Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The greatest American cavalry battle

Sunday October 23rd 1864, the day of the greatest cavalry battle ever fought in America, dawned still and cold. Water in Brush Creek had a film of thin ice; smoke snaked upwards from a thousand bivouac fires.

General Blunt deployed his forces south of the town of Westport along the north bank of Brush Creek and then south along the state line road. Jennison’s brigade faced south and Moonlight’s brigade east at the right angle of the line. To the east of Jennison was Ford’s brigade; to the south of Moonlight was the Kansas militia. The federal line formed a large upside-down L.

Price’s Confederate divisions of Shelby and Fagan were about a mile south of the union line. Their task was to protect the road from Byram’s Ford on the Blue River that the CSA wagon train and beef herd was moving over. The area was neatly tended farmland, criss-crossed by stone fences and lanes.

As darkness receded, Yankee skirmishers moved south and rebels moved north. These lead elements met and opened fire; artillery began a slow shelling and a steady volume of sound and smoke rose in the misty air. Slowly the federal line was pushed back; regaining their horses they retreated to the creek’s north bank. His ammunition running low, Shelby did not push brief advantage.

Curtis ordered Blunt to engage with his artillery, but not to attack until the rest of the Kansas militia had reinforced him from Kansas City. For an hour the cannon banged away, the skirmishers fired at any available targets and the main lines waited. Blair’s Kansas militia brigade arrived and word went out that Curtis himself would lead the next attack. At first, the advance progressed well, but then it bogged down against Shelby’s resupplied and reinforced line. Once more, the federals withdrew to Brush Creek.

Then, a local farmer informed Curtis of a narrow gorge leading south to the left and rear of the rebel line. The movement caught the Confederates by surprise. Simultaneously the Yankees along Brush Creek surged forward. Twice they were thrown back only to regroup and attack again. Thirty Union and ten Confederate cannon blasted away for an hour. By noon, the bluecoats had moved a mile south of Brush Creek within earshot of firing to the southeast at Byram’s Ford. A mounted counterattack by Dobbins’ rebel brigade was broken by Jennison’s Yankees in a wild hand-to-hand melee. Once again, the Union line moved forward.

Meanwhile, Pleasonton had forced a crossing at Byram’s Ford, placing the Confederate supply train in deep jeopardy. The Confederate position at the ford was strong and well defended but the woody, rocky, bushy terrain protected the attackers as well. Eventually enough federal troops swarmed on the rebel positions, making numbers count more than the bluecoats 200 casualties. Marmaduke’s butternuts resisted but were steadily pushed back. Once out of the timber and onto the prairie, their retreat quickened and the men began to panic.

Shelby sent Jackman’s brigade to Marmaduke’s assistance leaving only the Iron Brigade facing Curtis’ entire force. Jackman counterattacked and checked Pleasonton’s advance, throwing one brigade into abject confusion. Benteen’s federal brigade counter-counter-attacked and it was the Confederates turn to again retreat. Pleasanton now found himself on Shelby’s right flank.

With the sounds of Pleasonton’s advance approaching, Curtis ordered a general assault. Again there was the terrific shock of a mounted charge. Shelby’s Iron Brigade was flanked, frayed and fled to a high stone fence where Shelby and Thompson rallied the remnants in an obstinate stand that bought time for Fagan, Marmaduke and the wagon train to escape to the south. Only then did Shelby withdraw.

Pleasanton and Blunt joined forces at the state line road. Jennison’s brigade and the 2nd Colorado cavalry were sent in pursuit of Price’s beaten Army of Missouri marching south along the Kansas-Missouri border.

The opposing forces had fought a three-day running battle from Lexington through Independence to Byram’s Ford and Westport. Evidence of the fight was all about: broken guns and wagons, dead horses and 3,500 dead and wounded soldiers. They were scattered in woodlots and fields, in fence corners, on hills and in ravines. The wounded were collected and transported by wagon and river steamer to general hospitals. The dead were left for the local citizens to bury. The Union army pressed on after Price’s confederates.

Endnote: After the war, Benteen was assigned to the 7th Cavalry. His battalion, along with Reno's, survived the battle of the Little Big Horn.

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