The Battle of The Blue

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

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Question of “Support”

   The decision by General M.S. Grant to attack the Rebel forces at Mockbee Farm was seemingly a sound one – the Confederate Army was threatening to invade Grant’s home-state of Kansas and although the Division he was with (2nd.K.S.M.) was not directly supported at the time, messages had been sent to the other Divisions in the vicinity to come to their aid and repel the Rebel advance.    The problem was that although Grant knew that Colonel Veale and his men would stand against the superior manpower of the Rebels, he had only assumed that nearby divisions such as the 15th Kansas Volunteer Cavalry would do the same.  Had Grant known that the Union Division under the command of Colonel Jennison had fled the oncoming Rebel forces at Byrom’s Ford and retreated to Westport he may have realized that the wind wasn’t blowing his way on this day. Brigadier General Melvin S. Grant of the Kansas State Militia was a civilian shop-keeper from Leavenworth, Kansas and had never been in the position which he now found himself – commanding men other than his own Militia to go into battle.  It may have been na├»ve of him to undertake an assault on an unknown number of Rebels on the assumption that his message would be relayed, received and obeyed by officers he had only met briefly and by a Union Army that was disjointed and disorganized at the moment.  
    General Grant also found himself at the mercy of political events which would limit the effectiveness of his Militia forces.   Governor Thomas Carney of Kansas had been hesitant to call for the formation of local Militias on account of his own battle he was waging for re-election.   Even though Sterling Price’s Army of Missouri was rolling through that state, Governor Carney was afraid that the mobilization of troops could take hundreds of his supporters away from Kansas on election-day.  Major General Samuel R. Curtis finally convinced Carney to issue the order to form Militia units to protect Kansas, but these men had virtually no time to train and were required to use their own weapons and horses. Many of them were in their 40’s and 50’s and had never served in the military.   The  2nd. Kansas Militia from Shawnee County were one of several of these newly formed militias that now found themselves positioned at intervals along the Kansas/Missouri border and were prepared to go into battle against a large Rebel Army that was battle seasoned.   They were seemingly supported by several Divisions of regular Army units and other Kansas Militia and if the call came to fight most of the men from the 2nd.believed that they would be used in a secondary role while the professionally trained units lead the way.  The problem of adequate communication betrayed them though – and this lack of cohesion caused the be placed in the position they now found themselves in – unsupported on the battlefield in front of a growing force of Rebels under the command of Colonel Sidney Jackman that would out-number them tenfold.  The question remained: how would the men of the 2nd fight?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Mockbee Farm Battlefield

        From the Diary of Samuel J. Reader:

We thought Pop Price was quite a goose
To come so far for plunder;
We let our big brass cannon loose
To break his line asunder.

   The 2nd. Kansas Militia was now deployed in a line for battle, facing north and looking at the piece of high-ground where they had rested the previous forenoon.  Mounted men could be seen on the crest of the ridge, with others joining from beyond and there did not seem to be a great number of them.  Some of the men of the 2nd. assumed that the entire division would soon be ordered to advance and drive the Rebels from the field as they were of inferior numbers.
   The worm fence that the 2nd. had dismantled as they formed their battle line continued on up the road and disappeared from sight as it went over the ridge where the Rebel Army was now forming, leaving the entire field open in front of them.  The field itself had lain fallow for at least a year, with dried cornstalks and weeds among the furrows.  It sloped gently towards the south east and there was a low ravine to the right and rear of their line.  About 300 yards in front of their line was an  imperceptible depression which could hide a man from view, although the men from the 2nd. didn't know it.
   As the men from the 2nd. talked impatiently among themselves, someone said, "They may be some of our own men."  To which Colonel Veale answered, "They are not, they are Rebels - don't you see the Rebel flag?"  Most of the men hadn't noticed the Rebel Guidon, with its triangular shape and swallow-tail, which served as the Rebel battle-flag.
   Colonel Veale and Captain Huntoon now rode out on the field alone to ascertain the strength and position of the enemy. When they were about 100 yards out there came two or three jets of blue smoke in quick succession from the fence along the road, followed by the sharp report of rifles.  Rebel sharp-shooters had fired upon the men, leaving many to wonder how they were not hit.  One of their horses reared and plunged but they quickly returned safely to their line of battle, where Colonel Veale called out the order, "Give them grape, Captain Burns!"   The battle was now begun.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Stone Barn

                                   The 2nd. forms a line for battle   from the diary of S.J.Reader
                                                         courtesy of the Kansas State Historical Society

 A poem from the diary of Samuel J.Reader:
     We found some rebs, to our delight – (?)
     On Big Blue, near our border.
     We formed a line, to give them fight;
     And rout them in disorder.

 At about 3:00 p.m. the main body of the 2nd. Division crossed back over Russell's Ford and found that the Topeka Battery was no longer at the place they had been waiting.  Colonel Veale lead his men, in the usual columns of four, back up the road toward Westport at a leisurely walk.  In a few moments a man dressed as a volunteer soldier came into view, speeding up the road and stopped in front of the Colonel.  He brought up his hand in salute and cried out, "There is firing on the hill above!"  After a brief second of thought Colonel Veale urged his horse forward at a trot and the rest of his Division followed. A kind of seriousness that the men of the 2nd. had never seen before came over the Colonel and spread amongst them; it was the ardor that men feel just before they go into battle.  That most of these men had never felt it before made it all the more contagious as a strange mixture of emotions surged through their frames.  Some felt disbelief that they were going into battle, others felt a sense of relief.  Most of the men probably felt a combination of curiosity, dread and enthusiasm as their minds now raced down a checklist of things they meant to do before battle.  Is my gun loaded?  Where are my gloves?  The horses sensed something from their riders and the entire 2nd. Division became tight as a loaded steel trap.
  In only a few moments the head of the column turned onto the lane and caught sight of Captain Burns and his Topeka Battery about 200 yards north of them, halted near a stone barn.  The officers around Colonel Veale heard him cry, "They have corralled our Battery!" and at that moment he dashed ahead of his men. The entire division sped up to catch him, at some points reaching a full gallop, until the entire 2nd. Division had crowded into the narrow lane behind the Battery.  There was a wild exhilaration among the men as the scene spread out before them:  The Topeka Battery had not been corralled but had been un-limbered and looked ready for battle. After a short conference between General Grant and Colonel Veale, the order was given to form battle lines.  The high rail fence on the right side of the lane was thrown down and Company B under Captain A.J.Huntoon took the lead, the remaining companies falling into line in order. The battalion was deployed in a line of battle east to west, facing north and following the path of the road. About 600 yards to the north was the highest ground in sight, where the road passed over the crest of the hill.  In the road and in the prairie to the west of it were a large group of mounted men - was this the enemy or another Militia Division?  In a few moments the 2nd. would know without a doubt.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Topeka Battery Starts Off Ahead

    It was early afternoon when Colonel Veale returned to his division, who were just west of Russell's Ford on the Big Blue River.  He had brought Brigadier General M.S.Grant with him and they were attempting to discern the whereabouts of the rebel army, which they knew was not very far.  The decision was made to re-cross the river at Russell's Ford and look for the enemy among the rolling hills to the east.  They were not aware that the bulk of Pap Price's army had already begun to cross the River downstream and move south, directly toward the area they had just vacated.
     Earlier in the day, General Price sent a part of the Rebel Army towards Westport in an attempt to give the impression of an invasion.  This seems to have been a feint however, as the huge train of wagons that comprised the supplies and spoils of his army were heading southwest.  Two commands of the Union Army under Colonels Jennison and Moonlight were now confronting the Confederates crossing the river at Byram's Ford and still believing that Westport was in danger, fled north to defend the city.  This left nothing but a few small divisions of Kansas Militia to keep the Rebel Army from either crossing into Kansas or heading south and escaping.
    The Topeka Battery waited at Russell's Ford while the rest of the 2nd. Division crossed over in their effort to locate the enemy.   In their search, some of the men came across a farmhouse that was declared to be "sesech" and decided to search it for rations.  This place also provided forage for their horses, who fed on corn in the field next to the house.  Although they were not able to gain much in the way of rations, some of them did empty an apple cellar and were pleased that the Confederates would find nothing of use to them here.
     After finding nothing of the enemy, the men from the 2nd. returned to the bluff overlooking the Big Blue River and found Colonel Veale and General Grant conferring with some other Militia commanders.  The call was given to re-form and cross back over the river; it was almost 3:00 in the afternoon. 
     Shortly before 3 o'clock, a Union messenger arrived at Russell's Ford and spoke with Captain Ross Burns, the Commander of the Topeka Battery, and informed him that he was to return with his unit to Westport immediately, as the enemy was crossing the Big Blue behind the retreating Union forces.  Captain Burns ordered his unit to march north up the lane that led toward the Westport Road and would also take them by the Mockbee Farm which was about one mile ahead.  As the Battery Unit neared this place (with the rest of their Division somewhere behind), they were suddenly fired upon by a group of Confederate skirmishers who were crouching amongst the trees of a locust grove to the left side of the lane.  Without delay the Battery's 24 pounder Howitzer was un-limbered and fired two charges of canister into the grove, forcing the rebels to fall back over the rise and out of sight.  What kind of wisdom was this to fire on the Rebel Army without knowing if the rest of their Division was close at hand?   If nothing else it bought them some time; the Confederates would now have this gun to deal with before continuing their advance.