Tag Archives: William Rosecrans

“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.


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.


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:


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:


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.)


Full war and an election in Missouri – 1864

About a decade ago, I was posted at an overseas military post as a historic event occurred – the first in a round of free elections in Afghanistan.  That lead to a lot of pictures such as this one you may have seen in the news:

Purple ink on the fingers came to symbolize not only the success of the elections, but also became a simple means to legitimize (generally speaking) the results.  (Although when someone later exposed how easily the purple ink washed off… well that turned into something I’d save for another venue.) At the time, one of the officers with whom I worked stated, “well, we should be proud.  Not often a country holds elections in the middle of a civil war.”  I had to remind him by way of a response – “like 1864?”

In the fall of 1864, Missouri was arguably the most unstable state on the North American continent.  Not only were two warring armies campaigning across the state, but where the armies were not present, irregular forces prowled.  Years of partisan warfare left some citizens suspect of even the local authorities.  But come war or flood, November 8 was an election day.

Foremost concerns in the minds of Federal authorities were, first, ensuring only legitimate votes were tallied; second, preventing the Confederates from disrupting the election; and third, ensuring the men of Missouri then under arms were represented in the voting.  With that in mind, on October 12, 1864,  Major-General William Rosecrans issued General Orders No 195:

Our free Government, established and administered by the will of the people, expressed through legal elections, requires from every citizen a sacred regard for the preservation and purity of the elective franchise.

The general commanding expects the united assistance of the true men of all parties in his efforts to secure a full and fair opportunity for all who are entitled to vote at the approaching elections in the State of Missouri, and in excluding from the polls those who, by alienage, treason, guerrillaism, and other crimes or disabilities, have no just right to vote.

The laws of the State declare who may vote, and prescribe the times and places of voting. But in the present disturbed condition of the country the civil power is too weak effectually to enforce the execution of those laws, or adequately to punish offenders….

Rosecrans listed seven points in these orders to his subordinates.  The first stated the qualifications for legitimate voters:

I. Those, and only those, who have the qualifications, and who take the oath prescribed by the laws of the State, copies of which are hereto annexed, shall vote.

From the terms of the oath it is manifest that it was the intention of the Missouri State Convention that no person should vote who, since the 17th day of December, 1861, has willfully taken up arms or levied war against the United States or against the provisional government of the State of Missouri. This excludes from the right of voting all who, since that date, have been in the rebel army or navy anywhere, and all who, since that date, have been anywhere engaged in guerrilla marauding or bushwhacking. If, therefore, any such person offers to vote his vote may be challenged, and he shall be immediately arrested. And any judge of election shall be arrested and punished who permits the name of any such person to be recorded in the poll book or his vote to be received, where such judge has personal knowledge of his true character, or the same is shown to him by lawful evidence before the vote is received.

Voting or attempting to vote in contravention of law or orders, is declared a military offense, subjecting the offender to arrest, trial, and punishment if convicted.

Those orders matched the wording from an ordnance defining “the qualifications of voters and civil officers” passed in 1862 by the state convention.  The intent was clear.  Complete exclusion of anyone who had sided with the Confederates.  Such may sound harsh and discriminatory.  But consider the context.  Didn’t the secessionists already cast a vote, for all practical purposes, for their candidate?

But please note the date set for exclusion – December 17, 1861.  That coincided with the establishment of a provisional state government.  And was also some three weeks after the Confederate Congress admitted Missouri as its 12th state.  That date was a delineation at which time the political confusion of the early war months became clear.

Rosecrans went on to address points to ensure the integrity of the process and maintain order at the polling places:

II. No one who has borne arms against the Government of the United States, or voluntarily given aid and comfort to its enemies during the present rebellion, shall act as judge or clerk at election, nor shall any county judge knowingly appoint any such person to act as judge at election. Violation of this will be promptly noticed and the offenders brought to trial by the local military authorities.

III. Outrages upon the freedom of election by violence or intimidation; attempting to hinder legal or to procure or encourage illegal voting; interfering with the legal challenge of voters; acting as officers of election in contravention of law or orders; willful neglect to perform their duties under the laws and these orders by officers of election, and especially taking the voters’ or officers’ oath falsely; and all other acts and words interfering with the purity and freedom of elections, are crimes against the liberties of the people, and are declared military offenses, and will be rigorously punished.

Rosecrans also ensured the troops from Missouri would vote:

IV. The laws of the State provide that those of its citizens who are in the army shall not thereby lose the privilege of voting, provided the voting is done in the manner prescribed. The commanding general therefore directs that on the day of election every practicable facility be afforded for taking, in camp or in the field, the vote of citizens of Missouri, who may then be in any company of Missouri volunteers or militia, in the service of the United States or of the State….

He went on to press his commanders to make arrangements for voting where the tactical situation allowed.  And where the soldiers in uniform were posted near their local polling places, he desired the soldiers be allowed to vote there.  However, in the interest of fair and free elections, “any soldier who abuses the privilege… by any disorderly conduct or by any unauthorized interference… shall be punished….”

Other points in the orders looked to the general security on the day of the elections:

V. Wherever there is good reason to apprehend that rebels, bushwhackers, or other evil disposed persons will attempt to control the election at any precinct by their acts, threats, or presence, a sufficient guard will be detailed to prevent any such control and to keep the peace.

VI. District and all subordinate commanders will strictly and carefully enforce this order at the approaching elections, and use all diligence to bring to speedy and condign punishment all civilians, officers, or soldiers who violate any of its provisions.

VII. The commanding general earnestly invokes the zealous and active aid of all law-abiding citizens, on the day of said election, in preserving the peace at the polls and preventing illegal voting; and he hopes that every newspaper in this State will see proper to publish this order continuously, in every issue, until the day of the next election.

Rosecrans orders of October 12, 1864 placed the military authorities at the polling places to facilitate, but not directly influence, the outcome.  Some will say the voter qualification standards, established by the provisional state government and enforced by the military, discriminated against those dissenting in disapproval of the Lincoln administration.  But at the same time, how can any eligible voting list include those who seceded from the government holding the elections?  Furthermore, if Rosecrans needed bayonets at the polling places, wasn’t it because of those who’d already “voted with their muskets”?

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 41, Part III, Serial 85, pages 804-6.)