Tag Archives: William Rosecrans

Grant desires “Price be pursued to the Arkansas River”: Curtis, Rosecrans, Pleasonton and the “battle” over Price

150 years ago today, Major-General Sterling Price’s campaign was far from over.  Maybe lunging through its last legs, but far from over.  The action at Newtonia on October 28, 1864 had effectively closed Missouri to the Confederacy.  On October 29, Price moved his headquarters south of Pineville, Missouri.  He moved to Maysville the next day.  By November 1st, Price’s column reached Cane Hill, Arkansas – technically Boonsborough, which was one of three small communities in the area.  At that point, Price dispatched part of his column under Major General James Fagan to support an attack on Fayetteville (an action I’ll pick up later).  Thus by All Saints’ Day, Price was well into Arkansas.

Price_Campaign_Oct31

However, the Federal’s pursuit of Price was not to the effect that authorities back east preferred.   Brigadier-General James Blunt remained in pursuit with his division after the action at Newtonia. For Major-General Samuel Curtis, in command of the Army of the Border, Blunt’s 1,000 effectives were the only force to push forward.  Major-General Alfred Pleasonton, with the cavalry from the Department of Missouri, was not in pursuit.  After the fights on October 25, Pleasonton pulled most of his command off to refit.  On October 27, he issued instructions, presumably from Major-General William Rosecrans, to withdraw the remainder (brigades of Brigadier-Generals  John Sanborn and John McNeil).

Granted, Pleasonton’s cavalrymen had been in the saddle through most of the month.  And at the same time, those troops were supposed to be securing portions of Missouri (which, by the way, happened to be reporting Confederate activity in the wake of Price’s transit.) But a golden opportunity was out there for the taking – the elimination of an entire Confederate army.  The split command caused problems throughout the pursuit of Price, and on October 29-31 that rift was the saving grace for Price.   From Washington came a telegram for Curtis from Major-General Henry Halleck:

General Grant directs that Price be pursued to the Arkansas River, or at least till he encounters Steele or Reyonlds.

This order referenced the commands of Generals Frederick Steele  and Joseph J. Reynolds in Arkansas.  The orders did not reach Curtis until October 30.  In his response written at 1 a.m. that day, Curtis threw Rosecrans under the bus:

I send couriers with orders to this effect directed to the several brigade commanders of troops of General Rosecrans, who had abandoned the pursuit by his orders. I will proceed with my own force toward Cassville, hoping to concentrate sufficient troops at that point to resume the pursuit.  I also send to General Steele your dispatch, indorsing on it the present direction taken by the enemy.

Six hours later, Curtis sent off a very lengthy, but detailed, summation of the situation with a barb attached, “The delay occasioned by General Rosecrans’ orders will be the equivalent to thirty-six hours….”

Rosecrans was, of course, communicating with Halleck also.  On October 28 he received his orders from Washington:

General Grant thinks you can and ought to send troops to assist General Thomas….

This prompted an exchange between Rosecrans, Major-General George Thomas and Major-General William T. Sherman to work out the details.  The following day, Brigadier-General John Rawlings, Grant’s own Chief of Staff, received orders to go west to supervise the “re-enforcing the armies actually confronting the principal armies of the enemy.” Grant’s instructions to Rawlings indicates clearly his impression of the situation.

Now that Price is retreating from Missouri, it is believed that the whole force sent to that State from other departments can be spared at once. The fact, however, that a considerable force is pursuing Price, and may go so far that some time may elapse before they can be returned to Missouri and be distributed for the proper protection of the State, has induced me to make two separate orders….

The orders given pertained to Major-Generals A.J. Smith’s and Joseph Mower’s commands.  Their destinations depended much on the evolving situations in Tennessee and Georgia.

Meanwhile, Rosecrans, in Warrensburg, Missouri at that time (about half way between Jefferson City and Kansas City, so still “in the field”), was quick to respond to Curtis’ couriers on October 30:

Your dispatch of 1 a.m. of this date received.  It was my intention and expectation that Sanborn’s and McNeil’s brigades should follow the enemy…. [Sanborn] has orders to take every available man and force Price within reach of Steele’s men…. [General Edward F] Winslow’s brigade was worn down by long marches and is under orders to return to General Sherman….

That last mention, of the fourth brigade in the provisional cavalry division, is noteworthy.  Rosecrans was at this time dealing with conflicting requirements – chasing Price and directing units to Tennessee.  Supporting Rosecrans’ side of this, from Fort Scott came Colonel Charles Blair’s report, stating in part, “McNeil never stopped his pursuit.”  What is interesting, at this juncture of the dialog, is Pleasonton is absent from the message routing.  His “provisional” division was for all practical purposes working as independent brigades.

For a chief of staff thousands of miles from the fighting, perceptions are reality.  On October 31, some of those perceptions, built upon Curtis’ telegrams, brought cross words between Halleck and Rosecrans.  At 12:30, Halleck sent a message which reinforced the orders arriving with Rawlings:

Lieutenant-General Grant directs me to repeat his order that General A.J. Smith’s command be brought to Saint Louis with all possible dispatch, preparatory to its being sent to General Thomas.  Telegraph what date it will reach Saint Louis.

Before that telegram arrived, Rosecrans (still in Warrensburg) sent an update to Halleck relating Sanborn’s progress, stressing that brigade was “to take all his horses that are not exhausted and continue to move on the enemy’s rear.…”  Rosecrans went on to estimate Price’s force at 20,000 – a figure he attributes to Pleasonton.  He further said Major-General Marmaduke, captured on October 25, felt Price only had three cannons left.  Conflicting estimates of the enemy force, perhaps?  But certainly that message had not arrived in Washington before Halleck’s second telegram of the day:

General Curtis telegraphs that you have ordered the troops back from the pursuit of Price, directing General McNeil to Rolla and General Sanborn to Springfield. The orders of General Grant and General Canby are that the pursuit must be continued to the Arkansas River, or until you meet the forces of Generals Steele or Reynolds. These orders must be obeyed.

Rosecrans didn’t receive the two telegrams until much later in the day.  Only at 6:30 p.m. was Rosecrans able to respond to Halleck’s first telegram.  In that response, Rosecrans assured Halleck that A.J. Smith was on the way.  Then at 9 p.m., Rosecrans responded, somewhat awkwardly to the second telegram:

Generals Sanborn and McNeil determined the defeat of the enemy at Newtonia, and everything has been, and is being, done to accomplish the objects arrived at by the orders of General Canby and General Grant. Under all these circumstances of the case, it is the matter of regret that General Curtis should have thought proper to telegram you as he did.  That Winslow’s cavalry did not accompany them may be easily understood when it is stated that it had been marching after Price fifty-two days, and their horses are worn out.  General Sanborn telegraphs tonight that one-half of the horses of the troops from Saint Louis have been abandoned by the way.

And to Rosecrans’ credit, his orders for Sanborn and McNeil that day reiterated the intent – continue after Price.

Over the following days, the correspondence with Washington turned more and more towards the urgent need to transfer troops to Thomas.  Still, not until November 3 did the orders go out that would resolve the problem caused by the split command structure.  To Curtis, Halleck sent:

The Secretary of War directs that you assume command of all troops belonging to the Department of Missouri and now serving on the western border of that State, and pursue Price toward the Arkansas River, or till he reaches the troops of General Steele or Reynolds.

So, 27 days after Price turned west from Jefferson City… and 46 days after Price entered Missouri … there was one commander in charge of the direct efforts against him.  A lot of miles, and a lot of telegrams, were wasted before the battle over command was decided.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 41, Part IV, Serial 86, pages 301, 305, 330-1, 342-4, and 420.)

October 28, 1864: “I was engaging all the avalible force of Price’s Army”: Blunt at Newtonia

After stunning losses at Westport and during the retreat through Kansas, Major-General Sterling Price’s Army of Missouri was defeated and broken.  But it was not yet beaten.  An army with arms is at least an army in being.  Though delivering telling blows, the Federal pursuit failed to seal the deal and complete the defeat with capture of Price and his men.  Following the disasters of October 25, 1864, Price continued his retreat through southwest Missouri. The column moved through Carthage, Granby, and went into camp about four miles south of Newtonia on October 28.

Price_Campaign_Oct28

But Major-General Alfred Pleasonton’s cavalry did not press the pursuit after the victories on the 25th, but instead pulled off the pursuit to resupply. The next pursuit force in line, the division of Major-General James Blunt.  Keep in mind that Pleasonton reported to Major-General William Rosecrans in the Department of Missouri while Blunt reported to Major-General Samuel Curtis in the Department of Kansas.  No single authority exercised operational control of all the pieces in blue.  Bunt did not catch up with Price until 2 p.m. on October 28.  Finding the Confederates in camp south of Newtonia, Blunt first sent word to nearby units, calling on reinforcements.  But he did not hesitate to bring on an engagement, at a point two miles south of Newtonia:

Being convinced of their intention to avoid a fight, if possible, I determined to attack them at once. The First and Fourth Brigades were with me in the advance. I had directed the Second Brigade to halt early in the day to procure forage for their horses to enable me to put them in the advance to press the pursuit at night; consequently I did not rely upon them to participate in the early part of the engagement. I had supposed that General McNeil’s brigade, of General Pleasonton’s division, was close up in my rear, and sent back to hurry it forward, while the First and Fourth Brigades of the First Division were quickly deployed in line, and under the cover of the fire of the First Colorado Battery, posted upon the bluff, they swept across the plain at a gallop until within musket range of the enemy’s line. Skirmishers were rapidly deployed, and but a few moments elapsed until the engagement became general. I now ordered forward the First Colorado Battery, which, with a section of howitzers attached to the Fifteenth Kansas Cavalry, and under command of Sergeant Patterson, of the Fourteenth Kansas Cavalry, poured a destructive fire into the enemy’s ranks.

On the Confederate side, Brigadier-General M. Jeff Thompson, commanding the “Iron Brigade” of Brigadier-General Joseph Shelby’s division, was part of the Confederate force thrown out against Blunt. His men had gone into camp around mid-day, but shortly after rushed north due to a false alarm.  The brigade had just returned to camp when Blunt arrived in force:

We had scarcely commenced the ordinary duties of camp when we were again ordered out, and proceeding to the same place found the enemy drawn up before us on the opposite side of the small field. The firing commenced immediately, and in a few minutes our line bravely crossed the fence and advanced upon the enemy, crossing the field under a hot fire of artillery and small-arms, and drove the enemy into the open prairie. Not stopping at this second fence an instant, we advanced into the prairie and continued to drive the enemy, never letting them form to charge, which they endeavored to do. There was some mounted men on our right, but no supports near our rear, and I halted the line after we had advanced so far that we were exposed to flanking. We remained in this position until the enemy had retired their line, when we fell back toward our camp, receiving several shots from the enemy’s artillery as we retired.

Even depleted from five days of defeat and retreat, the Confederate force outnumbered Blunt’s brigades – a fact that Blunt was quickly aware:

It soon became evident that I was engaging all the available force of Price’s army, which outnumbered me more than eight to one. Their superiority of numbers enabling them to press upon my flanks with a large force compelled me to fall back about 500 yards from my first line, which was done in good order, and the line reformed in the face of a terrific fire. The enemy pressed forward their center, but were promptly checked by the canister from the First Colorado Battery. It was now near sundown, and my command had been engaged near two hours and their ammunition nearly exhausted, while a large force of the enemy were passing under cover of a corn-field around my left flank, and my force being too small to extend my line in that direction, I was about to direct my line to fall back and take position on the bluff, when very unexpectedly the brigade of General Sanborn, of General Pleasonton’s command, came up. I immediately placed them in position on my left, directing General Sanborn to dismount his men and advance through the corn-field, which was promptly executed, repulsing the flanking column of the enemy, who now abandoned the field and retreated rapidly under cover of the night in the direction of Pineville, leaving their dead and wounded in our hands.

Newtonia

Blunt had about 400 casualties in the afternoon fighting – he estimated one-eighth of the force committed.  Confederate casualties were just over half that number. The short, sharp action at Newtonia was the last important action between Price and his pursuers in Missouri.   The battle, though small, allowed Price more maneuver room to continue retreat.  The next day, the Confederates passed through Pineville and then camped five miles to the south that evening.  Price retreated out of Missouri, but his pursers had failed to destroy his army.  Due to a split command, the Federals had allowed Price to slip through to Arkansas.

The campaign was far from over, but the results were already clear for all to see.   Missouri was a “battleground state” in the 1864 campaign season.  And battles had secured the state for the union – both on the map and for the electoral process.  The Confederates, while still a force in being, were never again in position to threaten the state.  But with a “Army in being,” Price was still a chess piece on the board.  The pursuit, though not with an intensity of the late days of October, would continue to dog Price through Arkansas.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 41, Part I, Serial 83, pages 577 and 669.)

“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.)