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Trans-Mississippi Musings

Tour Stop, “Federal Advance to Bloody Hill”

[Waypoint = 39.01639, -94.522273]

Tour stop in Google MapsTour Stop DescriptionTour Stop Video


Walk about 75 yards or so into the middle of the meadow to a point where you can look west down E 60th Street.


Map of initial Freeman's Skirmish Line

Map of Federal advance toward Bloody Hill by theCivilWarMuse based on USGS 1935 Kansas City Quadrangle

(Click map for larger image)

You are still standing on or near the Historic Byram’s Ford Road. It went due west for a few hundred yards before veering to the left (south) where it passed through a break in the rock outcroppings (as does present day Manchester Trafficway).

After Major General Alfred Pleasonton had straightened out his advance at Byram’s Ford, he ordered Colonel Edward F. Winslow to take overall charge of the attack. Winslow ordered Colonel John F. Philips to take the First Brigade down the Byram’s Ford Road and attack across the river. Winslow sent Captain Edward Dee with the Third Battalion off to the right to cross the river. Winslow, himself, was going to lead the remainder of his brigade across the river to the right of the Byram’s Ford Road.

As we discovered earlier in the tour, the First Brigade led by Philips got bogged down trying to cross the river. But Dee’s Battalion did get across with little opposition. Once they opened fire on the left flank of the Confederate Skirmish line, the rebels quickly pulled back across the meadow. Now Philips’ and Winslow’s’ Brigades were able to get across to the west side of the river.

So Philips’ Brigade was across the river on the Federal left astride the Byram’s Ford Road. To their right was Winslow’s Brigade which had filled the gap between Philips’ Brigade and Dee’s Battalion from the Fourth Iowa Cavalry.

Look to the west. Just on the other side of the railroad tracks (not present in 1864) was another Confederate skirmish line. Today it’s a thicket of trees and shrubs and screens our view of the Pepsi Beverages Co. buildings. But under all those trees and shrubs is a rock ledge rising 15 to 20 feet above the railroad tracks. Behind this natural defensive position were more Confederates.

The Federals were going to have to cross almost 500 yards of open ground to reach the Confederate position. Philips’ Brigade advanced to the left of the road. Winslow’s Brigade advanced to the right of the road, with Dee’s Battalion further to the right. As they advanced, the Federals continually received volleys of small arms and artillery fire.

It was during the advance over this open ground that the men in the First Brigade began running low on ammunition. Colonel Philips sent word back to bring up more ammunition, after which the advance continued.

Now you’re one of the Federal volunteers from Missouri fighting in Philips’ Brigade. You just crossed the river by wading through the frigid water with your gun and ammunition held above your head. Next you scrambled up the slippery embankment and emerged from the trees into the open. You cheer as you see the backs of the enemy skirmishers running west. But now you realize it’s a long ways across open ground to reach the next line of the enemy. The only cover for hundreds of yards are the tree stumps left behind after trees were felled to hinder the river crossing. Small arms and artillery fire continue to rain down on your position. You crawl on your belly to get behind one of those stumps. The explosions of artillery shells are deafening. A piece of shrapnel goes whizzing by your head. Now you hear somebody yell for everyone to get up and charge the enemy at the double-quick.

The men of Philips’ Brigade had dismounted to get across the river. As the Federal advance bogged down, Colonel Winslow sent orders to Philips, telling him to charge the Confederate defense line. This Philips tried to do, but their attack was easily repulsed by the Confederate small arms and artillery fire. Next Colonel Philips ordered their horses brought to the west side of the river. Philips and the First MSM Cavalry mounted and charged in a column of fours up the Byram’s Ford Road against the enemy position. Twice they charged, Philips at the head, and twice they were repulsed by heavy enemy fire. Philips realized a cavalry charge was hopeless and told his men to dismount.

While this was occurring, Colonel Winslow led his brigade across the river and advanced forward just as Philips was falling back. Both Federal brigades tried again and were able to advance a couple of hundred yards to the west.

Historical Vignettes

Years after the war, Colonel John F. Philips remembered how difficult it was for his men to advance towards the Confederate position from this point.

"I saw that the hill must be taken and I called upon Colonel Crittenden, afterward, Governor of Missouri, and his men to storm it. I ordered him to get on all fours and crawl up. The field was full of stumps that afforded some protection and behind one of these you would see as many as five or six men strung out on their hands and knees, one behind the other in a straight line. They would rest there a minute and then break for another stump ahead."

Colonel John F. Philips wrote about the First Brigade’s attack in his official report.

"The dislodgment of the enemy from this formidable position necessitated the hurling against him the entire brigade dismounted, which was at once resolved on and done. Here the fighting was terrific. The enemy soon began to fall back, contesting every inch of ground, across the open field, about 150 yards, to the woods, where their main force was in position. My command, then occupying the position from which the enemy had just been driven, began to advance across this field, where ensued one of the fiercest and most sanguinary conflicts of the engagement. The enemy occupied not only the ground but the very tree tops, their sharpshooters having climbed into these, singling out and shooting our officers and men with fearful success, no less than one field officer and seven line officers falling on this ground. The persistent bravery of officers and men was here most admirable. Notwithstanding the ammunition of my command began to fail the position gained was held and the advance prosecuted … My ammunition train was ordered up, and as soon as the boxes were replenished I moved rapidly forward."

Major Abial R. Pierce, Fourth Iowa Cavalry, described the attack in his official report.

"The enemy was well posted behind trees and fallen timber on the opposite bank, and poured in such a destructive fire that the men halted. The third battalion, although considered relieved by General Brown's troops, were ordered by Colonel Winslow to make the charge across the river, which they did gallantly, using their Spencer carbines with great effect upon the enemy, who retreated precipitately to his main line. The first and second battalions, under commands of Captains [James T.] Drummond and [Newell B.] Dana, now came to the front, where Colonel Winslow directed me to place them in support of a battery which was to be sent forward."

Captain Richard J. Hinton, commanding the Second Kansas Colored State Militia in the Army of the Border, described the Federal advance across the open field.

"Our troops resolutely pushed forward and gained the west bank … A furious engagement commenced. Major [George W.] Kelly forming in the rear of Colonel [Thomas T.] Crittenden, the latter swung his lines quickly to the left of the road, while Major Kelly made a similar movement to the right. The rebel line was driven back for two hundred yards. They then occupied a range of low hills, extending through an open field to the left, and along a bluff covered with dense wood on our right. It was strengthened very much by high fences and some log buildings, behind which the rebels were posted."

Colonel Edward F. Winslow described this phase of the battle in his official report, beginning with his men getting across to the west bank of the Big Blue River.

"I formed on the edge of the stream one regiment of Missouri State Militia, together with the Fourth Missouri, Captain Knispel, and one battalion of the Fourth Iowa, Captain Doe, which I had previously placed there, and ordered a charge upon the enemy on the other bank. The enemy were at once driven back upon his main line, half a mile farther back. Almost three companies, being partially surrounded, would have been captured from the enemy but for awkwardness or negligence on the part of some militia officers. Dismounting two other regiments of Missouri State Militia, and directing Captains Knispel and Dee to hold their commands in reserve, and at the same time ordering forward my whole command, I advanced upon the main position of the enemy. Their line was formed in the edge of a long piece of timber, just on the brow of the rising ground, while in front was a fine open stretch of clearing descending gradually to the river. When within 400 yards of the enemy I directed the line to advance rapidly and drive them from the timber. This was well commenced only, when the whole line gave way under the fire of the enemy and retreated in disorder to the reserve, where I succeeded in reforming the broken detachment."

In his book, The Battle of Westport, Paul B. Jenkins described the situation faced by the First Brigade after they got across the Big Blue River.

"On getting all the men of his brigade across the river Colonel [John F.] Philips urged them at a double-quick through the woods on the west bank to charge the Confederates' second position without delay. Before that position, as it has been described, there lay a wide, open field, forming the face of the hill, some three hundred yards square, steep and with stumps and rocks cropping out everywhere. There was no way directly to attack the strong position of Marmaduke's men on the crest of this hill except by moving directly up the hill through this open field, which the Confederate cannon and musketry-fire completely commanded, and which was instantly swept by sheets of lead and iron at the first appearance of Philips' men in the timber at its lower edge. Twice Colonel Philips tried to force a charge up the hill, but although he—the only mounted man among the Federals at the moment—rode ahead of them, the fire down the slope was so fierce that even the veterans of his command would not face it, and lay down on the ground behind the stumps and rocks and began to answer the enemy with their rifles, carbines and Colt's revolvers."