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Trans-Mississippi Musings

Price’s 1864 Missouri Raid – Byram’s Ford – October 22, 1864

Posted by The Muse (themuse) on Oct 22 2013
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Major-General Samuel R. Curtis [Library of Congress]]Major General Sterling Price [Library of Congress]When Major-General Samuel R. Curtis realized that the Confederate army commanded by Major General Sterling Price was headed for Kansas, he had used his engineering experience to identify the best position for his defensive line. By the night of October 21, Major-General Samuel R. Curtis had all of his forces at his first line of defense on the west banks of the Big Blue River. Curtis described the troop deployments in his official report. [1]

I divided the forces … from the Missouri River, to the crossing of the Blue, near Hickman Mills, a distance of fifteen or sixteen miles … with the immense display of abatis and other field-works which had been erected under the supervision of General Deitzler, Colonel Blair, and my staff officers, I was ready to receive the enemy on the 22d … altogether about 15,000, were … resolved to check or defeat the long continued progress of Price's army of 30,000.

Major-General Samuel R. Curtis felt good about te defensive position on the Big Blue River. Curtis had received word from Major-General William Rosecrans, commanding in Missouri, that his Federal cavalry had reached Lexington and that Major General Andrew J. Smith's infantry would reach Lexington by nightfall. At 5:00 p.m. on October 21, Curtis sent the following telegram to Rosecrans: [2]

I am confident I can stop Price at this crossing, and hope you will come up in his rear and left so he cannot get out by Hickman Mills. If you can get that position we bag Price, if I succeed, as I hope to do. My losses have been considerable, but my troops are in good order, and ready to make a stand at this place.

Major-General James G. Blunt [Library of Congress]But Curtis’ second-in-command, Major-General James G. Blunt was not sanguine about the Federal defense line. Blunt was in command of a Cavalry Division of Federal Volunteers in the Federal Army of the Border. After the war, Blunt described his dissatisfaction with the Federal defensive line at the Big Blue River. [3]

During the evening of the 21st, we fell back … here again a disagreement arose between General Curtis and myself relative to the probable movements of Price the following day … I believed that he would only make a feint in front, while with his main army he would flank us on the right,, and cross the Big Blue at one of the upper fords.

In the meantime, Confederate Major General Sterling Price had several issues with which he needed to deal. He needed to move his large wagon train away to safety. But with a large Federal force in front of him, Price would need to neutralize that threat to his army. And with a large Federal force in his rear, Price would need to neutralize that threat as well. Price described how he proceeded in his official report: [4]

On the morning of the 22d I left Independence. The enemy had fallen back to Big Blue, on the Kansas City road, to a position strong by nature and strengthened by fortifications … [with an army of] between 6,000 and 8,000 men. Receiving this information I determined to advance on the Santa Fé road.

Major John Edwards [Biography, Memoirs, Reminiscences and Recollections by Edwards]After the long day of fighting, Shelby’s Division spent the night in Independence. Major John Edwards, serving as Brigadier General Jo Shelby’s adjutant, remembered the events after the Confederates had driven the Federals out of Independence, Missouri. [5]

The army camped in and around Independence during the night of the 21st … The morning of the 22d came cold and raw, with a dry northeast wind and a breath of gloom in the air. Very early Shelby sent his laconic order to Jackman … “Move forward immediately, Colonel, and attack anything and everything before you wearing a blue coat.”

Colonel Sydney Jackman [Wikimedia Commons]Shelby ordered Confederate Colonel Sydney Jackman to make the feint against the Federals at the main ford over the Big Blue River and hold fast until Price's wagon train had gotten safely past. [6]

On the morning of the 22d, after having encamped the night previous at Independence, I was ordered out on the Kansas City road, with instructions to drive back the force of the enemy engaging our pickets on that road. When on reaching the point designated General Shelby arrived and directed me to turn to the right and guard the right flank of the army until the train passed.

Colonel Charles R. Jennison [WICR 31691 in the collection of Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield. Image courtesy of the National Park Service]Major-General James G. Blunt had ordered Colonel Charles R. Jennison to take his First Brigade and establish a defensive line at Byram's Ford on the Big Blue River. Jennison described his preparations in his official report. [7]

On the morning of the 22d I was ordered with the brigade to Byram's Crossing of the Big Blue … obstructing the ford of the river by felling timber, &c. About 11 a.m. the enemy's advance made its appearance at the ford, attacking our outposts and attempting to force a crossing. The ford was so effectually obstructed, however, and in its condition wholly impassable for artillery, that for some hours little progress was made.

Blunt's prediction that Price would only feint at the main crossing and then attempt to flank the Federal defensive line proved to be accurate. At 9:00 a.m. on October 22, Curtis realized the enemy was shifting to the right and sent an urgent message to General M. S. Grant, who was in command of the Kansas State Militia on the Federal right flank [8]

The enemy found our center too strong, and signal officers reported a movement of the enemy southward, evidently designed to flank us. I … sent a dispatch to the extreme right as follows: “Price is making very feeble demonstrations in front. Look out for your position. Send scouts out on road toward Pleasant Hill, and also toward Independence, to see if he is moving on my flank.”

The First Brigade of Kansas Volunteer Cavalry was unable to hold the ford. Colonel Charles R. Jennison wrote in his official report how he was forced to withdraw from Byram's Ford after being flanked on both sides by the Confederates. [9]

The First Brigade held the enemy effectually in check … until about 3 p.m., when it became evident that he had succeeded in crossing considerable bodies, both above and below, and was rapidly flanking us both on the right and left. Upon this intelligence … it was determined to retire in the direction of Westport or Kansas City, toward which it was evident the efforts of the enemy were directed … the brigade commenced to retreat toward Westport, contesting every foot of ground.

Brigadier-General M. Jeff Thompson [WICR 31454 in the collection of Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield. Image courtesy of the National Park Service]
Confederate Brigadier-General M. Jeff Thompson led Shelby’s Iron Brigade in the fight for Byram’s Ford. Thompson wrote in his official report describing the fighting done at the Big Blue River by his brigade on October 22. [10]

[We] were soon ordered to take a left-hand road and push for the Big Blue River to force a crossing south of the main crossing. We soon reached the point indicated and found that the enemy had obstructed the crossing by felling trees, and were disposed to dispute our passage. A portion of the brigade were dismounted, and in the face of the enemy waded the stream and made a lodgment upon the west bank. Others soon followed, and we drove the enemy.

Colonel Thomas Moonlight [Library of Congress]Colonel Thomas Moonlight was in command of the Second Brigade defending Simmon's Ford on the Big Blue River when he realized that Jennison had been forced to withdraw. Moonlight quickly pulled his men out of their defenses and headed west to support Jennison. Moonlight described in his official report how he had withdrawn and turned to fight the enemy. [11]

At Big Blue, on the [22d], the Second Brigade was ordered to hold Simmons' Ford, and report the movements of the enemy. None coming, and the First Brigade at Byram's Ford retreating, the Second Brigade in double-quick whipped around by Westport and met the enemy on the State line, checked his advance into Kansas, and by the setting of the sun drove him back over into Missouri.

After being flanked at Byram's Ford, Colonel Charles R. Jennison was forced into a fighting withdrawal. Pushed all the way back to the Kansas border, Colonel Thomas Moonlight arrived with the Second Brigade and the Federals were able to counterattack. They succeeded in moving Shelby's men back several miles back east. Jennison described the fighting in his official report. [12]

Upon reaching the Line road we were joined by Colonel Moonlight's command … to resist the advance of the enemy under Shelby … Skirmishers were immediately deployed from both brigades, and in a few minutes the action was commenced along the entire line, entirely with small-arms … the rebels, being closely pressed by our skirmish lines, wavered for a moment, and then began to give ground … [falling] back in confusion to the cover of the timber some two or three miles distant, closely followed by our forces.

It was Confederate Brigadier-General M. Jeff Thompson leading this fight, but Federal Colonel Charles R. Jennison did not panic. It was a fighting withdrawal all the way, which gave time for Federal Colonel Thomas Moonlight to come to Jennison's support. Confederate Brigadier-General Jo Shelby described this engagement in his official report. [13]

Thompson drove everything before him on the right within sight of the domes and spires of Westport, and then the Federals got stubborn and re-enforced on him, holding a heavy skirt of timber that fringed the lower edge of a large field.

[1]OR Series 1, Volume 41, Part 1, 479.

[2]OR Series 1, Volume 41, Part 4, 164.

[3]Blunt, General Blunt's Account of His Civil War Experiences, 257.

[4]Monnett, Action Before Westport, 77; OR Series 1, Volume 41, Part 1, 634.

[5]OR Series 1, Volume 41, Part 1, 657-658; Edwards, Shelby and His Men, 424.

[6]OR Series 1, Volume 41, Part 1, 675.

[7]OR Series 1, Volume 41, Part 1, 584; Blunt, General Blunt's Account of His Civil War Experiences, 257.

[8]OR Series 1, Volume 41, Part 1, 479.

[9]OR Series 1, Volume 41, Part 1, 584.

[10]OR Series 1, Volume 41, Part 1, 666-667.

[11]OR Series 1, Volume 41, Part 1, 630; Ponder, Price's 1864 Invasion, 86-87.

[12]OR Series 1, Volume 41, Part 1, 584-585.

[13]OR Series 1, Volume 41, Part 1, 658.

Last changed: Oct 22 2013 at 8:11 AM