Battle of Westport (Price's Raid)
The Battle of Westport is widely regarded as the single most important battle of the Civil War that took place west of the Mississippi. The battle itself occurred in modern-day Kansas City from October 21-23, 1864, and the Confederate defeat at the battle marked a turning point in the war and the end of the Confederate threat in the west. As the largest battle in the west with over 30,000 combatants, the three-day battle resulted in about 1,500 deaths on each side, which gave the Battle of Westport its nickname of “Gettysburg of the West.” Its name refers collectively to three days of constant fighting scattered around Kansas City, including the Little Blue River, Big Blue River, Independence, Byram's Ford, Mockbee's Farm, Shawnee Mission, and Brush Creek. Nowadays, visitors to the Battle of Westport Visitor Center and Museum can experience the entire history of the battle. The 32-mile self-guided tour of the Battle of Westport traces the routes of the armies over adjacent battlefields along the Big Blue River in the Byram's Ford Historic District. Several replica artillery items are placed along the self-guided tour. The battlefield has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1989, and has been preserved through the tireless efforts of the nonprofit Monnett Battle of Westport Fund. It is now a Kansas City Park.
Backstory and Context
The origins of the Battle of Westport are mired in political intrigue and controversy, but its beginning can be traced to the Confederacy’s desire to install secessionist Thomas Reynolds as the Missouri State Governor in Jefferson City and to establish a “legitimate” Confederate state government (despite a heavy concentration of Southern sympathizers in the state, Missouri never actually seceded). Furthermore, by capturing the state for the South, Price and the Confederacy hoped that the loss would negatively affect Lincoln’s chances for re-election in November, 1864.
Thus, in September of 1864, Price led 12,000 soldiers, mostly cavalry and militia, on a legendary raid into the heart of Missouri. Although they initially targeted St. Louis, Price soon realized that his rather small army would not be able to penetrate the city’s considerable fortifications.
After turning back from St. Louis, Price and his Army of Missouri headed towards Jefferson City. Light skirmishes ensued, and Price and his army also turned away from Jefferson City. Disease, desertion, and death brought the Army of Missouri’s numbers down, but he received a steady supply of recruits from pro-Confederate counties as he passed through.
Ahead and behind Price, the Union response was building. General Samuel R. Curtis patched together 15,000 volunteers and militia from Kansas and Missouri into a well-supplied “Army of the Border,” which he stationed along the Big Blue River between Independence and Kansas City, intending to block Price’s movement west. Back in St. Louis, Rosecrans sent General Alfred R. Pleasonton to tail Price with 10,000 cavalry, hoping to trap the Confederates between the two armies.
After pushing back Union delaying forces at Lexington, the Little Blue River, and Independence, Price finally squared off across the banks of the Big Blue on the morning of October 22, 1864. But Price appreciated the strength of Curtis’s defenses and, leaving a diversionary force behind, slipped southward with his army. By the time Curtis realized Price wasn’t going to attack via the Kansas City Road, the Confederates were more than 10 miles south, crumpling his weak right flank at Byram’s Ford.
Price pushed his way across the Big Blue River while Curtis scrambled to realign his defenses to meet this new threat. Luckily for Curtis, Pleasonton was now on the scene, attacking the Confederate rearguard in Independence. Despite having beaten back Union forces from the ford and at Mockbee’s Farm, Price was still in danger of being caught in the vise between the two Union armies.
On October 23, that is precisely the fate that befell Price’s beleaguered army. Though Curtis’s men suffered some early reversals along Brush Creek, just south of Westport, their lines held and began to drive the Confederates back while Pleasonton hammered the Confederate rearguard and pushed across Byram’s Ford, just as the Rebels had done the day before. By afternoon, the situation was hopeless. The Confederate lines collapsed and a general rout commenced southward. Union cavalry would pursue Price’s army for several days afterward, annihilating more than half the force and ending organized Confederate resistance in the Trans-Mississippi Theater.
Battle of Westport Visitor Center and Museum
The Battle of Westport Visitor Center and Museum helps preserve the battlefield while introducing visitors to this monumental moment in the Civil War. Opening in 2008, the Visitor Center and Museum depicts the experiences of both civilians and soldiers who were caught in the horrendous fighting of this battle, and galleries and exhibits showcase several nuances of the battle, ranging from the Price raid to the lives and culture surrounding Westport citizens.
There are two self-guided tours for visitors to further immerse themselves into the history of this battle, including the 32-mile Battle of Westport Auto Tour and the Big Blue Battlefield Walking Tour. The automobile tour starts at the Westport District of Kansas City and stops at 25 major sites associated with the battle. The Big Blue Battlefield Walking Tour follows the historic route of the Byram’s Ford Road over the battlefield. At the top of Bloody Hill, a cannon marks the spot of Pratt’s Artillery Ford as it stood on October 23rd, 1864.8
2. Swain, Craig. Pleasonton, Price, and the Big Blue River. To the Sound of the Guns. October 22, 2014. Accessed December 11, 2017. https://markerhunter.wordpress.com/2014/10/22/pleasonton-big-blue/
3. Webb, W.L.. The Centennial History of Independence, MO. Independence, MO. Self, 1927. http://vintagekansascity.com/historyofindependence/chapter_13_second_battle_of_indep.html
4. Collins, Charles Jr. D.. Battlefield Atlas of Price’s Missouri Expedition of 1864. Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Combat Studies Institute Press, 2016.
5. Sallee, Scott E.. "Missouri! One Last Time: Sterling Price's 1864 Missouri Expedition." Blue & Gray Magazine. Blue & Gray Magazine, 10-20, 48-62.
6. Dick, Titterington. Tour: The Battle of Byram's Ford. The Civil War Muse. Accessed December 12, 2017. http://www.thecivilwarmuse.com/index.php?page=byram-s-ford-battlefield.
7. Beckenbaugh, Terry. "Battle of Westport" Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. The Kansas City Public Library. Accessed Dec, 14, 2017 at http://www.civilwaronthewesternborder.org/encyclopedia/battle-westport
8. Tours. Battle of Westport. Accessed December 14, 2017. http://www.battleofwestport.org/Tours.htm.