Prelude to the Battle of Westport
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 Confederates 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 Confederates 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 Confederates 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 Confederates 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 Joseph O. Shelby’s division probed Union Major General James G. Blunt’s defensive line along the western banks of the Big Blue River. With Pleasonton pressing his rear, 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.
After unsuccessfully storming Blunt’s line, 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, setting the stage for the decisive Battle of Westport the next day.
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 Confederates 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.
Outcome of the Battle of Westport
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.