150 Years Ago This Week: The battle of Westport

October 1864

At the close of the third week in October, after fitting out in the Islands of Madeira, C.S.S. Shenandoah was commissioned into the Confederate States Navy as a commerce raider. In Washington, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation establishing the national holiday of “a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to Almighty God the beneficent Creator and Ruler of the Universe” on the fourth Thursday of each November.

In Missouri, the fighting continued in earnest: along Brush Creek at Westport, just north of Kansas City, the largest battle of the war in the state was fought on Sunday, Oct. 23. Brig. Gen. Joseph “Jo” Shelby’s Confederates launched an attack on Brig. Gen. Samuel Curtis’s Federals in his front. Gen. Shelby had intended to defeat the Union troops and then turn on Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasanton’s cavalry coming up behind them. After two hours of severe fighting, Gen. Shelby’s men charged effectively but then encountered a Federal countercharge.

The fighting continued for two hours, and Gen. Shelby’s men pushed the Northerners back across Brush Creek. Another two hours of severe fighting ensued on the plateau. Finally, the Federals turned the Confederate left flank in a small ravine, followed by an attack by Gen. Pleasanton’s cavalry. Brig. Gen. John S. Marmaduke’s Southerners were pushed back, and then the Federal troopers tore into Gen. Shelby’s men who were already occupied with fighting Gen. Curtis’s troops.

In the afternoon, Maj. Gen. Sterling Price, the overall Confederate commander, ordered his entire army to withdraw south to the Missouri-Kansas state line. The last Confederate effort in Missouri was over, with Union casualties numbering about 1,500 out of some 20,000 effective troops; Gen. Sterling had some 8,000 men on the field, and also suffered about 1,500 casualties.

Two days after the battle at Westport, Gen. Curtis and his army, in pursuit of Gen. Price’s troops, caught the Confederates at Marais des Cygnes and Mine Creek, Kansas. In another heavy engagement there, Gen. Pleasanton and the cavalry caused two of Gen. Price’s two divisions to break. Gen. Shelby brought up his Southerners and led a counterattack, but eventually they fell back, and Gen. Price was forced to burn a third of his supply wagon train and continue to the south. Near Richmond, Mo., the notorious Confederate guerrilla fighter “Bloody Bill” Anderson was killed in an ambush. For some time, he had ridden with William Quantrell and Frank and Jesse James.

The fighting front around Petersburg, Va., had been relatively quiet for several weeks, until Thursday, Oct. 27. Some 17,000 Federal troops began an advance on the Boydton Plank Road, about 12 miles south of Petersburg, making an attempt to disrupt the South Side Railroad. The Union advance was halted by an attack of the Confederate cavalry under Lt. Gen. Wade Hampton, and infantry under Maj. Gen. Henry Heth and Maj. Gen. William Mahone. Lack of coordination between the Union Second Corps under Maj. Gen. Winfield Hancock and the Fifth Corps under Maj. Gen. Gouveneur Warren was largely responsible for the failure of the Federal attacks on the Boydton Plank Rd. The Union troops withdrew, leaving the South Side Railroad in Confederate control for the winter. Union casualties numbered almost 1600; Confederate casualties were not accurately determined.

During the early morning of Oct. 28, a steam launch with a torpedo at the end of a long pole moved silently up the Roanoke River to Plymouth, N.C., where the Confederate ironclad C.S.S. Albemarle lay at anchor. Union Naval Lieut. William B. Cushing had planned this operation for some time. As the launch headed for the ironclad, an alarm was sounded and firing began. The launch struck a log boom protecting Albemarle, smashed through, and exploded the torpedo against the iron hull. The launch’s crew plunged into the water as Albemarle heeled over and sank. The 21-year-old Lt. Cushing had successfully completed one of the most daring adventures of the entire war, and he escaped capture and injury, as did the rest of the 15-man crew of the launch. For this action, Lt. Cushing was promoted to Lt. Cmdr. As the month closed, Gen. John B. Gordon and his Confederate Army of Tennessee reached Tuscumbia and Florence, Ala., north of the Tennessee River; here he reinforced his army, with the intent to invade Tennessee and hope that Maj. Gen. William Sherman and his armies would follow. On Monday, Oct. 31, by proclamation of President Lincoln, Nevada entered the Union as the 36th state.

Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 194 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.