October 25, 1864 (Tuesday)
“I knew from the beginning that I could do nothing but resist their advance, and depend on energy and night for the rest.” – Joe Shelby, commanding a division of Confederate cavalry in Sterling Price’s command.
Following the battle at Westport, Sterling Price understood that his raid into Missouri was at an end, having realized practically none of its intensions. And for for the past few days, they had been retreating down the Missouri-Kansas line with various Federal units nipping at their bloodied heels.
According to Price’s scouts, the threat from the Union pursuers was slight – his band had apparently outpaced them. But to their front was Fort Scott, and it was possible the enemy could attack from there. Also, to their right rode a column of northern cavalry, probably making time for the fort, but also in a position to cause a bit of pain.
Shelby’s division rode in the advance as the morning’s march progressed, covering the train of supply wagons to the right and front. The rear guard consisted of two infantry divisions under Generals James Fagan and John Marmaduke. And this was his Army of Missouri, now but 8,000-strong.
“On reaching the little Osage River,” wrote Sterling Price, “I sent forward a direction to Brigadier-General Shelby to fall back to my position in rear of Jackman’s brigade for the purpose of attacking and capturing Fort Scott, where I learned there were 1,000 negroes under arms.”
But before he could even deliver the order, word arrived from General Fagan that the Federals had indeed caught up. Some 3,000 could be seen at the rear of the army. Marmaduke was about to greet them, and Fagan would be support, but Price called off the planned attack toward Fort Scott and ordered Shelby to take one brigage – his famed Iron Brigade – to the rear as quickly as they might gallop. He then started for the rear himself.
The enemy had appearedd before Marmaduke’s division early that morning, but little transpired. As they moved south, the enemy followed at a safe distance in line of battle. But soon enough, Marmaduke called an end to this. He halted his division to get a better look. This time, the Federals did not stop, and it was seen that their numbers were far greater than Marmaduke’s own. He began once more to retreat.
For miles they continued, until the supply train itself was halted, having come upon a ravine. This, in turn, halted the entire army, including the rear guard division under Marmaduke.
“There was no time to make any but the most rapid dispositions for battle,” recalled General John Clark, helming one of Marmaduke’s brigades. “To attempt to dismount and send the horses to the rear was inevitable destruction, as the enemy in the confusion would have been upon us. There was no alternative but to abandon the train or to fight on horseback. In the hurried consultation between Generals Fagan and Marmaduke I understood this to be the view taken of the emerency. It was determined not to dismount, which met with my approbation.”
It was during this parlay when the Federals attacked. “Skirmishing had already begun, the artillery in action,” Clark continued, “when the Federal force (I should judge 6,000 or 7,000) made a furious charge on the right and left flank. Both gave way in hopless confusion. Every effort was made by appeals and threats to retrieve the rout, but it swept in an irresistible mass ungovernable. The Federal force and that mingled together until you scarcely knew who was friend or foe.”
This was when General Price arrived on the scene, meeting “the divisions of Major-Generals Fagan and Marmaduke retreating in utter and indescribable confusion, many of them having thrown away their arms. They were deaf to all entreaties or commands, and in vain were all eforts to rally them.”
While trying to rally his men – a now-pointless effort – General Marmaduke was captured. Along with him, many other ranking officers fell into Federal hands. And so what was left of the division, now all of 500 men, dissolved to General Clark’s command. Through force of will and little more, Clark was able to direct a more or less orderly retreat, falling back to the main column.
Price, now with General Fagan, tried without success to rally the men. And it was here where he turned to Shelby, ordering him “to hold the enemy, who were pressin their success hotly and fiercely, in check if possible at the crossing of the Osage until the train could be placed in safety….” This would take several hours.
The first stand was made one mile north of the Osage River, where the enemy was worsted; again upon the river-bank, and again I got away in good condition. Then taking position on a high hill one mile south of the river, I halted for a desperate struggle. The enemy advanced in overwhelming numbers and with renewed confidence at the sight of the small force in front of them, for Captains Langhorue and Adams and Lieutenant-Colonel Nichols with their commands were ahead of the train on duty. The fight lasted nearly an hour, but I was at last forced to fall back.
Elliott, Gordon, Slayback, Hooper, Smith, Blackwell, Williams, and a host of other officers seemed to rise higher and higher as the danger increased, and were always where the tide of battle rolled deepest and darkest. It was an evening to try the hearts of my best and bravest, and rallying around me they even surpassed all former days of high and heroic bearing.
Pressed furiously, and having to cross a deep and treacherous stream, I did not offer battle again until gaining a large hill in front of the entire army, formed in line of battle, where I sent orders for Colonel Jackman to join me immediately. It was a fearful hour. The long and weary days of marching and fighting were culminating, and the narrow issue of life or death stood out all dark and barren as a rainy sea. The fight was to be made now, and General Price, with the pilot’s wary eye, saw the storm-cloud sweep down, growing larger and larger and darker and darker. They came upon me steadily and calm. I waited until they came close enough and gave them volley for volley, shot for shot.
For fifteen minutes both lines stood the pelting of the leaden hail without flinching, and the incessant roar of musketry rang out wildly and shrill, all separate sounds blending in a universal crash. The fate of the army hung upon the result, and our very existence tottered and tossed in the smoke of the strife. The red sun looked down upon the scene, and the redder clouds floated away with angry, sullen glare. Slowly, slowly my old brigade was melting away. The hightoned and chivalric Dobbin, formed on my right, stood by me in all that fiery storm, and Elliott’s and Gordon’s voices sounded high above the rage of the conflict: “My merry men, fight on.”
All that men could do had been done. For five days and nights Thompson’s and Slayback’s commands had fought and marched and marched and fought, and now, under concentrated and accumulated fire of heavy odds, the left of General Thompson’s brigade reeled back over the prairie, the Federals following with furious yells; but the right, under Colonel Elliott, met the advancing wave and broke their front line in every direction by charging furiously the rear of the enemy pressing hard after the left of Thompson’s brigade.
Now Colonel Jackman, who had done his duty well in another part of the field, came rushing up to avenge his fallen comrades. Going into line at a gallop, and opening ranks to let the retreating brigade through, he charged down upon the rushing enemy like a thunderbolt driving them back and scattering their front line badly. This charge saved us, and the day’s work was done. The Federals halted, reformed their lines, brought up artillery, and fired away at long range. Very slowly the army moved away without molestation, and darkness came down alike upon the dying and the dead, and the stars came out, and a weird and dreary silence hushed the air to stillness and repose.
While Shelby’s men fought, Price and Fagan managed to rally much of the army, though there were thousands without arms. Even they were formed into lines of battle and could been seen by the Federals over the shoulders of Shelby. It was enough to allow the supply train to slip away. In the end, it rolled to Marmiton, ten miles from the battle. But this march, in total a distance of twenty-eight miles, took a dire toll upon the wagons and their teams. Many of the wagons were destroyed, their contents put to the torch, in order that they might not fall into Federal hands.
For the aftermath of the destruction, we turn to Federal accounts.
“At his camp over 200 wagons were destroyed by him. At least forty wagons were uninjurned, among them several wagons loaded with small-arm ammunition, most emphatically telling the condition the flying rebels were reduced to.” – General John McNeil, command a brigade under Alfred Pleasonton.
“Besides the wagons captured during this day at the Marais des Cygnes, on the way to and at the Little Osage, the enemy had destroyed many, including ammunition-wagons, and for twenty-five or thirty miles beyond the Osage battle-field their route was strewn with debris of burning wagons and other property.” – General William Rosecrans
“Major-General Marmaduke and Brigadier-General Cabell surrendered, and near 1,000 men were taken prisoners, and the enemy began to burn a large number of wagons in his train. The road for the next fifteen miles was strewn with muskets and arms of all kinds, which were secured by General Curtis’ command in the rear; also numerous wagons still burning were passed. Late in the evening I again came up wit the enemy and attacked him with artillery and cavalry, and that night he blew up his ammunition train.” – Alfred Pleasonton.
“They burned a public store-house formerly used by our pickets and fired many haystacks in the vicinity, but their loss of two guns, many cattle, sheep, and thousands of little necessaries for sleeping and carrying supplies, were serious losses to the enemy. […] Our way over the prairie was plainly, graphically marked by the scattered equipments, wagons, guns, utensils, and animals left by the rebels, and the fire and smoke created by their burning of the hay and grain and grass along their route.” – General Samuel Curtis.
General Price and his Army of Missouri would continue their retreat toward Arkansas, bypassing Fort Scott. The Federals would continue their pursuit. 1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 41, Part 1, p343, 494, 502, 636-637, 659-661, 684-685. [↩]