Prelude to 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, 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 attacked Fort Davidson, a lightly defended Union garrison at Pilot Knob, about eighty miles south of St. Louis on September 26. When Brigadier General Thomas Ewing, the deputy commander of the St. Louis district, learned of Price’s approach, he led two companies of Iowans south to help defend the fort. Attempting to block Price’s approach, federal pickets established positions at Ironton, roughly two miles south of Pilot Knob.
On the morning of September 26, the Confederates attacked and drove Ewing’s pickets back to the fort. The next morning, Price surrounded the earthen fortress and stormed it from multiple directions. Despite being outnumbered eight to one, the 1,500 Yankee defenders held, inflicting severe casualties on the Confederates. During the night, Ewing blew up the fort’s arsenal and withdrew his men to Rolla, Missouri.
Despite Ewing’s withdrawal, the Battle of Fort Davidson was a strategic Union victory. Price lost roughly ten percent of his force while trying to subdue a relatively unimportant federal outpost. In addition, Ewing’s stubborn defense of the fort secured valuable time for Union officials in Missouri to strengthen the defenses around St. Louis.
Jefferson City and Beyond
Following Ewing’s departure, Price remained near Pilot Knob until September 29. After determining that St. Louis was unassailable, he 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. 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.
Army of the Border
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 and 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.”
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. 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 18, Blunt established forward positions on the eastern outskirts of Lexington, expecting to be reinforced by Dietzler’s division. 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 Confederates 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 Confederates 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 Confederates 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 Confederate 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 Confederates 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.
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. Leaving Major General James F. Fagan’s division of about 4,500 soldiers at Independence to guard his rear, Price feigned an assault on the left flank of the Union line along the west bank of the Big Blue River just east of Kansas City. Meanwhile, Brigadier General Joseph O. Shelby’s division attacked farther downstream. Shelby’s Confederates forced their way across the Big Blue River and pushed the Yankees west toward the town of Westport, Missouri.
On the same morning, Major General Alfred Pleasonton’s Union cavalry, which had been pursuing the Confederate expedition from the rear for days, engaged Price’s rearguard along the Little Blue River east of Independence. Following a spirited skirmish, the Federals crossed the river and advanced toward Independence by early afternoon. Alerted to Pleasonton’s advance, Price sent reinforcements from Fagan’s division to his rear. Facing large Union forces to his front and rear, Price needed to get his supply wagons and the rest of his army across the Big Blue River.
Fagan’s men fought hard to buy time for Price to get his stores across the Big Blue River, but the Yankees forced them out of Independence. When the Federals pursued, Price reinforced his rear with soldiers from Brigadier General John S. Marmaduke’s division. The Confederate reinforcements stemmed the tide and drove Pleasonton’s spent cavalrymen back to Independence. When Pleasonton brought up two fresh brigades, most of the fighting petered out at nightfall.
Pleasonton’s victory at the Second Battle of Independence cost the Confederacy about 400 casualties. Union losses were unreported.
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 Confederate 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 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.
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.
Battle of Mine Creek — October 25, 1864
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. Price led the way, accompanying the bulk of his army. The cavalry divisions of Major General John S. Marmaduke and Major General James F. Fagan traveled behind, protecting the army’s supply train.
Early on the morning of October 25, two brigades of Union General Alfred Pleasonton’s pursuing cavalry division caught up with Price’s rearguard near Mine Creek, Kansas. Because the Confederate wagon train had not yet crossed the creek, the Confederates were forced to stop and fight the 2,500 Union troopers commanded by Colonel John F. Philips and Lieutenant Colonel Frederick W. Benteen.
Confederate skirmishers delayed the Yankees long enough for Marmaduke and Fagan to establish defensive lines. By 10:30 a.m., both sides were in position to do battle and the Confederate artillery opened fire.
At 11 a.m., Benteen led a charge against the Confederate line that initially stalled until more Yankees joined the onslaught. Unable to match the firepower of the superior breech-loading carbines wielded by the federal cavalrymen, the Confederate line soon collapsed. As the two forces collided, many of the soldiers engaged in fierce hand-to-hand combat.
By 11:30 a.m., with the Confederate line collapsed, the Confederates were scrambling to cross the rain-swollen creek. Blocking their way were hundreds of supply wagons that were overturned or stuck in the mud along the steep banks. Adding to the chaos, many of the Confederates were dressed in Union uniforms they had confiscated in raids earlier during the campaign. With little chance of escaping the congestion, hundreds of Confederates surrendered. The Federals stayed in hot pursuit of the Confederates who managed to escape, and later that evening Price ordered the remnants of his wagon train burned to hasten his retreat.
The Battle of Mine Creek was the largest Civil War conflict fought in Kansas, and one of the larger cavalry engagements of the war. Pleasonton’s decisive victory decimated Price’s Army of Missouri. In addition to the destroyed wagon train, the Confederates suffered over 1,100 casualties (250 wounded, 300 killed, and 600 captured). The Federals also captured two Confederate brigadier generals, Marmaduke and William L. Cabell. Union losses totaled slightly over 100 (94 wounded, 15 killed, and one captured).
Second Battle of Newtonia — October 28, 1864
Following the Union victory at the Battle of Mine Creek, Price’s retreating Confederate army 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 Confederate soldiers rested, Major General James G. 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 Confederates 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 Confederates 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.
Outcome of Price’s Missouri Expedition
On October 29, 1864, the day following the Second Battle of Newtonia, Major General William Rosecrans, commander of the Department of Missouri, recalled Pleasonton’s Provisional Cavalry and all federal troops from the department.
On October 29, 1864, the day following the Second Battle of Newtonia, Major General William Rosecrans, commander of the Department of Missouri, recalled Pleasonton’s Provisional Cavalry and all federal troops from the department. On the same day, Curtis issued an un-numbered general field order declaring “the object of this organization and campaign complete.”
Price’s Army of Missouri limped into Indian Territory and then Texas before returning to Laynesport, Arkansas on December 2.
During the roughly three months Price was in the field, he lost an estimated 4,000 soldiers — nearly one-third of the men who followed him into Missouri.
In his after-action report dated December 28, 1864, Price reported that:
In conclusion, permit me to add that in my opinion the results flowing from my operations in Missouri are of the most gratifying character. I marched 1,434 miles; fought forty-three battles and skirmishes; captured and paroled over 3,000 Federal officers and men; captured 18 pieces of artillery, 3,000 stand of small-arms, 16 stand of colors that were brought out by me (besides many others that were captured and afterward destroyed by our troops who took them), at least 3,000 overcoats, large quantities of blankets, shoes, and ready-made clothing for soldiers, a great many wagons and teams, large numbers of horses, great quantities of subsistence and ordnance stores. I destroyed miles upon miles of railroad, burning the depots and bridges; and taking this into calculation, I do not think I go beyond the truth when I state that I destroyed in the late expedition to Missouri property to the amount of $10,000,000 in value.
Price further boasted that “I brought with me at least 5,000 new recruits, and they are still arriving in large numbers daily within our lines . . . . I am satisfied that could I have remained in Missouri this winter the army would have been increased 50,000 men.”
Despite Price’s efforts to put the best face on his foray into Missouri, the expedition was a failure. He met only one of the campaign’s objectives—capturing or destroying Union property in Missouri. Otherwise, he failed to occupy St. Louis or Jefferson City. His presence in the state did not inspire many Missourians to join his army, and many of those who did join the Army of Missouri were either killed, captured, or deserted before the expedition ended. Price’s threat to Missouri diverted few, if any, federal troops away from Richmond or Atlanta. Finally, rather than hindering President Lincoln’s 1864 reelection prospects, the sweeping Union victory at the Battle of Westport may have contributed to Lincoln’s surging popularity at the ballot box in November.