Thursday, October 23, 2014

Battle of Westport

After the fall of Vicksburg, the Transmissippi, Confederate states west of the Mississippi, were cut off from the rest of the Confederacy. However, campaigns still continued there. Kirby Smith, Confederate commander of the theater, came up with a plan for an offensive campaign. He ordered Stirling Price to lead an army into Missouri, and capture St. Louis or Jefferson City, the capitol. He was then to move into Kansas and the Indian Territory, rounding up supplies that would be of use to the south. Price had 12,000 men in three divisions. They were mostly cavalry, but he hoped that Missourians would flock to join his army.


Price began his expedition in September, 1864. Cavalry set out to pursue him, along with A. J. Smith's corps of infantry. He skirmished around St. Louis and Jefferson city, but determined that they were too heavily fortified for his men to capture. Instead he turned west, and headed for Kansas. Samuel Curtis, the Federal commander in Kansas, was hurrying to gather troops to meet him. The Federals were not not prepared to meet this attack, but Curtis was able to gather 22,000 men into his Army of the Border, most of whom were militia. By this time Price's forces numbered less than 9,000, depleted by the marching and fighting.

As Price advanced toward Westport, Missouri, modern day Kansas City, he knew he was in trouble. Curtis was making a stand at Westport, but Price was also being pursued by Union cavalry under Alfred Pleasonton. He would try to deal with the Union armies one at a time, first attacking Curtis at Westport. The battle was fought on October 23rd, 150 years ago today.

Fighting at Brush Creek
The fighting began when Union skirmishers advanced across Brush Creek. The Confederate divisions of Joe Shelby and James Fagan attacked, and drove back the Federal brigades. Curtis arrived on the field, and sent reinforcements in to counterattack. They were driven back, so he looked for another way to strike Price's army. A local farmer named George Thoman pointed the Union troops to a gulch which led to Shelby's left flank. Curtis sent his escort and the 9th Wisconsin Battery to move up this ravine to the Confederate flank. This gave the Yankees the edge they needed, and they began to make progress in their attacks, slowly pushing the Confederates back.

Byram's Ford. Source
Price's rear was also in danger. Pleasonton's pursuing Union cavalry drove the Confederate rearguard away from Byram's Ford. The Confederates soon realized their danger, and Price ordered a retreat to escape from the encircling Federal forces. Disengaging from Curtis' forces was difficult, and at several points Confederate brigades in the rear were broken. The retreat was hasty, and many rebels threw away gear which they could no longer carry. To cover the retreat, the Confederates set the prairie on fire, so they would be shielded by a smoke screen.

Confederate cemetery. Source
Price headed south, with the Union forces still in pursuit. He was able to reach Confederate territory after several skirmishes, but with about half the men he had set out with. The Battle of Westport was one of the most important in the Transmississippi Theater. It has been called the Gettysburg of the West, because it cemented Union control of Missouri and generally ended further Confederate campaigning.


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