October 24, 1864 (Monday)
“My pursuit of Price,” wrote Samuel Curis to Chief of Staff Henry Halleck, “has extended down the Line road opposite Paola. He makes rapid progress, but dead horses and debris show his demoralized and destitute condition and my probable success in overhauling him.”
As the beaten Sterling Price and his Army of Missouri retreated south, Curtis, now in pursuit, was worried that the Rebels would attack Fort Scott. At first, the march was swift – “our trains could not overtake us and we had to pick up forage and food by the way, as occasion offered.”
General James Blunt led the chase with his Kansas regiments. He ordered Col. Thomas Moonlight to move “on the flank of the enemy to protect the border of Kansas from raiding parties that might be detached form Price’s main column, and with the remainder of the division, in pursuance of orders, moved on the Line road, on the trail of the retreating rebels.”
Col. Moonlight finally reached the rear guard of the enemy at the Little Santa Fe River, driving the fanned-out Rebels away from the Kansas line.
The day was one of riding and marching, and it wasn’t until evening when any sort of decision was made. By 6pm, General Blunt was in West Point, “when it became evident that the enemy had gone in the direction of Fort Scott.” Curtis thought that Blunt, leading the advance for the entire day, needed a rest, and ordered Alfred Pleasonton’s cavalry to take the lead. Blunt was four miles in Pleasonton’s front, and so halted at West Point to allow him to pass.
Nevertheless, he sent his own scouts forward to suss out the Rebel’s bivouac, which was determined to be at a trading post along the Little Osage River, twelve miles away. He also ordered Moonlight to slip around the enemy’s flank so that he might be at Fort Scott by sometime late the next day, since the garrison there was so scant.
As Pleasonton took the lead, General William Roscrans, directing a second column of Federals now near the town of Little Santa Fe, informed the lead cavalry commander that word on the street was that Price would retreat via Springfield, not Fort Scott. This wasn’t, however, any better. “He should be kept near the border where the country will not support him,” wrote Rosecrans to Pleasonton, indicating that Price should be nuzzled between Springfield and the fort. “Strain every nerve,” he ended, “and don’t spare horseflesh.”
Pleasonton’s troops, at least the Third Brigade under General John Sanborn, had galloped sixty miles over the past two days, fighting the Rebels more often than not. Around midnight, Sanborn’s men reached the Marais des Cygnes River around midnight and immediately began to skirmish with the Confederate rear guard across the river.
“The road leading to the Trading Post, on the Marais des Cygnes,” wrote Sanborn in his report, “passes through a gap between two high mounds about half a mile from the river, each from one-half to a mile in length.” He ordered two regiments two advance around these mounds “until the position of the enemy should be fully developed.”
“The night was dark,” continued Sanborn, “and it was raining heavily. Colonel Gravely advanced gallantly with his command and the enemy opened musketry fire from the gap. The line was deployed as skirmishers and advanced toard the base of the mounds. The enemy opened a line of fire from the foot, sides, and summits of the mounts and the intervening gap, and in an instant the clamor and noise of many voices indicated that we were near the position of the enemy.
“My ignorance of the topography of the country, the impenetrable darkness and incessant rain, induced me to postpone a general attack until 4 o’clock in the morning.”
And in the meanwhile, Pleasonton, with another brigade, was fording the river upstream from the Rebel camp, hoping to occupy the mounds. Come the dawn, there would be a fight.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 41, Part 1, p313, 321, 337, 363, 495, 576, 594; Part 4, p224-225. [↩]