The Reverend Richard Taylor plans on Monday to honor the Kansas militiamen who kept the confederates from invading the state in October 1864 with a speech at Enterpise Cemetery in Dickinson County.
By GENE SMITH
The Capital-JournalJohn Branner had been wounded in the left elbow by rebel fire and was bleeding badly, but he refused to leave the 22-man crew of the Topeka Battery serving the unit's only gun -- a huge 24-pound brass howitzer, emplaced in a narrow lane just north of the Mockbee house on the way to Westport.
Twice already the men of Gordon's Regiment, Col. Sidney D. Jackman's Brigade, of Gen. Jo Shelby's Confederate cavalry division had come thundering down the lane six abreast. Each time, the Kansas gunners opened fire at 100 yards' range, shredding them with canister shot.
Every round was marked with the blood of the 43-year-old German immigrant, the only veteran in the battery.
The howitzer crew been hurrying north along the lane from Russell's Ford when they were fired upon from a locust grove and orchard east of the Mockbee barn. It was late Saturday afternoon, Oct. 22, 1864, and Lt. Gen. Sterling "Old Pap" Price was swinging west toward Kansas after a raid from Arkansas deep into Missouri.
Capt. Ross Burns ordered the heavy gun unlimbered, double-canister loaded, and fired into the grove over open sights. The cannon roared and the rebels scrambled back to the north over the ridge and out of sight, about where Watertower Park is today, at 75th and Holmes Road in Kansas City, Mo.
Burns then ordered the gun relaid and fire resumed on the mass of Shelby's men, assembling several hundred yards downslope to the north.
As he did so, Col. G.W. Veale arrived with the whole of the Second Regiment, Kansas State Militia -- nearly 300 volunteers. They promptly formed in line of battle -- just in time to receive the Confederates' first charge. The Kansans' first line broke under fire and some fled, but order was restored and the unit held its ground for the rest of the action, nearly an hour total.
The short and dashing Shelby's action was typical. A wealthy Waverly, Mo., planter and hemp producer and one of the South's finest cavalry commanders, he sent flanking columns out to the left and right and ordered a charge by double columns, nearly 2,000 or 3,000 men.
This third charge overran the Kansas militia, killing 24, wounding 20 more and capturing 68 prisoners along with the gun and 100 badly scared farm horses.
It cost the Missourians 43 dead and wounded.
Jackman's men -- mostly Vernon County who had already been at war with Kansas for eight long years -- nearly beat Burns to death with their carbine butts, leaving the young lawyer unconscious and bleeding in the dirt.
The prisoners were herded into the yard of a nearby farmhouse for the night, without cover. Guilford G. Gage, for whom Gage Park and Gage Boulevard were named, said later he held the unconscious Burns in his arms like a child throughout the cold night. About 2 a.m. the Confederates came looking for him, and took him in charge until after the war.
Branner had been wounded again in the head and severely in the right arm, which a Confederate surgeon wanted to amputate. Branner refused. A shoemaker and owner of a highly successful Topeka boot and shoe factory, Branner had joined the militia after his whole work force quit to do the same. He was never again able to work with both arms -- but he kept them.
The list of unwounded prisoners included Dr. J.A. Huntoon, captain of Company B and the man for whom Huntoon Street is named; Samuel J. Reader, an Indianola farmer who later painted a series of oils depicting the engagement; and a number of men from Topeka, Tecumseh, Indianola, Big Springs, Auburn and Monmouth. One, Lt. Hiram Ward, later died from ill treatment while a prisoner.
They were lucky. It wasn't unusual for both sides to shoot prisoners, and in fact the captured Kansans had been lined up alongside their blackened and silent cannon -- each confronted by a mounted Missouri cavalryman with revolver in hand, ready to fire. Then Shelby appeared, and put a stop to it.
But Ben Hughes, the battery teamster, who was black, lay dead in the lane, his throat cut from ear to ear. Lt. William H. Delong was still shot after surrender and died of his wounds in Kansas City. A man named Race from Company A was also shot and died next day. Lt. Col. H. M. Greene was stripped of his clothes and shot three times. Dr. Huntoon, a witness, spurred his horse and tried to escape, but failed.
All that day, the Confederate cavalry screen had been probing for a suitable crossing of the Big Blue River, producing a series of brief, sharp encounters with Union detachments guarding the major fords. Each time, the rebels retired to look elsewhere. In the rear, time was running out for Price's 30,000 men and his train of 600 wagons.
After a four-hour battle Sunday morning, Price abandoned his plan of invading Kansas. Instead the rebels turned south, beginning their long retreat back to Arkansas.
It was a nightmare trip for the prisoners. The Confederates, in hard circumstances themselves, helped themselves to the Kansans' boots and shoes. The militia had been 10 days without a change of clothing already, and hadn't eaten well.
Now they were divided into parcels of eight, each parcel sandwiched between fours of cavalry riding abreast, and compelled to double-time to avoid being trampled. They marched 40 to 50 miles every 24 hours with little water and less food.
Gage, recalling it all years later, said they had only a single handful of dry coarse flour between a dawn breakfast Saturday -- before the fight -- and Wednesday night, after he and two other men, J.A. Polley and Nelson Young, escaped 15 or 16 miles east of Fort Scott. They crawled most of the way to Fort Scott to avoid discovery.
"I am not sure that I knew, during at least a part of the time, precisely what I was doing. The fact is that we all came near to death by exhaustion and thirst; and I, perhaps, no nearer than any other man." He called much of the experience "vague; something like a half-forgotten dream."
By 6 p.m. Wednesday the prisoners and their cavalry escort were in Carthage, in southwestern Missouri, where seven of the exhausted men were simply left, and an equally exhausted Confederate was hanged from an apple tree.
Horace G. Lyons, a grandson of a Boston Tea Party participant and a Berryton area farmer, escaped near Lamar. Shelby released the rest at Newtonia, 20 miles south of Carthage and 80 miles from their point of capture, eight days after the fight. They spent that night huddled together in the snow for warmth, and found other federals the next day.
People now seldom pause to remember that Memorial Day started as an occasion to honor the valiant dead of the Civil War, says the Rev. Richard E. Taylor Jr., who lives in the stone house that Lyons built in 1860 southeast of Topeka.
Taylor plans to remedy that at 10 a.m. Monday, when he speaks at Dickinson County's Enterprise cemetery, a mile south of his hometown. "They're going to get the full load," declared Taylor, fresh from researching the role played by the gallant band of Topeka artillerymen.
He has concluded the battle they gave Shelby at the Big Blue was likely the last critical element preventing Price's army from entering Kansas.
Memorial Day has been a national holiday since 1868, and today there are battle dead of many more wars to honor -- five of them major.
Still, this is a good time to remember those who died in America's most terrible conflict; a war that cost the lives of one Southern soldier in three and one Northern soldier in six.
Gage certainly thought so. After fruitlessly begging the Legislature to memorialize his fallen comrades for decades, the brick factory owner finally spent $10,000 from his own pocket to do precisely that.
It rained in East Topeka Cemetery the morning of May 30, 1895, but at noon a bright sun emerged. An hour later, a handful of survivors dedicated a tall monument honoring the Kansas militiamen killed at the Blue, where most of them slept nearby.
It stands there today.
Copyright 1998 The Topeka Capital-Journal
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