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Chapter 19:

  • Price's army Encounters severe fighting
  • -- Shelby Comes to the rescue -- the battle of Newtonia -- hardships of the retreat -- the court of inquiry.

The army camped in and around Independence on the night of October 21, 1864, the day of the fight at the crossing of the Little Blue. It was confronting an army in its front under Curtis and Blunt, and another equally as large, under Rosecrans and Pleasanton, was forced-marching to strike it in rear. When General Price reached Lexington he had accomplished all he could hope to accomplish. He might have turned southward from there and had an unobstructed line of retreat. He might turn southward from Independence and have all the forces opposed to him in his rear. But if he crossed the Big Blue, just in his front, he would be hemmed in between three rivers—the Missouri, the Kansas and the Big Blue—and have to fight two armies to recross the last named river.

The next morning Shelby took the advance and crossed the Big Blue. All day his guns could be heard thundering in front, indicating that he was forcing his way with difficulty. Early in the morning Rosecrans' army came up and attacked Independence before it was clear of the horde of unorganized men and stragglers who were a perpetual nuisance and hindrance to the organized troops. In getting out of the town Cabell lost his battery. It was run down by a great body of stragglers, with the enemy close behind them, and before the artillerymen could recover themselves they were charged by a regiment of cavalry and sabered in the act of firing their [190] guns. Marmaduke, after getting out of Independence, took the rear and skirmished all day with Pleasanton, not yielding two miles of ground during the day. But just at night the enemy advanced in force and the fight was kept until after midnight, when Marmaduke crossed the Big Blue and his command bivouacked by the roadside and on the banks of the stream, without food or covering.

General Price was now well in the trap. The Missouri river was on the north, the Kansas on the west, the Big Blue on the east, and it wound around so that he would have to recross it to get an outlet to the south. Besides, his movements were incumbered by an army of unorganized and worse than useless men, and an enormous wagon train which was always in the way. At daylight both Rosecrans and Curtis advanced, one from the east and the other from the west. Marmaduke was opposing Rosecrans and Shelby was opposing Curtis, while Fagan's division was between the two, guarding the train and preparing to help either Shelby or Marmaduke. The object was to get the train out. The bottom of the Big Blue was low on the north side and hilly on the south side. Gen. John McNeil was sent with a heavy force to take possession of the hills and prevent the crossing of the stream. McNeil was in no hurry to obey his orders. When his column made its appearance on the prairie, a couple of miles to the south and east of the crossing, Marmaduke was hotly engaged with Rosecrans, but he was ordered to send Clark's brigade at speed to anticipate McNeil and hold the heights. When Clark got there McNeil, instead of taking possession of the heights, had opened upon, them with .his artillery, half a mile away, and was shelling the woods in a lively manner. Cabell's brigade soon joined Clark's and an avenue for the train and the army was secured. McNeil did not attempt to interfere with the train as the wagons ascended the hill from the bottom and appeared on the open prairie. [191]

In the meantime Rosecrans was pushing Marmaduke's depleted command before him, and Shelby was overmatched in his fight with Curtis and Blunt. They were both in an eminently dangerous position, as long as the train was in their way. But as soon as it cleared the stream and the road was open, they could see daylight ahead. As it was, Shelby's command was worse cut up than it had ever been before, and a part of the time Marmaduke was opposing Rosecrans' advance with only some members of his staff—Major Ewing, Major Newton and Captain Price—and his escort company. With the disappearance of the train Fagan's division was relieved, in large part, of the duty of guarding it, and was free to help Marmaduke and Shelby in their extremity, which it did in a soldierly and chivalrous manner. Dobbins' brigade and McGhee's battalion charged the enemy in the outskirts of Westport and broke the force of their assaults on Shelby when he was driven almost to the wall; and Cabell, though hotly engaged himself, sent Marmaduke two regiments when his need was the greatest.

Battered and bruised, and with its ranks decimated, the army emerged from the trap in which it had been caught with a feeling of personal hostility on the part of the men to the enormous and useless wagon train which had been the principal cause of their discomfiture and losses, but with the idea that now they had started southward in retreat and had the enemy behind them, the column would be stripped of all superfluities and incumbrances and would move forty or fifty miles a day. With them retreat meant hard, rapid marching, at least until they got rid of the heavy masses of the enemy. Their horses were in better condition than those of the enemy, and they knew that in two days time they could leave any pursuing force capable of seriously interfering with them far behind.

They were, therefore, surprised and disgusted when it became evident there was to be no decrease in the number [192] of wagons that incumbered the march and which they had to guard at the hazard of their lives, and that the column was moving leisurely and at a speed that would not have been rapid for infantry. The army camped on the second night after the battle on the Marais des Cygnes, about half way between Westport and Fort Scott, on the Kansas side of the line. Cabell was in rear, and reported frequently during the night that the Federals were massing on his front and threatening trouble next day if they waited that long to begin operations. But no notice was taken of his warnings. It was broad daylight, October 25th, before General Price began to move, and the train did not get straightened out and in motion until after sunrise. Shelby had been sent in advance to take Fort Scott. Marmaduke was in rear, and Fagan had the train in charge.

As soon as the column was clear of the timber, Marmaduke formed Clark's brigade in line of battle, and moved across the prairie prepared to fight at any moment. Wherever the ground was favorable he stopped, about-faced and checked the enemy in order to give the train time to get ahead and out of the way. Just before reaching Mine creek he congratulated himself that his front was clear, and said, when he came in sight of the timber in the creek bottom, that after crossing the creek he would form and check the pursuit for all day. The Federals were marching with probably two regiments in line of battle, one on either flank, and another in column of companies in the center, prepared evidently for prompt and decided action. When Marmaduke reached the rise in the prairie that overlooked the creek bottom, he was surprised to find the wagon train on his side of the creek, the teamsters dismounted and lying on the grass or talking with each other, and about one wagon crossing the creek every five minutes.

Clark's brigade was at once about-faced and Freeman's formed on Clark's right, with the battery between them. [193] Fagan formed his division as rapidly as possible, but only Cabell's brigade and some regiments got in line. General Pleasanton, the Federal commander, seemed to divine from these movements that there was something wrong in Marmaduke's rear and ordered a charge. The two regiments in line moved obliquely against each of Marmaduke's flanks, and the one in column of companies spread out and struck straight at his center. Freeman's brigade on the right gave way without waiting to receive the enemy's charge, and Marmaduke ordered a countercharge by Clark's brigade, and led it himself. He met the enemy's charge half way. The charging lines passed through each other, turned and passed through each other again, returning to something like their original positions. During this time the enemy had passed around the right flank where Freeman had been and charged the battery from the rear, captured it and turned its guns upon the Confederates. The Confederates, as well as the Federals, were dressed in blue, and Marmaduke returning from the charge and seeing his battery firing on his command rode down on it, ordered the men to cease firing, and was taken prisoner. The creek was jammed with wagons, and the rout being complete and everything in confusion, the soldiers got across it wherever they could. Cabell's and Slemons' Arkansas brigades on the left charged at the same time Clark's did, and fared very much as it did. Cabell and Slemons were both taken prisoners. So was Colonel Jeffers, of Clark's brigade, while Lieutenant-Colonel Ward and Major Parrott and Adjutant Coleman of his regiment were severely wounded, Major Parrott fatally. Colonel McGhee, of an Arkansas regiment, was also severely wounded.

Shelby was far in advance, marching rapidly on Fort Scott, and Price was several miles from the scene of the fight. When the news of the rout reached Price and he saw the remnants of the army rushing like a herd of stampeded cattle across the prairie, he sent in hot haste [194] for Shelby. As fast as their horses could bring them, Shelby and his division returned, passed through the mob of panic-stricken men, and almost before the Federals knew it presented a firm front to them. During the day Shelby rode down horse after horse, trying to bring some sort of order out of the chaos, all the time keeping his eye on the movements of the enemy, fighting and checking them whenever he could, without hazarding a general engagement. Just before sundown he got all the men possible in line, opened with his artillery and offered the enemy battle. In one sense it was a bluff, but Shelby had a habit of making his bluffs good. The enemy brought their artillery into action and seemed inclined to accept the challenge, but Shelby had sent John T. Crisp, with a crowd of men whom he had succeeded in getting together, around an extensive elevation in the prairie, and these appearing in a position to threaten the enemy's flank, he halted, hesitated, and then slowly and sullenly retired.

Except for an hour that night, when many wagons were burned and great quantities of ammunition were destroyed, the army did not halt until it had marched 65 miles and reached the vicinity of Newtonia. All this time Shelby was in rear covering its retreat. When he reached Newtonia he informed General Price that a column of the enemy, probably 5,000 strong, was not far behind him. General Price discredited the information. But Shelby held his division in readiness to meet the enemy. He was determined to fight and end the question of the pursuit then and there. He chose his position judiciously and waited. There was no useless delay on the enemy's part nor on Shelby's. As soon as Blunt came up he attacked (October 28th). Shelby repelled his attack and charged him. For a half or three-quarters of an hour the fighting was terrific, then the Federals began to give way, and in an hour from the time the first gun was fired Blunt was in full and rapid retreat Shelby made the fight alone [195] and unaided. He did not ask for assistance and did not receive any, except that of some individual officers and some fragments of commands that went to him on the field of their own accord when the firing commenced and did what they could to aid him. The defeat of Blunt ended the pursuit, and was the last battle fought in the Trans-Mississippi department.

But the hardships and sufferings of the soldiers were not ended. It was the last of October, and the weather was getting cold and stormy. Before reaching the northern border of Arkansas there was protracted rain ending with snow. Provisions for the men were scarce and forage for the horses was scarcer. The army moved in a southwestern direction and crossed the Arkansas river in the Indian country on the 7th of November. The enemy it had to encounter after that was starvation. The Indian country was nearly depopulated and thoroughly desolated. Straggling parties set the dry prairie grass on fire, and horses died by thousands. The horses were led because they were too weak to be ridden. The men suffered too. First there was no bread and then no meat. Mules and horses were killed and eaten, generally without salt. Again Shelby came to the relief of the army. He took the advance to fight starvation, as he had taken the rear to fight the Federals. Far down the Canadian river he found thousands of fat cattle, as wild almost as deer. His men killed hundreds of them and made corrals and secured thousands, which were held under guard until the army came up. After that there was meat in abundance, but without bread or salt. Not until Boggy Depot was reached, two weeks later, did the worn, dispirited and starving soldiers have a meal of even scant army rations. As it was, hundreds of them fell behind from starvation and the weaknesses caused by starvation, and died before relief came. On crossing Red river the Missouri commands were camped in and around Clarksville, Tex. [196]

Not long after the return of the expedition, Governor Reynolds published in a Marshall (Texas) paper a long communication, reviewing the generalship of the commander of the expedition and criticising him in scathing terms. General Price took no notice of it at the time, but his friends replied to it; and at last it created so much feeling, one way and the other, that General Price was compelled to ask for a court of inquiry. His request was complied with, and the court consisted of Brigadier-Gen-erals Drayton and McNair and Colonel Luckett, Maj. Oscar Watkins being judge advocate. Col. R. H. Musser, of the Ninth Missouri infantry, was General Price's military friend. The court delayed action from time to time, until finally the crash came, and it disappeared in the general wreck. [197]

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