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."


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