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.
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.)