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.)