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:
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.)