Fought on October 21, 1864, the Battle of Little Blue River was the third 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
After retreating from Lexington on October 20, Blunt planned to defend his new line along the Little Blue River, near Independence, Missouri. Blunt hoped to be reinforced by Dietzler’s division of the Army of the Border, which was composed entirely of Kansas State Militia. To Blunt’s dismay, however, General Curtis ordered him to fall back and join the 2nd Division 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 his withdrawal and came to Morningside’s aid with reinforcements, bringing federal forces in the field up to about 2,800 soldiers. Meanwhile, Confederate reinforcements also arrived, swelling the Rebel force to roughly 5,500 men.
As the two sides squared off during the day, 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 Provisional Cavalry Division, which was pursuing the Rebels from the rear, to gain ground on the Army of Missouri. The result of the battle paid dividends two days later when Pleasonton caught up with Price.