By mid to late October of 1864, Major General Sterling Price’s ragtag Army of Missouri wound its way west toward the Missouri-Kansas border. Since September, the Army of Missouri had moved through northern Arkansas and into Missouri nearly 500 miles with an army of 12,000 men. After finally receiving permission from Lieutenant General E. Kirby Smith to move into Missouri, Price had hoped to cause a general uprising of pro-Southern Missourians to overthrow the pro-Union provisional government in the state, capture the strategic city of St. Louis, seize the state capital at Jefferson City, spark mass recruitment, and turn the tide of the war itself. However, by the time the Army of Missouri had arrived in the town of Westport, these hopes were fading fast.
Price’s Army of Missouri was virtually trapped as it neared the western border of Missouri. Approaching his rear from the east were over 5,000 cavalrymen under Major General Alfred Pleasonton. To his west, Major General Samuel Curtis had around 15,000 men, though largely inexperienced, in his Army of the Border, determined to put the pincers on Price.
As Price pushed westward along the Missouri River, Curtis ordered Major General James Blunt’s Kansas Division to slow the Rebels down near Lexington and the Little Blue River on October 17. His goal was to slow down and trap Price in the valley of the Little Blue. On October 21, Blunt’s rearguard under Colonel Thomas Moonlight clashed with Major General John Sappington Marmaduke and Brigadier General Jo Shelby’s divisions along the banks of the Little Blue. Though the Marmaduke and Shelby were victorious tactically in the Battle of the Little Blue River, they were slowed down enough that allowed Curtis and Blunt to build a defensive line along the Big Blue River east of the towns of Westport and Kansas City.
To confuse the Federals under Curtis, who suspected the Army of Missouri to fight them due east of Westport at the Main Ford, Price swung his army south from Independence to Byram’s Ford along the Big Blue River, where he clashed with a smaller force of Kansans under the infamous Jayhawker Colonel Charles “Doc” Jennison. Marmaduke’s division then took a defensive position to guard Byram’s Ford. In the meantime, the counter Price’s southern flanking maneuver, Curtis instructed Blunt to form a new defensive line on the southside of the Brush Creek, a tributary of the Big Blue River that ran east-west.
The defensive position Marmaduke took at Byram’s Ford was quite strategic. On the western bank of the Big Blue, Marmaduke’s line sat behind a steep face of rocky heights that protected their position. Near the Big Blue, he placed his picket line. On the main line, Marmaduke’s Missourians, Arkansans, and Texans took the old defenses built by Jennison’s Kansans. Additionally, the ford sat on the road between Independence and Little Santa Fe, which eventually led to the Santa Fe Trail. However, Major General Alfred Pleasonton and his Federal cavalry division knew this as well. Having pursued Marmaduke and Shelby from Independence, he was right on their tails on the early morning of October 23.
Before dawn, Pleasonton and his cavalry advanced several miles towards Byram’s Ford. As they approached the Big Blue, the Federals spotted a wooded ravine just north of the ford that could not be seen by the Confederates. Pleasonton ordered one of his brigades under Colonel John Philips across the ford, while a small battalion of Iowans under Captain Edward Dee swung into the ravine to turn Marmaduke’s left. Rebel skirmishers under Colonels Thomas Freeman, Colton Greene, and John Burbridge slowed the advance at the ford. Colonel Edward Winslow’s brigade then crossed the river at the center of the line. Dee’s assault on the skirmishers left forced them back to the main line at the rocky escarpment.
To take out Marmaduke’s position at the escarpment, Winslow’s brigade pushed forward. Winslow’s men were armed with breechloaders – including the impressive Spencer repeating rifle – and they were able to push west toward the Rebel line. Philips’ and Winslow’s brigades fought desperately against Marmaduke, and they eventually broke the Confederate line. Brigadier General John Clark, who commanded one of Marmaduke’s brigades and later the division, described the situation in his after-action report, “the enemy came upon me in the full enthusiasm of pursuit, and though my brigade contended nobly with the foe for two hours and strewed the open field in our front with his dead, our ammunition exhausted, we were forced to leave the field.” Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Benteen’s, Brigadier General John Sanborn’s, and Philips’ brigades, as well as a section of the 2nd Missouri Light Artillery, continued the pursuit of Marmaduke’s retreating column for over a mile.
The routing of Marmaduke’s division at Byram’s Ford had allowed the Federals to gain a position threatening the right flank and rear of Shelby’s division. Marmaduke had tried to send a courier to alert Shelby of the disaster at the ford, but the courier never made it to Shelby. In his after-action report, Shelby stated that “General Marmaduke had fallen back before the enemy — although he never notified me of the fact and I never saw his couriers which I learned afterward were sent — and thus my whole right flank and rear were exposed.” With Shelby’s and Fagan’s divisions holding on for dear life against Curtis’ Army of the Border – and Pleasonton moving west from Byram’s Ford, Price knew he had to withdraw. Shelby described the scene as “dark and desperate. Not a bush or tree was to be seen for weary miles and miles, and no helping army could be seen anywhere. I knew the only salvation was to charge the nearest line, break it if possible, and retreat rapidly.”
The Battle of Westport was the beginning of the end for Price’s Army of Missouri. Soon after, at the Battles of Mine Creek and Newtonia, the army had virtually disintegrated and limped back to Louisiana and Texas. Today, the Battle of Westport is sometimes described as the “Gettysburg of the West” due to its size and significance. It was the largest battle fought west of the Mississippi River with around 30,000 troops engaged. Sadly, the battlefield has been largely destroyed by urban development in the Kansas City metropolitan area. Though it has fallen victim to sprawl, there are still sites to visit relating to Westport, including Loose Park, the Wornall-Majors House, and the Byram’s Ford Historic District.
For Further Reading:
Kirkman, Paul. The Battle of Westport: Missouri’s Great Confederate Raid. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2011.
Lause, Mark A. Price’s Lost Campaign: The 1864 Invasion of Missouri. Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2011.
Oates, Stephen B. Confederate Cavalry West of the River. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1961.
Sinisi, Kyle S. The Last Hurrah: Sterling Price’s Missouri Expedition of 1864. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.