The Battle of The Blue

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

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Fort Simple and the Topeka Home Defenders

   In early October of 1864 while the 2nd Regiment of the Kansas Militia was awaiting the next move of General Price's Army near the Missouri border, a battalion of volunteers was organized to defend Topeka from Rebel invasion should they break the Union defences and cross over into Kansas.   Under the command of Major Andrew Stark of the 2nd KSM, these Home Guards were organized into Companies, trenches were dug and a small fort made from cottonwood logs was hastily erected in the middle of town. The only real firepower the Major could muster was one mountain howitzer, which was placed at the fort under the company commanded by Captain Tobias Billings.  As Price's Army drew nearer to the Border, the nervous citizens of Topeka hid their valuables as best they could and wondered if they were safe from the type of massacre which had occurred at nearby Lawrence only a year previously.  They were under the impression that if the Rebels did succeed in breaking the Union line, they would divide their forces into "raiding parties" and sack every town they came to, for they also believed these bands of Rebels blamed the citizens of Kansas for causing the War. 
   Just before noon on Sunday,the 23rd of October 1864, a solitary rider appeared on the horizon of the outskirts of Topeka and rapidly approached the stockade. Here he gave Major Stark a confused statement of Union defeat at the Big Blue River the day previous and the impending Confederate advance. The Major immediately gave the order for each captain to prepare his men for the coming battle and the force of nearly 300 untrained soldiers found their niches at the wall of the fort or their places in the trench.  There were also a few brave women who donned mens clothing without being asked and helped fill the gaps in the line. 
   The quiet Sunday afternoon slowly faded into evening and still there was no sign of invasion, or word from the front-line.  The sleepless Topekans passed the night in a miserable haze of anticipation, but nothing came. At nine o'clock the next morning (Monday) another lone horsemen appeared with the news that Price and his entire Army had been defeated near Westport Missouri the previous day and were retreating South down the State Line.
   The town of Topeka was spared in a sense that it was not physically assaulted but the mental punishment suffered by it's citizens was severe.  They now had to deal with the loss of the many men from the 2nd Regiment who died or suffered the lasting effects of injury or sickness caused by their imprisonment.  They were a hearty breed though and  soon most had moved on with their lives.  On July 3rd, 1869 an article appeared in the "Daily Kansas State Record" of Topeka which gives an almost cheery description of the Fort and the events surrounding it.

From the Daily Kansas State Record, Topeka, July 3, 1869.
"REMINISCENCES.-We are asked by many as to the meaning of the term "Ft. Simple." We will explain. In 1864 when "Pap" Price was on the border, it was thought not improbable but that he would overrun the State. There is but little doubt that he would have done so had it not been for the Kansas militia, who were ordered out en masse and met him at the Big Blue. Price's army there met a check, but at the sacrifice of many of our people, and among them twenty-two citizens of Shawnee county. During the time that Price was on the border, it was considered proper to take some measures to protect the city should any stragglers from Price's command come this way. For that purpose, logs about sixteen feet in length were set in the ground four feet deep at the corner of Kansas and Sixth avenues. They were set in the form of a circle, enclosing a space of about fifty feet in diameter. Holes were cut in the logs in different places, so that those inside could shoot out, should the ragamuffins come in on either of the streets. A cannon was also inside, and an opening left so it could be used if necessary. Happily there was no necessity for using the fortification, so it remained a mooted question whether it would have done any good or not if there had been any necessity for it. After about a year the logs were sawed off, leaving them about seven feet high, and some trees set out inside. About this time someone gave it the nickname of "Ft. Simple," which stuck to it till it was entirely removed. The trees inside did not thrive, and after a year or two the city authorities ordered the logs removed. At the same time the stockade was made, all of the citizens who were not at the front were detailed a certain number of hours each day to throw up rifle pits or trenches in which sharpshooters could lay and fire at an approaching enemy without being exposed. One of these trenches was east of Monroe Street, between Eighth and Ninth, and the outlines of it can yet be traced; another was east of Washburn College (now site of Memorial building). New comers here can hardly realize in these peaceful times that for months our citizens took turns and did picket duty on all the roads leading into the city. The Quantrill and other raids into other portions of our state made it a part of wisdom to do so. Many amusing things transpired during these months. Several times it was reported that the guerrillas were coming, and we recollect one night in particular when many buried their treasures and some lay out in the ravines around town all night. Did space permit we could fill a page of the Record in telling of these things. At another time we may do so."


Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Forgotten Prisoners of the 4th Kansas Militia

  In an earlier post in this blog, The Battle of Westport and Beyond, a reference was made to the 4th Regiment of the Kansas State Militia: "Among the prisoners taken on October 22nd were twenty men of the Fourth Regiment, KSM "  Unlike the prisoners of the 2nd KSM, an official list was never made for any of the other prisoners that General Price's Army of Missouri took south with them.  In fact there doesn't seem to be  rosters, official or otherwise, for any of the other Kansas Militia units besides the 2nd Regiment.
    The 4th Regiment KSM was from Jefferson County, which bordered the northeast corner of Shawnee County.  Under the command of Colonel William McCain, the 4th was part of the Army of the Border spread out along the Big Blue River on 22 October, 1864. Sometime that afternoon, Col. McCain ordered a small party of 20 or so men south towards Hickman's Mills in an attempt to make contact with the rest of the Army.  The party was surprised by pickets from Jackman's Brigade and taken prisoner, with the exception of Aaron Cook of Co. B.   Richard J. Hinton writes in his book "Rebel Invasion of Missouri and Kansas...1864":
  Aaron Cook was a citizen of Jefferson County, Kansas, and a member of the 4th Regiment Kansas State Militia (Colonel McCain commanding).  This Regiment was ordered from Independence after the engagement near the Little Blue, October 21st, and during the fight were directed to proceed to and hold Byrom's Ford, four miles above the old Independence and Kansas City Road. On arrival here, a party of twenty-one men were sent as scouts and messengers towards Hickman's Mills, where was stationed a militia force under Brigadier-General M. S. Grant, Kansas State Militia. On their return, and when within a mile or two of the Ford, the party were surprised and all but one taken prisoners he escaping by the fleetness of his horse. Aaron Cook was shot down in cold blood after capture, and his body left in the road, where it was found shortly after. In all probability he was murdered by Jackman's Brigade.
   Adjutant Dutton thus writes: "Aaron Cook, taken prisoner by Shelby's men, was one of the early settlers, and a bold, fearless, outspoken champion of the principles of freedom; always active and earnest in the good cause; generous to a fault, but uncompromising in his political faith; a kind husband and father, and left a large family to mourn his sad fate.
 The lone escapee from the ill-fated party was named George B.Winans.  After returning to Jefferson County a few days later, George contacted the editor of The Okaloosa Independent with a brief note and a plea to publish his account of the incident and give a partial list of those men from the 4th who were captured.
  Whether these twenty or so men from the 4th KSM left any written account of their ordeals as they were taken south by Price's Army is unknown at this time.  In all probability most of them suffered the lingering effects of the 200 mile march the rest of their days.
  An interesting by-product of my research into the 4th KSM is that I discovered that I am related by marriage to Aaron Cook.  My GG Grandfather, John F. Bell of Co. D, had a younger sister named Margaret.  Her daughter Julia married George Cook, the son of Aaron Cook about twenty years after he was killed by the Confederates near Byrom's Ford.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

"It Seems That Those the Rebels Don’t Shoot, They Manage to Kill in Some Other Way."

  As James and Augusta Griffing continued to correspond over the long distance between Kansas and New York in the fall of 1864, they grew increasingly worried about their friends from Shawnee County.  It was near the end of November, and still James had no news of the fate of many of these people who had only recently shared many happy times with the Griffings.  The newspapers from which James gleaned any pertinent information concerning the 2nd Kansas Militia were frustratingly short on such facts and despite the cold weather, James decided to make the long ride from Nemeha County to Topeka and find out the situation first-hand.

  Lincoln [Kansas]
Saturday, November 26, 1864
My Dear Cutie [Augusta],
  It has been over a week since I sent you a letter. I did not intend to be so long and fully intended to write to you from Topeka but my time was so entirely taken up that I did not find time. I started from here on Friday at two o’clock and reached the timber this side of Topeka at pitch dusk and managed to get through after going co-whop against one stump. Then [I] forded the river when I could not see a little before my horse [due to the darkness] but came out all right. ‘But what did you go down for?’ say you. Well I got a little lonesome and out of variety and I wanted to hear and know about the prisoners and was right glad as it turned out that I went.
  I reached home about two hours after dark, found Bro. Hannum had gone down to Bro.[Osborn] Naylor’s who was very low. Sister Hannum got me a good supper and, after chatting awhile, I went to bed. The next morning after breakfast, [I] went with Bro.[Joshua] Hannum down to Bro. Naylor’s and found him worse. His disease was lung fever brought on by the exposure whilst a prisoner. Like most of the prisoners, he was robbed of his overcoat & boots, and kept on a forced march sometimes 40 miles a day with no food most of the time but roast corn. He was obliged to ford the streams, some of them waist deep, and lie down in their wet clothes nights without even blankets to cover them. They continued in this way for six long weary days before they were paroled and as would be expected, many of them came home entirely broken down. 
  He seemed quite glad to see me and conversed quite freely. He seemed to feel as though he was not long for this world which premonition was alas too true, although he was very careful not to let his angel wife who bent over him with such continued anxiety know but what he was all the time getting better.  I stayed with him through the day and saw that he was a great sufferer and gradually failing. He expressed him as entirely resigned to the will of God [and] seemed to regret that he had not been more useful in the church. About four or a little before sundown he called all the children about his bed and addressed them very prettily beginning with Rolla and talked as calmly as I ever knew him. It did seem as if the little one’s hearts would break. And when he came to bid them all a final farewell, their feelings were uncontrollable. But he seemed as good and pleasant as ever. He spoke and said, “What a beautiful evening it is.” After a little, he seemed drowsy and I thought I would go up to Bro. Hannum’s and get my supper and get Bro. Hannum who had gone home during the day and come down and set up with him. We reached there about six, just fifteen minutes before he died. He was past speaking but had his senses enough to give his companion a last parting kiss and soon sweetly fall asleep in Jesus, dying very easy. It was too much difficult to speak. I thought a more befitting place for me was among the mourners.
Dr. Vaughn buried his little boy the same day Bro. Naylor died. Also Bro.[Robert]Hoback, a fellow prisoner with Bro. Naylor, died the same evening of the same disease brought on in the same way. Bro.[Elias] Williams of Topeka was past speaking when I left there yesterday, dying in the same way. Hib Gale died also Sunday of the same disease. So it seems that those the rebels don’t shoot, they manage to kill in some other way.
 Jesse Stevenson & his wife did not reach there until after [Osborn Naylor] died. Father Jordan had been there most of the day and had left to go & stay with Selah at Tecumseh, who is now left a widow – her husband dying some two weeks ago near Ft. Gibson. A messenger was sent after him but neither he nor William Jordan reached there until after his death. Oh it was a sad night and a house of mourning indeed. Truly a good neighbor and worthy citizen has gone. How often did his sickness recall his great kindness to me [when I was sick in the winter of 1855-1856]. I tried to preach a funeral discourse on Tuesday to a large yet sad audience. Several of his fellow prisoners were in attendance, but my heart was so full at times I found it [very difficult. I feel badly] for his poor wife who, part of the time after he was taken prisoner, was almost distracted. She now went into spasms and for some three hours in spite of rubbing and talking to her. She came very near dying [and] she was unable to be out of bed the day of the funeral.
 Please kiss the children for Papa. Don’t let Johnny go down by the railroad. Keep a little eye on him. He has many things to learn yet. Give my love to all and ever believe me your own true husband. – J. S. Griffing
The following article appeared in the Thursday, December 1, 1864 edition of the Nemaha Courier, published in Seneca:
"Mr. Griffing, of Lincoln, who has just returned from Topeka, tells us that the Shawnee county militia, who were taken prisoners by Price at Westport, and paroled and sent back at the Arkansas State line, suffered considerably in the campaign, and some of them have died from the hardships and disease contracted while huddled in with Price's retreating rag a-muffins. They were robbed of their blankets, overcoats, and kept in advance of the rebel column when in motion, and whenever any rest was allowed, were obliged to lie down thus exposed to the open air." 

 Owego [New York]
December 11, 1864
My dear husband [James],
Your letter of November 29th I received the past week – just two weeks since receiving the one before it. I had begun to be very anxious about you, but your letter written after your return from Topeka explained it all. I am so glad you went down, but was so sorry to hear the dreadful news it contained. It does not seem possible that poor Mrs. Naylor is left alone. Can it be possible that we shall never more see him or visit him as a neighbor? I have written to her and shall feel very anxious to hear how she gets along & hope Mrs. Hannum will write. It seems Mrs. Naylor is not the only bereaved one – poor women. I feel truly sorry for them.
Did you see Henry Winans? Of course he is all right else you would have written. Did you see Nancy or Jacob [Orcutt], or hear anything about [my brother] James Goodrich? We have not heard from him in a long time and Ma feels quite anxious. How did Mr. Hannum & the rest escape being taken prisoners? Have you heard whether Mr. Williams lived or not? Please write me all you hear about them….Give my love to all who inquire. I often think of them all. Take good care of yourself & not get cold if possible. I hope you will keep well. Write often. Ever your – Augusta
   James and Augusta Griffing continued to write frequently to each other until April of 1865, when it became safe for Augusta and their three children to return to Kansas.  The Griffing family returned to Shawnee County and James resumed his career as a circuit-riding minister until he died in 1882.   He was a prolific writer and kept nearly everything he ever wrote: letters, speeches, receipts, journals, ledgers and also photos.  It is rare to find such an extensive collection and most of it can be found at
    As the letters relate to the history of Kansas and 2nd Kansas Militia, they are an invaluble insight into the hopes and fears of nearly every Kansan in the fall of 1864.  In their own way, James and Augusta Griffing have paid a fine and lasting tribute to the men of the 2nd KSM and their families who suffered with them.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

"Is Price Driven Away For Good, Or Will He Return Again This Winter?"

James and Augusta Griffing continued to send each other letters in November of 1864 with the main topic of discussion being the fates of their friends and neighbors from Shawnee County and the 2nd Kansas Militia who were involved in the "Battle of Westport".   I can only imagine Augusta's distress, not only from the interminable wait for word of the casualties but whether her husband would be called on to protect Kansas again.  As the letters are sent back and forth between James and Augusta, it is apparent that the slowness of the mail is adding to this apprehension.

 Lincoln [Kansas]
Late Saturday Evening, November 5, 1864
My Dear Cutie [Augusta],
I received a Topeka paper this evening and I knew you would be anxious – as I have been – to hear. I will just enclose the names as furnished by the papers of those killed, wounded, & taken prisoners [at the Battle of Westport]. You will see that James Alverson is among the killed and a great many of our acquaintances and friends are among the numbers, especially the prisoners. Bro. [Osborn] Naylor is a prisoner. Also Bro. Hoback, Mr. Kiser’s son, Frank Dawson, Luther Palmer, John Markham & a host of others. An individual who was taken prisoner & escaped the second night says that there were in the hands of the enemy 105 prisoners, mostly Kansas Militia and Kansas men. Says the prisoners were stripped of their overcoats and in some instances of their boots & other clothing & robbed of their money. They were kept at the head of the column and a great deal of the time on the double quick. Said they suffered much for the want of food & clothing & had no blankets to sleep on. There are, by this paper, some 61 from Shawnee County yet prisoners. How many may get home alive, God only knows. When a wife only knows her husband is dead, then she knows he is free from suffering so far as this world is concerned, but to know that her husband is in the hands of these inhuman wretches, obliged to drag out a life more intolerable than death itself, seems almost past endurance. ….. Good night my dearest. Your husband, -- James
May the good Lord protect you & the children is the prayer of your absent husband. How thankful should we be that it is so well with us & [that I am] not a prisoner at the mercy of the rebels.
P.S. Do you get all my letters? How many have your received up to the present date? Good night. Kisses for my boys [several O’s] & yourself.

 Owego [New York]
November 6, 1864
My dear James,
Your letter written at Kansas City the day of the battle has been received. I had heard that there had been a battle & that [General] Price had been defeated, but I had no idea that your company was in the midst of it. I am thankful you were not engaged in fighting and hope none of our friends and acquaintance are killed or prisoners, but fear Capt. Hannum’s Company was not well treated. Hope you have written about them and that your next letter will tell of their safety. Did you go over the battlefield? I hope you could. Did you see Henry Winans? And did his company fight? I want to hear you tell all about it. And is Price driven away for good, or will he return again this winter? Or will there be enough of the regular soldiers there to keep him back?  …Give my love to all inquirers. I have written to Carrie [Winans] again. – Augusta

Lincoln [Kansas]
November 8, 1864
My Dear Cutie [Augusta],   You will see that it is election day and a very severe wintry day it is – just about as cold or colder as that day when Bro. Curtis sold their things and it has so much reminded me of that day that I have just written them a letter. The hail has fallen to about the depth of an inch and when driven by the piercing North wind, it did seem as if it would cut holes in one’s face every time. The chickens have not been out of the hen house and [my horse] Fanny has shivered as if she would desire a change. Yesterday’s Leavenworth papers state that [Gen.] Blunt has driven [Gen.] Price almost to the Arkansas line [and] that in a battle southeast of Ft. Scott, the Shawnee Co. prisoners made their escape. I hope such is the case. They have had a [Shawnee] County mass meeting and resolved to disinter the dead and bring them to the Topeka Cemetery and bury them and erect a suitable monument to their memory at the expense of the county. Have you had a letter from Sister Hannum or Naylor since the battle? Or from Sister Winans? If so please tell me what they say as all I know is through the papers. Please write as soon as you get this. I would rather you let no one read this.  Ever your own Husband, -- James
   Although the Battle of the Blue occurred two and one-half weeks earlier, James is still unable to relate to Augusta the fates of his friends from the 2nd KSM who were taken prisoner.  This unanswered question will continue to hang in the air until the beginning of December, when James finally writes to Augusta with an account of his visit with Osburn Naylor, a friend of theirs and fellow church member who was taken prisoner and was slowly dying at his home after the two hundred mile march.