As Confederate General Sterling Price’s Army of Missouri moved west across Missouri, it was pursued by the forces of Union General William S. Rosecrans and slowly closed on the United States Army of the Border in the Department of Kansas commanded by General Samuel R Curtis.
Curtis had 4,000 men in portions of 5 volunteer cavalry regiments to oppose Price’s 14,000. Curtis needed the Kansas State militia. There were 2 problems with calling them out: first, many vehemently opposed leaving the state, and, second, the Governor, Thomas Carney, wanted them home as well, for the fall election was approaching. On October 9th, As Price approached, Carney called out the militia. His military shortcoming was more than matched by his stirring address:
By October 15th, 15,000 militiamen were assembled. Curtis dispatched some militia and his most veteran volunteer shock troops, 3 brigades under James G. Blunt into Missouri to delay Price. Most of the militia was placed along the state line near Shawnee. Due to a shortage of uniforms, the militia were all ordered to wear a piece of red flannel on their coats.
The State is in peril. Price and his rebel hosts threaten it with invasion. Kansas must be ready to hurl them back at any cost… Kansans, rally! You will do so, as you have always promptly done when your soil has been invaded. The call this time will come to you louder and stronger because you know the foe will seek to glut his vengeance upon you. Meet him, then, at the threshold and strike boldly; strike as one man against him. Let all business be suspended. The work to be done now is to protect the State against marauder and murderer. Until this is accomplished we must lead a soldier's life and do a soldier's duty. Men of Kansas, rally! One blow, one earnest, united blow will foil the invader and save you. Who will falter? Who is not ready to meet the peril? Who will not defend his home and the State? To arms then! To arms, and the tented field until the rebel foe shall be baffled and beaten back!
Finally organized, Curtis moved east. Blunt hoped to link up with Rosecrans forces commanded by Smith and Sanborn and then move to attack Price. Blunt reached Lexington on the morning of the 18th and occupied the town. Curtis moved the militia to the Big Blue River a few miles behind Blunt but could persuade them to go no farther. Blunt’s 2,000 men and 8 cannon were on their own.
Early in the morning of October 19th, Price’s men moved in 3 columns to Lexington. Shelby’s division advanced in the middle and made first contact just before noon. Blunt’s pickets were slowly pushed back to his main line. Confederate attacks swarmed forward time and again. Three times the Union cavalry drove them back.
Eventually Price’s numbers overlapped and overwhelmed Blunt; he gave the order to withdrawal and left Colonel Thomas Moonlight’s brigade to cover the retreat. During the 6-mile withdrawal, Moonlight make 4 successful stands until darkness covered the land and Blunt established a new line behind the Little Blue River. There, Blunt was instructed to continue west to the Big Blue. Again, all day and all night, Moonlight’s men covered the withdrawal of Blunt’s forces.