American Civil War: Battle of Westport

Samuel R. Curtis during the Civil War
Major General Samuel R. Curtis. Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Battle of Westport - Conflict & Date:

The Battle of Westport was fought October 23, 1864, during the American Civil War (1861-1865).

Battle of Westport - Armies & Commanders:

Union

Confederate

Battle of Westport - Background:

In the summer of 1864, Major General Sterling Price, who had been commanding Confederate forces in Arkansas began lobbying his superior, General Edmund Kirby Smith, for permission to attack into Missouri.

  A Missouri native, Price hoped to reclaim the state for the Confederacy and damage President Abraham Lincoln's re-election bid that fall.  Though he was granted permission for the operation, Smith stripped Price of his infantry.  As a result, the strike into Missouri would be limited to a large-scale cavalry raid.  Advancing north with 12,000 horsemen on August 28, Price crossed into Missouri and engaged Union troops at Pilot Knob a month later.  Pushing towards St. Louis, he soon turned west when he realized that the city was too heavily defended to assault with his limited forces.

Responding to Price's raid, Major General William S. Rosecrans, commanding the Department of the Missouri, began concentrating men to deal with the threat.  Having been deterred from his initial objective, Price moved against the state capital at Jefferson City.  A string of skirmishes in the area soon led him to conclude that, like St.

Louis, the city's fortifications were too strong.  Continuing west, Price sought to attack Fort Leavenworth.  As the Confederate cavalry moved through Missouri, Rosecrans dispatched a cavalry division under Major General Alfred Pleasonton as well as two infantry divisions led by Major General A.J. Smith in pursuit.

  A veteran of the Army of the Potomac, Pleasonton had commanded Union forces at the Battle of Brandy Station the previous year before falling out of favor with Major General George G. Meade

Battle of Westport - Curtis Responds:

To the west, Major General Samuel R. Curtis, overseeing the Department of Kansas, worked to concentrate his forces to meet Price's advancing army.  Forming the Army of the Border, he created a cavalry division led by Major General James G. Blunt and an infantry division consisting of Kansas militia commanded by Major General George W. Deitzler.  Organizing the latter formation proved difficult as Kansas Governor Thomas Carney initially resisted Curtis' request to call out the militia.  Further problems emerged regarding the command of Kansas militia cavalry regiments assigned to Blunt's division.  There were ultimately resolved and Curtis ordered Blunt east to block Price.  Engaging the Confederates at Lexington on October 19 and Little Blue River two days later, Blunt was forced back both times. 

Battle of Westport - Plans:

Though victorious in these battles, they slowed Price's advance and allowed Pleasonton to gain ground.  Aware that the combined forces of Curtis and Pleasonton outnumbered his command, Price sought to defeat the Army of the Border before turning to deal with his pursuers.

  Having retreated west, Blunt was directed by Curtis to establish a defensive line behind Brush Creek, just south of Westport (part of modern-day Kansas City, MO).  To attack this position, Price would be required to cross the Big Blue River then turn north and cross Brush Creek.  Implementing his plan to defeat Union forces in detail, he ordered Major General John S. Marmaduke's division to cross the Big Blue at Byram's Ford on October 22 (Map).

This force was to hold the ford against Pleasonton and guard the army's wagon train while the divisions of Major Generals Joseph O. Shelby and James F. Fagan rode north to attack Curtis and Blunt.  At Brush Creek, Blunt deployed the brigades of Colonels James H. Ford and Charles Jennison straddling Wornall Lane and facing south, while that of Colonel Thomas Moonlight extended the Union right south at a right angle.

  From this position, Moonlight could support Jennison or attack the Confederate flank.

Battle of Westport - Brush Creek:

At dawn on October 23, Blunt advanced Jennison and Ford across Brush Creek and over a ridge.  Moving forward they quickly engaged Shelby and Fagan's men.  Counterattacking, Shelby succeeded in turning the Union flank and forced Blunt to retreat back across the creek.  Unable to press the attack due to a shortage of ammunition, the Confederates were forced to pause allowing the Union troops to regroup.  Further bolstering Curtis and Blunt's line was the arrival of Colonel Charles Blair's brigade as well as the sound of Pleasonton's artillery to the south at Byram's Ford.  Reinforced, Union forces charged across the creek against the enemy but were repulsed. 

Seeking an alternative approach, Curtis came across a local farmer, George Thoman, who was angry about Confederate forces stealing his horse.  Thoman agreed to aid the Union commander and showed Curtis a gully that ran past Shelby's left flank to a rise in the Confederate rear.  Taking advantage, Curtis directed the 11th Kansas Cavalry and the 9th Wisconsin Battery to move through the gully.  Attacking Shelby's flank, these units, combined by another frontal assault by Blunt, began to steadily push the Confederates south towards the Wornall House.

Battle of Westport - Byram's Ford:

Reaching Byram's Ford early that morning, Pleasonton pushed three brigades across the river around 8:00 AM.  Taking a position on a hill beyond the ford, Marmaduke's men resisted the first Union assaults.  In the fighting, one of Pleasonton's brigade commanders fell wounded and was replaced by Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Benteen who would later play a role in the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn.  Around 11:00 AM, Pleasonton succeeded in pushing Marmaduke's men from their position.  To the north, Price's men fell back to a new line of defense along a road south of Forest Hill. 

As Union forces brought thirty guns to bear on the Confederates, the 44th Arkansas Infantry (Mounted) charged forward in an attempt to seize the battery.

This effort was repulsed and as Curtis learned of Pleasonton's approach against the enemy's rear and flank, he ordered a general advance.  In a precarious position, Shelby deployed a brigade to fight a delaying action while Price and the rest of the army escaped south and across the Big Blue.  Overwhelmed near the Wornall House, Shelby's men soon followed.

Battle of Westport - Aftermath:

One of the largest battles fought in the Trans-Mississippi Theater, the Battle of Westport saw both sides sustain around 1,500 casualties.  Dubbed the "Gettysburg of the West", the engagement proved decisive in that it shattered Price's command as well as saw many Confederate partisans leave Missouri in the army's wake.  Pursued by Blunt and Pleasonton, the remnants of Price's army moved along the Kansas-Missouri border and fought engagements at Marais des Cygnes, Mine Creek, Marmiton River, and Newtonia.  Continuing to retreat through southwest Missouri, Price then swung west into the Indian Territory before arriving in Confederate lines in Arkansas on December 2.  Reaching safety, his force had been reduced to around 6,000 men, approximately half of its original strength.

Selected Sources