October 28, 1864 (Friday)
Sterling Price’s Confederates had retreated over fifty miles, and were, on the morning of this date, turning toward Newtonia, the night previous being spent in Carthage. From Carthage, General Jo Shelby took the advance, while the divisions of James Fagan and John Marmaduke brought up the rear (Marmaduke’s Division was now helmed by John Clark, as their former leader was now a Federal prisoner).
As the Rebels approached Newtonia, the Federal garrison took notice of their number and beat a hasty retreat. Shelby’s cavaliers raced to track them down, but the speed was too great. However, falling quickly upon their rear was a column under James Blunt.
When Price reached Newtonia in the early afternoon of this date, he established his encampment and held a council of war. This was the first place in those fifty miles where forage was good enough to subsist such a force as his. It would, he argued, be best to remain as long as possible – perhaps three or four days. His other officers disagreed, but Price saw the necessity – his men were deserting by the score. Here, believed Price, they were safe. The Federals, it seemed, had given up the chase.
But this was not so. And if such stuff was in his mind of Sterling Price, Blunt aimed to dispel it. They came upon the Confederates, who were then gathering corn in the fields south of Newtonia.
“Ere long,” reported General Price, “our scouts brought the information the enemy were crossing the prairie in pursuit of us. Preparations were immediately made to receive him, and about 3 o’clock General Blunt, with 3,000 Federal cavalry, moved rapidly across the prairie in pursuit of us and mad ea furious onslaught upon our lines.”
Price’s report, while strictly factual, declined to mention the general’s own misunderstanding of the situation. When he saw Blunt unexpectedly before him, he believed the entire Federal force – not just a division of cavalry – was about to crush them. Price immediately called for a general retreat, throwing the closest division, that of Jo Shelby’s, into a line of defense, into which Blunt attacked.
Very little of the fight was mentioned by the Confederates following the campaign. Price himself states merely that: “A short but obstinate combat ensued, when Blunt was repulsed and driven across the prairie three miles with heavy loss. This was the last we saw of the enemy.”
Even Shelby, whose prose are verbose as they come, had shockingly little to say.
“Dismounting every man in my division, I formed my line of battle just in time to meet the onset. Jackman held the right and protected two pieces of Collin’s artillery, which opened immediately with good effect. Thompson and Slayback were on the left, and I sent a good detachment under Major Gordon to watch well my extreme left flank, and then moved steadily forward with a loud and ringing cheer. The men never hesitated from the first, but drove the enemy all the time before them and advanced two miles into the prairie, exposed to a heavy artillery fire from the first, and if I had had a mounted regiment of my own command I could have charged and taken their splendid battery. […] Night closed the contest, and another beautiful victory had crowned the Confederate arms.”
From the Confederate perspective, this was all true. Blunt launched a furious attack and Shelby countered, driving the Federals for miles. But they saw only Blunt’s bravado as he led the charge of two regiments against an entire division.
Blunt was certain that since Price was surprised, he would not fight. With him, he had two brigades, and there was a third behind. He believed that another brigade of cavalry – one of Alfred Pleasonton’s – was close at hand. He arrayed his two brigades.
“It soon became evident that I was engaging all the available force of Price’s army,” confessed Blunt in his report, “which outnumbered me more than eight to one. Their superiority of numbers enabling them to press upon my flanks with a large force compelled me to fall back about 500 yards from my first line, which was done in good order, and the line reformed in the face of a terrific fire.”
While Blunt’s math was most definitely skewed, the story held true the Confederate accounts, save for the distance retreated (upon which even Price and Shelby did not agree). But there is where the Rebel accounts end their story. They drove back the Federals and that was that.
Blunt continued in his telling: “The enemy pressed forward their center, but were promptly checked by the canister from the First Colorado Battery. It was now near sundown, and my command had been engaged near two hours and their ammunition nearly exhausted, while a large force of the enemy were passing under cover of a cornfield around my left flank, and my force being too small to extend my line in that direction, I was about to direct my line to fall back and take position on the bluff, when very unexpectedly the brigade of General Sanborn, of General Pleasonton’s command, came up.”
Blunt threw this new brigade into the advancing Rebel flank attack, “repulsing the flanking column of the enemy, who now abandoned the field and retreated rapidly under cover of the night in the direction of Pineville, leaving their dead and wounded in our hands.”
Both sides claimed victory. The Rebels saw that they had whipped Blunt by throwing him back. Price claimed that this was the last they saw of the enemy, but Blunt contends that that was only because the Confederates packed up and left in a hurry.
General Blunt claimed his losses at one-eighth of his entire force, and placed the Confederate casualties at “three times greater than ours.” Price wrote that the Federals were repulsed with “heavy loss,” but never stated his own.
The Confederate retreat would continue and his army, save Shelby’s division, would nearly disintegrate. By the 1st of November, he would reach Arkansas and finally have the rest they so needed. The Federals would follow, though would be two days behind for well over a week. In the end, Price would never be caught – but then, merely avoiding capture was not the purpose of his campaign to regain Missouri.
Price’s campaign, like his one into New Mexico two years before, was a failure. As in 1862, his retreating army was famished and near starvation. It had lost everything. And though he believed otherwise, the entire exercise was pointless. Price believed that if he had been able to remain in Missouri for the winter, “the army would have been increased 50,000 men.” This was a delusional figure, but Price’s medium was delusion, just as an artist’s medium was paint.
What damage was done, mostly to the railroads, was quickly repaired by the Federals. Price did manage to gather as many as 7,000 new Missourians to his cause, but had no weapons (and little possibility of receiving weapons) to arm them. The army returned to Arkansas even more impotent than when it left. St. Louis and Jefferson City had been Price’s original objectives, but there were tossed aside early on in the campaign. He wasn’t even able to draw away enough Federals to stop Sherman from taking Atlanta or prevent the fall of Mobile (still coming). In short, Price gained nothing but a few good stories, and the deaths of an untold number of men.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 41, Part 1, p507-509, 577, 637-638, 661; General Sterling Price by Albert Castel. [↩]