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, August 25, 2011

October 24,1864; Crossing over into Kansas

 The men of the 2nd Kansas Militia were awakened at a very early hour on the morning of the 24th. and without a pretense of breakfast, were ordered to continue their march.  They had been divided into three squads by their Rebel captors and as the morning brightened, saw that they were still in the wasteland of the Ozark prairie: portions of four Missouri Counties on the Kansas border that were the focus of General Thomas Ewing Jr's. infamous Order No. 11. made in August of 1863. (the summary depopulation of families suspected to be sympathetic to bushwackers).  Sometime before noon the Confederate wagon train crossed over into Kansas and the prisoners immediately began to notice more houses and improvements.  The fleeing Rebels began to burn anything which could be used for forage by the Union Army and also to slaughter livestock, as they depended almost entirely on the fresh meat and raw corn they came across for their sustenance.*
  Later that afternoon Sam Reader heard one of the guards call attention to a pet bear that was riding in one of the gun carriages.  Although he failed to find the bear, Sam did see something of more interest to him:  several yards off to his left a cannon swept by with the inscription, "Captain W.W.H.Lawrence Topeka Kansas".  It was the brass howitzer of Topeka Battery and that was the last he saw of it.  The pace of the march had slackened a little and the guards now had time to question their captives a little more closely and to barter with them for personal items.  Some of the guards were civil in their discourse with the captives and some were not.  "Say there, aren't you the feller we had prisoner in Arkansas last year?" or "I was a prisoner myself once, a Yankee tied his horse to me and made me walk ten miles - you can stand it well enough if you only think so." or "Do you always have such cold weather in the fall?" or the icebreaker, "You ever been in a fight?" were some of the milder comments when compared to others.  Many of these seemed to be attempts to justify the Confederate cause."You're fighting for nigger equality, don't you know you are?" was a comment often heard from the guards. Or, "You there in the blue jacket, what are you fighting for?" The latter two comments were often liberally sprinkled with curses and abuses on the prisoners.
  Later in the afternoon the men of the 2nd. noticed their guards looking at something in the prairie off to the right.  "What is it?" one of them asked the other.  "Yankees" was the reply and the prisoners noticed something resembling the shape of a cloud on the slope of the hill about two miles distant.  The "cloud" seemed to be moving south.   The men could only hope that the appearance of Union Cavalry meant that their freedom was soon impending.  Meanwhile, the pace picked up again and the command, "Close-up, Double quick!" soon rang out.  The Rebel guards' comments picked up again, "Like hell you'll get home" and "You won't need many clothes where we're taking you".  The afternoon dragged on and the thirst of the prisoners again became their misery.  At sunset they finally came upon a body of timberland near a place called "Trading Post" and could see a portion of the Rebel wagon train apparently halted for the night.  A little further and they were within sight of the Marais des Cygnes River and some of the prisoners were lead down to collect water for the others.  It was here in the gloaming that the first man to escape his Rebel captors did so; Jacob Kline slipped away unlike so many other men from the 2nd. who only contemplated it.  Rations were given to the prisoners and they cooked the beef and ate the corn meal as best they could.  The night was dark as heavy cloud cover formed above and only added to the gloomy prospects of the prisoners. The men from the 2nd had now marched about seventy miles from where they were captured and desperately got what little rest they could as a misty rainfall began to fall around midnight.  Their hopes of being quickly rescued by the Union Cavalry had been replaced by an early awakening and forced march on the morning of October 25th, 1864.
*A large beef herd had accompanied Price's wagon train on his journey through Missouri and was now nearly depleted. 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Tainted Well

  As the afternoon of October 23rd. wore on, the pace of General Price's retreat south began to quicken and the prisoners from the 2nd. KSM began to suffer.  The country was mostly rolling prairie land with a cultivated field occasionally but the season had been dry and all the small streams had dried up.  The prisoners were forced to run between the mounted guards and therefor had to run "double-quick" in order to keep from being trampled to death.  Some prisoners held on to the tails of the horses in front to help them keep up the pace, while gradually the weaker men began to fall behind. When this happened, the call "Close up! Close up!" was heard and with great effort these men increased their pace to close the gap.  A few of the men noticed their guards chewing bullets to ward off thirst and begged for one; some were lucky to find one dropped in the road and this was quickly in their mouth. Occasionally the order was given to halt for a few minutes rest, but all too soon would come the dreaded: "Forward, march!" and the torture would continue.  Captain Huntoon begged Lt. Sentile to give the men a brief rest which was granted; but when the march resumed and another voice cried out to stop, the Lt. threatened to shoot the first man to drop out of line.  The lack of water was now weighing heavily on the men and at one point that afternoon they came upon an old well that seemed alone in the middle of the prairie. (the nearby dwellings having all been burned.)  Someone drew up the bucket and the smell of the rotten water at once nauseated and excited hope in the prisoners.  Someone said there must be a half-rotten skunk in the well, but the men crowded in line for their turn at the pint cup.  They all drained the cup in spite of the stench and some even begged a second.  
   Late in the afternoon a large number of Rebel soldiers overtook and passed the captives and taunted them as they passed: "Kill them! Shoot every last one of them - They don't take us prisoners - What are we keeping these men for?  I've been at the front all day - I've seen them damn Yanks ride up to our wounded as they lay on the ground and shoot them in cold blood!"  No attempt was made to molest the men other than threats though and the march continued south.  Just after dark the Provost Guard stopped for the night at a stream and water was given in great amounts to the suffering men.  The only food they would receive from their captors was now also given: a few handfuls each of raw flour which they placed in their handkerchiefs and made into a stiff dough by adding water.  The dough-balls were impaled on a stick and placed in the campfire, where they were singed and then relished by the men.  As the men from the 2nd. drifted off to sleep the best they could, they couldn't know that they were being pursued by the Union Cavalry and that the sufferings they had endured thus far would pale in comparison to what they would soon encounter. 

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Battle of Westport and Beyond

                                    General Shelby and his men at the Battle of Westport    
                                                      original painting by Andy Thomas

   Although General Price's Confederates had successfully crossed the Big Blue River on 22 October and smashed the 2nd. Kansas Militia, what had once seemed a promising victory was beginning to unravel.  While General Shelby's Army was busy grappling with the 2nd. KSM, a division of Union Cavalry under Gen. Alfred Pleasonton had savagely attacked the rear guard of the Rebel Army and was pressing forward.
 Now on the morning of October 23rd., Price found the Union Armies of Generals Curtis and Blunt aligned in front of him to the north at Westport, Missouri and Pleasonton still coming strong from the east.  The stage was now set for the largest battle of the war fought west of the Mississippi; nearly 30,000 men on the field in what would become known as the Battle of Westport.
    After a nearly eight hour battle, the Rebel Army found themselves out-flanked and caught between the converging Union Armies.  General Price ordered General Shelby to hold off Pleasonton's Cavalry while the rest of his Army retreated south down the Fort Scott road, where his wagon train had already headed.

    Colonel Veale of the 2nd. KSM stated in his official report that the actions of his unit were instrumental in General Price's defeat at Westport, thus saving Kansas:
"While my loss is very severe, I have to thank God that the bold stand taken by my brave men gave the enemy an afternoon job which detained them from marching into Kansas; and the next morning they were confronted by an army that neither yielded them ground nor spared their ammunition, but put them on a hasty retreat southward; and thus Kansas was saved."
  This report goes on to list all of the killed, wounded and captured of the 2nd. KSM and although Colonel  Veale performed his rightful duty in the submission of his report, whether the 2nd KSM saved Kansas from the advance of General Price's Army is still a matter of conjecture.  It is interesting to wonder though "what if" the 2nd KSM had not stood their ground that afternoon.

 The army of General Price was now in full retreat mode, heading south as fast as possible and catching up with the Rebel Provost guard and their prisoners from the 2nd. KSM. ( Among the prisoners taken on October 22nd were twenty men of the Fourth Regiment, KSM and some belonging to the Nineteenth and Twenty-third. No official list is given of the names. Portions of the trains of the Nineteenth and Twenty-third were captured, and the Brigade Quartermaster, Lieut. Marsh, of Leavenworth, was taken prisoner.)  The march of the Provost Guard had been unhurried the morning of the Westport Conflict  but once the Battle had swayed to the favor of the Union, the pace picked up to a frantic one.  The fleeing Rebels lit the prairie on fire hoping the smokescreen would hinder the Union pursuit and also began to jettison supplies in an attempt to quicken the pace of their wagon train.  These actions seemed to have their desired effect; at first it didn't seem the Union Army would attempt to follow them. The men of the 2nd. were driven hard however and it soon became apparent to them that they wouldn't be stopping soon.  Their hopes that Kansas would be saved were now replaced by a multitude of fears: thirst, fatigue, hunger, prison, death.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Captain A.J.Huntoon meets the Enemy

 "The earth is covered thick with other clay,
 Which her own clay shall cover, heaped and pent,
 Rider and horse, - friend, foe, - in one red burial blent."
                                                                 Lord Byron 

 The yard in front of the Boston Adams Place filled with the men from the 2nd. KSM as October 22nd. 1864 drew to a close.    They were cold and hungry but not yet defeated as they pondered their fate that night and most of the men in the yard were uninjured with the exception of a few of the men of Topeka Battery who were brought there to be tended to by their comrades.  They tried to keep warm around campfires that were fed by the Confederate Provost Guard, who used fence-boards to fuel the flames and kept a constant watch over their prisoners as they had been instructed to by Brigadier General Jo Shelby.   The ranking member of the KSM taken prisoner was Captain A.J.Huntoon of Co. B and he was quickly taken to General Shelby, who directed him brought inside to meet with the Confederate Commander, General Sterling Price. General Price immediately began to question Captain Huntoon about the force that had engaged his men that afternoon but doubted the veracity of Captain Huntoon's statement that that it was a battalion of Kansas Militia.  He seemed to believe that they were veteran soldiers and that Captain Huntoon must have a motive for lying.   The Captain went on to tell General Price that the entire Militia of the State had been ordered out and there were about 30,000 of them.  (The latter being a lie; Captain Huntoon knew only that there were about thirty regiments in the militia organization.)  The questioning continued for about half an hour before General Price ordered the Captain back out into the yard with the other prisoners.
     A steady stream of injured Rebel soldiers were brought into the house for treatment of their wounds and about midnight someone came out into the yard and asked if anyone of the captives was a surgeon in the Federal Army.  Captain Huntoon replied that he was a doctor in his hometown and was told that there was a prisoner inside who wanted to see him.  He found this man to be John Branner from Topeka Battery who had been shot in both arms.  The Confederate doctor had wanted to amputate one of the arms but Captain Huntoon examined the arm and was able to save it, despite the shortage of medical supplies.  At about 2:00 A.M. Captain Huntoon heard a Rebel Officer call for the Commander of the Union gun to be brought in for treatment; someone had remembered Ross Burns of Topeka Battery and perhaps due to the way he comported himself during the previous day’s battle, his fractured skull was treated and his life spared.  Captain Huntoon spent the rest of the night taking care of the wounded from both sides before being released to the Provost Guard at daybreak.  The Captain later reported that at least 20 Rebels died that night and there were 50 more still remaining.   
   The men of the 2nd had watched the movement of the huge Rebel wagon train all night and now at dawn they were assembled at the rear of this behemoth as it prepared to travel south.*  Without any of food or water since their capture and with many of them wearing no shoes and inadequate clothing, they were preparing to make a journey which would test their mortal souls – a journey which would also coincide with the largest battle of the War fought on Kansas soil and a journey few of them would ever want to recall as long as they lived.

 *This is an inaccurate statement.  In fact, the wagon train of General Price never crossed at Byrom's Ford but had turned south towards Hickman's Mills, away from the Federal Army and where the river crossing was easier .  What the prisoners had seen and heard was the Rebel Army organizing for the coming battle.