The Battle of The Blue

The Battle of The Blue
Rebel forces charge the Topeka Battery at Mockbee farm, original painting by Benjamin Mileham

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Sacrifice and Redemption

“And let’s not be dainty of leavetaking,
But shift away.  There’s warrant in that theft
Which steals itself, when there’s no mercy left.”
(Macbeth.   Act 2.  Scene 3.)

 The afternoon of Tuesday, October 25th was dwindling down toward evening as the Rebel Army of General Price continued it's running battle with the Union Cavalry, fleeing southeast and back into Missouri.  The ground was strewn with castoff supplies and equipment that the Rebels considered expendable as they tried to lighten the loads of their wagon train: books, hardware, whiskey barrels and in one case a dozen or so new axes.  The misery of the prisoners from the 2nd Kansas Militia continued to grow as they were forced onward and in some cases the prisoners that were too weak to stumble any further were allowed to ride one of the spare horses to speed things along.  In spite of the welcome rest this provided, as soon as they noticed one of their group in poor condition they would give up their spot and to the unfortunate fellow and on it went.  Elias Williams was especially fatigued; he had been thrown from his horse during the Battle and being over fifty years of age also worked against him. Elias and the others gamely held on though to the hope that redemption would somehow deliver them.  
   As Price's wagon train slowed to cross the Marmiton River late that afternoon, 2 Divisions of Union Cavalry appeared on a ridge in the distance.  The horses and riders on both sides were jaded to their core but the Federal Cavalry charged anyway, forcing General Shelby to once again form a battle line to protect what was left of the expedition. (this line included many men without weapons).   The weakened Federal charge met just enough resistance to convince their Commander, General John McNeil, to discontinue his pursuit after about two hours of skirmishing.  His troops were too exhausted to ride further and most of them slept next to their horses on the open prairie that night, before returning to Fort Scott, Kansas the next morning.
   The demoralized Confederate Army made camp that night in the timbered area near the Marmiton River.*  The prisoners from the 2nd were still under the guard of Lt. Sentille and Shelby's Provost Guard but as night fell, the weary guards became disconcerted and were desperate for sleep.  As the Provost Guard  moved through the confusion of men and horses seeking the proper place to bed their prisoners for the night, Sam Reader noticed how very dark it had become under the cover of the trees.  A faint hope stirred within him that the time to escape might be nearing.  He had been given the rope attached to one of the horses the prisoners had taken turns riding when a Confederate rode up to him and asked, "Where are Colonel Ellis's men?"  Sam replied that he didn't know and then the man noticed the mass of prisoners laying on the ground.  "What have you got there?"  the Rebel asked.  "Yankee prisoners." was Sam's reply. Sam continued his conversation with this man for as long as he could and eventually asked the question, "How did the battle go today?"  The man lowered his head and responded, "It went against us." The soldier went on to say that a good many men and guns had been lost and began to reign up to go on, at which point Sam kicked up the horse and left the guard line, with the excuse that he wanted a drink from the Rebel soldier's canteen.  There was no move from the Rebel guard directly behind him and Sam wondered if the man was deceived or willfully blind.  Sam continued to speak with the man and mentioned that he would go to the creek and get some water, at the same time slipping from the back of the horse and retrieving his boots.  "I see you've lost your saddle" remarked the soldier as Sam's heart lept up to his throat. "Yes I have, then I used a wagon cover and lost that too."  "Yes sir."  were the last words of this conversation as both men melted into the night.  Re-invigorated with hope, Sam was able to escape that night, keeping his wits about him as he would eventually come into contact with many more men from Price's Army before finally finding the dark creek bed and following it towards Fort Scott and freedom.
   With the Rebel Provost Guard ineffective due to exhaustion, another small group prepared to make their intended escape.  Guilford Gage, J.A.Polley and Nelson young had been hatching a plot to escape as a group for some time and tried to convince Captain A.J.Huntoon to accompany them, if possible.  Captain Huntoon knew in his heart that if he did so, he would never stop thinking of the suffering men who served under him and who relied on him as the one positive hope that they might eventually live through this ordeal.
"No boys, I can't go with you - but I'll gladly help you do it."  As Captain Huntoon was allowed more freedom to move about than the other prisoners, he was in a good position to let this group know when the right time to make their break would be.  At about  2:00 a.m. on Wednesday the 26th. the Captain noticed a great confusion as the Army prepared to move and that in this confusion the guards were still alternately laying down and trying to rest again.  Huntoon knew that this was "the moment" as the Army would be marching again soon and so he gave a signal to Gage, Polley and Young, having already told them where to find the creek bed which led to Kansas. As Captain Huntoon engaged the guard duty in conversation, he saw three shapes disappear into the darkness, and that would be the last he saw of his friends until he reached Topeka. After a few minutes had passed, the Provost Guard signaled that it was time to move again and the remaining prisoners wandered dazedly to the south.
 * This was the Drywood River, about six miles south of the battlefield at Marmiton River.

No comments:

Post a Comment