Saturday, January 9, 2010

Stone’s River: New Year’s Hell

In some of my previous posts, I have examined both those Civil War battles considered pivotal by historians as well as those of lesser importance, those fought on the margins of the war. However, there is yet another category of Civil War battle that bears some exploration. That category would include those battles that involved large armies in key theaters of the war, but that, for the most part, are not generally well known. These are engagements that have faded from memory because, while they were important at the time, they have been overshadowed by the “greater” events of the war. And, while Civil War historians know about these battles, the average American would not recognize their names if you mentioned them.

Of these battles, and the one I believe most noteworthy, occurred along the banks of Stone’s River, just outside Murfreesboro, Tennessee during the New Year’s holiday of 1862-1863. Fought during miserable weather that saw bitterly cold rain and sleet, the three-day battle would involve more than 80,000 soldiers and inflict staggering casualties, with over 23,500 men killed, wounded, or missing. The fighting would, at times, be some of the most brutal and ferocious of the war, and, as always, there be incredible bravery and cruelty, as well as great leadership and leadership that was almost criminally inept.

As 1862 approached its end, both sides had seen success and failure. In the Eastern Theater, Confederate forces had been under the leadership of Robert E. Lee since June and, while the Maryland Campaign had ended unsuccessfully in September, he had driven George McClellan from the doors of Richmond back to Washington, smashed John Pope’s Army of Virginia at Second Manassas, and inflicted a massive defeat on the Army of the Potomac at Fredericksburg in early December. However, the West was a different story.

On the far side of the Appalachians, Confederate forces had not fared well at all. The Union Army of the Tennessee, under Ulysses S. Grant’s command, had followed his victories at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson in February with a stunning victory at Shiloh in April. Since then, they had moved deep into Mississippi to take both Corinth and Memphis, and entered the winter trying to find a way to neutralize Vicksburg. Given the loss of New Orleans to Admiral Farragut in April, the capture of Vicksburg would mean Federal control of the entire Mississippi River.

Buell At the same time, the other Federal army in the theater had also seen success. The Army of the Ohio, led by General Don Carlos Buell, had joined with Grant at Shiloh and then gone on to fight General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee to a bloody draw at Perryville, Kentucky in October. However, the aftermath of that battle saw controversy on both sides. Buell was harshly criticized by President Lincoln and General-in-Chief Henry Halleck for not pursuing and destroying Bragg after the battle, and Bragg was attacked by his own staff for surrendering the field at Perryville to Buell.

Halleck Buell defended his actions after Perryville, but to no avail. Lincoln and Halleck saw that, while Kentucky and western Tennessee were now essentially in Union hands, central and eastern Tennessee remained solidly in Confederate control. In their minds, had Buell pursued, engaged, and defeated Bragg, all of Tennessee would easily fall to Federal forces. On October 24, Halleck ordered General William Rosecrans to take command of Buell’s army, which was renamed the Army of the Cumberland. Halleck’s orders to Rosecrans were very specific as to what was expected of him and his new command.

The great objects to be kept in view in your operations in the field are: First, to drive the enemy from Kentucky and Middle Tennessee; second, to take and hold East Tennessee, cutting the line of railroad at Chattanooga, Cleveland, or Athens, so as to destroy the connection of the valley of Virginia with Georgia and the other Southern States. It is hoped that by prompt and rapid movements a considerable part of this may be accomplished before the roads become impassable from the winter rains…You will fully appreciate the importance of moving light and rapidly, and also the necessity of procuring as many of your supplies as possible in the country passed over…Every effort should be made to ascertain Bragg's movements by pressing him closely…I need not urge upon you the necessity of giving active employment to your forces. Neither the country nor the Government will much longer put up with the inactivity of some of our armies and generals.

Rosecrans I have written about Rosecrans in some other posts, but, in doing so, I have looked at him only in the context of what happened later in 1863. At this point in the war, Rosecrans was something of an unknown. He had been in command of troops that captured Corinth earlier in the year, but his lack of aggression did not produce much confidence in his abilities. Rosecrans was also something of an oddity in the Regular Army in that he had converted to Roman Catholicism while a cadet at West Point and had seen no service in the Mexican War. This automatically made him someone to be considered both suspect and odd by the norms of the army at that time. “Old Rosy,” as he was known to his men, was 43 years old, and an imposing figure at six-feet tall. He was a hard drinker and was as quick to anger as he was to forgive. He was a careful planner and strategist who preferred the Jominian philosophy of defeating an enemy via maneuver as opposed to confrontations designed to destroy the opposing army. However, in battle, he became excited and emotional, preferring a direct, on-the scene leadership style.

So, despite Halleck’s clear desire to see Rosecrans get the army moving against Bragg, the new commander of the Army of the Cumberland remained at headquarters in Nashville. In Rosecrans’ mind, the army needed to be reorganized after its battle at Perryville and resupplied before moving forward. The resulting lethargy lasted from late October into early December, which incensed Halleck. He sent Rosecrans a tersely worded dispatch and Rosecrans responded just as emphatically.

WAR DEPARTMENT, Washington, December 4, 1862.

Major-General ROSECRANS, Nashville, Tenn.:

The President is very impatient at your long stay in Nashville. The favorable season for your campaign will soon be over. You give Bragg time to supply himself by plundering the very country your army should cave occupied. From all information received here, it is believed that he is carrying large quantities of stores into Alabama, and preparing to fall back partly on Chattanooga and partly on Columbus, Miss. Twice have I been asked to designate some one else to command your army. If you remain one more week at Nashville, I cannot prevent your removal. As I wrote you when you took the command, the Government demands action, and if you cannot respond to that demand some one else will be tried.

H. W. HALLECK, General-in-Chief

NASHVILLE, TENN., December 4, 1862--10.45 p.m.

Maj. Gen. H. W. HALLECK, General-in-Chief:

Your dispatch received. I reply in few but earnest words. I have lost no time. Everything I have done was necessary, absolutely so; and has been done as rapidly as possible. Any attempt to advance sooner would have increased our difficulty both in front and rear. In front, because of greater obstacles, enemies in greater force, and fighting with better chances of escaping pursuit, if overthrown in battle. In rear, because of insufficiency and uncertainty of supplies, both of subsistence and ammunition, and no security of any kind to fall back upon in case of disaster. We should most probably have had a flying enemy to pursue, with a command daily fritted away by the large detachments required to guard forage and provision trains, and after all have been obliged to halt somewhere, to await the indispensable supplies, for which we have been waiting. Many of our soldiers are to this day barefoot, without blankets, without tents, without good arms, and cavalry without horses. Our true objective now is the enemy's force, for if they come near, we save wear, tear, risk, and strength; subject them to what we escape, and gain all the chances to be expected from a rise in the river. If the Government which ordered me here confides in my judgment, it may rely on my continuing to do what I have been trying to--that is, my whole duty. If my superiors have lost confidence in me, they had better at once put some one in my place and let the future test the propriety of the change. I have but one word to add, which is, that I need no other stimulus to make me do my duty than the knowledge of what it is. To threats of removal or the like I must be permitted to say that I am insensible.

W. S. ROSECRANS, Major-General

Bragg On the Confederate side, the command situation for Braxton Bragg was different and, in many ways, far worse than that facing Rosecrans. Rosecrans, despite having to deal with pressures from Washington, had managed to keep a cohesive command organization. Bragg and his subordinate commanders, on the other hand, had managed to create a command atmosphere that can best be described as a “snake pit.” First of all, Bragg was not a likeable man. The famous Southern diarist, Mary Chesnut, recorded that Bragg possessed a unique “winning way of earning everyone’s detestation.” He was ill-tempered, stubborn, intractable, overly sensitive to criticism, and more than a little paranoid. However, in Bragg’s case, the paranoia was legitimate as he was roundly despised by all his army’s commanders. The only man who seemed to like him and see any military abilities in him was President Jefferson Davis. Davis had known Bragg since the war in Mexico and the two men shared a mutual trust and admiration. Unfortunately, that is probably because they shared such similar personalities.

Jefferson Davis Davis viewed the public outcry over Bragg’s withdrawal from Perryville as a personal attack. He believed that the only reason Bragg was being so harshly criticized in the Southern press and Confederate congress was because of his association with Davis. Therefore, as he often tended to do, the Confederate president saw this as yet another example of his numerous enemies, both real and perceived, trying to gain political leverage. As a result, he defended Bragg vigorously in public. However, privately, Davis had deep concerns about Bragg.

Those concerns were not the product of what the press and his political opponents said, but, rather, were derived from the complaints of Bragg’s own subordinate commanders. And the word “complaints” is a mild description for what Bragg’s generals were saying. Generals Leonidas Polk, a former Episcopal bishop from Louisiana, and also a close Davis associate, led the charge against Bragg and was supported by his fellow commanders, Generals William Hardee and Kirby Smith. General Henry Heth would write that he and Kirby Smith believed “General Bragg had lost his mind.” Another officer wrote that, while he thought Bragg to be of sound mind, he would agree with anyone who saw the general as “utterly incompetent.”

Polk, Hardee, and Smith In late October, as Bragg’s subordinates plotted in an effort to effect a coup against their commander, Davis called Bragg to Richmond. While Bragg was aware of the complaints against him and deeply angered by his commanders’ apparent acts of insubordination, he approached Davis contritely and modestly in their meeting. Bragg pointed out to the president that, while he, indeed, retreated before Buell’s army at Perryville and lost Kentucky in the process, he had inflicted 25,000 casualties on the enemy and, most importantly, kept his army intact. Further, Bragg went on to say, with the Confederate defeats in Mississippi, his army was now the only one in the West still capable of resisting Union advances.

Then, Bragg offered Davis a new plan and one designed not just to resist a Federal attack, but to take the offensive against Rosecrans. He proposed to move his army forward up the line of the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad to establish a new base at Murfreesboro, some 30 miles southeast of Nashville. From there, he would attack Rosecrans, drive his army from Nashville, recapture the state capital, and move to threaten Grant’s rear in western Tennessee.

This kind of offensive mindset was exactly the sort Davis appreciated and Bragg knew it. The president heartily approved of Bragg’s plan and sent him back to his army carrying Davis’ unqualified support. Davis then called Generals Polk and Hardee to Richmond in an attempt to swage their anger towards Bragg. He listened politely to their arguments for removing Bragg, then elevated them both to the rank of lieutenant general, and, thus duly bribed by promotion, convinced them to return to Bragg’s army to carry out the new offensive against Rosecrans.

Breckinridge Meanwhile, Bragg was back in Tennessee implementing the first stage of his plan by ordering his other key commander, General John Breckinridge, to move his 6,000 man force to Murfreesboro and establish command there. This Breckinridge accomplished on October 28, but he worried that, once Rosecrans figured out how small his force was, the Union general would move to crush him. Luckily for Breckinridge, Rosecrans was too busy reorganizing and resupplying his army. While he noted Breckinridge’s move to Murfreesboro, he did nothing to counter it.

However, as the weeks passed, Bragg still faced numerous challenges in executing his planned offensive. First, his supplies were short and foraging in late fall proved difficult. His men would need both food and good clothing if they were to campaign during the coming winter. Then, in early December, his ally, President Davis, complicated matters further by insisting General Joe Johnston transfer 9,000 men from Bragg’s army to that of General Pemberton at Vicksburg. Johnston, who was now in command of the entire Western Theater, had never gotten along with Davis and he bitterly opposed the transfer of troops from Bragg’s army, which was now all encamped at Murfreesboro. Davis decided to visit Bragg and the army, arriving December 10. He inspected the army and despite his discussions with Bragg, he renewed his order that the 9,000 men move to Vicksburg. As a result, Brag was left with only 40,000 men to undertake a winter offensive against Rosecrans’ 80,000 in and around Nashville.

As Bragg struggled to manage his army at Murfreesboro, Rosecrans prepared a plan of his own. Despite his sincere and bombastic opposition to Halleck’s orders to move against Bragg, Rosecrans got the message. As soon as he received more supplies, he fully intended to move against Bragg, and that was accomplished by mid-December. As Christmas arrived, Rosecrans felt the moment had, indeed, come. Not only was his army well supplied, intelligence told him that Bragg was forced to send troops to Vicksburg. In addition, he learned that John Hunt Morgan and Bedford Forrest’s cavalry had also been detached from Bragg's army. Finally, all indications pointed to Bragg simply settling down for the winter at Murfreesboro.

Thomas On Christmas Day, Rosecrans called a staff conference to present the plan he and General George Thomas had developed. The Army of the Cumberland would advance toward Murfreesboro in three parallel columns, with General Crittenden going straight down the Nashville Turnpike to Murfreesboro, while Generals McCook and Thomas advanced on his right. They would engage Bragg’s army, which Rosecrans mistakenly believed to be scattered around Murfreesboro, and do so with only 44,000 men. Rosecrans had elected to leave the remainder of the army behind, garrisoning Nashville and guarding the railroad. As a result, he had unintentionally evened the odds more in Bragg’s favor. As the meeting concluded, a little Christmas cheer was passed around the room in the form of brandy toddies. The mood became lighter, but soon, Rosecrans pounded his fist on the table in an emotional outburst and told his commanders, ‘We move tomorrow, gentlemen! We shall skirmish, probably as soon as we pass the outposts. Press them hard! Drive them out of their nests! Make them fight or run! Fight them! Fight them! Fight I say!”

Watkins As Rosecrans was announcing his advance, Bragg’s camp was enjoying the holidays in high style. Oblivious to any possible threat, the officers attended Christmas balls and parties. The liquor flowed and the officers danced the nights away, while their men huddled for warmth in camp, lonely and far from home. The officers’ merriment did not go unnoticed. The Confederate memoirist, Sam Watkins, who was a private in Bragg’s army, would later write that, during the Christmas holidays of 1862, “John Barleycorn was our general-in-chief…our generals, and colonels, and captains had kissed John a little too often.” However, on the morning of December 26, as the Army of the Cumberland moved south, an incident occurred which added to the continuing discord among Bragg’s commanders and the men of his army as well.

Without doubt, the ablest of Bragg’s commanders was John Breckinridge. Breckinridge, who had been James Buchanan’s vice president, was a man of great integrity who had demonstrated considerable military ability, despite the fact that his only experience was as a volunteer officer during the Mexican War. He was brave and resilient, and a solid leader whose men adored him. As a native Kentuckian, he and his men were considered an essential part of Bragg’s fall campaign into Kentucky, and Bragg hoped that thousands of fellow Kentuckians would flock to their banner. However, that hope did not materialize and Bragg was very bitter about it. As a result, he had no use for Breckinridge or anyone from Kentucky, as he wrote to his wife, “Why should I stay with my handful of brave Southern men to fight for cowards who skulked about in the dark to say to us, ‘we are with you. Only whip these fellows out of our country and let us see you can protect us, and we will join you.’”

Orphan Brigade Colors Bragg made no secret of his contempt for Breckinridge and, especially, his Kentucky brigade, who, because their state was in Union hands, had come to be called the “Orphan Brigade.” Sadly, he seems to have decided to demonstrate it in a most cruel and vindictive manner. On December 20, Bragg convened a court martial to hear the case regarding charges of desertion leveled against Private Asa Lewis of the 6th Kentucky Infantry Regiment. Lewis case was fairly typical. His 12-month enlistment was over and, as he had chosen not to reenlist, he did not believe that a new policy requiring him to serve for either three years or the war’s duration applied to him. Further, with his father’s recent death, he was the sole means of support for his mother and three younger siblings. He requested a furlough, which was denied, and decided to simply leave. Unfortunately for Lewis, he had done this once before and received a reprimand—for a second desertion, he received a death sentence. Breckinridge and his officers pleaded the boy’s case to Bragg, arguing that carrying out the sentence would be tantamount to murder. However, given Bragg’s feelings for Kentucky and his inflexible nature, he was unmoved by their pleas for mercy. He was determined to make an example of young Private Lewis.

At 11:00 a.m. on the day after Christmas, Bragg had Asa Lewis marched in front of the Orphan Brigade as a cold, heavy rain fell. The brigade was placed in a hollow, open-ended square around him and a firing squad assembled in his front. Pale and clearly distraught, Breckinridge approached the boy and the two quietly whispered to one another for a few minutes. The general then remounted his horse and joined the rest of the brigade. At precisely noon, the firing squad executed the sentence, piercing Lewis’ body with 11 bullets. As the young private fell dead, Breckinridge pitched forward in his saddle, overcome by emotion and deathly ill. His staff quickly grabbed him and saved him from falling off his mount. Both the Orphan Brigade and their general marched away from the scene filled with a deep, bitter hatred for Braxton Bragg.

Luckily for Bragg, General Joe Wheeler and his cavalry remained with the army, and soon brought news of Rosecrans’ advance. Bragg moved to prepare to meet the Union threat, however, the three-columns Rosecrans employed confused him, and he was uncertain where the main Federal attack would fall. Therefore, he dispersed his army across all the approaches to Murfreesboro from Nashville. The resulting Confederate positions were not particularly advantageous and the terrain itself would make it a difficult field for either side to fight on. The land was marked by limestone outcroppings, with deep crevices and large boulders, and these were surrounded by dense, thick stands of red cedar. This would make unit cohesion difficult and the dense cedar severely limited visibility in places. In addition, the weather was simply awful. It was cold and windy, with a steady rain that gave way occasionally to freezing drizzle and sleet.

Map 1 The two armies sparred as Rosecrans approached, with Wheeler’s cavalry slashing the Union columns at every opportunity. Finally, the Union army took up positions opposite Bragg on December 29. Rosecrans deployed Crittenden’s men on the left, anchored on the river and extending across the Nashville Turnpike. George Thomas moved in on Crittenden’s right, extending the union line to the south, while McCook took the far right, with his line arcing to the southwest. For his part, Bragg placed Hardee opposite McCook, with Polk in the center facing Thomas. However, the Confederate right was another matter. Here, Bragg chose to place Breckinridge across the river, which now would separate his right wing from the rest of the army. It was not a sound placement by any means, and, while his commanders would urge a change, Bragg would stubbornly refuse to hear their arguments.

Ironically, both Rosecrans and Bragg envisioned their offensive plans as attacks on the other’s right flank. Should they undertake them simultaneously and meet with success, the two armies would spin about like a gigantic pinwheel. And both planned to attack on New Year’s Eve morning, December 31.

The night of December 30 was cold, wet, and miserable for the soldiers in the line on both sides. Sometime before the evening tattoo, one of the Union’s regimental bands struck up “Yankee Doodle” and then “Hail Columbia.” As the music drifted across the field, the Confederate soldiers listened quietly. Then, one of their bands answered, playing “Dixie.” This friendly exchange of music continued for a time, until a Federal band started to play the bittersweet sounds of “Home, Sweet Home.” Within minutes, a Southern band joined in, and the bands played together in what was a unique expression of mutual longing for home and family. Finally, more and more bands joined in and the collective musical forces of both armies played the tune together. One soldier from Tennessee remembered that, “after our bands had ceased playing, we could hear the sweet refrain as it died away on the cool frosty air.”

New Year’s Eve dawned cold and gray, with fog and drizzle obscuring the field of battle. On the Union left, General Crittenden’s men prepared to move across Stone’s River and begin the assault on Bragg’s right. As a result, Rosecrans was nearby and his focus was on Crittenden’s preparations. To the south along Thomas’ line, it was quiet for the most part and men prepared their breakfasts. However, on the far right near his juncture with McCook’s troops, one of McCook’s divisions was preparing to fight. That division was led by General Phil Sheridan. During the night, one of Sheridan’s brigade commanders, General Joshua Sill, brought him word that his pickets had spotted a considerable amount of Confederate activity to his front, and it appeared they were moving toward the far right of the Union line. The two men rode to wake General McCook and tell him what had been observed. McCook quickly dismissed them and the possible threat, and went back to sleep.

But Sheridan did not like the situation and, upon his return to his division’s lines, he ordered his staff to quietly rouse the men, give them a quick breakfast, and then get them into line of battle. Sheridan next walked the line personally to ensure every regiment was in-place and ready for what he suspected might be a Confederate attack. As the deep black of night steadily turned to a gloomy, opaque, misty gray, McCook received additional reports of movement along his line. Finally, he issued orders to his other divisions to make preparations for an attack. But, it was too little and too late.

Foggy Morning Minutes later, the soldiers on McCook’s far right saw dark, shadowy figures quietly approaching through the dense mist. Suddenly, the figures merged into a long, seemingly unending line, and the morning calm was suddenly broken by the shrill cry of the Rebel yell. That yell came from 11,000 Confederates under Hardee. They smashed into the Federal right flank, shooting men down as they ate their breakfast, with their rifles out of reach. There was a brief flurry of hand-to-hand fighting, but McCook’s men began to flee in panic towards the rear and the Nashville Turnpike, three miles away. Some Federal regiments tried to make a stand but, unsupported and isolated, they also soon broke for the rear. Within 30 minutes, two of McCook’s brigades ceased to exist.

Rocco retreat Nearby, Sheridan’s division along with Sill’s fought back and, with the loss of those two brigades, the Union right had bent back inward. The new flank was attacked by four Confederate brigades but stubbornly held. While they too would eventually be forced to give ground, Bragg’s attack was starting to lose momentum. Then, Polk began his attack on the Union center, in an attempt to prevent any support from going to McCook. But Polk’s attacks were conducted in a piecemeal fashion and George Thomas’ men turned them back, inflicting a great number of casualties.

Meanwhile, Rosecrans could hear the steady thumping of artillery to his right along with a steady cascade of rifle fire. However, despite the bad reports coming in, he did not seem concerned. Finally, when McCook sent a message pleading for reinforcements, Rosecrans realized the magnitude of the disaster on the Union right. He ordered Crittenden to cease his advance and sent troops to bolster Sheridan and Sill.

Abandoned Guns The fighting on the Union right continued unabated as Hardee pressed both Sheridan and Sill back. Soon, dead horses and soldiers, smashed artillery, and burning wagon littered the fields northwest of Murfreesboro. Because the ground contained so much limestone, blood did not soak into the soil. Rather, it gathered on the ground in pools, both large and small, dotting the landscape and adding a ghoulish quality to an already nightmarish scene.

Map 2 Sheridan’s division was fighting especially hard and he was everywhere personally directing his men. This would soon become a necessity, as he would lose all three of his brigade commanders before noon. By 10:00 a.m., the Federal line had been pushed back into a V-shape, with the left side facing east and the right facing west. Sheridan’s division manned the apex of this reformed line and, given that they formed a salient, the Confederate attacks now came from both sides. He would fight a skillful withdrawal, all the while maintaining a tight hold on the Union units on either side. And, while this V-shaped line was vulnerable, it also allowed Rosecrans to quickly shift his forces wherever they were needed, which he did with great energy and skill.

This morning would be the high point of Rosecrans’ entire career and he exercised a brand of personal courage and leadership typically reserved for corps and division commanders. He rode all about the battlefield, asking for reports, giving succinct orders, and providing encouragement where needed, and it was much need on that cold, bloody morning. On the left, he rode up to Colonel William Price, whose brigade was positioned along the river to prevent any Confederate crossing attempts. Rosecrans shouted at price, “Will you hold this ford?” Price replied, honestly, “I will try, sir!” Rosecrans shouted even louder, “Will you hold this ford?” Price replied, “I will die right here, sir!” Still not satisfied, Rosecrans shouted once more, his voice filled with emotion, “Will you hold this ford?” The young colonel responded, “Yes, sir!”

Map 3 By midday, the Union apex had shifted to an area known as the Round Forest, a small hill of limestone punctuated by dense cedar groves, and the right was aligning along the Nashville Turnpike. But Rosecrans continued to strengthen his line, sending units wherever they were needed most, no matter what brigade or division they belonged to. As Hardee’s assault lost all its energy due to a steadily mounting casualty toll, Bragg ordered Polk to renew his attacks, focusing on the Round Forest. There, his men were met by a staggering punch issued by Colonel William Hazen’s brigade. Polk continued to hammer away at Hazen and Rosecrans poured reinforcements into what became known as Hell’s Half-Acre. By 1:00 p.m., Polk’s men were spent and Bragg called for Breckinridge to send him four fresh brigades from across the river.

Map 4 As Bragg waited on Breckinridge’s men, Rosecrans and Thomas further reinforced the Round Forest, bringing in every available piece of artillery. At 4:00 p.m., the first two of Breckinridge’s brigades moved into the line opposite the Round Forest and awaited Polk’s orders, as well as the the arrival of the remaining two brigades. However, under pressure from Bragg, Polk elected not to wait and launched the assault with two instead of four brigades. The men marched smartly across the field, now littered with hundreds of bodies from the previous attacks. The newly arrived Union artillery quickly opened fire, blasting huge gaps in the advancing lines, but they kept coming forward. When the Confederate line reached a range of only 50 yards, Hazen ordered his infantry to open fire. The results were devastating. Breckinridge’s men fell by the dozens and the entire attacking line staggered to a halt, then broke to the rear amid a hail of rifle and artillery fire. One regiment lost 47 percent of its men and many others suffered more than 30 percent casualties.

One would have thought this would have convinced Bragg of the futility of another attack, but he refused to change his mind. When Breckinridge’s other two brigades arrived, he ordered Polk to sacrifice them as well. It is little wonder that some officers questioned Bragg’s sanity at this point. By now, the Federal artillery in the Round Forest numbered more than 50 guns and, as the assault was renewed, they were fired as fast as they could be reloaded. The second Confederate attack got no farther than its predecessor and the results were nearly identical. Nothing was gained and nothing was proven except for the bravery of Breckinridge’s men.

Garesche At one point, Rosecrans and his staff were close to the action, observing the defense of the Round Forest. With him was Colonel Julius Garesché, his aide and his closest friend from his cadet days at West Point. In fact, it was Garesché who convinced him to convert to Catholicism. As the fighting raged in front of them, a round of solid shot from a Confederate cannon roared past within inches of the commanding general’s head. As it flew by him, it hit Garesché in the face. He was immediately decapitated and his headless body stayed in the saddle for 20 paces before pitching off the horse to the ground. Rosecrans rode on, his uniform covered with Garesché’s blood, unaware of what happened behind him. Later, when he was told about his friend’s death, he quietly said, “Brave men die in battle. Let us push on.” However, no matter his words, Rosecrans was deeply affected by his comrade’s death. After the battle, he carefully cut the buttons from his uniform and placed them in an envelope marked, “Buttons I wore the day Garesché was killed.” He would carry that envelope with him the rest of his life.

With sunset, the sounds of battle quickly faded and gave way to the moaning of the wounded. The cold, dark, blustery night was filled with the sight of lanterns floating between the two lines, as men from both sides attended to the wounded and dying.

Rosecrans held a meeting of his commanders to discuss the next day’s action. Old Rosy asked them if they should retreat, but only McCook and a cavalry officer thought that was the right course of action. As Rosecrans asked about retreat, George Thomas, who had been napping, suddenly awoke, looked around him with a fierce gaze and said, “This army does not retreat.” With that, the issue was settled and the Army of the Cumberland would stay and fight.

Bragg, however, was flush with victory. He was certain Rosecrans would limp back to Nashville during the night, and he sent an urgent telegram to Jefferson Davis trumpeting his success: “The enemy has yielded his strong position and is falling back. God has granted us a happy New Year.” So convinced was Bragg of his victory, he went to bed that night without making a single adjustment to his line of battle. As far as he was concerned, the Battle of Stone’s River was over.

When the dawn of the new year of 1863 arrived, Bragg was greeted not by the sight of an empty field before him, but, rather, by the same blue lines of infantry that had been there the night before. Bragg was shocked and seemed paralyzed. When Hardee, Polk, and Breckinridge came to him seeking orders to deal with the continued Yankee presence, Bragg had none to give. Instead, he sunk into a sort of mental lethargy, issuing orders for menial tasks as opposed to crafting a new strategy. Later in the day, he ordered Breckinridge to resume his original position across the river, but that was the extent of his leadership for the day. That night, he continued to seek signs that Rosecrans was finally withdrawing, but they did not come—the Union army was not simply going to go away as he hoped.

The next morning, Bragg, upon finding the enemy still in his front, ordered an artillery bombardment to see if it might provoke a response. He wanted to see just how committed Rosecrans was to holding his position. When the Federal artillery answered in kind and more so, he had his answer. After fretting about a course of action, he decided to try to place his own artillery on high ground east of the river in front of Breckinridge. This would allow him to pour a potentially devastating fire into the Union left flank, which might drive Rosecrans out of his positions. Bragg order a reconnaissance of the area and, when the scouts returned, they told him that the high ground he wanted for his artillery was already in possession of a Union division. Bragg decided to order Breckinridge to take the ridge and called the Kentuckian to his headquarters. When he was told of his assignment, the former vice president protested in anger, telling Bragg that his men could not possibly take such a strong position. Exhibiting both his intransigence and his dislike for Breckinridge, Bragg told him that his Kentucky soldiers had suffered the least thus far and now it was their turn to prove their worthiness.

Breckinridge again protested the order, telling Bragg that he had personally seen the Federal emplacements and they could not be taken by direct assault. Bragg angrily told him, “Sir, my information is different. I have given an order to attack the enemy and expect it to be obeyed!” With that, the discussion was over.

Hanson When Breckinridge returned to his men and told them what had been ordered, General Roger Hanson, commander of the Orphan Brigade, exploded in anger, and proposed that he go to the headquarters and shoot General Bragg. Breckinridge prevailed upon him not to do so, and, instead, to go prepare his command for the attack.

At 3:00 p.m., as Breckinridge massed his men for the assault, Rosecrans observed the activity and sent reinforcements across the river. More importantly, he also moved additional artillery onto the west bank of the river, where they could cover the Union defenders. By the time Breckinridge began to move forward, Rosecrans had assembled 58 guns on the high ground facing east.

Union left guns An hour later, Breckinridge’s men started to advance across nearly 600 yards of open ground into the teeth of a Federal division and a mass of supporting artillery. Despite the heavy defensive fire, the Kentuckians never faltered, moving ever closer, and finally pouring over the Union lines. The blue-clad defenders fell back in disorder and, after 30 minutes of fierce fighting, Breckinridge’s men had accomplished an objective they believed was impossible. However, now, rather than stopping to dig in and hold, they foolishly pressed forward in pursuit of the fleeing Yankees. It proved to be a fatal error.

Map 5 As soon as the retreating Union troops were out of the way, the 58 Federal guns west of the river opened fire on Breckinridge’s still advancing line. Blasting away at better than 100 rounds per minute, they simply slaughtered the Kentuckians. Within minutes, the entire flow of the battle had changed. As the Southerners turned to retreat back up the slope of the hill, Crittenden ordered infantry reserves forward, driving the Orphan Brigade back across the hill they had just taken and into the fields they had just crossed so bravely. Seeing the sad remnant of the Orphan Brigade returning, Breckinridge broke down, sobbing, “My poor Orphans! My poor Orphans! My poor Orphan Brigade! They have cut it to pieces.”

That night, amid another cold, driving rain, Bragg called a meeting of his key commanders. After some spirited discussion, they could not reach a decision on how to next proceed. However, on the morning of January 3, Bragg became convinced that his army was beyond its limits. At 10:00 a.m., he ordered a withdrawal and the Battle of Stone’s River was over, at last.

The battle was hailed as a major victory in Washington, while President Davis and General Bragg suffered not only a defeat, but one made an embarrassment by Bragg’s premature announcement of victory on New Year’s Eve. Middle Tennessee was now lost to the Confederacy and Lincoln had a victory to counterbalance the recent defeat at Fredericksburg. Bragg would remain in command of the Army of Tennessee both because Davis could not stand the loss of face he would suffer if forced to dismiss Bragg, and also because there simply was no one else for the job. Bragg and his commanders would continue to fight harder against one another than they ever did against the enemy until he was finally relieved of command following the Union breakout at Chattanooga in November 1863.

For William Rosecrans, Stone’s River would be his finest hour. Even when he later had to relieve Rosecrans of command after Chickamauga, Lincoln remembered the timely victory at Stone’s River. Writing to Rosecrans after his dismissal from command of the Army of the Cumberland, the president said, “whilst I remember anything, that about the end of last year and the beginning of this, you gave us a hard-earned victory, which, had there been a defeat instead, the nation could scarcely have lived over.”

Sunday, January 3, 2010

On the Margins of the War: Price’s Raid

I thought I might take this opportunity to explore another subject related to the fighting on the margins of the Civil War. This time, I want to examine the last battle to be fought for the control of Missouri, a vital, so-called, “border state.” Missouri was considered a part of the Trans-Mississippi Theater, a vast area of over 600,000 square miles. In total, there never were more than 50,000 men under arms across the entire region at any one time, and the leadership of both sides considered it a sideshow in the larger war. Essentially, it was, in terms of military importance, an empty wasteland.

As for Missouri, its status in the Civil War was much like that of West Virginia. Both regions were of great strategic value, with West Virginia’s related to the North’s need to keep the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad open, allowing the flow of supplies and men to and from the West, while Missouri’s was based on the need to maintain possession of St. Louis, which was vital to control of the Mississippi River. However, as in the case of West Virginia, Missouri’s status was decided relatively early in the war. From the outset, Union forces controlled both St. Louis and the state capital, Jefferson City, and the only significant Confederate threat to the state was turned back at Pea Ridge, Arkansas in March 1862. And, while St. Louis would initially serve as the Union command headquarters for the Western Theater, that command would migrate south as Federal forces penetrated deeper into Mississippi.

As a result, Missouri, like West Virginia, saw no great battles, no monumental campaigns. Rather, with a populace whose sentiments were deeply divided, it experienced a relentless guerilla war fought mostly by various bushwackers and even criminal elements, who used the war as an opportunity to steal, settle old scores, and commit cold blooded murder. Some of these elements would receive official sanction, such as the Confederate Partisan Rangers and Union Kansas Brigade, no matter the atrocities they would commit in the name of the cause. Men like James Lane, “Bloody Bill” Anderson, and William Quantrill would become legendary for their brutality and the fear they generated among the state’s inhabitants. However, in the fall of 1864, as the war entered its final phase, there was one last Confederate campaign undertaken to wrest the state from Federal control and, in doing so, hopefully influence the outcome of the 1864 U.S. presidential election in the South’s favor.

The campaign’s goal was the seizure of, first, St. Louis, and then Jefferson City. Once the latter was successfully completed, the state’s pro-Southern government-in-exile would be installed and the state would be under the effective control of the Confederacy. Hopefully for the Confederacy, this would, in turn, spark a secessionist uprising across the state, whose success would help destroy Lincoln’s reelection bid, and allow a negotiated peace, with Missouri as a part of the new Confederate nation.

General Sterling Price The architect of the campaign plan and the man who would lead it was Confederate General Sterling Price, a former U.S. Congressman from Missouri and governor of the state. Price was terribly vain and not a particularly competent general. In fact, one of the most noteworthy aspects of this campaign was that many of its leading participants, on both sides, were incompetent “has beens” or untalented “never were’s.” These were men who either had proven unable to perform in the greater theaters of the war and had been exiled to the military backwater that was Missouri, or who simply had never demonstrated sufficient talent to garner a more substantial command and, as a result, were permanently stuck fighting the war in the vast Trans-Mississippi Theater. This combined lack of military ability would greatly influence both the conduct and outcome of what became known as Price’s Raid.

In addition to being a politician, General Price was also a former planter, lawyer, and slaveholder. Described as “quixotic” by one historian, the 55-year old Price had served as a Brigadier General of Volunteers in the Mexican War, and did perform competently at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Rosales. However, up to this point in the Civil War, his record was spotty, at best. He had been victorious when fighting either irregular or poorly trained Union units inside the state, but his record against more organized and better led opponents was one of total failure, with major losses at Pea Ridge, Iuka, and Corinth. Further, in the upcoming campaign to seize control of his native state, he would be somewhat blinded by his belief that his mere presence in Missouri would result in an influx of what he personally estimated at more than 30,000 new volunteers to the Southern cause.

Shelby, Fagan, Marmaduke In mounting this invasion of Missouri, Price was given three division commanders of varying quality. The first of them, General Joseph Shelby was, without doubt, the best of the lot and, was, in fact, one of the better Southern commanders operating in the Trans-Mississippi. His cavalry of Missouri volunteers had performed well at Wilson’s Creek and he had led several highly successful raids into Missouri. However, the other two division commanders, General John Marmaduke and General James Fagan, were another matter. Neither was particularly competent and they were classic examples of officers who would never have risen to their current levels of command in any other theater of the war. Marmaduke was a West Point graduate, but that had not translated into military success. His most noteworthy achievements to date had been getting shot at Shiloh and then killing his former commander, General Lucius Walker, in a duel precipitated by Marmaduke’s charges of cowardice against Walker. Fagan, meanwhile, was a minor politician and farmer from Arkansas who had seen undistinguished service at Shiloh and Corinth. After the latter, he apparently crossed the ill-tempered Braxton Bragg and was exiled across the Mississippi, back to Arkansas.

Worst of all, however, was the fact that, like seemingly all Confederate military organizations west of the Appalachians, Price’s new army would be beset by petty jealousies and bickering. Shelby despised Marmaduke and the two officers quarreled constantly. At the same time, both Fagan and Marmaduke distrusted Price and Price considered Marmaduke utterly incompetent. As a result, there was no command cohesion whatsoever, and a cloud of disharmony and ill will constantly hung over the command organization. Needless to say, this lingering atmosphere of jealousy, hatred, and distrust, combined with a distinct shortage of military aptitude, did not bode well for any chances of success.

General William Rosecrans However, the opposing command organization was not much better off. The Department of Missouri in St. Louis was led by General William Rosecrans, former commander of the Union’s Army of the Cumberland. Rosecrans, much beloved by the soldiers of that army, was a man forced to come painfully to grip with his own limitations. While he did lead his army to victory on January 2, 1863 at Stone’s River, “Old Rosy” was slow, unaggressive, and plodding by nature, preferring to seek bloodless “victories” through maneuver rather than via direct confrontation. This approach seemed to work, as he used it to chase Bragg’s army from Tennessee into northern Georgia, capturing the key city of Chattanooga in the process. But when Rosecrans met Bragg in battle at Chickamauga in September 1863, he discovered that he had exceeded his abilities. Bragg smashed his army, driving it back into Chattanooga, and trapping it. Rosecrans became utterly paralyzed and could see no way to break the siege. His incapacity led to Lincoln’s famous appraisal that Rosecrans was acting “confused and stunned like a duck hit on the head.” He was relieved of command in November 1863 and sent into exile in Missouri.

General Alfred Pleasonton Rosecrans was supported in Missouri by General Alfred Pleasonton, the former cavalry chief of the Army of the Potomac. Pleasanton was a professional soldier and a classic example of the “careerist” who excels at political maneuvering. His only true skills involved his ability to take credit for his subordinates’ successes and ensure they received any blame for his failures. Historian Eric Wittenberg, an acknowledged expert on Civil War cavalry operations and leaders, describes Pleasonton as “a lead from the rear kind of a guy who was a masterful schemer and political intriguer…the sort of guy who would start a fight on the playground and then step back and watch the chaos that he had started.” Like Rosecrans, he was also overly cautious and his greatest military achievement was assigning General John Buford to command the cavalry screen on the Army of the Potomac’s left as it approached Gettysburg. Buford’s decision to fight on the ground around that Pennsylvania town was a key factor in the Union victory and one for which Pleasonton tried take full credit. While George Meade could not see through Pleasonton, Ulysses Grant could and he sent the cavalryman packing to join Rosecrans in Missouri, where the two of them could do as little harm as possible.

The orders to undertake Price’s Raid came from General Kirby Smith, commander of all Confederate forces in the Trans-Mississippi, on August 4, 1864, and they reflect Price’s convincing arguments to Smith that a host of new recruits awaited them in Missouri.

GENERAL: You will make immediate arrangements for a movement into Missouri, with the entire cavalry force of your district. General Shelby should be instructed to have his command in Northeast Arkansas ready to move by the 20th instant. You can instruct him to await your arrival with the column immediately under your command. A brigade of Louisiana troops, under Colonel Harrison, has been ordered to report to you. They should be added to General Marmaduke's command, and with his old brigade constitute his division. General Clark should be transferred to the command of Marmaduke's old brigade…General Shelby's old brigade, increased by the one raised in East Arkansas can be organized into a division under his immediate command. General Fagan will command the division composed of Cabell's and Crawford's brigades. These skeleton organizations are best adapted for an expedition in which a large addition to your force is expected. These weak brigades should be filled by the regiments raised in Missouri…You will scrupulously avoid all wanton acts of destruction and devastation, restrain your men, and impress upon them that their aim should be to secure success in a just and holy cause and not to gratify personal feeling and revenge. Rally the loyal men of Missouri, and remember that our great want is men, and that your object should be, if you cannot maintain yourself in that country, to bring as large an accession as possible to our force…Make Saint Louis the objective point of your movement, which, if rapidly made, will put you in possession of that place, its supplies, and military stores, and which will do more toward rallying Missouri to your standard than the possession of any other point. Should you be compelled to withdraw from the State, make your retreat through Kansas and the Indian Territory, sweeping that country of its mules, horses, cattle, and military supplies of all kinds.

Governor Reynolds The other thing that is clear from General Smith’s orders is that the entire concept of seizing Jefferson City and reinstating Governor Thomas Reynolds and his government, which had been operating in exile from Texas, was entirely Price’s, as was the idea of fomenting a general insurrection in the state designed to hasten Lincoln’s downfall in the election. Price, ever the dreamer, saw his raid as being far more than merely a military operation intended to secure supplies and recruits. He sought to right the wrong done to him and other Confederate sympathizers by Federal authorities at the war’s outset and forever place Missouri in an independent and victorious Confederacy. As a result, he even summoned Governor Reynolds and his staff from Texas and had them accompany the army into Missouri.

Price collected 4,000 cavalry near Princeton, Arkansas, and took them to Pocahontas, just south of the Missouri border, where he rendezvoused with Shelby, Fagan, and Marmaduke’s divisions. In total, his newly anointed “Army of Missouri” numbered just over 16,000 men, with 12 artillery pieces and a huge, ponderous wagon train intended to carry the tons of supplies Price would supposedly seize during the raid. However, this new army was very much a hollow organization. Many of the so-called regiments contained nothing but a few officers and support staff, all of whom were to command the flood of new recruits to be garnered as the army moved north. Worst of all, however, only about two-thirds of Price’s men were armed. Apparently, the Federal arsenal in St. Louis would provide them with weapons once it was taken. Until then, almost 5,000 Confederate soldiers would venture into Missouri capable of only hurling rocks at the enemy. On September 19, Price and his army entered Missouri and he reported his men were “in fine health and spirits. We found the roads very rough and bad, but have not suffered much from that cause.”

Price's Raid-Map In St. Louis, General Rosecrans had been aware of Price’s activities, but believed General Steele and his Union army in Little Rock would do something to prevent Price from moving north. As a result, when he learned Price had entered the state, he was surprised and began to hastily consolidate his scattered force of some 11,000 men, calling for reinforcements. General Sherman responded to Rosecrans’ urgent plea for help by immediately sending 4,500 veteran infantrymen from General Andrew Smith’s XVI Corps of the Army of the Tennessee to St. Louis. However, before those reinforcements began to arrive, Rosecrans received the unpleasant news that Price’s army was approaching Pilot Knob and a hexagonal Federal earthwork known as Fort Davidson, only 75 miles south of St. Louis.

Ft Davidson Rosecrans had long believed that Price’s objective would be western Missouri, where Confederate sympathies were strongest, and, therefore, he thought this reported “army” approaching St. Louis was just a small force conducting a feint. Still, he needed to know for sure, so he dispatched General Thomas Ewing, Jr. to Fort Davidson to assess the situation. Upon arriving there, Ewing quickly realized that the force approaching Pilot Knob was no feint. He mistakenly estimated its strength as 19,000 men, badly outnumbering Fort Davidson’s garrison of 1,100 men supported by 13 cannon and three mortars. Ewing exchanged messages with Rosecrans, but the latter provided no clear guidance. Therefore, to his credit, Ewing decided to hold the fort and fight it out.

General Thomas Ewing At the same time, the Confederate camp was experiencing disagreement over what to do about Fort Davidson. General Shelby argued that Price should simply go around the fort and move quickly to seize St. Louis. However, Price saw a great opportunity for a quick and resounding victory here. He knew that his army was far superior in numbers to the Union garrison and then there was the matter of General Ewing being in command. Ewing was hated by the state’s pro-Southern community as the man who had issued the infamous Order No. 11, which initiated the forcible deportation of thousands of “disloyal” Missouri families from four counties and included the confiscation or destruction of their farms and homes. In Price’s mind, a victory over Ewing and the capture of Fort Davidson would cause thousands to rally to him. Therefore, he overrode Shelby and ordered an assault on the fort for the morning of September 27.

Assault on Ft Davidson Unfortunately, what should have been an easy victory turned into a mismanaged debacle. Price’s spies told him that there were unarmed civilians inside the fort, and that portions of the Union garrison were secretly Southern sympathizers who would not fire on Price’s men. On hearing this Fagan and Marmaduke argued that a mere show of force would bring surrender. So, Price cancelled his planned pre-assault artillery bombardment in order to spare civilian lives and ordered a massive frontal assault across hundreds of yards of open ground, hoping the sight of such an impressive force would, indeed, bring the desired capitulation of the fort. Instead, it brought the opposite. The attacking columns were poorly coordinated and Ewing’s men did not flee. Rather, they used their artillery with great effectiveness, slaughtering Price’s men as they crossed the flat, open fields surrounding the fort. As night fell, Price called off the attack, having suffered more than 1,000 casualties to Ewing’s 75. He had truly managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

That night, Price and his divided commanders debated what to do next. As they argued, the stillness of the night was broken by a series of massive explosions. When the morning dawned, Price discovered that Ewing had not only successfully gotten the entire garrison safely away, but had destroyed the fort and all its supplies by blowing up the magazine with a slow burning fuse. Then, his morning got even worse when spies arrived from St. Louis and informed him that Smith’s infantry had arrived in the city. With Union force defending St, Louis now outnumbering his, Price elected to abandon his original plans. Rather than attempt to take St. Louis, he would veer to the northwest, capture Jefferson City, and put Governor Reynolds back in the statehouse.

Governor Carney Meanwhile, despite the fact that Federal reinforcements had saved St. Louis from attack, the Union response to Price’s invasion was still disorganized and fragmented. Until the Confederate’s appeared in front of Fort Davidson, no one knew where Price was going and many felt that central Missouri or even southern Kansas might be his real target. The latter threat was taken very seriously by the Union commander of the Department of Kansas, General Samuel Curtis. However, Kansas, just like Missouri, had been stripped for the most part of any regular troops. Therefore, Curtis appealed to Governor Carney to call out the state militia and move it to the Missouri border under Curtis’ command. Unfortunately, Carney was locked in a tight reelection fight and was hesitant to call out the militia because it might cause hundreds of his supporters to be away from the polls on election day. General Samuel Curtis He was about to agree to the mobilization of a few units when word reached him that Price was at Pilot Knob on the far eastern edge of Missouri. Carney told Curtis that Price posed no immediate threat and halted the mobilization.

While Governor Carney worried about his reelection in Kansas, General Price was conducting his raid as though it was also a political campaign. On September 30, after a brief feint towards St. Louis, he headed for Jefferson City, moving the army at a leisurely pace of only 10 miles a day. This allowed the men to liberally forage for food and supplies, which quickly turned into wholesale pillaging that filled the wagons with booty and, in the words of Shelby’s distraught adjutant, Major John Edwards, also added a “rabble of deadheads, stragglers, and stolen negroes” to the column. In addition, Price took every opportunity to stop and make eloquent speeches in each village and town along the way. If one had not known better, it would have appeared more like Price was seeking election than conducting a military operation. So, as he “campaigned” his way towards Jefferson City, Rosecrans was able to respond to the new threat, organizing state militia units and regular troops to defend the capital city and placing them under the command of General Pleasonton.

In addition, General Pleasonton’s cavalry were now ranging close to Price’s column and were beginning to impact his foraging activities, as demonstrated by one report from the 17th Illinois Cavalry:


SIR: I have the honor to report that on the 30th ultimo, under orders from headquarters District of Rolla., I marched with two battalions, 15 officers and 450 men, to Saint James. The enemy had not appeared at that point, but was reported at Knob View, six miles beyond. Marching rapidly forward, I found the enemy, reported 150 strong, had burned a few cars, plundered a store, and fled southeast before our approach. This side of Knob View I overtook a drove of beef-cattle, numbering from 75 to 100, moving toward the rebel lines. Taking them to be supplies for the rebel army, I arrested the parties in charge, and sent them and the cattle back to Captain Ferguson, in command at Saint James, with instructions to send all to Rolla. The command marched along the railroad toward Cuba, and just at dark the rear of a column was discovered crossing the track to the left. Thick woods and darkness prevented a vigorous pursuit. They went down Brush Creek to the north, and were probably the same party that committed the depredations at Knob View. The command encamped at Cuba. The enemy, from 200 to 400 in number, had visited Cuba the previous night, burning the station-house and warehouse, tearing up the railroad track, and leaving about midnight. I sent Sergeant Stafford, Company L, and three men to Steelville, who returned at 5 a.m., and reported that no enemy in force had appeared at that point. I could obtain no reliable information of the enemy.

I have the honor to remain, your obedient servant,

JOHN L. BEVERIDGE, Colonel Seventeenth Illinois Cavalry

As Price made his lethargic approach to Jefferson City, and as indicated in Colonel Beveridge’s report, he also made every effort to destroy property and railroad facilities. General Fagan’s men destroyed the depot in De Soto, while another group cut the rail line near Franklin and burned the depot in that town. Troops from Marmaduke’s division were responsible for the destruction of the Cuba depot, tore up several miles of Pacific Southwest track, and destroyed the rail bridge over the Moselle River. Another of Marmaduke’s brigades took possession of the town of Washington without opposition, and destroyed all the rail lines within two miles.

1860s Jefferson City On October 7, Price finally arrived at the outskirts of Jefferson City. He launched a few probing attacks on the city and soon discovered he had again been beaten to the punch by Rosecrans. In his view, the city could not be taken and he would abandon that objective as well. This caused him to clash violently with Governor Reynolds, who could see the prospect of Confederate control of Missouri rapidly slipping away. Price elected to move west “in the direction of Kansas, as instructed in my original orders, hoping to be able to capture a sufficient number of arms to arm my unarmed men at Boonville, Sedalia, Lexington, and Independence, places which I intended to occupy with my troops en route.”

Two days later, with Price comfortably camped at Boonville, the Federal strategy for dealing with the raid shifted dramatically from one of a passive, static defense to an active defense. Rosecrans realized that Price’s move west provided an opportunity for pursuit and even destruction of the Confederate army. He sent his newly arrived infantry marching west across the state and ordered Pleasonton to use his cavalry to chase and harass Price’s column. As Smith’s 4,000 foot soldiers quickly moved out, Pleasonton organized a force of 4,100 cavalry under General John Sanborn and ordered them to find Price, follow him, and attack the rear of his army at every opportunity. Sanborn and his troopers rode hard to the west following Price’s trail and, by the time Price left Boonville on October 13, they were already snapping at his heels.

General James Blunt Price’s turn westward also served to wake up Governor Carney in Kansas. Carney could no longer wish the Confederate threat away and, on October 9, he called out 4,000 regular state troops and some 10,000 militiamen, sending them to the Missouri border under the command of General James Blunt. Their call-up occurred so quickly, there was no opportunity to provide uniforms to the militia. Instead, they were all issued red badges to wear and many added to this by stuffing fallen leaves in their hatbands, causing them to anoint themselves as the “Sumach Militia.” One of them later recalled, “We were about as inefficient a force as could have been mobilized anywhere on earth to check the advance of a seasoned army.”

Blunt, along with General Curtis, moved the mixed force of regulars and militia across the Missouri border to the line of the Big Blue River. This crossing of a state line caused many of the militiamen to complain that such a move was illegal, and that they should not be required to fight on Missouri soil. A few near mutinies broke out, but eventually Curtis convinced the Kansas men that they would go no further east than the Big Blue and soon had them digging fortifications along the west bank of the river.

While the Kansas militia prepared for Price’s appearance, he continued to move west at a comfortable pace of only 11 miles a day. Pleasonton’s constant attacks caused him to realize he was being pursued, but he still did not hasten the pace of his cavalry, which was being outraced even by Smith’s Union infantry and was also now closing in on his rear. Then, on October 19, Price ran into a detachment of Blunt’s men in Lexington. The Federals were badly outnumbered and quickly retreated back across the Little Blue River. But the brief firefight made Price realize that he was now facing a threat in both his front and rear. However, despite this, he ordered the army to continue west towards Independence, Westport, and Kansas City, as his original orders from Kirby Smith specified. Worst of all, he elected to keep the wagon train of captured supplies and loot with him. The train had now reached almost 600 wagons and they were greatly responsible for slowing his men down. But General Smith had ordered he take the wagons to gather supplies and Price seemed determined to at least achieve some of the raid’s objectives, no matter the potential cost.

Bloody Bill Anderson As far as the objective of garnering 30,000 new recruits, Price had failed there as well. While his men rested in Boonville, he had managed to bring in about 1,500 recruits and most of them were unarmed. Some of the Southern sanctioned guerilla groups also rode in and attached themselves to his army. Quantrill’s raiders, who were now operating under the leadership of George Todd, arrived and were assigned to serve as scouts for Shelby’s division. However, the most interesting addition was “Bloody Bill” Anderson’s command. Anderson showed up asking to see General Price fresh from a raid on Centralia, where he had captured then murdered 150 Federal soldiers. Worse yet, Anderson and his men rode into camp with a collection of human scalps laid across their saddle, trophies of their recent victory. Price steadfastly refused to meet with Anderson until the scalps were destroyed. Once they were discarded, Price welcomed Anderson into his army.

On October 22, Shelby’s division approached the Big Blue River and found the far bank blocked by Curtis’ Kansas regiments. Rather than attack this main line, Shelby wisely elected to force his way across the river at Byram’s Ford, where the Union line was not nearly as strong. Price personally directed the attack across the river, smashing several Kansas regiments and nearly annihilating another in fighting on the Mockbee farm. Curtis, seeing the danger of being cut off by Price, elected to retreat to Westport, south of Kansas City. At first, Price savored what he believed to be a major victory. However, he was soon informed that, while he was fighting along the Big Blue, Alfred Pleasonton’s cavalry had savagely attacked his rear guard and was pressing forward. With Curtis and Blunt aligned in front of Price, Pleasonton coming on strong from the east, and a total of 29,000 men on the field, the stage was set for the largest battle to be fought west of the Mississippi.

 Battle of Westport-Map Price elected to face Curtis’ troops aligned on the north side of Brush Creek with Shelby and Fagan’s divisions, while Marmaduke was assigned to hold Pleasonton at the Big Blue River. Price planned to attack the Union lines but, shortly after sunrise on October 23, the Federals beat him to the punch. The first Union assaults were turned back, with Shelby’s men continuing to fight well, as they had throughout the campaign. However, early in the afternoon, a local farmer showed Curtis a narrow gulch that would provide a small force sufficient cover to penetrate the Confederate lines undetected. The Union general ordered the 9th Wisconsin Artillery and troopers from the 11th Kansas to follow the gulch and, when in position in Shelby’s rear, to set up their guns and open fire.

Shelby's men at Westport As the Union force moved undetected toward Shelby’s rear, things fell apart for Price along the Big Blue. Despite being outnumbered by Marmaduke’s division, Pleasonton’s cavalry smashed his lines with a ferocious attack. They Union cavalry, fighting dismounted, quickly engulfed Marmaduke’s lines and sent the Confederate cavalry reeling back towards Westport. Then, as Marmaduke was retreating, the Wisconsin battery emerged from the gully and began to bombard Shelby’s men from their rear. Almost simultaneous with this surprise, Blunt led the rest of the Kansas regiments across Bush Creek against both Shelby and Fagan’s front. The fighting became increasingly violent and, when he learned of Marmaduke’s disastrous engagement, Price realized he was about to crushed in a vice between Curtis and Pleasonton. He ordered some of Shelby’s men to shift east and slow down Pleasonton, while he sent the rest of the army into a full retreat south down the Fort Scott Road, where their wagon train was already headed.

Luckily, there was no immediate Federal pursuit. Feeling their men were too worn out from the fighting, Curtis and Pleasonton paused. But, the next day, Pleasonton’s cavalry was, once again, in full headlong pursuit of the fleeing Army of Missouri. On October 25, they overtook Price’s column, which continued to be slowed by their 600 wagons. One Confederate trooper described the massive train as moving like “a gorged anaconda dragging its huge body over the prairie.” As the pursuing Union horsemen approached, Shelby’s division and part of the wagon train had made it to the south side of the creek. Then, as Pleasonton’s men appeared, several wagons overturned midstream, clogging the ford. Fagan and Marmaduke set up a defensive line on the north side of the creek, hoping to hold off the Union cavalry until the rest of the wagons could get across.

Mine Creek Without pausing, the 2,600 Union cavalrymen charged, sweeping Fagan and Marmaduke’s men aside and destroying much of the wagon train, which was hopelessly stalled along the creek. In only 30 minutes of fighting, Price lost 300 men killed and wounded, with another 900 captured. Riding back from the head of the column to see what had happened, Price found the remnants of his army “retreating in utter and indescribable confusion.” Price’s raid, once so full of promise, had turned into an unmitigated disaster.

For their part, the Union commanders were satisfied, and decided not to pursue Price any further. The Army of Missouri would slowly wend its way back towards Arkansas. The weather turned cold and the loss of supplies from the wagons began to take a toll on the army. Starving, hungry soldiers trudged south, but more and more began to desert the column, heading for their homes, never to return to service. Finally, on December 2, the army reached Laynesport, Arkansas, with only 3,500 men left from the nearly 16,000 who had set out for Missouri in September. The last campaign of the Trans-Mississippi was over. The only positive thing gained by either side was that the guerilla groups who had joined Price remained with his army and left Missouri for good, finally freeing the people from their reign of terror.

For several of the key participants, men who had been such failures up to this point, the outcome of Price’s Raid did not improve their lot. Disgusted by Rosecrans’ slow response to the raid, Ulysses Grant dismissed the Union general from command of the Department of Missouri, and he left the army shortly after the end of the war. As for Sterling Price, he was attacked in the press for his poor leadership, attacks he referred to as a “tissue of falsehoods.” Price demanded a court of inquiry be convened to exonerate him, and Kirby Smith agreed to his request. Sterling Price MonumentThe court was convened in Shreveport the following April, but was forced to adjourn when word was received that the war had ended. Price left the country, moving to Mexico, where he offered his services to Emperor Maximilian. Following the downfall of the puppet French government and Maximilian’s execution, Price returned home to settle in St. Louis, where he died in 1867, finally reaching the city whose capture was denied him during his great raid into Missouri.