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.
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.
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.)