October 25, 1864 – Major General Sterling Price’s Confederate Army of Missouri continued its retreat following the Battle of Westport, with Federal forces in close pursuit.
Price had suffered a major defeat at the hands of Major General Samuel Curtis’s Army of the Border and Federal cavalry under Major General Alfred Pleasonton. These two Federal forces, which belonged to two different military departments, quickly began pursuing Price’s Confederates south toward Arkansas. Federal infantry under Major General Andrew J. Smith was also on its way to join the chase.
Price’s retreat was slowed by a long supply train filled with stores captured from various towns and garrisons. Curtis reported to Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck, “My pursuit of Price has extended down the Line road opposite Paola. He makes rapid progress, but dead horses and debris show his demoralized and destitute condition and my probable success in overhauling him.”
Major General James G. Blunt, commanding a division in Curtis’s army, directed one of his brigade commanders, Colonel Thomas Moonlight, to move “on the flank of the enemy to protect the border of Kansas from raiding parties that might be detached from Price’s main column, and with the remainder of the division, in pursuance of orders, move on the Line road, on the trail of the retreating rebels.” This would prevent Price from attacking Fort Scott, Kansas.
Moonlight’s Federals clashed with the Confederate rear guard on the Little Santa Fe River and pushed them away from the Kansas border. As night fell on the 24th, Curtis ordered Pleasonton to move ahead of Blunt’s tired troops and renew the pursuit.
Major General William S. Rosecrans, commanding the Federal Department of the Missouri over Pleasonton and Smith, received word that Price might head for Springfield, not Fort Scott. He therefore directed Pleasonton to keep Price between those two points. Rosecrans wrote, “He should be kept near the border where the country will not support him. Strain every nerve, and don’t spare horseflesh.”
During the dark, rainy night, one of Pleasonton’s brigades under Brigadier General John Sanborn caught up to Price’s rear guard at the Marais des Cygnes River, near Trading Post, Kansas. Both sides exchanged fire, but as Sanborn reported, “My ignorance of the topography of the country, the impenetrable darkness and incessant rain, induced me to postpone a general attack until 4 o’clock in the morning.”
By the morning of the 25th, Price’s Confederates had retreated 61 miles in two days. Price drew up orders “for the purpose of attacking and capturing Fort Scott, where I learned there were 1,000 negroes under arms.” But before the orders were delivered, Pleasonton’s Federals opened an artillery bombardment at 4 a.m. and then charged at daybreak.
Major General James F. Fagan’s Confederates held the enemy off while the rest of Price’s army crossed the river and continued retreating. The Federals captured two guns and several prisoners, and as Pleasonton reported, the Confederates “left in great haste, dropping trees in the road to bar our progress, and fighting a running contest to the Osage River…”
Price turned to make a stand at Mine Creek, six miles south. Pleasonton charged again and routed the Confederates. Price arrived to find “the divisions of Major-Generals Fagan and (John S.) Marmaduke retreating in utter and indescribable confusion, many of them having thrown away their arms. They were deaf to all entreaties or commands, and in vain were all efforts to rally them.”
The Federals inflicted 500 casualties and took 560 prisoners, including Marmaduke and Brigadier General William Cabell, as well as four colonels. Between the Marais des Cygnes and Mine Creek, Pleasonton took nearly 1,000 prisoners and all 10 of Price’s guns.
This was the war’s first full-scale engagement in Kansas. Brigadier General Joseph O. “Jo” Shelby’s Confederate division held the Federals off long enough for Price’s remaining 6,000 troops to escape. Shelby reported, “I knew from the beginning that I could do nothing but resist their advance, and depend on energy and night for the rest.”
Price made a third stand when his wagons stalled while crossing the Marmiton River, showing enough force to convince Pleasonton not to charge. Price escaped, but his Army of Missouri was “effectively crippled.” The exhausted Confederates were forced to burn about a third of their supply train to prevent its capture.
The next day, Pleasonton fell ill and his troopers retired to Fort Scott, ending their pursuit. Curtis directed Blunt’s Federals to resume the chase. Price finally gave his men a rest at Carthage before resuming the retreat toward Newtonia on the 28th. The Confederates easily drove off the Federal garrison at Newtonia, as Price planned to stay there and take advantage of the abundant forage nearby. However, Blunt’s Federals approached that afternoon. Price reported:
“Ere long, our scouts brought the information the enemy were crossing the prairie in pursuit of us. Preparations were immediately made to receive him, and about 3 o’clock General Blunt, with 3,000 Federal cavalry, moved rapidly across the prairie in pursuit of us and made a furious onslaught upon our lines.”
Price quickly ordered Shelby’s troops to hold Blunt off while the rest of the army retreated. Blunt attacked with just two regiments, which were no match for Shelby’s entire division. The Confederates drove Blunt’s men back until Federal reinforcements arrived to even the odds. Shelby ordered a withdrawal to join the rest of Price’s retreating army, ending the engagement.
On the 29th, Rosecrans transferred troops serving under Curtis to guard various posts, leaving Curtis without enough manpower to continue his pursuit. Arguments over whether Confederate prisoners should be sent to Fort Leavenworth (in Curtis’s department) or St. Louis (in Rosecrans’s department) added to the delays. Price slipped away, but his army was never an effective fighting force again.
Price had invaded Missouri to raise volunteers and reclaim the state for the Confederacy. He did garner some recruits, but losses in casualties, illness, and desertions far outnumbered the gains. Missouri was not reclaimed, and Price did not capture either St. Louis or Jefferson City. He disrupted some supply lines and diverted Federal troops from other areas of battle, but he failed to alter any of the Federal operations in Virginia, Georgia, or Tennessee.
The Army of Missouri finally reached Arkansas in early November, with the Federals still in weak pursuit. Although they did not capture or destroy Price’s army, all major Confederate resistance west of the Mississippi River was virtually ended.
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