October 23, 1864 – The largest battle of the Trans-Mississippi took place as Major General Sterling Price’s Confederates took on two Federal forces approaching them from opposite directions.
By this time, Price’s incursion into Missouri had brought his Confederates west toward Westport (now part of Kansas City) on the Missouri-Kansas border. A division of Major General Samuel R. Curtis’s Federal Army of the Border under Major General James G. Blunt faced Price to the west, and Federal cavalry under Major General Alfred Pleasonton threatened Price from the east. Blunt had about 15,000 Federals and Kansas militia, and Pleasonton had 7,000 men. Price’s army numbered just 8,000 cavalry troopers.
Price devised a desperate strategy to simultaneously attack both forces and then escape southward back to Arkansas. He directed two divisions under Major General James F. Fagan and Joseph O. “Jo” Shelby to attack Curtis across Brush Creek while Brigadier General John S. Marmaduke’s division attacked Pleasonton at Byram’s Ford, on the Big Blue River. Shelby reported:
“The 23rd of October dawned upon us clear, cold, and full of promise. 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.”
Curtis launched a preemptive attack, but Shelby’s famed Iron Brigade quickly repelled it and sent the outflanked Federals across Brush Creek. Elements of Curtis’s force retreated to Westport and the Kansas state line, but just as the line seemed to break, Shelby’s Confederates began running out of ammunition. Price’s men launched several charges over four hours but could not break Curtis’s line. Then Federals found a small ravine and turned the Confederate left.
At mid-morning, Price learned that Marmaduke was “being attacked 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.” Pleasonton’s Federals captured the west bank of the Big Blue around 11 a.m., forcing Marmaduke to withdraw. This threatened Price’s supply train, which he had already sent south.
Price positioned the remnants of Marmaduke’s division along with Fagan’s division to guard the southward escape of the valuable Confederate supply train. Shelby’s division facing Curtis would prevent the Federals from pursuing. Price’s men as his train withdrew down the Missouri-Kansas state line.
Shelby dispatched a brigade to hold off Pleasonton’s entire division while the rest of his command tried holding Curtis off. But the Federals were soon threatening the Confederate front and rear at the same time. Shelby wrote, “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.”
The Confederates attacked Pleasonton, but soon Curtis’s Federals were upon them, “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.” The Confederates set brushfires to prevent the Federals from seeing where they went.
Following this fight, Curtis informed Federal Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck that “the victory at Westport was most decisive.” Being the largest battle in the Trans-Mississippi theater, it became known as the “Gettysburg of the West.” Of the 30,000 men engaged, roughly 1,500 were lost on each side. This was a much more devastating figure for Price, whose defeated force was much smaller.
As Price’s Army of Missouri retreated back south toward Arkansas, Curtis directed the Federals to pursue.
Castel, Albert, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 407; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 478; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Kindle Locations 12188-262; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 513; Hattaway, Herman, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 602-03, 816; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 156-61; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 587-90; Schultz, Fred L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 474