James Gillpatrick (sometimes spelled “Gilpatrick”) Blunt was born on July 21, 1826, probably on his family’s farm near Trenton, Maine. He was the son of John and Sally Gillpatrick Blunt. Historians know little about Blunt’s early life, but historians believe that he received a sound primary education in the local common schools. Although the records are uncertain, he may have also spent some time attending the Ellsworth Military Academy, where he may have received some martial training that served him well during the Civil War. At age fourteen, Blunt left the family farm and went to sea as a crew member on a merchant marine ship.
In 1845, Blunt abandoned life on the ocean and immigrated to Columbus, Ohio, to attend Starling Medical College where his uncle, Dr. Rufus Gillpatrick, was an instructor. Four years later, Blunt graduated and moved to New Madison, Ohio, to practice medicine. Motivated by his strong abolitionist beliefs, Blunt became an active member of the fledgling Republican Party while living in New Madison.
On January 15, 1850, Blunt married fourteen-year-old Nancy Carson Putman, the daughter of a locally prominent citizen. Their marriage produced two children: Sadie, born in 1851, and Rufus, born in 1865.
Life in Frontier Kansas
In 1856, Blunt moved to Anderson County, Kansas, where his uncle Rufus had moved a few years earlier. Blunt soon became active in the border war that had erupted on the frontier after the enactment of the Kansas-Nebraska Act on May 30, 1854. As political bickering turned to violence in Bleeding Kansas, Blunt joined a militia force that included noted abolitionists Jim Lane and John Brown. In 1859, Blunt served as a representative to the constitutional convention that drafted the Wyandotte Constitution under which Congress admitted Kansas to the Union as a free state on January 29, 1861.
When the Civil War erupted, Blunt initially attempted to join the Second Kansas Regiment being raised by Kansas Governor Charles Robinson, but quickly changed his fealty to a force being recruited by his friend, Jim Lane, who was by then a U.S. Senator. On July 24, 1861, the U.S. Army mustered Blunt into volunteer service as a lieutenant colonel of the Third Kansas Volunteer Infantry Regiment.
Army of Kansas
Blunt’s regiment was a part of what later became Lane’s Brigade. During the first few months of the war, the army tasked Blunt with neutralizing pro-Confederate irregulars in Kansas. With Lane’s endorsement, the army promoted Blunt to brigadier general on April 18, 1862. Shortly thereafter, on May 2, 1862, the War Department issued General Orders, No. 50, re-establishing the Department of Kansas. Three days later, Blunt issued General Orders, No. 1 (Department of Kansas) assuming command of the department. By early September, Blunt was referring to the troops under his command as the Army of Kansas.
When Confederates began threatening southwest Missouri in the late summer of 1862, the War Department issued General Orders, No. 135 on September 19, 1862, re-creating the Department of the Missouri under the command of Major General Samuel R. Curtis. Less than two weeks later, Rebel insurgents routed Blunt’s forces at the First Battle of Newtonia on September 30, 1862. Alarmed by the Confederate headway, Curtis issued General Orders, No. 7 (Department of the Missouri) October 12, 1862, merging the roughly 15,000 soldiers in his department under the command of Brigadier General John M. Schofield. Blunt’s Army of Kansas became one of three divisions of Schofield’s force denominated the Army of the Frontier.
On November 20, 1862, due to illness, Schofield temporarily turned over his command to Blunt. A week later, Blunt moved 5,000 of his men into Northwest Arkansas to check a Confederate force headed toward Southern Missouri. Blunt’s men successfully scattered the Rebel forces at the Battle of Cane Hill on November 28, 1862. A week later, Brigadier General Francis J. Herron’s second and third divisions of the Army of the Frontier united with Blunt’s division to cement a Union victory at the Battle of Prairie Grove on December 7, 1862. The two generals followed up on their success at the Battle of Van Buren on December 28, 1862, solidifying federal control of Northwest Arkansas.
District of Kansas Commander
One month before the Battle of Van Buren, President Abraham Lincoln advanced Schofield to the rank of major general, pending approval by the U.S. Senate. On December 29, 1862, the day after the Battle of Van Buren, Schofield returned to Southern Missouri and resumed command of the Army of the Frontier. Blunt then left the Army of the Frontier and returned to Kansas to administer the District of Kansas.
Soon thereafter, Lincoln also nominated Blunt and Herron for appointments to major general. When the Senate considered the appointments of the three brigadiers on January 22, 1863, it confirmed the promotions of Herron and Blunt, effective November 29, 1862, but declined to advance Schofield. Blunt’s appointment made him the only major general to represent Kansas during the Civil War. The Senate’s rejection of Schofield’s appointment created the awkward situation of two major generals serving under a brigadier general who was not eligible to command an army because of his rank. Curtis resolved the issue on March 30, 1863, by issuing General Orders, No. 24 (Department of the Missouri) naming Herron to supersede Schofield as commander of the Army of the Frontier.
On May 12, 1863, President Lincoln again advanced Schofield to the rank of major general, pending Senate approval. The next day, the War Department appointed Schofield to replace Curtis as commander of the Department of the Missouri. Schofield, who disliked both Blunt and Herron, soon reduced Blunt’s command by orchestrating the subdivision of the District of Kansas into the District of the Border, and the District of the Frontier.
District of the Frontier Commander
On June 9, 1863, Schofield issued General Orders, No. 48 (Department of the Missouri) ordering in part that “The Indian Territory, the State of Kansas south of the 38th parallel, the western tier of counties of Missouri south of the same parallel, and the western tier of counties of Arkansas will constitute the District of the Frontier, and will be commanded by Major General James G. Blunt; headquarters at Fort Scott, or in the field.”
Battle of Honey Springs
On July 17, 1863, Blunt’s forces from the District of the Frontier defeated Brigadier General Douglas H. Cooper’s Confederate troops at the Battle of Honey Springs (also known as the Affair at Elk Creek). The conflict was the largest engagement of the Civil War fought in the area that later became Oklahoma. Blunt’s victory prompted Confederate Brigadier General William L. Cabell to abandon nearby Fort Smith, Arkansas. On September 1, 1861, Blunt’s troops occupied the former Union outpost (which had been in Confederate control since April 23, 1861) without firing a shot. Once under Union dominion, Fort Smith became a sanctuary for escaped slaves for the rest of the war.
Feud with Schofield
Despite Blunt’s battlefield successes in Arkansas, his feud with Schofield (and with Kansas Governor James Carney) continued to escalate. Earlier, on July 31, 1863, Blunt had written to President Lincoln to express displeasure with both men. Blunt complained about having to serve under “a general inferior to me in grade and rank, who enjoys a reputation among the soldiers of the west for cowardice and imbecility. . . .” The unsympathetic President responded on August 18 that:
I regret to find you denouncing so many persons as liars, scoundrels, fools, thieves, and persecutors of yourself. Your military position looks critical, but did any body force you into it? Have you been ordered to confront and fight ten thousand men, with three thousand men? The Government cannot make men; and it is very easy, when a man has been given the highest commission, for him to turn on those who gave it and vilify them for not giving him a command according to his rank.
Massacre at Baxter Springs
If Schofield was searching for an excuse to rid himself of his nemesis, he found it soon after Blunt captured Fort Smith. On October 4, 1863, Blunt led a wagon train accompanied by roughly 100 soldiers out of Fort Scott, Kansas. Blunt’s destination was Fort Smith, where he was moving his headquarters. On October 6, a band of about 400-500 Confederate guerrillas led by William Quantrill, attacked Blunt’s train. Many of the Federals, including staff officers and a military band, who were not combat soldiers, turned and ran in terror. When the assault concluded, Quantrill’s men had murdered most of Blunt’s party. Blunt and fourteen of his men escaped death, but Schofield was quick to condemn him for the Massacre at Baxter Springs. On October 19, 1863, Schofield issued General Orders, No. 118, (Department of the Missouri) relieving Blunt of command of the District of the Frontier.
Schofield’s action precipitated a brouhaha that eventually involved General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck (who sided with Schofield) and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (who favored Blunt). After a flurry of accusations and reprisals, Stanton reinstated Blunt as commander of the District of the Frontier on March 12, 1864. Five weeks later, Stanton reversed himself and telegraphed Blunt on April 18, 1864, to inform Blunt that he was once again being relieved of command of the District of the Frontier and to report to Leavenworth, Kansas. After a few months without a command, Samuel R. Curtis, who assumed command of the Department of Kansas in January 1864, selected Blunt to lead the District of Upper Arkansas on August 2, 1864. Blunt spent the next few months campaigning against American Indians on the plains.
District of Southern Kansas Commander
In August 1864, Confederate General Kirby Smith authorized Major General Sterling Price to mount a cavalry raid into Missouri with the goal of capturing St. Louis. Price’s raid began on August 28, 1864, when he departed Camden, Arkansas. On September 19, Price led 12,000 mounted soldiers into Missouri. Alarmed by Price’s Expedition, Curtis quickly recalled Blunt and placed him in command of the 1st Division of the Army of the Border. On October 10, 1864, Curtis issued special orders naming Blunt as commander of the District of Southern Kansas.
Thwarting Price’s Raid
Blunt’s division successfully fought delaying actions against Price’s army at the Second Battle of Lexington, Missouri (October 19, 1864), the Battle of Little Blue River (October 21, 1864), and the Battle of Byram’s Ford (October 22–23, 1864), buying time for Curtis to assemble a force large enough to confront the Rebel invaders. On October 23, 1864, Blunt’s division joined Curtis’ full army and took part in the Union victory at the Battle of Westport, which nearly ended Price’s offensive. Five days later, Blunt’s men caught up with Price’s retreating Confederates and dealt them a final blow at the Second Battle of Newtonia (October 28, 1864).
Return to Civilian Life
Blunt remained in command of the District of Southern Kansas throughout the rest of the war. On July 29, 1865, he mustered out of volunteer service and resumed his medical practice in Leavenworth, Kansas. Undoubtedly an extraordinary individual, Blunt also began studying law and before 1869 he joined the Kansas bar. He then moved to Washington, D.C., to practice law.
After Blunt turned fifty years of age, he began to behave erratically. In 1879, at the age of fifty-three, he entered St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the Insane. He spent the rest of his life there, dying at the age of fifty-five on July 27, 1881, from what doctors described as “softening of the brain.” Blunt’s final resting place is at Mount Muncie Cemetery, Leavenworth, Kansas, next to his wife, Nancy, who died thirty-two years after her husband in 1913.