Category Archives: American Civil War

“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.)

“We thus held the enemy back for hours”: Battles outside Independence on October 21, 1864

As I write on October 21, 2014, Kansas City, Missouri has the attention of many Americans.  Tonight the first game in this year’s World Series starts at Kauffman Stadium.  One-hundred and fifty years ago, Kansas City also had it’s share of attention.  On October 21, 1864, just fifteen miles (as the crow files) to the northeast of the stadium, an action along the Little Blue River, outside Independence, broke open a series of actions.  Fighting would culminate two days later in the largest engagement fought west of the Mississippi River at a location roughly 10 miles southwest of the stadium.  So can I say the return of the World Series to Kansas City is timely?  I think so.

In part, the geography of Missouri brought Price to the outskirts of Kansas City.  Major avenues in the area generally parallel the Missouri River to Independence.  There the Santa Fe Trail, and other less famous routes, fan out to the southwest into Kansas.  Another factor on Price’s line of march was the “Burnt District.”  As mentioned before, the Army of Missouri was starving.  The desolation of the counties south of Kansas City (In General Orders No. 11, these were the counties of Jackson, Cass, Bates, and the northern half of Vernon) could not support the army.  The quicker Price made the Kansas border, the better.  And the short path required Price to cross two watercourses – the Little Blue River and the Big Blue River:

Price_Campaign_Oct21

An while Price neared the Kansas border, Federal forces confined him in both front and rear.  Having fought a “developing” action at Lexington, Major-General James Blunt looked to delay Price at the Little Blue River.  For this purpose, he left his second brigade, under Colonel Thomas Moonlight, consisting of Kansas cavalry, to contest the crossings there.

Moonlight’s men occupied good ground on the banks overlooking the river, but were spread thin to cover several crossing points.  When pressed, the Kansans set fire to the Independence Road bridge over the Little Blue River, but that was not the end of the fighting that day, as Moonlight recorded:

Being thus menaced on all sides and the object for which I was left accomplished, the command slowly fell back about two miles, fighting. A favorable piece of ground here presenting itself, a new line of battle was formed on the left of the Independence road, and we slowly began to drive the enemy back over the ground again, dismounting every man for the purpose of shelter behind stone walls, fences, and houses, some of which were then held by the enemy, who, after a vigorous assault, were dislodged, thus affording us an advantage which accounts for the few killed and wounded on our side, compared with the enemy, who suffered terribly. The Eleventh Regiment here behaved like old veterans, and gave renewed proof of their fighting qualities, driving an enemy greatly their superior in numbers to the very ground occupied in the morning. By this time General Blunt had come up, and other troops were being thrown in on the right to my support. About 200 of the Sixteenth Kansas Volunteer Cavalry, under Lieutenant-Colonel [Samuel] Walker, of that regiment, reported to me and did splendid service on the left. Major [Robert] Hunt, Fifteenth Kansas Volunteer Cavalry, chief of artillery for Department of Kansas, reported about this time with some mountain howitzers, and rendered such service as only a brave and gallant officer can render. We thus held the enemy back for hours, a great portion of the time without any ammunition, supplying its place with lusty and defiant cheers.

When he arrived to reinforce Moonlight, Blunt had hoped to pin Price long enough for Federal forces under Major-General Alfred Pleasonton to arrive from the east (on the map above, blue arrow on the right, reaching Lexington).  But his position around Independence was somewhat isolated.  Orders came from Major-General Samuel Curtis, writing from a field headquarters on the Big Blue River (blue line just southwest of Kansas City on the map above) at 6 p.m.:

Don’t exhaust our troops, but fall back to this place with the least further effort. A small picket or two along the road, to let us have certain knowledge of the enemy’s approach, is all we need.  Let Price have Independence. It is easily flanked, and his force, it is said, large. I have all day been fearing that he would send a whole division to get in our rear. Indeed, we have to fear a flank movement to-night, but here we have extensive lines fortified, and must save our resources of men and blood.

At the same time Curtis pulled in Blunt, Pleasonton contacted Major-General A.J. Smith, leading a division of his corps in the pursuit of Price, suggesting the infantry move up towards Lexington but thence directly west.  His reasoning matched the expectations set forward by Major-General William Rosecrans, commanding the Department of Missouri, earlier in the day:

I believe Price is retreating by Lone Jack and Chapel Hill. If this is so, while McNeil follows his rear the balance of the command should strike him near Lone Jack, following the Hopewell and Snibar road in two columns.  The infantry can go by Renick Mills or follow the cavalry….

Clearly Rosecrans, commanding troops on the east in pursuit of Price, and Curtis, commanding those out of Kansas that were blocking Price, did not have a common picture of the battlespace.  This variance was in part due to incomplete information, not so much held back, but not shared, between the commanders.  Each had a different opinion as to how to track down Price.

Pleasonton, however, was for all purposes standing in direct contact with Price’s trail elements.  For him, option one was to follow Rosecrans’ intent and swing to the south to intercept Price – assuming Price was retreating south.  Option two was to follow Price withdrawing westward. The situation called for Pleasonton to use his best judgment on October 22.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 41, Part I, Serial 83, page 592; Part IV, Serial 86, pages 159 and 165.)

 

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:

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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.)