- Date: October 23, 1864
- Location: South of Brush Creek and Westport, Jackson County, Missouri
- Adversaries: Confed. Maj. Gen. Sterling Price vs. Union Maj. Gen. Samuel R. Curtis
- Size of Forces: Approx. 8,500 Conferate cavalry vs. approx. 22,000 Union soldiers
- Casualties: Approx. 1,500 killed, captured, or wounded on both sides
- Result: Decisive Union victory; retreat of Price's Army of Missouri
As the war turned against the Confederacy in late 1864, Confederate Major General Sterling Price led his cavalry forces on an epic raid into Missouri, hoping to install secessionist Thomas Reynolds as state governor in Jefferson City and to establish the Confederate state government’s legitimacy. Presumably, the loss of a border state would impede President Lincoln’s chances for reelection the following month and give the Confederacy an opportunity to negotiate a peaceful settlement. At the Battle of Westport, however, Price’s Raid came to an inglorious climax. It was the largest battle fought west of the Mississippi River, and the decisive defeat of Price’s Army of Missouri at Westport (within the borders of modern Kansas City, Missouri) ended any Confederate hopes for a positive outcome from the campaign.
At the Battle of Westport, however, Price’s Raid came to an inglorious climax.
Up to the Battle of Westport, the Missouri Expedition resulted in a number of victories in individual battles, but it had not gone as planned. Price had to abandon his first target of St. Louis after a Pyrrhic victory at Fort Davidson, near Pilot Knob, Missouri. Price then continued toward St. Louis, but he found Union defenses too strong and turned west toward Missouri’s capital, Jefferson City. The federals fortified the city, forcing Price to abandon the original purpose of the raid and instead continue westward toward the Union District of the Border headquarters at Kansas City and Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
As Price’s Army of Missouri proceeded toward Westport from the east, it faced a strategic dilemma. Union Major General Samuel Ryan Curtis’s Army of the Border, to its west, had approximately 15,000 men, while to the east, Major General Alfred Pleasonton’s Provisional Cavalry Division numbered over 5,500 in close pursuit of the rebels. By contrast, Price’s army probably numbered between 8,000 to 10,000 men, many of whom were poorly equipped Missouri bushwhackers who joined Price’s forces as his raid advanced. Nonetheless, many of Price’s men had extensive experience in regular and irregular warfare, and his best chance to salvage the raid was to defeat the less-experienced Army of the Border, capture the vital supplies at Fort Leavenworth, and turn back on Pleasonton’s men before the two federal forces combined. Doing that would require a well-trained and disciplined force that maneuvered quickly, yet the Confederate men had displayed little discipline during the raid and were slowed by a large wagon train of captured booty.
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Price’s Army of Missouri fought Curtis’s Army of the Border to its west in a series of battles leading up to Westport. The Confederates won most of these fights and advanced westward, but none of them were decisive. The federals hoped to delay Price to allow Curtis time to gather and consolidate the rest of the Army of the Border, especially the Kansas State Militia, and give Pleasonton time to catch up with Price. Curtis decided to make a stand on the Big Blue River east of Westport, but Price moved south and outflanked the federals by fighting their way across the Big Blue River at Byram’s Ford on October 22. This set the stage for the fighting at Westport as the Union forces under Curtis frantically re-oriented themselves to Price’s crossing of the Big Blue.
Curtis placed Major General James G. Blunt in charge of constructing a new east-west line south of Westport, just south of Brush Creek across from today’s Country Club Plaza, to stop Price’s flanking movement. The Union forces were ready for any Confederate attack from the south. Early on the 23rd, the Federals at Brush Creek were attacked by the bulk of the Army of Missouri under Major Generals Joseph O. Shelby and James Fagan. The action seesawed back and forth as the Confederates gained an early advantage, only to have it nullified when they needed to pause to replenish their ammunition. The longer the fight went on at Brush Creek, the more Kansas Militia units joined the Army of the Border, making the situation even more difficult for the Confederates. But the battle had reached a stalemate as the federals could not force the rebels back, and the latter were unable to smash the federal line. Major General Curtis sought a way to get around the Confederates’ flank to break the deadlock.
A local farmer named George Thoman, angry about Confederate thievery, showed Curtis a creek bed at Swan Creek that allowed the federals to get behind the Confederates around 11 a.m. Curtis grabbed his headquarters escort and the 9th Wisconsin Battery and immediately used the defile to outflank the rebels. The 9th Wisconsin’s barrage from the southwest of the Confederate position, combined with another frontal attack from Blunt, steadily forced Shelby’s men south to a position near the Wornall House (which served as a field hospital and still stands today). As the Confederates fought desperately to defeat the federals around Brush Creek, Price’s worst nightmare was coming true over at Byram’s Ford: Pleasonton had arrived from the east, leaving the Confederates surrounded from the west, north, and east.
Pleasonton’s Provisional Cavalry Division attacked Confederate Major General John Marmaduke’s pickets at Byram’s Ford shortly after 8 a.m. on the same day and vigorously pursued them to the main Confederate position atop a hill beyond the ford. Several federal attacks were repulsed, but by 11 a.m. (around the same time that Thoman showed Curtis the way to the Confederate left and rear) the federals forced Marmaduke’s men off the crest. If the two federal forces combined, there was a very good chance the Army of Missouri would be crushed in a vise.
With the Army of Missouri in a desperate position, Shelby demonstrated why he is considered one of the top generals for either side in the Trans-Mississippi. Shelby managed to delay both Curtis and Pleasonton, with his last line of defense around the Wornall House, allowing Confederate forces to pull out of the federal vise. Shelby’s skillful delaying action could not lead to a victory, but it allowed the bulk of Army of Missouri to escape across the Big Blue River toward Little Santa Fe, where it reunited with the large wagon train.
With the decisive defeat of the Army of Missouri at Westport, any chance Price had of claiming success vanished.
With the decisive defeat of the Army of Missouri at Westport, any chance Price had of claiming success vanished. The Confederates were vigorously pursued by the federals and fought a series of running battles with them, most notably the Battle of Mine Creek, in Kansas, two days later, where Price lost over 600 men and two generals. By that point Price’s main goal was simply survival, and he and what was left of his command retreated into Indian Territory and Texas before slipping back into Arkansas with just 6,000 men, half of his original force.
Numerous historians have called Westport the “Gettysburg of the West,” but Westport actually proved to be more decisive than Gettysburg.
The Battle of Westport was the largest battle of the Civil War west of the Mississippi River, and one of its most significant. Casualties on both sides were around 1,500 each in killed, wounded, and missing. Numerous historians have called Westport the “Gettysburg of the West,” but Westport actually proved to be more decisive than Gettysburg. At Gettysburg, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia suffered a sharp defeat, but it retreated in good order and escaped into Virginia as an intact army that continued to fight for almost two years. By contrast, Price’s Army of Missouri virtually disintegrated after Westport. Furthermore, most of the large guerrilla bands in Missouri followed Price into Arkansas, so that Price’s Raid actually ended bushwhacker and Confederate military activity in the state. Finally, in the 1864 elections, Price’s defeat at Westport helped empower the Radical Republicans to electoral victories in both Missouri and Kansas.
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Lause, Mark. The Collapse of Price’s Raid: The Beginning of the End in Civil War Missouri. Columbia: The University of Missouri Press, 2016.
Lee, Fred L. Gettysburg of the West: The Battle of Westport, October 21-23, 1864. Independence, Missouri: Two Trails Publishing, 1996, revised edition. Originally published in 1976.
Monnett, Howard N. Action Before Westport 1864. Boulder, Colorado: University Press of Colorado, 1995, revised edition. Originally published in 1964.
Sinisi, Kyle S. The Last Hurrah: Sterling Price's Missouri Expedition of 1864. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.