“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:

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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.)

“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.)