Battle of the Little Blue River

Encyclopedia entry by ,
U. S. Air Force Command and Staff College

The Little Blue River in Jackson County, Missouri. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Event Summary:

  • Date: October 21, 1864
  • Location: Near Independence, Jackson County, MO
  • Adversaries: Union Major General James G. Blunt vs. Confederate Major General Sterling Price
  • Size of Forces: Approx. 2,000 Union soldiers vs. approx. 8,500 Confederate soldiers
  • Casualties: unknown (heavier Confederate losses)
  • Result: Tactical Confederate victory, but a strategic defeat for the raid

The Battle of the Little Blue, fought just east of Independence in Jackson County, Missouri, on October 21, 1864, was part of Sterling Price’s “Missouri Expedition” and a prelude to the larger and more decisive Battle of Westport two days later. The Battle of the Little Blue was an attempt by the federal Army of the Border’s vanguard (led by Major General James G. Blunt) to delay the Confederate Army of Missouri (commanded by Major General Sterling Price) until the pursuing Union force of the Department of the Missouri, commanded by Major General Alfred Pleasonton, could hit the rebels from behind. Although the outcome of the Battle of the Little Blue was a tactical Confederate victory, Blunt’s delaying action bought valuable time for Pleasonton to catch up with Price’s rearguard two days later at Westport.

Price’s Army of Missouri had entered its namesake state in mid-September and clashed with Union forces before turning west and away from St. Louis. The Confederates missed an opportunity to trap a detachment of federal troops under federal Brigadier General Thomas Ewing Jr. at Fort Davidson near Pilot Knob, Missouri, in the southeastern part of the state. Price made costly frontal attacks that were bloodily repulsed, and the Unionists blew up Fort Davidson as they escaped in the night. Thanks to the multi-day delay at Fort Davidson, Union commander of the Department of the Missouri, Major General William S. Rosecrans, had time to collect troops to defend St. Louis, and Price realized his force did not have the heavy artillery or other necessary equipment and weaponry to capture the vital city on the Mississippi River. With St. Louis out of reach of the Confederates, Price focused his attention on the state capital, Jefferson City.

Price made costly frontal attacks that were bloodily repulsed, and the Unionists blew up Fort Davidson as they escaped in the night.

The Confederates had no better luck capturing Jefferson City than they did with St. Louis. Price found the capital too stoutly defended, and he remained plagued by the same problems of lack of artillery and other equipment, causing him to give up on capturing Jefferson City and to continue westward. At this point it proved clear that the Confederates were unable to achieve the “liberation” of Missouri from federal control, and thus the expedition became a raid: an unusually large raid, but nonetheless a raid. The Unionists had no desire to leave Price and the Army of Missouri running around in the state’s interior causing havoc, and the federal forces that had been rushed to St. Louis were already nipping at Price’s heels from the east. Meanwhile, forces from the west also coalesced to stop the rebels. The Confederates’ most logical target was Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, whose capture of valuable weapons and supplies could ease the Army of Missouri’s logistical shortfalls.

Major General Samuel Ryan Curtis commanded the Department of Kansas from Fort Leavenworth, and he knew Price was coming, but he did not know when or along which route. Moreover, Curtis did not have enough men to stop Price from invading Kansas, with fewer than 7,000 in the entire department. Curtis requested that Kansas Governor Thomas Carney call out the Kansas State Militia (KSM), a step which was normally a formality. Unfortunately for Curtis, though, the Kansas Republican Party was embroiled in a bitter struggle for party control between Senator James H. Lane and Governor Carney. Lane was Curtis’s patron, making Carney suspicious of the general. When Curtis requested Carney call out the KSM, Carney’s response was less than enthusiastic. Carney feared that Curtis’s call to meet the Confederates might take a lot of Carney voters out of the state for the upcoming November elections. For well over a week Carney dithered, and it was not until the early hours of October 9—over a week after Curtis requested the KSM’s mobilization—that he finally relented and called out the militia.

Curtis formed the Army of the Border from the KSM and the units that were already in the Department of Kansas and hurried them toward Westport, Missouri, hoping to block the Confederates’ entrance into Kansas. The KSM, under Major General George W. Dietzler, refused to cross the state line into Missouri. Curtis previously sent elements of the Army of the Border’s Provisional Cavalry Division, commanded by Blunt, forward to the Little Blue River. Despite Curtis’s pleading, Dietzler refused to move the KSM further east than the Big Blue River, nearly five miles southeast of Kansas City, and so Curtis ordered Blunt to join him there.

Blunt was already beyond the Little Blue River, an additional nine miles east of the Big Blue River, and his vanguard ran into advance elements of Price’s forces on October 19 in the Second Battle of Lexington. The Confederates attacked Blunt’s outnumbered force and forced it back through Lexington in a day of bitter fighting. Blunt’s force withdrew toward Independence in good order and prepared to renew the fight. Curtis wanted to conserve his strength and ordered Blunt to retreat and join him along the Big Blue. Blunt left Colonel Thomas Moonlight in charge of a small brigade on the Little Blue.

The Confederates attacked Blunt’s outnumbered force and forced it back through Lexington in a day of bitter fighting.

After moving into position on October 20, the Confederates attacked the federal position along the Little Blue on the following day. Although pickets of the 11th Kansas set the bridge along the Independence and Lexington Road on fire, the 5th Missouri Cavalry (CSA) of the famed “Iron Brigade” rushed across it. The bridge spanning the Little Blue River remained stable long enough for the Confederates to trundle several artillery pieces across. Rebel Brigadier General John B. Clark, Jr., commanding Marmaduke’s Brigade, immediately ordered his men to ford the Little Blue north and south of the federal position, forcing Moonlight to stretch his already thin forces even thinner. Moonlight was not yet ready to give up the field to the Confederates. He ordered his men to dismount, and they continued their stubborn resistance to the much-larger rebel force. With his ammunition running low and more Confederates appearing on the field, Moonlight was in desperate straits. He ordered his men to fall back to higher ground west of the Little Blue. It was at this dire juncture that Blunt appeared with roughly 900 men consisting of elements of the 1st and 4th Brigades of the Provisional Cavalry Division. Blunt assumed command from Moonlight and moved forward to retake the positions on the west bank of the Little Blue.

While the federals may have had superior firepower in the form of repeating and breech-loading rifles, it was not enough to stem the Confederate tide.

Blunt’s attack ran head-on into the rapidly concentrating Confederate force and pushed it back toward the Little Blue. Unfortunately for the federals, it was merely a respite as the rebels kept their toehold on the west bank of the river, and reinforcements poured onto the field, once again driving the Unionists back. Blunt occupied a strong position, and the battle seesawed back and forth until superior Confederate numbers allowed the rebels under Clark and Colonel Sidney Jackman to work around Blunt’s flanks. While the federals may have had superior firepower in the form of repeating and breech-loading rifles, it was not enough to stem the Confederate tide. The four brigades that comprised Brigadier General Joseph O. Shelby’s division (Marmaduke’s, Colonel Thomas Freeman’s, the Iron Brigade, and Jackman’s) were fully committed to breaking the federal line. Even with the rebel advantage in numbers, the federals continued to stubbornly resist, but they were pushed back. Blunt commenced a fighting retreat in good order, withdrawing to Independence in the late afternoon.

While the Battle of the Little Blue was a clear-cut Confederate tactical victory, it was a strategic defeat. The price paid was high as the rebels lost valuable men and equipment, but most importantly, they lost time. The rebels lost valuable time brushing aside an inferior force while a large cavalry force under command of General Pleasonton closed in on the Confederate rear from the east. With the federal Army of the Border in front of it, and the Army of the Department of the Missouri coming up quickly, the Confederate Army of Missouri’s delay at the Little Blue placed it in a precarious position. Blunt and Moonlight’s delaying tactics bore fruit two days later just south of Westport.

Suggested Reading: 

Castel, Albert. General Sterling Price and the Civil War in the West. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1968. 

Kirkman, Paul. The Battle of Westport: Missouri’s Great Confederate Raid. Charleston, South Carolina: History Press, 2011.

Lause, Mark. The Collapse of Price’s Raid: The Beginning of the End in Civil War Missouri. Columbia: The University of Missouri Press, 2016. 

Lee, Fred L. Gettysburg of the West: The Battle of Westport, October 21-23, 1864. Independence, Missouri: Two Trails Publishing, 1996, revised edition. Originally published in 1976.

Monnett, Howard N. Action Before Westport 1864. Boulder, Colorado: University Press of Colorado, 1995, revised edition. Originally published in 1964.

Sinisi, Kyle S. The Last Hurrah: Sterling Price's Missouri Expedition of 1864. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.

Cite this page: 
Beckenbaugh, Terry. "Battle of the Little Blue River" Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. The Kansas City Public Library. Accessed Dec, 11, 2017 at http://civilwaronthewesternborder.org/encyclopedia/battle-little-blue-river

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