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, July 27, 2011

General Price's Headquarters at Boston Adam's Place

 From the diary of Samuel J. Reader:

 The men of the 2nd. KSM who escaped the charge of Jackman's Brigade were lucky indeed, as many more of them could have been killed, wounded or captured.  As it was, they re-grouped near the Kansas /Missouri border and licking their wounds, were ordered to march to Olathe, Kansas where they remained until the fate of Price's Army was sealed.
   Just after 4 o'clock P.M., the men of the 2nd. who had just surrendered to the Confederates under General Jo Shelby were now being assembled under the watch of the Rebel provost guard, commanded by Lt. Sentille.   As they were being brought in from various points on the battlefield, all was a mass of chaos; Rebel horsemen dashing about as the prisoners were gradually brought to a central location.   A heap of verbal abuse was laid upon the men as they were stripped of anything that could be of value to their captors: shoes, boots, warm clothing and personal items.  Many of the men had suffered minor injuries but were able to stay in line as they began to move toward the northwest and an unknown location.  The more severely wounded, both Union and Confederate, were placed in supply wagons awaiting the set-up of a field hospital. Many of the men taken prisoner were showered with verbal abuse and profanity as they marched along, which in retrospect was understandable considering that many of these Rebels had just witnessed the violent deaths of many of their friends.  At one point a Confederate Officer rode past the men of the 2nd. shouting, "Kill them!  They shoot our boys down in cold blood every time - let's serve them as they serve us!"   The officer in charge of the prisoners interjected, "No, these men shall not be harmed as long as I have charge of them."  The men from the 2nd. knew they were still in peril but the only thing for them to do was march.
   The route of the prisoners took them back past the battle-field and it was there that they passed a ghastly spectacle.  Sam Reader remembers the scene:  "The head was thrown back, leaving the mouth wide agape, with streaks and stains of dust and blood, here and there, upon the distorted face.  The wound was evidently in the head, from the fact that blood was trickling from the mouth and nostrils.  But the eyes presented the most startling appearance.  They were wide open, and turned upward in their sockets until nothing but a narrow portion of the iris was visible.  One could almost imagine they were searching within, to discover the leaden messenger that had cut short the thread of life.  The man had no doubt resisted capture, and fought to the last; or had been shot down in cold blood after surrender.  It was probably Harvey Young, as his body was found near this spot by our burial party, a few days afterwards.  I knew him well but did not recognize the blood stained distorted face as his."     The prisoners were now crowded on at a rapid pace, with threats issued by the guards in order to keep the line closed.  When someone said they were thirsty and knew of a spring nearby, the guard laughed and said, "Sure, and there will be a group of bluecoats there waiting to bushwhack us."  The afternoon now wore on into evening, and the shots from a major skirmish could be heard from the northwest as the men were now being marched in a more easterly direction.  Soon they passed a large group of Rebel Cavalry and more questions and abuse were heaped upon them; the appearance of a negro prisoner caused much excited comment by this group: "What's that nigger doing here?" and "Kill him, shoot him!".  The Confederate guard kept the line closed up however and they kept marching east and away from the sounds of the abuse and the late afternoon battle between the Rebel front and the Union rear under Col. Thomas Moonlight.  With the onset of dusk the air had become considerably cooler and some of the Rebel guard began to demand the overcoats or jackets from the men of the 2nd., leaving some in only shirt-sleeves.  The guards told them they would be given blankets when they reached Rebel headquarters at a place called the Boston Adams house.  Upon their arrival a short time later, there were no blankets, but campfires in the yard between the house and the stone fence.  It was here the 90 or so men of the 2nd. Kansas Militia would spend their first night as Confederate prisoners and it was also this place that would serve as General Sterling Price's headquarters and the Confederate field hospital.*  As the sounds of battle to the west died off that night, no one could know that the largest engagement between the Union and Confederate forces in the Western Theatre of the Civil War would occur the next day, sending not only the Confederate forces fleeing southward for hundreds of miles, but the men of the 2nd. KSM who were their prisoners as well.
*John Armstrong from Topeka Battery would somehow slip away during the night and hide in the underbrush until the clashing armies left the field the next day.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Last Man Standing

 From the diary of S.J.Reader:

Unseen, their force had swelled so large
On both our flanks they turned us:
The rebel yell!  a headlong charge –
Our safety then, concerned us

  The charge of Colonel Jackman's Missouri Cavalry had finally washed over the line of the 2nd. KSM after 45 minutes of battle, leaving Topeka Battery the last intact fighting force from the 2nd. on the field.  Although the outcome of the battle had been decided, Captain Ross Burns fought on with his pistol before he was finally smashed over his head with the butt of a Rebel carbine and the remainder of his battery surrendered.  Survivors recall hearing Confederate officers in the vicinity ordering their men not to kill the Captain of the gun.  Topeka Battery suffered the highest losses of any Company of the 2nd. - every man was either killed, wounded, or taken prisoner.
   After the men of the 2nd. were driven back to the Big Blue River by the Rebel charge, an attempt was made by Lt. Colonel Greene to rally them for the purpose of forming another line.  Captain Huntoon of Company B realized the futility of such an action as they were completely surrounded by Rebels and suggested to Lt. Col. Greene that they had better surrender, and he gave the order to do so.  After Col. Jackman's men collected their arms and ordered the Kansans to dismount it became clear that they intended to take prisoners only after killing the officers in charge: Lt. Col Green was stripped of his clothing and shot three times before he fell into the underbrush.  Captain Huntoon made an attempt to escape this fate by making a dash on his horse but was recaptured near the battle-site and had to convince a young Rebel not to let his comrades commit murder.  As Captain Huntoon was lead over the battlefield toward Rebel headquarters he noticed the body of Ben Hughes, the driver of one of the wagons.  His throat had been cut ear to ear which was not a battle wound; Ben Hughes was black. They now passed the Battery and beside the Gun lay Dan Handley still writhing in spasms which often follow mortal wounds; further on in the lane lay dead and dying men and horses as the result of double canister fired at close quarters.
   While Captain Huntoon was being lead toward Rebel Headquarters, the bulk of the prisoners from the 2nd. had been rounded up and were brought back to where the gun stood in the lane.  They were aligned in a row and opposite each man was a mounted Rebel holding a revolver.  An eyewitness to this incident was Guilford Gage of Topeka Battery and he later stated that these Rebel captors who awaited the final order to fire were not Confederate Regulars but of the type known as Border Ruffians: savage men  who committed atrocities in the name of revenge, the original cause being lost to memory.  There was plenty of this type on the Federal side as well but that was of no matter to Gage and his comrades, they only knew that in a moment they would all be dead.  As the final moment neared, the sudden appearance of General Shelby between the two lines prevented the mass execution and with extremely terse language he ordered the prisoners over to the guard of his own veterans.  While Shelby was a fine General and an honorable man, he would have to live with this element of the Rebel Army for the remainder of his duty in Missouri. As for the men of the 2nd., if they knew the travails that awaited them, they may have wished for the quick end to their suffering that execution would have given.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The 2nd KSM Decides to Fight, Part 2

From the diary of Samuel J. Reader:
 “The sensations of men in their first battle are doubtless very much the same.  All probably experience the nervousness, and involuntary shrinking from the sound of the first few bullets, soon to be followed by comparative indifference, if not of utter disregard.  Confidence increases as the battle goes on, until little more fear is felt than during a very violent thunderstorm.  A battle is one of those things that seems more terrible in the contemplation, than in the actual participation.”

These sentiments expressed by Sam Reader were probably the representative mindset of the men of the 2nd. Kansas Militia as they listened to the Rebel bugle call.  With this final call, the men of Jackman’s Cavalry were ordered to charge the obstinate Union Division and drive them from their position, opening the way for the main body of General Price’s Army.  General Jo Shelby was in command of Jackman’s Brigade and it was apparent to him after three quarters of an hour of fighting that there was no support coming to aid the 2nd. Kansas.  Now General Shelby and the rest of the Rebel army were desperate to find a defensible place to rest for the night as the Union Cavalry under General Alfred Pleasanton was threatening the rear of the long Rebel wagon train.  Colonel Veale and his men presented the final obstacle of the afternoon for the Rebels.   
  Shelby now told Jackman to clean the field of this unit.   While the men of the 2nd. watched this final charge rolling toward them, some of the battle hardness they had so recently acquired wore off and was replaced by many other emotions.  Disbelief, awe, and helplessness now played on them as they hurriedly attempted to load their weapons.  Captain Bush of Company G later commented it was one of the grandest sights he had ever seen.  For many of the men though a hasty glance was all they had seen or wanted to.
 The Rebel throng now covered every corner of the field, and after crossing the slight hollow at the base of the hill was approaching the line of the 2nd at a startling rate.   The Topeka Battery was now firing as fast as ever but was no match for the Mass of Rebels now advancing on them.   Many of the men using rifles had over-estimated the distance of the oncoming enemy and shot over their heads.  The first contact made by the Rebels was at the worm fence to the north side of the field and the extreme left of the Union line.  It was here the Rebel sharpshooters had been dislodged but now the men of the 2nd were over-run and out-flanked by the charge.   The Rebel horses and riders were now among them shooting and slashing with their sabers.   The desperate men of the 2nd  now sought shelter wherever they could, and many fell back toward the barn.  The left side of the line of the 2nd. K.S.M. had now disintegrated, while the rest of the line remained momentarily intact.  The Confederate charge now flanked the right side of the Union line with the same effect – the men must flee or be cut down by the marauding Rebels.   Some men held their ground and were unhurt after the initial charge only to be killed by other Rebels following the charge on foot.  Some men who had stayed close to their horses were able to escape and rode desperately to the west, where they soon overtook the men of the 15th. Kansas Cavalry, whose Commander had already refused to come to the aid of the 2nd.  When Colonel Veale and his staff overtook and passed this Division, no pleasantries were exchanged.   Still other men from the 2nd.  ran as far and as fast as they could, and hid in the brush until they were able to slip away later.
   The final Company left before the Rebel charge was the Topeka Battery.  This small unit had long been the focal point of the Rebel ferocity because of the barrage of shell and canister it had cast down upon them.  The Rebels now drove in upon the little band and many later remarked at their bravery, particularly of their leader, Captain Burns.  The men from the battery had all remained – now all that remained to be seen was whether any of them would be left alive.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The 2nd. KSM Decides to Fight, Part 1

 From the diary of S.J.Reader: 

Loud rose the stern commands of Veale –
To guide this storm of battle –
Amid the cannon’s thunderous peal,
And the “Enfield’s” spiteful rattle.

 Colonel Veale had just given the order to the Topeka Battery to fire upon the Rebel Army now massing across the field in front of them.  These Rebels were part of Col. Sidney Jackman's Missouri Brigade and had already dislodged the Union forces under Cols. Jennison and Moonlight from Byrom's Ford, allowing passage of  General Price's huge wagon train.  The bulk of Jackman's Brigade was still about 500 yards from Topeka Battery's brass howitzer and these first shots proved ineffective; a bit too long, not long enough.  Most of the men from the 2nd. were on their horses when the firing began and their mounts immediately gave them trouble.   These horses were not accustomed to the sound of a 24 pounder gun firing off nearby and it became necessary for some of the riders to dismount so they could control their animals and sight their carbines more accurately.  
   Jackman's Brigade now appeared to be forming a line for battle a little below the ridge (about 300 yards out) and were now in plain view.  Most of them were on horseback and their clothing presented a curious sight to the men of the 2nd., as they didn't appear to be in uniform but wore regular clothing with a smattering of blue army overcoats among them.  As the exact identity of the Army across the rolling field of battle was unknown, someone decided that “Old Glory” should be waved in that direction.  Within seconds this maneuver was met with a hail of gunfire which once and for all settled the question.  The first member of the 2nd.KSM fell dead in this volley (most likely pvt. Hiram Coville, Co.C) and more were wounded.  Horses became increasingly frantic and some of the men tied them off or let them loose.   The shooting from both sides continued at a lively pace and the "whiz-zip" of rebel bullets was more felt then heard by the men of the 2nd.  (Jackman's Brigade carried no artillery but used sharpshooters which fired upon the 2nd. from the locust grove to the north)  At one instance the line of the 2nd.  wavered and threatened to break, but Colonel Veale rode up amongst the men and called out, "For God sake men, keep your place in line!" The trouble seemed to be mostly with the horses, not the men. 
   The howitzer of the Topeka Battery had begun to get the measure of its mark and was inflicting heavy losses upon Jackman's Brigade.  At one point the Rebel color-bearer was cut down and for a moment the battle flag lay on the ground.   The Rebel horsemen fell back behind the swell but there was no panic in their actions as their horses were trained to stand fire.    The order was now given to the men of the 2nd.  to dismount and fight on foot and the mood was further heightened when the Rebel sharpshooters were driven from the grove.
   After a minute or so the shooting died off and all was relatively quiet; the howitzer continued to fire beyond the swell at the hidden Rebels.  Then was heard a peculiar yell or scream from the Rebels as they charged forward in unison.   This was a cavalry charge of closely massed riders, about six abreast, down the road directly toward the gun of the Topeka Battery.  Captain Burns had throughout the battle displayed an almost eerie detachment and calmly commanded his men to fire double-charges of cannister directly at the Rebel charge, sighting the gun himself.   The men in his command obeyed his orders instantly and precisely and after the Rebels received a double-dose of cannister at 100 yards, they again retired behind the swell.  Others besides Captain Burns would also be called brave from Topeka Battery: one of the privates in the Battery, a German immigrant named John Branner, had received a bullet wound to his arm early in the battle and every shell or load of cannister fired upon the enemy bore the mark of his blood. 
   Jackman's Brigade had now twice been driven from the field, mostly due to the work of Captain Burns and his Battery, and the 2nd. continued to hold a strong line despite the repeated Rebel charges and the constant gunfire.  Some of the men thought to themselves, "It can't be this easy" as a young Confederate officer rode directly up to Col. Veale, saluted and said unhesitantly:"General Gordon, General Shelby directs you to hold this point at all hazards, and reinforcements will be here in a few minutes."  He was quickly taken prisoner and taken from the field, where he was spared future events.   As it had again become quiet, save the continued firing of the howitzer, some of the men from the 2nd. wondered if the Rebels had fled.   A moment later the call of a bugle was heard from behind the swell; first the heads, then the bodies, then the horses of the men of Jackman's Brigade appeared, leaving no doubt that the Rebels hadn't fled, but were sending every last man and animal towards the Kansans.  And still they remained at their places.