Union Major General Samuel Curtis organized the Army of the Border to confront Confederate Major General Sterling Price's Army of Missouri as it marauded through Missouri during October 1864.
Price’s Missouri Expedition
Confederate General Kirby Smith’s sweeping triumph over Union forces in Arkansas and Louisiana during the Red River Campaign in the spring of 1864 emboldened him to authorize a daring cavalry raid into Missouri in September. Smith chose Major General Sterling Price to lead the foray. Price’s objectives were to divert Union troops away from Richmond and Atlanta, enlist Confederate recruits, capture and destroy Union war materials, and, if possible, capture St. Louis or Jefferson City. Smith also hoped that Confederate successes in Missouri would damage President Abraham Lincoln’s reelection hopes.
Confederate Army of Missouri on the Move
During the summer, Price assembled three divisions of cavalry, mounted infantry, and supporting artillery, commanded by Major General James F. Fagan, Major General John S. Marmaduke, and Brigadier General Joseph O. Shelby. Price’s force, known as the Army of Missouri, totaled roughly 12,000 ill-provisioned men. Perhaps 4,000 of them were unarmed.
Price’s Expedition began on August 28, 1864, when the Army of Missouri departed Camden, Arkansas. On September 19, he led his men into Missouri near Doniphan and headed north toward St. Louis.
Battle of Fort Davidson and Beyond
Eager for a morale-boosting victory early in the campaign, Price attacked Fort Davidson, a lightly defended Union garrison at Pilot Knob, about eighty miles south of St. Louis on September 26. After a small Union force led by Brigadier General Thomas Ewing rebuffed Price’s assault, the Rebels withdrew and headed for Missouri’s capital, Jefferson City, near the center of the state.
For the next week, the Army of Missouri rampaged across central Missouri, destroying railroads, burning bridges, and looting. Bogged down by wagons loaded with supplies and plunder, the slow, undisciplined caravan did not approach the Missouri capital until October 6, 1864. By the time the Confederates neared Jefferson City, Union Brigadier General Clinton Fisk, commander of the Union District of Northern Missouri, had ringed the city with formidable defenses, so Price chose to move on toward the Missouri-Kansas border on October 8.
Army of the Border—Origins
Price’s raids and pillaging in Missouri came at a steep price. The army’s slow progress enabled Union officials to consolidate their forces. On October 9, 1864, Major General Samuel Curtis, commander of the Department of Kansas, learned that Price had left Jefferson City headed toward Kansas. Curtis countered by convincing Kansas Governor Thomas Carney to mobilize the state militia. The next day, Curtis declared martial law and began merging the 4,000 regular troops under his command with 8,000 Kansas militiamen to form a force to confront Price.
Curtis partitioned his army into two divisions. Major General James G. Blunt, in charge of the District of South Kansas, commanded the army’s 1st Division, which comprised three brigades of volunteer cavalry regiments and a fourth brigade of Kansas state militia units. Major General George W. Dietzler commanded the 2nd Division, which comprised all the Kansas state militia units except one.
By October 13, 1864, Curtis was referring to his combined command as the Army of the Border in official correspondence. On October 14, in a memorandum, Curtis informed Major General Henry W. Halleck who was General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States, that “I denominate my forces the Army of the Border, and I will do all I can to make it felt by the enemy.”
Army of the Border—Battles
Second Battle of Lexington—October 19, 1864
The Army of the Border first made itself “felt by the enemy” on October 19, 1864, near Lexington, Missouri. As the Army of Missouri inched west, Price found himself between two hostile forces. Union Major General Alfred Pleasonton had assembled a provisional cavalry force at Jefferson City and was nipping at Price’s heels as Major General Blunt’s division of roughly 2,000 Federals headed toward Lexington, Missouri, to await the Army of Missouri’s arrival.
On October 18, Blunt established forward positions on the eastern outskirts of Lexington, expecting to be reinforced by Dietzler’s division of the Army of the Border. Blunt learned the next morning that he was on his own because the Kansas militia had balked at crossing the state line into Missouri.
At two o’clock that afternoon, Price’s vanguard collided with Blunt’s scouts and pickets as the Confederates approached Lexington. After pushing the Yankees back, the Rebels engaged Blunt’s main line and drove them through the town. The victorious Confederates abandoned the pursuit of their foe at nightfall. Blunt withdrew and established new lines along the Little Blue River, while the Rebels encamped near Fire Prairie Creek.
Battle of Little Blue River—October 21, 1864
After retreating from Lexington on October 20, Blunt planned to defend his new line along the Little Blue River, near Independence, Missouri. Blunt still hoped to be reinforced by Dietzler’s division of the Kansas militia. To Blunt’s dismay, however, General Curtis ordered him to fall back and join Dietzler at the Big Blue River because Kansas Governor Carey refused to allow the Kansas Militia to move any farther east into Missouri. Blunt complied with Curtis’ orders and withdrew the bulk of his force toward Independence on the evening of October 20. Blunt left Colonel Thomas Moonlight in charge of a small brigade of 400 to 600 men to serve as his rearguard defending a bridge crossing the Little Blue River.
On the morning of October 21, Price’s men stormed the Federals. Moonlight’s defenders tried unsuccessfully to burn the bridge. Despite heavy losses, the Rebels doused the flames and forced their way across the river.
As the Yankees grudgingly gave ground, Blunt received word that Curtis had rescinded his earlier decision to abandon the Union defenses at the Little Blue River. Blunt hastily reversed course and came to Morningside’s aid. Blunt’s arrival swelled federal forces in the field to about 2,800 soldiers. Meanwhile, Confederate reinforcements also arrived, enlarging the Rebel force to roughly 5,500 men.
As the two sides squared off during the day on October 21, a regiment of Confederate cavalry threatened to flank the Yankees, forcing Blunt to fall back to Independence and the fighting ended. Later that evening, Blunt abandoned Independence and joined Curtis’ lines along the Big Blue River, southwest of Independence.
Neither side reported their casualties at the Battle of the Little Blue River. The minor encounter was a tactical success for Price because he forced the Federals to retreat. However, the battle was a strategic victory for the Union because it enabled Alfred Pleasonton’s cavalry, which was pursuing the Rebels from the rear, to gain ground on the Army of Missouri. The result of the battle paid dividends over the next two days when Pleasonton caught up with Price.
Battle of Byram’s Ford (aka Battle of Big Blue River)—October 22, 1864
Following the Confederate victory at the Battle of Little Blue River on October 21, Major General James G. Blunt’s division of the Army of the Border fell back and established a defensive line along the western banks of the Big Blue River near modern-day Kansas City. At about ten o’clock on the morning of October 22, Brigadier General Joseph O. Shelby’s division of the Confederate Army of Missouri launched a diversionary assault against the northern end of Blunt’s defensive line. An hour later, Shelby attempted to storm Blunt’s line at Byram’s Ford—the best location for Price to get his army across the Big Blue River.
The Rebel push proved unsuccessful. When the stubborn Yankees refused to budge, Shelby began searching for alternatives. By mid-afternoon, Confederate detachments found places to cross the river above and below Byram’s Ford. With the Federals in jeopardy of being flanked and isolated, Blunt ordered the defenders to withdraw to Westport (now part of Kansas City, Missouri) and join the bulk of Curtis’ army.
After Blunt conceded the strategic crossing at Byram’s Ford, Price got his supplies across the Big Blue River and sent them south toward the small town of Little Santa Fe on the Santa Fe Trail.
Casualty totals for the Battle of Byram’s Ford are unknown.
Battle of Westport—October 23, 1864
After Blunt fell back from Byram’s Ford, he and Curtis hastily established new lines along Brush Creek, south of Westport. Early on the morning of October 23, Blunt dispatched skirmishers across Brush Creek where they encountered the advancing Confederate divisions of Major General James M. Fagan and Brigadier General Joseph O. Shelby. The Rebels easily drove the outnumbered Yankees back across Brush Creek. The Confederate advance faltered, however, when Shelby’s men ran low on ammunition. When Colonel Charles W. Blair’s Kansas State Militia troops came forward to reinforce Curtis’ line, the battle reached an impasse.
Aided by a local farmer named George Thoman, Curtis discovered a path around the Confederates’ left flank. As the noon hour approached, Curtis attacked the end of the Confederate line. At the same time, Blunt led a head-on assault and the Yankees began driving their foes back.
Meanwhile, Pleasonton’s cavalry had launched an early morning assault against Price’s rear at Byram’s Ford and forced their way across the Big Blue River. Pleasonton’s arrival left the Confederates caught in a pincer between two surging federal forces. Facing possible annihilation, Shelby executed a masterful delaying action that enabled Price to withdraw his army southward and reconnect with his supply train at Little Santa Fe.
Because the Battle of Byram’s Ford and the Battle of Westport occurred on consecutive days, over much of the same ground, and involved the same forces, accounts of the two conflicts are often combined.
Over 30,000 soldiers took part in the fighting over the two days (22,000 Federals and 8,500 Confederates) making the conflict the largest engagement fought west of the Mississippi during the Civil War. Each side suffered roughly 1,500 casualties. The losses were relatively much more severe for Price’s smaller Confederate army.
Some historians refer to the Battle of Westport as the “Gettysburg of the West,” because much like the Battle of Gettysburg ended the Army of Northern Virginia’s final invasion of the North in the Eastern Theater, the Union victory at Westport halted the last major Confederate offensive west of the Mississippi River.
Following the Union victory at the Battle of Westport on October 23, Price led the remnants of the Army of Missouri southward toward Little Santa Fe to rejoin his supply train. The next day, they entered Kansas, moving toward Fort Scott. On October 25, two brigades of Union General Alfred Pleasonton’s pursuing cavalry division dealt Price another costly defeat at the Battle of Mine Creek when they caught up with Price’s retreating force.
Second Battle of Newtonia—October 28, 1864
Following the Union victory at the Battle of Mine Creek, Price’s Army of Missouri stopped to rest on October 28th about two miles south of Newtonia, Missouri, where another battle had been fought two years before.
While the weary Rebel soldiers rested, Major General Blunt, commanding a federal cavalry division numbering about 1,000 men, caught up with them. As Blunt’s two brigades approached, Price ordered Brigadier General Joseph Shelby’s mounted infantry division to hold the Yankees back as the rest of the Confederate army resumed their retreat.
After the two forces established lines, Shelby seized the initiative and attacked. Holding a numerical advantage, perhaps as large as two to one, the Rebels drove the Yankees about 200 yards back across a cornfield. There, the Union resistance stiffened and held.
At about 5 p.m., Blunt, whose men were running low on ammunition, was preparing to withdraw when reinforcements commanded by Brigadier General John B. Sanborn arrived from Fort Scott. Sanborn’s men nearly doubled the size of the Union force.
Now facing a larger federal force that included fresh troops and more artillery, Shelby ordered his men to withdraw as sunset approached. Seeing the Rebels fall back, Blunt ordered a counterattack that drove their foe back about one mile.
As nightfall descended, Blunt called off his pursuit. During the night, Shelby’s rearguard rejoined Price’s main army and continued their retreat toward Indian Territory.
Accounts are unclear regarding the number of soldiers that took part in the Second Battle of Newtonia. Confederate forces numbered somewhere between 2,000-3,500, while the Union fielded somewhere between 1,500-2,000 men. Casualty totals are equally obscure. The Confederacy lost between 26-200 soldiers, and the Union suffered between 24-275 casualties.
Both commanders claimed victory after the conflict, but most historians consider the Second Battle of Newtonia to be a Union victory because Price’s Army of Missouri began to disintegrate badly as it resumed its retreat after the engagement.
Following the Second Battle of Newtonia, on November 8, 1864, Curtis issued an un-numbered general field order declaring that “the object of this organization and campaign complete.” Afterward, Curtis congratulated the men of the Army of the Border for their successful campaign and directed the Kansas Militia to return to the Department of Kansas.
Blunt followed Curtis’ declaration with General Field Order Number 6, First Division, Army of the Border, informing his men that “the pursuit of the rebel army under Gen. Price” had ended and “the Army of the Border disbanded.” Blunt’s order went on to reassign the soldiers under his command.