The Battle of Westport, sometimes referred to as the "Gettysburg of the West," was fought on October 23, 1864, in modern Kansas City, Missouri, during the American Civil War. Union forces under Major General Samuel R. Curtis decisively defeated an outnumbered Confederate force under Major General Sterling Price. This engagement was the turning point of Price's Missouri Expedition, forcing his army to retreat and ending the last significant Confederate operation west of the Mississippi River. This battle was one of the largest to be fought west of the Mississippi River, with over 30,000 men engaged.


Westport (now a part of Kansas City, Missouri) had already established its place in history by the time Union and Confederate forces clashed there in 1864. John Calvin McCoy, known as the "Father of Kansas City", had laid out the town, and pioneers traveling along the Oregon, California and Santa Fe Trails all passed through it on their way West. Westport gradually replaced nearby Independence as the "jumping-off point" for the Westward trails, contributing to the growth of the town.

During the Civil War, nearby Kansas City (known then as the Town of Kansas) served as headquarters for the Federal "District of the Border" and was garrisoned by a sizable contingent of Union troops. While its own municipal star was beginning to fade in favor of its northern neighbor, Westport was still of some importance in the region. As it turned out, however, the decision to fight here would be the result of a chain of events that had little to do with any strategic importance attached to the town itself.

Price's Raid begins

In September 1864, Sterling Price led his Army of Missouri into Missouri, with the hope of capturing the state for the South and turning the Northern people against Abraham Lincoln in the presidential election of 1864. Major General William S. Rosecrans, commanding the Federal Department of the Missouri, began assembling troops to repel the invasion. Rosecrans's cavalry under Major General Alfred Pleasonton set out in pursuit of Price's force, accompanied by a large detachment of infantry from the Army of the Tennessee under Andrew J. Smith. After his defeat at the Battle of Ft. Davidson, Price realized that St. Louis was far too heavily fortified for his rather small force (12,000 men), so he turned west to threaten Jefferson City. After light skirmishing there, Price again decided that this target was also too heavily fortified and moved further west towards Fort Leavenworth. As he marched on, disease and desertion coupled with battlefield losses to whittle Price's force down to 8,500 men.

The Union responds

Major General Samuel R. Curtis, commander of the Federal Department of Kansas, now faced the threat of Price's army moving into his department after learning of Confederate movements from spies including Wild Bill Hickok. Curtis accordingly assembled his troops into a force that he named the Army of the Border. James G. Blunt was recalled from Indian campaigns to lead its 1st Division, composed mostly of volunteer regiments and some Kansas militia. Curtis was only initially able to muster about 4,000 volunteers; he asked Kansas governor Thomas Carney to call out the state militia to bolster his forces. Governor Carney immediately suspected Curtis of attempting to draw the militia away from their voting districts, as election time was nearing. Carney was unconcerned with Price's force far away in Missouri, and felt it posed no threat to Kansas. However, once Price had turned west toward Jefferson City, Carney relented and Maj. Gen. George Dietzler took command of a division of Kansas Militia that now joined Curtis' Army of the Border.

Command disputes

By order of Maj. Gen. Blunt (General Field Orders No. 2) the militia regiments of William H.M. Fishbeck, Brigadier General of Militia, were placed under the command of Charles W. Blair, Colonel of Volunteers; Fishbeck was infuriated that his command had been subordinated to a volunteer officer. Since Kansas law stated that militia should be kept under the command of militia officers, Fishbeck disregarded Blunt's order. Blunt had Fishbeck arrested and held until he was released by order of Maj. Gen. Curtis. Upon release, Fishbeck resumed command of the Kansas Militia regiments, with orders to obey directives that came from Maj. Gen. Blunt. This rather cumbersome arrangement had Brig. Gen. Fishbeck in direct command of the militia units attached to the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, and Col. Charles Blair in overall command of the brigade. Howard N. Monnett describes the arrangement as a "brigade within a brigade". Blair and Fishbeck led the militia into action at Westport (accompanied onto the field by Maj. Gen. George W. Dietzler), and then in the subsequent pursuit of Price until Maj. Gen. Curtis ordered the militia to return home.

The battle


General Curtis sent the bulk of his 1st Division under Gen. James Blunt to confront the Confederates at Lexington, approximately forty miles east of Kansas City, on October 19. Blunt was unable to stop Price, but did slow his progress and gathered information on the Confederate forces. Again, at the Little Blue River on October 21, Blunt was forced to retire–but not without slowing Price enough for a pursuing Federal cavalry division under Alfred Pleasonton to close the gap between himself and the Rebels. Additional fighting occurred the next day at Independence, with Price emerging victorious yet again. Curtis was nearly sixty years old, and age had taken a toll on his desire for combat; however, thanks to his aggressive subordinate Gen. Blunt, Curtis decided to make another stand south of Westport. Blunt personally oversaw the construction of a defensive line south of the town along Brush Creek, perpendicular to the Kansas state line.

Price was aware of the forces to his front and rear, which together outnumbered him nearly three-to-one, so he determined to deal with them one at a time. He decided to attack Curtis' army first, at Westport. Almost as old as his adversary, Price left direction of the engagement to his subordinate, General Jo Shelby. With about 500 wagons and 5,000 head of cattle, Price first needed a ford for his supply trains to cross the Blue River near Westport. One of Price's divisions under John S. Marmaduke accordingly forced a crossing at Byram's Ford on the 22nd, then took up positions on the west bank to hold off Pleasonton's Federal Cavalry, which now threatened Price's rear. Two other Confederate divisions, under Shelby and James Fagan, were poised to assault Blunt along Brush Creek the next day, hoping to defeat him before Pleasanton could arrive on the field in force.

Action at Brush Creek

Anticipating Price's impending attack, Blunt had positioned his three available brigades along Brush Creek, while a fourth under Col. Charles Blair was en route from Kansas City. East of Wornall Lane (present-day Wornal Road) was the brigade of J. Hobart Ford. West of Wornall was the brigade of Charles "Doc" Jennison, with an artillery battery in support. Two regiments of cavalry filled the gap to the west between Jennison and the Kansas/Missouri state line. At a right angle to Jennison was the brigade of Thomas Moonlight, running parallel to the state line. Moonlight was positioned to either support Jennison or move against the Confederate flank.

At daybreak on the 23rd, Blunt opened the battle by sending Jennison and Ford over an icy Brush Creek with their skirmishers. Advancing up a ridge, the Union forces engaged the Confederates in an open field to the south. The rebel divisions of Joseph O. Shelby and James Fagan had meanwhile received orders from Price to hold Curtis in front of Westport. Shelby counterattacked with the famed Iron Brigade under M. Jeff Thompson in the lead. This attack drove the outflanked Federals back across the creek. Moonlight's brigade was hit so hard that it was forced to retreat back across the Kansas state line, while Jennison's brigade retreated almost to the streets of Westport. It appeared at this point that the Confederates might carry the day.

But this was not to be. Shelby's force was out of ammunition, and remained on the heights south of Brush Creek. Also at this crucial hour, Col. Blair's brigade arrived and Curtis heard Pleasonton's guns engaging the Confederates at nearby Byram's Ford. His spirits lifted, the Union commander rode to the front lines and personally directed Blair's troops into battle west of Jennison. The reinforced Federals charged across the creek once more, with Blair in the lead, but were again repulsed and retreated to the north bank.

Needing another option besides frontal assaults, Curtis decided to search for a weak point elsewhere in the Rebel lines. His scouts found a local farmer named George Thoman, who was eager to help the Federals as the Confederates had absconded with his horse the previous night. Thoman showed Curtis a gulch, cut by Swan Creek, running up to a rise along Shelby's left flank. Curtis personally directed his headquarters escort and the 9th Wisconsin Battery through this gully. Meanwhile, Blunt continued to push Jennison and Ford up the rise across Brush Creek, making slow progress until the 9th Wisconsin opened fire upon the Confederate flank and rear. Encouraged, Blunt's men now poured over the ridge, but Shelby's men fought back stubbornly and a see-saw battle ensued in the open prairie. The Union army gradually gained the upper hand, slowly pushing Shelby's brigades back to the Wornall House.

Fight for the fords

As disaster was befalling Shelby and Fagan, a similar fate was happening to Price's rearguard, under Marmaduke, at Byram's Ford. A division of Price's army under General Shelby had forced a crossing at the ford on the 22nd (the day prior to the battle), forcing Federal defenders there to retire to Westport. Shelby's colleague General Marmaduke had subsequently established his own defensive line on the west bank of the river to hold off Pleasanton's cavalry, which was pressing them hard from the east. If Pleasanton could now force his way across the Blue River, he would be in position to threaten Price's army as well as his supplies.

Marmaduke's division was attacked by three of Pleasonton's brigades starting at 8:00 on the morning of the 23rd; the Confederates initially managed to hold their own. One of the Union brigade commanders, Brig. Gen. Egbert B. Brown stalled his attack and was placed under arrest by Pleasonton for disobeying orders. Another of Pleasonton's brigade commanders, Col. Edward F. Winslow, was wounded and succeeded by Lt. Col. Frederick Benteen, who would later ride to fame at Little Bighorn. Despite these setbacks, Federal troopers gained the west bank by 11:00 and Marmaduke retired. As Brown's brigade (now led by Col. John F. Philips) forded the river, they came under heavy fire from Marmaduke's artillery. Once they had crossed, they charged Marmaduke across an open field; during this charge, Union troops from Missouri and Arkansas battled Confederates from these two states. Marmaduke was forced back, rejoining Shelby and Fagan, and Blunt pounded the now-consolidated Confederate remnants with his own cannon.

While the main Confederate army was now being hit hard on two sides, Pleasonton's fourth brigade under Brig. Gen. John McNeil moved against a Rebel brigade under William Lewis Cabell guarding a second ford near Hickman Mills. McNeil's brigade was able to drive the Confederates from the ford and cross the river. Federal columns were now converging on Price from three different directions.

Confederate retreat

The Confederates pulled back to their last line of defense, along the road south of Forest Hill (present day Gregory Blvd), with Colonel Jennison leading the pursuit. By now thirty Union guns had been brought to bear against the lone remaining Confederate cannon. One Federal battery had just unlimbered when Colonel James H. McGhee's Arkansas Cavalry charged down Wornall's Lane in an attempt to capture it. Captain Curtis Johnson of the 15th Kansas Cavalry saw the Confederate attack forming and immediately moved to intercept. Johnson and McGhee personally engaged each other with their revolvers; both commanders were badly wounded, but survived. The fight continued to rage until Union reinforcements secured the battery.

Shelby sent a brigade under Colonel Sidney D. Jackman to secure his wagon trains, but these had already been removed by order of General Price. Jackman was instead intercepted by General Fagan, who alerted him to the massed Union cavalry (Pleasonton's) which had just crossed the Big Blue River to the east. Seeing Pleasanton's close proximity to the Confederate flank and rear, General Curtis had ordered a general advance of the entire Union line, with Blair's and Jennison's brigades leading the charge. Shelby, meanwhile, had only Thompson's Iron Brigade to hold off this massive assault. When one of Pleasonton's batteries arrived in support of Curtis' men, Thompson's Confederates finally broke and fled.

Price's men set fire to prairie grass in the area to create a smoke screen to cover their withdrawal. Witnesses reported that the road was strewn with debris from the fleeing Rebel army.

The following day, Blunt and Pleasonton took up their pursuit of Price's remaining forces. They would chase Price through Kansas and southern Missouri into Arkansas, engaging him at the Marais des Cygnes, Mine Creek, the Marmiton River, and finally at Newtonia, ultimately leaving the Confederate leader with less than 6,000 survivors from his initial force of 12,000 when his campaign officially ended on November 1, 1864.

Battle of Westport Aftermath

The Battle of Westport was one of the largest battles west of the Mississippi River, with over 30,000 troops involved and roughly 1,500 casualties on each side. The Union victory put an end to Price's campaign for Missouri, and the battle has accordingly been referred to as "The Gettysburg of the West". Curtis wrote to Henry W. Halleck after the battle that "the victory at Westport was most decisive". This greatly contested border state was now firmly under Union control, and would remain so until the end of the war.

Although never capturing Price or the tattered remnants of his army, Federal forces did manage to render the Army of Missouri incapable of any future significant operations. Indeed, Price's campaign would prove the last in the Trans-Mississippi Theater, and the last major Confederate threat to any northern state.

Battle of Westport
Part of American Civil War
Date October 23, 1864
Location Westport, Missouri
Result Union victory
United States United States (Union) Confederate States of America CSA (Confederacy)
Commanders and leaders
Samuel R. Curtis Sterling Price
Army of the Border (22,000) Army of Missouri (8,500)
Casualties and losses
1,500 1,500