Catching Up with Sterling Price

October 22, 1864 (Saturday)

Meanwhile, in Missouri, Sterling Price and his army were on a bit of a tramp. Leaving Camden, Arkansas at the end of August, his Army of Missouri entered their namesake in the middle of September, met only by scant flashes of Unionist militia. Their original objective had been St. Louis, but before long, it was clear that it was untouchable.

Onward with Price!

Onward with Price!

There were battles as Union commanders Andrew Smith and Alfred Pleasonton tried to pull troops together to meet this unexpected threat. On September 27th, Price pushed the Yankees back at Pilot Knob, eventually taking Fort Davidson, but only after suffering severe casualties. He was, however, undaunted, and shifted his march northwest toward Boonville, where his men took to looting and were finally caught by a pursuing northern force. A minor scrap, it kept Price moving.

It was then that Price divided his forces, sending General Joe Shelby toward Glasgow to capture supplies. They shelled the town in the early hours of October 15th, advancing what infantry they had a few hours after. Overpowered, the Federals retreated from the town, blowing up their munitions, which were kept in the city hall. Shelby’s force remained in the town for three days.

Price also dispatched another column toward Sedalia under the command of Jeff Thompson. His men took the town with little effort, but immediately began to loot the place. Thompson, a Missourian’s Missourian, ordered a stop to such travesties and decided to vacate the town and rejoin Price, who was now moving on Lexington.

The 19th of October saw The Union Army of the Border under James Blunt retreating from Price’s command. Blunt had with him but 2,000 men, while Price’s force numbered 8,500.

Behind Blunt, aside from Kansas City, was a considerable force under Samuel Curtis. On the 20th, Curtis called for Blunt to join him in Independence, Missouri, declaring that “the Big Blue must be our main line for battle.” Curtis insisted: “We must pick our battle-ground where we can have united councils as well as a strong position.”

Stolen map (apologies)

Stolen map (apologies)

“It was no easy matter to hold an enemy so numerous and active,” recalled a colonel under Curtis, “all being cavalry…. Being thus menaced on all sides and the object for which I was left accomplished, the command slowly fell back two miles, fighting. A favorable piece of ground here presenting itself, a new line of battle was formed on the left of the Independence road, and we slowly began to drive the enemy back over the ground again, dismounting every man for the purpose of shelter behind stone walls, fences, and houses, some of which were then held by the enemy, who, after a vigorous assault, were dislodged, thus affording us an advantage which accounts for the few killed [and wounded] on our side compared with that of the enemy, who suffered terribly.”

And so Curtis established his command along the Big Blue near Independence. “The country is rough and thickly timbered,” wrote Curtis in his official report, “and the streams bordered by precipitate banks, which render it generally impassable for cavalry and artillery. I divided the forces, distributing them so as to form a line more or less continuous, according to danger, from the Missouri River to the crossing of the Blue, near Hickman Mills, a distance of fifteen or sixteen miles.” By the next morning, he would be ready to meet the enemy.

On the 20th, Curtis called for Blunt to join him in Independence, Missouri, declaring that “the Big Blue must be our main line for battle.” Curtis insisted: “We must pick our battle-ground where we can have united councils as well as a strong position.”

In the morning of the 21st, Curtis arrayed his forces along the Little Blue River, delaying Price’s pursuing Rebels long enough for his own numbers to arrive.

James may be Blunt with you, Sterling.

James may be Blunt with you, Sterling.

Price, meanwhile, was learning more about his own troubles. From intercepted dispatched, he discovered “that a heavy force under Generals A.J. Smith, McNeil, Sanborn and others [Curtis’ men] were establishing their lines about thirty miles south and parallel to my line of march and the Missouri River, while General Rosecrans with a heavy column of infantry – in all about 30,000 strong – were following as fast as the impaired state of the roads would admit….”

The Confederates had continued their march, making twenty-two miles on this day, finally encamping along Fire Creek Prairie, near Independence. Come the dawn, he would move westward. Many of his officers urged him on, pushing for him to take Kansas City and Leavenworth. His department commander, Kirby Smith, wished for him to take Leavenworth, and it’s likely Price had this in his mind as he contemplated a crossing at Byram’s Ford along the Big Blue River.

The word Price received concerning the Federals in his path to the south was actually about the command under Alfred Pleasonton. “On the night of the 20th,” wrote Pleasonton, “my advance, consisting McNeil’s and Sanborn’s brigades, occupied Lexington after some skirmishing with the enemy’s rear guard, and the enemy having taken the road to Independence, the command was occupied on the 21st in closing up and approaching the Little Blue.”

On this date (yes, we’ve finally arrived, though will visit it only shortly), Price easily brushed aside a small Federal force along the Big Blue. He did not, however, give chase into the town of Westport.

Instead, Pleasonton pounced upon Price’s rear guard, taking 400 prisoners and a few pieces of artillery. It wasn’t until 2am the following morning that Pleasonton had stopped, Price now compacted along the Big Blue. With Federals now on almost every side, Price had few options. Quickly the thoughts of taking Kansas City and Leavenworth dissipated, and he ordered first his wagons to begin the long move south the next morning. But it was now too late.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 41, Part 1, p340, 477-479, 624, 633; General Sterling Price and the Civil War in the West by Albert Castel; Price’s Lost Campaign by Mark A. Lause. []
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