Brigadier General John Pope commanded the Federal District of Central Missouri, which included the area between the Missouri and Osage rivers, with headquarters at Sedalia. His main task was to break up the pockets of secessionist State Guards that were assembling and trying to join forces with Major General Sterling Price’s main army at Osceola in western Missouri.
On December 5, some of Price’s men successfully ferried about 2,500 volunteer Guards across the Missouri River at Lexington and led them to Osceola. In response, Pope wrote to Major General Henry W. Halleck, commanding the Federal Department of Missouri: “I would respectfully suggest that to quiet all the disturbances and uneasiness engendered by the presence of so large a hostile force in this region, an advance in force against Price be made as soon as possible.”
Pope expressed confidence that his 15,000 armed, trained, and disciplined Federals could defeat whatever force that Price may have, and they could mobilize within two hours. Pope also outlined a strategy of confusing State Guard pickets with cavalry diversions before moving southwest, crossing the Osage River, and attacking with his main force before Price could gather more recruits.
Halleck responded by urging Pope to move, but not in the direction that Pope had requested. Instead, Halleck directed Pope to move northwest toward Lexington and disperse the recruits that Price had not yet collected. Halleck also restricted Pope to using just his one division (Pope had requested two others). Although Pope disagreed with the order, he replied that he would begin moving the next morning.
Pope gathered 4,000 troops in two brigades under Colonels Jefferson C. Davis and Frederick Steele on the 15th. He then learned that about 4,000 State Guard recruits had already left Lexington to join Price at Osceola, and they were now likely near Warrensburg, 60 miles north of Price’s army. Pope received permission to change his marching orders to cut the recruits off between Warrensburg and Clinton. The Federals moved out but covered just 11 miles before camping southwest of Sedalia.
The next day, Pope’s Federals moved toward Warsaw, covering 23 miles in one of the longest marches of the war. Federal cavalry rode into Chilhowe and learned that 3,600 Guards were camped six miles north of Warrensburg, near the Black River. Pope dispatched a force to Milford, just north of the suspected encampment, and another force to block the road extending southwest from Warrensburg.
The Federals attacked on the 18th, sending about 1,300 unarmed Guard recruits across the Black River and capturing the bridge. The recruits fled southward, where they ran into the second Federal force blocking their path. They were forced to surrender. Pope reported that he had captured “1,300 men… three colonels… one lieutenant-colonel, one major, and 51 commissioned company officers,” along with about “500 horses and mules, 73 wagons heavily loaded with powder, lead tents, subsistence stores, and supplies of various kinds… also 1,000 stand of arms.” Pope also asserted that those captured included “a number of the most influential, and therefore the most dangerous, southern men in the state.”
Although this was likely exaggerated (Pope was known for self-promotion), it still made for an impressive victory. Over three days, Pope’s men had marched 100 miles and captured over 1,500 prisoners, 2,000 weapons, and 100 wagons. When Price learned of this engagement, he withdrew his army to Springfield in southwestern Missouri, abandoning the Missouri and Osage river valleys. This severely damaged the secessionist cause in western Missouri and convinced Price that he could no longer rely on recruits or Confederate aid.
- Anders, Leslie, “The Blackwater Incident.” Missouri Historical Review, LXXXVIII, No. 4, July 1994.
- Cutrer, Thomas W., Theater of a Separate War: The Civil War West of the Mississippi River. The University of North Carolina Press, (Kindle Edition), 2017.
- United States War Department, War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1 – Vol. 8. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1880-1902.