was present, and with the small force of my command I determined not to bring on a general engagement, but to develop his force and movements and accomplish the object of a reconnaissance. All irregular firing upon the skirmish lines of the contending forces, with occasional artillery firing, was kept up for nearly two hours, when their long-range guns opened a brisk fire in my front, to which my short-range howitzers could not reply with effect, and being pressed by an overwhelming force, with an attempt to flank me on the right and left, I directed the command to withdraw and fall back on the Independence road. This movement was accomplished in good order, the Eleventh Kansas Cavalry, under the immediate command of Colonel Moonlight, covering the retreat in a gallant manner. The last position occupied by the rear guard with four mountain howitzers was held until dark and until the small command was almost entirely enveloped by the superior numbers of the enemy, when, under cover of the night, we moved by easy marches in the direction of Independence, having in the operation of the day punished our adversary severely, but what was of greater importance, developed his position, strength, and movements, the first instance in which it had been done since he had crossed the Arkansas River on his raid into Missouri.

To his credit, Blunt’s work at Lexington did indeed delay Price’s advance.  And worth noting, Blunt was able to establish positive communication with elements of moving west in pursuit of Price.

His mission that day was to develop the situation.  And develop he did.  On many Civil War battlefields, commanders fought what we might call “meeting engagements” and faced that important task of developing the enemy.  In short, this entails forcing the enemy to deploy and show what he has.  Blunt certainly force Price to set up his force, with Brigadier-General Joseph Shelby in the lead.  Shelby had to bring up his artillery to dislodge Blunt.  No casualty figures were offered by either side, specifically to the Lexington fight.  So we don’t know what cost Blunt paid to “develop his position, strength, and movements.”

Historians generally give Blunt credit for this action and cite it as a key event leading to the battle around Kansas City that would follow.  But did Blunt accurately develop Price?

At 7 p.m. on the 19th, Blunt sent a report to Curtis relating the details of the action and what information he had derived from the fight:

Price advanced on Lexington in two columns and drove in my pickets about 2 p.m. I advanced my line skirmishing with them until their whole force was developed, and they commenced to flank me on the right and left, when I fell back on the Independence Road.  They pressed us hard, but we made our retreat, losing but few men.  I shall move unceasingly to-night until I find a good position and am in supporting distance of you. It is certain that Price’s whole force is in Lexington, and is not less than 20,000. Their artillery did us no damage, while ours was used with good effect.

Confederate accounts indicate, though others were involved, the only force heavily engaged was Brigadier-General M. Jeff Thompson’s brigade. So where did Blunt reach the 20,000 number?  The next morning, around 8 a.m., Blunt sent another report to Curtis confirming the number and providing an explanation:

From a small boy of Shelby’s command, whom I have prisoner, I learn that Price brought about 20,000 men with him into the State, and has procured 5,000 recruits since.

So the “development” was derived, in part, from the word of a boy.

Blunt went on to say that if all moved rapidly, the two converging armies could catch Price.  On the other hand, Blunt felt, “unless Rosecrans attacks him vigorously in the rear” that Price would escape through Kansas.

The largest major campaign of the war – in terms of distance covered – was about to turn upon the largest battle fought in the state of Missouri.  But that was days away.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 41, Part I, Serial 83, pages 573-4; Part IV, Serial 86, pages and 141 and 144-5.)

“They deem it strange that in such a plentiful country… breadstuffs cannot be supplied”: Price’s logistics strained

For October 18, 1864, Major-General Sterling Price’s itinerary for the Army of Missouri simply said “At Waverly; twenty-two miles.”  Price’s columns had covered a great deal of ground since entering Missouri (and add to that the march across Arkansas prior to that).  Although since threatening St. Louis and Jefferson City, Price’s army had not set any records for movement, the troops were still “on campaign” and wearing out their clothing and animals.  Little things like horseshoes were a problem.

It is at this time that Major-General James Fagan, commanding a division mostly composed of Arkansas troops, wrote to report a shortage of another type – bread:

I beg leave to call your attention to a want of breadstuffs for my division. My men are much dissatisfied and complain a good deal. They deem it strange that in such a plentiful country as the one in which we are now operating breadstuffs cannot be supplied at least while we are moving so leisurely. Being totally unacquainted with the country and its resources, and not knowing one day where my command will be the next or even the direction it will take, I am unable myself to make any arrangement to supply my command, and must rely on the proper officers of the staff of the army to do so. I addressed Major Tracy, chief commissary of subsistence of the array, a communication on the subject a day or two since, but have heard nothing from him on the subject. I will be pleased if you will call the attention of Major-General Price to the matter, as it is becoming one of serious import with my command. In this connection I have the honor to submit a report of my chief surgeon as to the causes which produce the increase in my sick report.

Price could not, even if he desired, have brought enough rations for his command to complete several months of campaigning.  He had to live off the land.  The portion of Missouri in which the campaign passed was largely agricultural.  Lafayette County, although part of the “Little Dixie” region, was noted more for hemp and tobacco production over corn or wheat.  Furthermore, Waverly was just west of the “Burnt District” subject to Brigadier-General Thomas Ewing’s General Order No. 11, of August 1863.  So the question for any army “living off the land” would be how much could be squeezed out of those counties.

The last sentence from Fagan allueded to a report from Chief Surgeon W. B. Welch, discussing the health of the division:

The character of disease now prevailing is of that class most commonly produced by vicissitudes of weather–such as catarrh, bronchitis, pneumonia, rheumatic affections, and glandular swellings. These causes of disease are more active on systems debilitated from want of sufficient food, &c. The men are much in need of proper and sufficient clothing, and are lamentably deficient in blankets sufficient to protect them during the cold nights.

The effect of cool nights, compounded by insufficient rations, clothing, and bedding, had a detrimental effect on the troops.  Welch continued, “The ration of one-half pound of flour is not sufficient, even if it were regularly supplied, to fortify their systems against the perturbating influences to which they are subjected.”

To this, Fagan added an endorsement on October 19:

Hundreds of my men are without the necessary clothing to be at all comfortable, even in the mildest weather at this season in this climate. I am utterly powerless to provide them with either clothing or bread, and respectfully call the attention of the major-general to the fact and beg his assistance.

Some have called Price’s march through Missouri that October “lackadaisical” and “sluggish.”  While Price’s leadership had much to do with the slow pace, the condition of the army also governed his options.  And he was coming to a point where the number of options closed fast.  While Price’s headquarters were at Waverly, two Federal commands moved towards him – one from the east and one from the west:


Major-General Alfred Pleasonton advanced his provisional cavalry division in pursuit of Price to Sedalia.  Joining price was a division of Major-General A.J. Smith’s 16th Army Corps.  To the west, Major-General Samuel Curtis moved portions of his Army of the Border to the state line.  Some of his Kansas troops refused to enter Missouri.  But a column under Major-General James Blunt moved towards Lexington.  The uncoordinated and at times “lackadaisical” Federal pursuit was catching up to Price at a point on the map where maneuver options were limited.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 41, Part IV, Serial 86, pages 1003-4.)