The Battle of The Blue

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

Friday, May 27, 2011

Spread Too Thin

As the morning of the 22nd. faded toward noon, the men of the 2nd. could only wait and wonder about the current position of General Price's Army and what role, if any they would play in halting his invasion.  Many of the men told themselves that their leaders were competent and would be capable of giving a rough-handling to the Confederates if they dare attack.  But no one knew how thinly the Union forces were spread along the Big Blue River as they sought to simultaneously protect the cities of Westport and Kansas City. There were some who did believe there would be a battle and that the 2nd. would be in the thick of it. James Huggins, a sinewy Missourian from Co. D, told Sam Reader as much and although Sam gave the argument that the trained soldiers of the regular army would do the bulk of the fighting, James wouldn't hear of it.  "No, you're wrong - I've dreamed it all out three different times. We're going to have a battle and I'll be killed, my dreams never fail me."  He went further and told Sam what to do if confronted by enemy artillery fire: "If you see a blue streak come from where the cannon is fired off, keep your place, you are in no danger. But if you see no blue streak, then you get out of that mighty quick for the cannon-ball is coming straight for you."
    As the 2nd Division waited, their Commander returned from his meeting at Byrom's Ford bringing with him General M.S.Grant, who was in charge of their Brigade.  The other Divisions of the Kansas Militia under General Grant's command were all nearby, strung out along the river, attempting to stay in contact with each other in case they should confront the enemy.   Colonel Veale was instructed to return to his command and make an attempt to locate the Rebel Army; the General was attempting to place his chess pieces in their proper places for the impending attack.  One wrong move could spell disaster.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Very Pleasant Morning

     The morning of October 22nd. dawned clear and frosty, with only just a perceptible breeze from the west.  Some of the men of the 2nd. were still talking about the cannonade of shots heard the night before but there was nothing to indicate that the Rebel Forces were nearby.  Quartermaster Sam Reeder and Sergeant Dan Thompson made the trip back to the farm they had passed the evening before to compensate the owner for some shock corn the troops had taken while passing.  He found there a teen-aged boy who appeared to be the head of the house and gave him a voucher for the corn.  The boy gave his name as Cuthbert Mockbee and his Mother indicated that some of their chickens had been taken as well.  Dan  replied that chickens are never issued as soldier's rations and the request had to be refused.  Sam Reader felt sorry for her as he was almost certain what she said was true but there was nothing to be done about it.
    As Sam and Dan returned to camp they saw their Regiment had passed by, going north.  They found the Command stopped on the prairie, on high ground about one quarter mile from the Mockbee house.   The mood of their comrades had lightened considerably as there was no sign of the Confederates.  Nearby a group was tossing a man in the air on a Union issued blanket while their horses grazed quietly on the dry prairie grass.  The sky was cloudless and the weather was comfortable for the use of an overcoat.  Many men would remember these few hours on the hilltop to be the pleasantest of the entire trip.
   The Commander of the 2nd. was not in the same state of mind as most of his men.  Colonel Veale knew that without support from his army or communication as to the whereabouts of the Rebels they were in an extremely vulnerable position.  He had the feeling that the 2nd. was at the extreme right of the Union forces and the Confederates would naturally find this crossing point on the River an attractive one.  Should the Enemy decide to cross at Russell's Ford, the 2nd. would be cut off and if the Rebels should cross to the right and come around their rear, they would be caught like a rat in a trap. The Colonel decided to leave with a small escort for Byram's Ford a couple miles downriver to try and make contact with the rest of the army.  Without support, the 2nd. could be caught in a vice, leaving their home state of Kansas at the mercy of  Pap Price and a few thousand  angry Rebel soldiers.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Night Before Battle is Always the Longest

The 2nd. Kansas Militia camped on the night of October 21st. in a grove of jack-oak trees above the Big Blue River.   The men messed together in groups of six or so and soon the camp was alive with crackling camp-fires and the sound of good humor under the clear, cold skies.  Several of the men remarked at the choice of the camp; it was the finest since they left Shawnee County.   As the groups of men sat enjoying themselves and telling stories, sometime before midnight they were startled to hear the far-off "boom" of cannon shots.  They came from the north-east, which was the direction of Independence and after about a half-dozen shots, the firing ceased. This evidently meant a forward movement of the Rebel forces in their direction.  Although the ominous blasts had left most of the men silent, Thomas Wallace was heard to say, "Boys, I'd rather hear the Baby cry".   In an attempt to lift the moral of Company D, Rev. A.R. Button stood in front of one of the camp-fires and said forcefully, "My stars! If old Pap Price runs up against our Indianola Company, he'll regret it the longest day he lives!"  Most of the men didn't feel as sure though, and a few later told their camp-mates, "We are going to have a battle, and I shall be killed." As many such conversations passed between the men, word was given for every man to keep his gun and horse close at hand so he could find them in the dark.  The guard was strengthened and a strong picket sent out along the stream.  As the moon finally made it's appearance after midnight, the chill of the night could be more keenly felt  amid the dying embers of  the camp-fires.  The men doubled up their blankets and slept close to one another to fend off the cold and the thoughts that raced through their minds as they drifted off to sleep that night can only be known to them.  The belief that the 2nd. would not become involved in actual engagement with the enemy had evaporated.    

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Filling the gap at Russell's Ford

On the evening of 21 October, 1864, the 2nd. Division crossed the Kansas-Missouri border and prepared to make camp at a place on the Big Blue River called Russell's Ford, Jackson Co., Missouri.  Crossing the border was not uneventful though; men from different Militia divisions, including a handful from the 2nd., balked at crossing over to Missouri.   Their fear was that once they left the state of Kansas, they could be used at the whim of the Union Army and sent to distant battlefields for the remainder of the war.  Sergeant Major Freeman Foster of the 2nd. was able to calm their fears however and persuade all the men to continue on.  With night rapidly falling, the 2nd. hurried past Brush Creek and traveled on toward the Big Blue River, heading mostly south through rolling prairie and scattered farms.  As they neared the Stream, they passed through a narrow lane bordered on both sides by a high stake fence in good repair.  Part-way down the lane on the right was a stone barn and just past it a farm-house; the men would later find out that this place was called Mockbee Farm.  Passing this farm, the road was mostly stone wall, especially on the west side and soon turned obliquely south-east down a gentle slope and ran to the River about one mile.  It was here at Russell's Ford on the Big Blue that the 2nd. spent the night.  They were part of a great mass of troops (roughly 22,000) sent to the Border; a mixture of Pro-Union Militias from Kansas and Missouri and regular U.S.Army and were known as "The Army of the Border".   Of all the possible places for the Rebel Army to invade Kansas, what were the chances it would be here?