October 23, 1864 (Sunday)
“I am confident I can stop [Sterling] Price at this crossing,” wrote Samuel Curtis to William Rosecrans, “and hope you will come up in his rear and left. […] If you can get that position we will bag Price, if I succeed, as I hope to do.”
For days now, Rosecrans, roughly 7,000-strong, had been closing in on Price and his 8,000 men, but it was James Blunt and Samuel Curtis, along with Alfred Pleasonton’s cavalry, who were battling the Rebels directly, as they made their way into and through Missouri. Curtis had arrayed his forces at right angles to a road leading to Westport, the road itself bisecting his lines. On the right was General Blunt, and on the left was General George Deitzler, a Pennsylvanian who had moved to Kansas years before the war, becoming a politician and later an officer.
Before Curtis’ Army of the Border, numbering 15,000 or so, was Brush Creek, which flowed east into the Big Blue River. At Byram’s Ford on that same river, Pleasonton’s cavalry had been skirmishing with a division of Price’s men since the day before. Brush Creek separated Price from Curtis and for the former to attack the latter, the Rebels would have to cross it.
Price was about to retreat, having already ordered his supply train back toward Arkansas. By dawn, his men were on the march, and he had instructed General John Marmaduke to act as rear guard along the Big Blue against Pleasonton’s cavalry.
Curtis had sent forward troops to skirmish with Price’s forward-most units, and outnumbered, they fell back to the main line. Before Brush Creek, Price drew up his lines and unleashed Joe Shelby’s division upon the Union position.
“The 23rd of October dawned upon us clear, cold, and full of promise,” wrote Shelby in his official report. “My division moved squarely against the enemy about 8 o’clock in the direction of Westport, and very soon became fiercely engaged, as usual. […] Inch by inch and foot by foot they gave way before my steady onset. Regiment met regiment, and opposing batteries draped the scene in clouds of dense and sable smoke.” The Federals, wrote Shelby, were backed up nearly to Westport, and the Confederate attackers dressed their lines.
Meanwhile, on the Confederate right and rear, General Marmaduke had more than he could handle. He was, in the words of Price, “being attack with great fierceness by an overwhelming force of the enemy, after a most strenuous resistance, his ammunition being exhausted, had to fall back before the foe.”
“The battle of the Big Blue, at Byram’s Ford,” agreed General Pleasonton, “was very obstinately contested by the enemy for several hours, but they were finally driven from their position to the prairie on the Harrisonville road beyond the Big Blue.” Pleasonton followed the retreating foe.
Prior to the battle, Price had sent south his supply wagons, but with Pleasonton’s crossing, they were now threatened. It was this threat that caused Price to break off the attack, ordering Shelby to fall back to the wagons. Shelby sent a brigade of cavalry under Col. Sidney Jackman. When they arrived, they saw to their front all of Pleasonton’s division.
“On and on, their great line overlapping Jackman by one-half, they came to within eighty yards,” wrote Shelby. “Down went that line of gray, and a steady stream of bullets struck them fairly in the face, until they reeled, scattered, and fled; but the wing that extended beyond and around Jackman’s left rode on to retrieve the disaster of their comrades, and came within thirty paces at full speed. Again a merciless fire swept their front; again Collins poured in double charges of grape and canister, and they, too, were routed and driven back….”
Shelby called upon scripture as the only inspiration for the description of this little battle: “It was a high and heroic action and one which shines out in our dark days of retreat like a ‘cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.’ There on an open prairie, no help or succor near, no friendly reserves to cover and protect a retreat, Jackman dismounted with almost the forlorn determination of Cortez, who burnt his ships, resolved to conquer or die.”
Jackman fell back toward the train, unable to do more and all that was behind or before Shelby was blue. Price, with Jackman and the rest of his army, was now in retreat. “I fell back as rapidly as I could after the retiring army,” continued Shelby, “the force I had been fighting at Westport coming up just behind, when, reaching the road, the prairie in my rear was covered almost by a long line of troops, which at first I supposed to be our own men. This illusion was soon dispelled, and the two great waves uniting, came down upon one little brigade and Colonel [Alonzo] Slayback’s regiment. The prospect was dark and desperate.”
With Federals both in his front and rear, Shelby saw but one course of action: “I knew the only salvation was to charge the nearest line, break it if possible, and then retreat rapidly, fighting the other. The order was given.” His troops “fell upon them with great fury, mixed in melee, and unclasped from the deadly embrace weak and staggering.”
Shelby tried to dress his lines, but it was too late. The Federals coming from Westport were now upon him, “and nothing was left but to run for it, which was now commenced. The Federals seeing the confusion pressed on furiously, yelling, shouting, and shooting, and my own men fighting, every one on his own hook, would turn and fire and then gallop away again.” In this way, Shelby was able to make his escape and to rejoin Sterling Price’s command.
In all, Price’s men did not stop until they had marched twenty-four miles south, dogged as they went by the Federal cavalry. Price’s foray into Missouri was at an end, and all he needed was a few days time to regroup and make his egress. But the Federals would follow.
Curtis wished to pursue Price, and called upon Rosecrans to join him. Rosecrans fully agreed, saying “our combined forces can bring Price to grief.” Curtis arrived at the Little Santa Fe River near dark. The next day, while Price tried to rest, Blunt would lead his men toward the Rebels.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, vol. 41, Part 1, p341, 484-493, 635-636, 658-659. [↩]