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Sunday, May 1, 2016

Battlefield Dispatches: 'A Guardian Angel, Respected and Loved'

Friday, December 10, 2010

According to Mr. Webster, one of the definitions of "guardian" is "A person who guards, protects or takes care of another person, property, etc." Therefore, one would expect a "guardian" to be a benevolent person who does good things and is kindly and charitable and is regarded as beautiful, good and innocent as an "angel." This is not what one would expect to be or of a combat soldier or Civil War general. However, the expression "guardian angel" does describe the performance of "Confederate" Brg. Gen. Joseph Orville Shelby and the troops of his division from Oct. 23 - 28, 1864. At that time. General Shelby and his troops functioned as the rear guard of Mjr. Gen. Sterling Price's "Army of Missouri" and successfully protected this army during four major battles and numerous skirmishes in the final days of its campaign in Missouri and Kansas. In fact if, this had not been done, Price's army probably would have been destroyed and annihilated. For this and the balance of his excellent combat record and that of the troops he commanded throughout the Civil War, Brg. Gen. Shelby was and is still considered to be an iconic figure in the history of Missouri.

The following descriptions by General Shelby are of the four battles in which he functioned as General Price's "Guardian Angel" and are included in his after action report of his participation in the Missouri / Kansas Campaign of 1864. They are located on "Pages 659-661 in Series I, Vol. 41, Part I, Reports in the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion."

"The Battle of Westport Missouri, Oct. 23, 1864."

"The 23rd of October dawned upon us clear, cold and full of promise. My division moved squarely against the enemy about 8 o'clock in the direction of Westport and very soon became fiercely engaged, as usual. Collins with one gun (cannon) hurried forward to help Jackman and opened furiously upon the advancing enemy.

On and on, their great line overlapping Jackman by one half, they came to within 80 yards. Down went that line of gray and a steady stream of bullets struck them fairly in the face, until they reeled, scattered and fled, but the wing that extended beyond and around Jackman's left rode on to retrieve the disaster of their comrades and came within thirty paces at full speed. Again a merciless fire swept their front; again Collins poured in double charges of grape and canister and they too were routed and driven back, when General Fagan thanked Colonel Jackman on the "filed of his fame, fresh and gory." It was a high and heroic action and one which shines out in the dark days of retreat like a "cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night." There on the open prairie, no help or succor near, no friendly reserves to cover and protect a retreat Jackman dismounted, resolved to conquer or die. Fresh lines of Federals forced Jackman to mount his horses and he fell back after the (supply) train fighting hard.

Now my entire rear was in possession of the enemy and the news was brought when Thompson was fighting for dear life at Westport. Withdrawing him as soon as possible and with much difficulty, for he was hard pressed, I fell back as rapidly as I could after the retiring army, the force I had been fighting at Westport coming up just behind, when reaching the road, the prairie in my rear was covered almost by a long line of troops, which I first supposed to be our own men. This illusion was soon dispelled and the two great waves uniting, came down upon one little brigade and Colonel Slayback's regiment. The prospect was dark and desperate.

Not a tree or a bush was to be seen for weary miles and miles and no helping army could be seen anywhere. I knew the only salvation was to charge (attack) the nearest line, break it if possible and then retreat rapidly fighting the other. The order was given. Thompson and Slayback fell upon them (the enemy) with great fury, mixed in melee and unclasped from the deadly embrace weak and staggering. In attempting to reform my lines (which after breaking through the Federals were much scattered) an enfilading battery of six guns swept the whole line and another in front opened with terrific effect. At the same time, the (enemy) column which followed me from Westport came down at the charge and nothing was left but to run for it, which was now commenced. The Federals seeing the confusion pressed on furiously, yelling, shouting and shooting and my own men fighting, every one on his own hook would turn and fire and gallop away again. Up from the green sward of waving grass two miles off a string of stone fences grew up and groped along the plain, a shelter and protection. The men reached it. Some are over; others are rallying the men, who make a stand here and turn like lions at bay. The fences are lines of fire and the bullets sputter and rain thicker upon the charging enemy. They halt, face about and withdraw out of range.

My command was saved and we moved off after the army traveling all night."

Battle of the Little Osage, Kan., Oct. 25, 1864.

"Day and night the retreat was continued until the evening (afternoon) of the 25th, when my division, marching leisurely in front of the (supply) train, was ordered hastily to the rear to protect it, while flying rumors came up constantly that Marmaduke and Cabell were captured withal their artillery. (Note these were not rumors because Generals Marmaduke, Cabell and all the Confederate artillery (8 guns) were captured at the Battle of Mine Creek.) Leaving Colonel Jackman with his brigade to watch well my left flank and (to) guard the train, I hastened forward with stood the pelting of the leaden hail without flinching and the incessant roar of musketry rang out wildly and shrill, all separate sounds blending in a universal crash. The fate of the army hung upon the result and our very existence tottered and tossed in the smoke of the strife. The red sun looked down upon the scene and the redder clouds floated away with angry, sullen glare. Slowly, slowly my old brigade was melting away. The high toned and chivalric Dobbin, formed on my right, stood by me in all that fiery storm and Elliott's and Gordon's voices sounded high above the rage of the conflict: "My Merry Men, Fight On!"

All that men could do had been done. For five days and nights Thompson's and Slayback's commands had fought and marched and marched and fought and now under concentrated and accumulated fire of heavy odds, the left of General Thompson's brigade reeled back over the prairie, the Federals following with furious yells; but the right, under Colonel Elliot, met the advancing wave and broke their front line in every direction by charging furiously, the rear of the enemy pressing hard after the left of Thompson's brigade.

Now Colonel Jackman who had done his duty well in another part of the field came rushing up to avenge his fallen comrades. Going into line at a gallop and opening ranks to let the retreating brigade through, he charged down upon the rushing enemy like a thunderbolt, driving them back and scattering their front line badly. This charge saved us and the day's work was done. The Federals halted, reformed their lines, brought up artillery and fired away at long range. Very slowly the army moved away without molestation and darkness came down alike upon the dying and the dead and the stars came out and a weird and dreary silence hushed the air to stillness and repose."

Thompson's brigade and Slayback's regiment to the scene of action (near the Little Osage River). I soon met beyond the (Little) Osage River the advancing Federals, flushed with success (at Mine Creek) and clamorous for more victims. I knew from the beginning that I could do nothing but resist their advance, delay them as much as possible and depend on energy and night for the rest.

The first stand was made one mile north of the (Little) Osage River, where the enemy was worsted; again upon the river bank and again I got away in good condition. Then taking position on a high hill one mile south of the river, I halted for a desperate struggle. The enemy advanced in overwhelming numbers and with renewed confidence at the sight of the small force in front of them, for Captains Langhome and Adams and Lieutenant Colonel Nichols with their commands were ahead of the train on duty. The fight lasted nearly an hour, but I was forced to fall back.

Elliot, Gordon, Slayback, Hooper, Smith, Blackwell, Williams and a host of other officers seemed to rise higher and higher as the danger increased and always where the tide of battle rolled deepest and darkest. It was an evening (afternoon) to try the hearts of my best and bravest and rallying around me they even surpassed all former days of high and heroic bearing."

Battle of Chariot's Farm / Shiloh Creek, Mo., Oct. 25, 1864.

"I did not offer battle again until gaining a large hill in front of the entire arm, formed in line of battle, where I sent orders for Colonel Jackman to join me immediately. It was a fearful hour.

The long and weary days of marching and fighting were culminating and the narrow issue of life or death stood out all dark and barren as a rainy sea. The fight was to be made now, General Price, with the pilot's wary eye, saw the storm cloud sweep down, growing larger and larger and darker and darker. They (the enemy) came upon me steadily and calm. I waited until they came close enough and gave them volley for volley, shot for shot. For 15 minutes both lines "The Battle of Newtonia, Mo., Oct. 28, 1864."

"On the night of Oct. 25th, on the Marmiton River, Colonel Jackman, by order, burned that portion of the (supply) train devoted to the sacrifice and brought up the rear all that day and night to Carthage, where we encamped on the night of the 26th.

On the evening of the 28th, while comfortably resting a few miles south of Newtonia, a large Federal force drove in our outlying pickets quite briskly and came charging on with their usual vitality. Dismounting every man in my division, I formed my line of battle just in time to meet the onset. Jackman held the right and protected two pieces of Collins' artillery, which opened immediately with good effect. Thompson and Slayback were on the left and I sent a good detachment under Major Gordon to watch well my extreme left flank and then moved steadily forward with a loud and ringing cheer. The men never hesitated from the first, but drove the enemy all the time before them and advanced two miles into the prairie, exposed to a heavy artillery fire from the first and if I had had a mounted regiment of my own command I could have charged and taken their splendid battery. Two detached companies of Thompson's brigade (Captains Langhome's and Adams) did excellent service on the extreme right. Night closed the contest and another beautiful victory had crowned the Confederate arms."

On Feb. 13, 1897; Price's "Guardian Angel", Brigadier General Joseph Orville Shelby, CSA; died in his home at Adrian, Mo. He was buried in Forest Hill Cemetery in Kansas City, Mo., not far from his legendary exploits in the Battle of Westport on Oct. 23, 1864. His grave is marked, not with a huge statue as many of his admirers wished, but with a small simple stone ammunition box on which is inscribed: "Gen. Jo. O. Shelby. Dec. 12, 1830 - Feb. 13, 1897," but his story does not end there.

Immediately after his death, some of his veteran soldiers who served with and respected and loved their commanding general, purchased all of the burial plots in a circle surrounding his grave. Then, as they died they were buried facing their beloved commander in a final tribute of respect and love. The Civil War had been over for more than thirty years, but the veteran's memory of that horrific conflict was still there and the war went on!

Arnold W. Schofield
Battlefield Dispatches