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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Battlefield Dispatches No. 235: The 'King of Battle'

Friday, October 15, 2010

On Sunday, Oct. 23, 1864, the Battle of Westport occurred on and near the Missouri / Kansas state line in Kansas City. This was battle was the immediate predecessor of the Battle of Mine Creek and the other cavalry battles which occurred on Oct. 25, 1864. However, Westport was more than a cavalry battle because all three major branches of a 19th Century army, the artillery, infantry and cavalry, participated extensively in the battle.

Artillery has been called the "King of Battle," probably because of its' sheer massive power and the immense destruction that the cannon can inflict upon the enemy.

During the Battle of Westport, Captain Richard J. Hinton was an aide on the staff of "Union" General James G. Blunt and because of his position as an "aide," Captain Hinton did not have a direct combat command in the battle. Therefore he could and did observe many different aspects of the battle that included the participation of the artillery. Immediately after the Civil War, in 1865, he described the Battle of Westport in his book entitled "The Rebel Invasion of Missouri & Kansas and the Campaign of the Army of the Border Against General Sterling Price." The following are the descriptions of the artillery's participation in that battle and are located on Pages 154 and 161-166 in his book.

"At first the firing was entirely artillery, with the exception of a few shots exchanged by the skirmish line. The rebels continued deploying, receiving large reinforcements and advancing with spirit & vigor. Their long lines pressed forward steadily, displaying as they did so in the center a fine battle flag. Two guns [cannon], under Lieutenant Eayres, were ordered forward, taking position on the hill and overlooking the open prairie across which the enemy was advancing. The guns did excellent work, were double shotted with canister [iron balls the size of golf balls with the effect of a shotgun when fired from a cannon], while the range being short & the firing rapid, every shot told. The enemy's guns replied with vigor and the ball [battle] was opened.

On the main road, near the line first formed at early dawn, was found a broken & dismounted gun. It bore the mark of a Texas foundry & was evidently an imitation of our Parrotts [Union Cannon]. We learned after woods that a shell from the section under Lieutenant Eayres had struck the muzzle of this gun while the charge was being inserted. The gunner's hand was taken off, the gun burst, as our shell exploded & six men were killed & wounded, as also several horses.

"Returning with a few members of his staff & orderlies, General Blunt found a howitzer [small cannon]. Which had been stationed in the dooryard of a farm house, a little left of the road & in the edge of the creek timber, seriously threatened by a small column of rebels advancing from the east. The howitzer was without support, but the gallant squad in charge, under the direction of a sergeant, were mostly engaged in double-shotting it with canister & firing into the compact rebel column. The General and party dashed forward & revolvers in hand & the small party formed themselves to defend the gun. So near was the rebel force that pistol shots were exchanged, when a portion of Company E, 14th Kansas, Lieut. dark commanding, acting as an escort to the General dashed up and charged the rebels, who fled. The gallant activity of the artillerists, as well as the prompt dash of General Blunt, saved the guns."

"In the meanwhile we were swarming forward. Behind us to the right the militia still poured. The regiments left at Kansas City had been brought forward and were now moving through the timber a mile to our rear. The artillery were all in position & 18 Brass Parrott guns, with 13 Mountain Howitzers, were playing [firing] on the rebel lines, falling back in admirable order before our advance. When the rebel column formed for its last charge, Captain Dodge opened [fire] on them with spherical case [artillery ammunition that exploded into fragments], at a distance of five hundred yards. Thundering cheers also burst along our lines, as shell after shell made gaps in the enemy's ranks. The gunners could not see the execution, for the smoke of our their guns; but our advancing troops watched the effect & cheered tremendously as the gaps were made and closed."

"The guns dashing well up to the front (McClain with 2 sections, finding himself with canister only, had advanced at the top of his horse's speed and took position in front); Dodge and McClain pouring in heavy charges, which told upon the now wavering rebel lines; the little howitzers charging & firing at the front of our skirmishing lines; with wild huzzas of the volunteer cavalry in the advance & the thundering cheers of the racing militia to the rear, as they came tearing across the fields; while the bending & wavering rebel lines, falling back in partial disorder, formed a sense never to be forgotten by any who witnessed it.

While our artillery was taking this third and final position, Captain Dodge found the rebels were opening with a gun about 900 yards to his front & somewhat to the right. A well directed solid shot from the Parrott, sighted by Captain Dodge, broke the piece at the first trial [shot]."

"A battery [8 cannons] was opened upon the retreating rebels by this new foe. Again was our artillery advanced, pouring in a destructive fire. Pleasanton's brigades charged simultaneously and the rebel rear broke before this onset in wild disorder, making their way through the Indian Creek timber, in rapid rout, scattering their arms, equipments, etc., as they fled & leaving their dead & wounded on the field. It had been evident for sometime, that the force at our front was fighting only to cover the safe retreat of their [supply] train & main army. For miles the ground was strewn with the debris of a defeated and routed army, while the dead and wounded told the bloody character of the fray."

So ended the artillery's, the King of Battles, participation in the Battle of Westport in what is now Kansas City and of course the War Went On!

Arnold W. Schofield
Battlefield Dispatches