“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.)

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