Battle of Westport (October 23rd, 1864)

I'm probably writing more about this battle than I have most of them, because most people have never heard of the Battle of Westport. There is also a chance to reclaim some of the lost battlefield and protect this Hallowed Ground, but the people at the Battle of Westport Fund need help. I hope to go visit again this spring and talk to some important people about getting support. It is really sad, because the Battle of Westport was the largest battle west of the Mississippi River in terms of the number of soldiers that fought and in that the battlefield covers almost 37 square miles over three days. It was a mounted infrantry and cavalry battle that has one location, the Battle of Big Blue that was defended by the Union on the first day, defended by the Confederates on the second day and attached and held by the Union on the third day. While I can't go into all of the details here, it was unique in that civilians were traveling with the Confederate Army and because of the history of the "border war" or "bleeding Kansas" this battle had neighbor fighting neighbor. Fought in October of 1864, the battle marked the end of more than 10 years of fighting between "free-staters" or "Jayhawkers" and "border ruffians"along the Kansas/Missouri border. Like General Lee's attempt to enter Maryland and generate recruits and support from the Marylanders, Confederate General Sterling Price thought Missourians would support and join his army to take St Louis and give the Confederates western success that could pull Union troops from the Eastern theatre and a way to attack the Union from the west through Illinois and Kentucky.

Before I get to the battle, I think it is important that you understand how CSA General Price ended-up in the Kansas City area - at that time Westport and Independence were actually bigger than Kansas City. Entering Missouri from Arkansas, CSA General Price moved toward St Louis with the goal of taking the Union arsenal there and control of the river. While Missouri officially remained neutral during the war, Price expected Missourians that were sympathetic to the Confederates to supply the army and join him in large numbers. As this did not happen, Price understood he could not take St Louis and decided to head across Missouri to the northwest corner of the state and to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, where Union officials had been expecially harsh to Confederate sympathizers. Because of the agriculture in the Kansas City area and other economic successes that area was more like the south culturally and in business, so loyalties with many were with the South. Throw in the border war and raids on Lawrence and other Kansas cities and it was a very brutal area. In 1863, Federal officers had implement General Order #11 that forced all Missourians in the four counties around Westport to evacuate their homes and land. If they could prove their loyalty to the Union they could stay, but most people were forced to the cities. (There are sad stories about women and children dying while being held during the enforcement of General Order #11.)

While Price entered Missouri with more thna 12,000 troops, as he approached Westport he had only about 8,500 troops left and with more than 500 wagons, 5,000 head of cattle and some civilians that were sympathetic to the CSA with him, he was not agile or swift in his movement. As Price headed west across Missouri he was pursued 7,000 Cavalry under Union Major General Alfred Pleasonton and infrantry from General Rosecran's Army of the Tennessee. They fought skirmishes near Jefferson City and along the route that would ultimately take him to Westport. As Price moved west, Union Majoy General Samuel R. Curtis, Commander of the Federal Department of Kansas organized his troops into an Army he called the Army of the Border to push back Price's advance. Overall, Curtis mustered more than 20,000 Kansas State Militia and and U.S. Volunteers in his Army of the Border to oppose Price's Army of Missouri. Because some of the Kansans did not want to go too far into Missouri - it wasn't there land and the border wars had caused a great divide - Curtis was not able to go out and meet Price, though he was able to send some troops to slow him down as he approached Westport, arriving at the Little Blue River on October 21.

On the 21st, Pleasonton caught Price and if he would have been able to coordinate with Curtis they could have trapped the Confederates in the Little Blue River valley, but they lost the opportunity when Curtis decided to dig in at the Big Blue River fearin ghis Kansans would not march the extra distance into Missouri. While Curtis did muster a small force to try to stop Price at the Little Blue he was ultimately defeated and pushed back to his defenses at the Big Blue River.

There were three fords to cross the Big Blue River, but the northern and southern fords left the Confederates more vulnerable and with Pleasanton's cavalry catching up with Price, Price planned to cross at Byrum's Ford. Curtis dug in his un-tested Kansans n the west side of the Big Blue River at Byrum's Ford with the hope of stopping Price there, so Pleasonton could catch him from behind and the two armies destroy Price's army. The battle at Byrum's Ford on the 21st, was heavy, with the Confederates eventually flanking the Union, driving them off the high ground above the ford and pushing them back into Westport.

On the morning of October 23rd, Curtis would attack Price with a full army of 20,000 troops in what is now Loose Park just south of Westport, while Pleasonton's cavalry would attach across Byrum's Ford toward the high ground that was now occupied by CSA General John Marmaduke protecting Price's right flank (the day before it was defended by Union soldiers). At Loose Park the battle raged with both sides pushing back and forth. Eventually the Union would flank the Confederates on the left, when a flocal farmer, George Thorman, angry that Confederates had taken his horse the day before showed the Union a gulch along the Confederate left flank. Using the gulch, Curtis' men were able to flank Prices troops in a vice that had Union soldier rolling up both flanks and attacking in a full frontal assault. A CSA division under Joseph Shelby which had led the Confederate fighting that day would fight with great vigor to cover the Confederate retreat as they headed south. The Union missed an opportunity to intercept the retreating Confederates, but Price's army would be all but desimated. Union Cavalry would catch Price at Mine Creek a few days later and destroy what remained of his force in one of the largest cavalry battles of the war.

While both the Union and Confederates lost 1,500 men in the battle, the overwhelming Union numbers led to the Confederate defeat and any chance the South had at controlling the Trans-Western theatre. For all practical purposes the war in the West was over.

Interesting Facts:

1) Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickock fought for the Union at the Battle of Westport, while Jesse James fought for the Confederates.
2) Some people say the fighting near Byrum's Ford was like a "zoo," which is ironic as the Kansas City Zoo now covers part of the battlefield.
3) When I visited the Battle of Westport, I was sad because many people I talked to didn't know about the battle. Most of the battlefield is now developed, but there is an opportunity to reclaim some of the Hallowed Ground at Byrum's Ford, scene of some of the most ferocious figthing.
4) Three Union officers at Westport would go on the become Governor's of states.
5) By the time the first official shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter (where no one died) hundreds of people were killed, wounded and terrorized along the Kansas/Missouri border in fighting over the issue of slavery.