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Archive for Monday, July 19, 1999

LITTLE STREAM PLAYED BIG ROLE IN KANSAS CIVIL WAR BATTLE

July 19, 1999

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— The largest Civil War battle fought on Kansas soil can be blamed on a gently flowing creek.

Mine Creek just south of Trading Post is not much of a stream.

But on Oct. 25, 1864, its steep banks and single ford delayed a wagon train long enough to force the Battle of Mine Creek, the largest Civil War cavalry fight west of the Mississippi.

It sealed the fate of a Confederate cavalry troop of perhaps 15,000 men returning south after a monthlong campaign through Missouri.

Though he didn't take St. Louis or Jefferson City, Confederate Gen. Sterling Price boasted some successes. He picked up about 1,500 recruits and filled his wagons with plunder, said Brad Woellhof, a curator at the Mine Creek Battlefield state historic site, located two miles south of Pleasanton.

Price's first real battle and defeat had come Oct. 23 at Westport, and Price was hoping to save his force and its 500 wagons from the Union troops on his tail.

The Union advance cut short Price's stay at Trading Post, though it took hours to get the massive group moving in the rainy early morning hours of Oct. 25.

The bottleneck

On a recent morning, the creek flowed peacefully along at the ford, with waterbugs skating its surface and the wind rocking the tree limbs above.

The morning of the battle it would have been a much different scene, with teamsters cursing their animals down one slippery bank and up the other, brown water churning under the legs of horses and men, wagon wheels digging the ruts ever deeper and the sounds of war -- cannon blasts, gunfire and screams -- rolling down from the battle scene.

Battle accounts indicate it was not frantic at first, just one more creek crossing for the teamsters, who by then had made dozens.

"They didn't realize just how close the Union troops were," Woellhof said.

Price himself was miles ahead, unaware that the bottleneck at the Mine Creek ford was forcing his rear guard to make a stand.

On the grassy battlefield, about 2,600 Union cavalrymen were facing off against 6,500 or so Confederates.

Led by Lt. Col. Frederick W. Benteen, who was later criticized for failing to aid Gen. George A. Custer at Little Big Horn, the Union cavalry cut through the more numerous Confederates with superior weapons.

The Union troops had convenient breach-loading rifles and revolvers.

Most of the Confederates were armed with muzzle-loading rifles that were a challenge on foot and nearly impossible to load on horseback.

Yet the Confederates did not dare dismount for fear of losing their horses.

The rout was on.

"This is just a total chaos in every way you can describe it," Woellhof said.

Even the veterans of campaigns back east were impressed.

"They described this as the most intense battle they've been in," Woellhof said.

Cleaning up

Less than an hour after the first charge, it was over.

Price's force had been debilitated, and it staggered south, avoiding the planned-for siege of Fort Scott.

"In essence, Price loses everything he gained in his raid through Missouri," Woellhof said.

Nearby residents were left to clean up.

An estimated 300 Confederates lay dead with another 250 wounded. About 600 had been captured, including two generals.

The Union side losses: only 15 dead, with 94 wounded and a single man captured.

Hundreds of horses died as well. A newspaper account six months later complained of the smell of the decomposing animals.

Woellhof suspects Confederate dead were buried in unmarked, mass graves. Many bodies may have been put in a gully and covered with dirt. A nearby family cemetery may hold remains as well.

They have never been found, although at least one skull was plowed up by a nearby farmer in the years since.

-- Kendrick Blackwood's phone message number is 832-7221. His e-mail address is kblackwood@ljworld.com.

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