Fought on October 22, 1864, the Battle of Byram's Ford (aka Battle of Big Blue River) was the fifth major engagement during Price's Missouri Expedition of 1864.
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 as many as 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—September 26-27, 1864
Eager for a morale-boosting victory early in the campaign, Price decided to attack Fort Davidson, a lightly defended Union garrison, about eighty miles south of St. Louis on September 26. The two-day battle that followed proved costly for the Confederates. Although the Rebels forced the Yankee garrison to abandon the fort, Price suffered roughly 1,100 casualties while doing so. More importantly, the delay enabled Union officials to strengthen their defenses around St. Louis, forcing Price to abandon plans to strike his primary objective. Instead, Price led his army west toward 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. On that date, Price’s vanguard skirmished with federal pickets and forced a crossing of the Osage River six miles below Jefferson City. By that time, Brigadier General Clinton Fisk, commander of the Union District of Northern Missouri, had ringed the city with formidable defenses.
Fearing a repeat of the costly defeat at Fort Davidson, Price decided to bypass Jefferson City. Instead, he headed his army toward the Missouri-Kansas border on October 8. On the same day, Major General Alfred Pleasonton arrived in Jefferson City and took command of all Union mounted forces. Pleasonton ordered his cavalry into the field to harass Price’s rearguard.
As the Army of Missouri continued its slow trek west, the Confederates assaulted Glasgow and Sedalia on October 15. The Rebels carried off roughly 1,500 muskets, 150 horses, and wagonloads of supplies during the raids.
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.”
Pleasonton’s Provisional Cavalry Division
While Curtis was organizing his Kansas troops, Major General William S. Rosecrans, commander of the Department of Missouri, began rounding up cavalry units under his jurisdiction to stop Price. By early October, Rosecrans had assembled roughly 5,500 Union troopers at Jefferson City led by Major General Alfred Pleasonton, commander of the District of Central Missouri.
Second Battle of Lexington—October 19, 1864
As the Army of Missouri inched west, Price found himself between two hostile forces. Pleasonton’s cavalry was still nipping at his heels, as roughly 2,000 Federals from Blunt’s division of the Army of the Border headed toward Lexington, Missouri, to await Price’s arrival.
On October 19, the two forces clashed on the eastern outskirts of Lexington. Led by General Shelby’s division, the victorious Rebels forced Blunt’s men to retreat and establish a new line along the Little Blue River.
Battle of Little Blue River—October 21, 1864
Two days later, Price attacked Blunt’s new line and forced the Yankees to fall back to Independence, Missouri, before the fighting ended. Later that evening, Blunt abandoned Independence and joined Curtis’ lines along the Big Blue River, southwest of Independence.
Second Battle of Independence—October 22, 1864
Price’s Army of Missouri occupied Independence on the afternoon of October 21 after Blunt’s Federals fell back to the Big Blue River. The next morning, Price continued his push west towards a showdown with the Union Army of the Border.
Concerns about Major General Alfred Pleasonton’s Union cavalry, still in pursuit of the Confederates, prompted Price to leave James F. Fagan’s division of about 4,500 soldiers at Independence to guard his rear.
Price’s concerns were well-founded. Pleasonton’s Union cavalry caught up with the Rebels along the Little Blue River east of Independence on October 22. After Pleasonton’s troopers forced their way across the Little Blue River and drove Fagan’s men out of Independence, Price had to send John S. Marmaduke’s division back to stem the Union advance. The redeployment, however, dashed Price’s hopes of defeating Curtis’ army before being caught in the Union vise.
Battle of Byram’s Ford (aka Battle of Big Blue River)—October 22, 1864
While the rearguard of the Army of Missouri fought to hold back Major General Alfred Pleasonton’s cavalry during the Battle of Independence on October 22, 1864, Major General Sterling Price was desperate to get the bulk of his forces, along with roughly 500 wagons and about 5,000 head of cattle, across the Big Blue River. Price realized that his army was in a perilous situation.
Pleasonton’s 4,100 troopers were pressing his rear. To his front, he faced Major General Samuel Curtis’ Army of the Border—by then roughly 18,000 strong. Price reckoned that his best chance for success was to consolidate his command—now reduced to roughly 9,000 soldiers—west of the Big Blue River and defeat Curtis’ Army of the Border before turning to engage Pleasonton’s cavalry.
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.