The intricacies of battle

Students learn lessons for the modern day from the Civil War's Battle of Westport

Charles Collins of the Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth describes to students what took place at the Battle of Westport 143 years ago in what is today Loose Park in Kansas City, Mo.

Kansas City’s Loose Park was its usual idyllic self.

Among the park visitors, two leashed Pekingese dogs frolicked with each other, pulling their master through a field of newly mown grass.

An elderly gentleman sat on a bench by a pond, sharing the peace of the inner city sanctuary with some Canada geese.

Gardeners pulled up plantings, preparing the park’s flowerbeds for winter.

And a dozen university students gathered in a crescent, listening to a lecture.

The scenes last week made it all the more difficult to imagining what the lecturer, Curtis King of the Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, was describing as having taken place on the same land 143 years earlier:

Cannon fire thundered over the park from points now occupied by million-dollar houses. Soldiers on horses battled one another in what, at the time, was a rare mounted-on-mounted cavalry charge. Gunfire rang throughout the area.

The topic of King’s lecture was the Battle of Westport, the largest battle west of the Mississippi in the American Civil War.

The three-day battle pitted about 20,000 Union soldiers against 10,000 Confederate soldiers. Though dubbed the Battle of Westport, it took place over a vast expanse, stretching from the Little Blue River near Fort Osage, Mo., east of Kansas City, to the Big Blue River on East 63rd Street to just south of the modern-day Country Club Plaza.

It began as a plot by Confederate Maj. Gen. Sterling Price to ride across Missouri, install a governor with Southern sympathies, attract recruits to the Confederate cause along the way and, ultimately, capture of the arsenal at Fort Leavenworth.

It ended with Union forces repelling Price’s raid at Brush Creek and forcing a full retreat by Price.

The ROTC students – seven of whom attend Kansas University, three from Washburn University and one each from Baker University and University of St. Mary – had been with King and his Combat Studies Institute colleague, Charles Collins, throughout the day on what the Army refers to as a “staff ride.”

The first stop was Fort Osage High School, just east of the Little Blue, where the first skirmish in the campaign ended. The last stop was seven hours later, at a Plaza eatery, where the students and their lecturers broke down the daylong trek.

Mixed in between were discussions of the battle’s principles, weapons used, strategies, miscues, battlefield promotions and demotions, politics of the day and opportunities and obstacles presented by the terrain.

The Army’s Center of Military History says staff rides “represent a unique and persuasive way of conveying the lessons of the past to the present-day Army leadership for current application.

“Properly conducted, these exercises bring to life, on the very terrain where historic encounters took place, examples, applicable today as in the past, of leadership, tactics and strategy, communications, use of terrain, and, above all, the psychology of men in battle.”

Collins put it more succinctly: “The history is secondary to the insights gained.”

At the New Salem Cemetery, KU ROTC unit commander Lt. Col. John Basso imparted one of those insights to his students. King had just finished describing a stand by troops led by Union Maj. Gen. James G. Blunt, whose troops were outmanned in this skirmish by advancing Confederates led by Price. But Blunt’s stand from atop the cemetery hill held up the rebels’ advance for about a day.

The Union troops, though outmanned, had been able to use the high ground they occupied to their advantage.

“It was a good delaying tactic,” King explained.

A veteran of two tours in the Iraq war, Basso interjected.

“We’re on the opposite side in Iraq,” Basso told the students. “The insurgents are the ones with a small amount of force and little firepower. They’re the ones delaying. You’ll have to think on the other side of a delaying tactic when you are in Iraq.”

As Basso finished his comments, a beaming Collins turned away from the students and commented such insight was just what he hoped the ROTC students could gather on the ride.

At the end of the day, as they snacked on pizza, students were asked to assess the battle with an eye toward lessons they could learn from the Civil War battle. Basso asked students to recount the dominant factors in winning first the skirmishes and ultimately the Battle of Westport.

The students answered: Skill and experience, strategy and tactics, speed of movement.

“Those all have to do with a smart leader making a good decision and motivating his soldiers,” Basso noted. “The one constant in success – and a reason we’re trying to teach you critical thinking – is because people analyzed a problem, made smart battlefield decisions and motivated their soldiers. That’s something you can take away from this.”