Although there were a few large scale battles in Missouri in the Civil War, most of the fighting in that state and in eastern Kansas consisted of smaller actions conducted by guerrilla and other irregular forces. Both sides employed these tactics, and the result was a brutal and vicious war of a type that was seldom seen in the east. One of the more notorious incidents occurred on October 6th, 1863, when Confederate irregulars under the command of Colonel William Quantrill (pictured at right) attacked a small Federal garrison at Baxter Springs, Kansas. In August 1863, a military post called Fort Blair was established at Baxter Springs in the southeast corner of Kansas close to the border with the Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma). The fort was located 58 miles south of Fort Scott, Kansas on the road between Fort Scott and Fort Gibson in the Indian Territory. One company of the 3rd Wisconsin Cavalry and one company of the 2nd Kansas Colored Volunteers manned the garrison. On October 4th, Lieutenant James B. Pond arrived with another company of the 3rd Wisconsin Cavalry and one mountain howitzer, bringing the total Union force to about 150.
Pond immediately began the task of expanding the fort to accommodate the reinforcements. Meanwhile, Major General James G. Blunt, commander of the Union’s District of the Frontier, left Fort Scott to move his headquarters to Fort Smith, Arkansas. Blunt’s party included an escort of one company of the 14th Kansas Cavalry and one company of the 3rd Wisconsin, or about 100 men. There were also several supply wagons as well as a wagon containing the musicians of the brigade band.
Another military unit in the area was headed south at the same time. On October 6th, Quantrill and his force of roughly 400 Confederates were headed to Texas to spend the winter, when his scouts reported a wagon train ahead. Quantrill sent the scouts back for more information when they discovered the Federal encampment at Baxter Springs. Quantrill split his force into two parts. One half was to attack the camp while Quantrill himself would lead the rest around to the north side of the Federal position. At noon, Pond’s command was preparing to eat lunch when they were surprised by an attack from three sides by Quantrill’s men. Pond had sent about 60 cavalrymen out on a foraging expedition earlier in the day, leaving the post with less than 100 defenders. Most of the Federals were outside the fort and quickly ran back to it closely pursued by the Rebels. Pond rallied his men, who returned fire and drove the attackers out of the fortifications. Pond became a one man artillery crew, loading and firing the mountain howitzer by himself. Quantrill’s men took up positions in the woods outside the fort, and the two sides exchanged fire.
Meanwhile, Blunt’s wagon train halted about 400 yards from the site of Fort Blair. The fort was behind a ridge and not visible. As Blunt waited for the wagons to close up, he noticed a line of about 100 cavalrymen a few hundred yards to his left. They were dressed in Union Army uniforms, and Blunt assumed they were part of Pond’s command. But Blunt became suspicious and ordered his cavalry escort into line and slowly advanced. The line of blue clad cavalrymen were the other half of Quantrill’s men, and they opened fire on Blunt’s escort. Taken by surprise, Blunt’s men managed to fire some shots as the Rebels closed in, but then took off in a panicked attempt to escape. Quantrill’s men, reinforced by a second line of horsemen, immediately gave chase and overtook the Federals. Many were ordered to surrender, only to be shot when they did so, according to some wounded survivors. In all, 23 members of the 3rd Wisconsin cavalry and 18 of the 14th Kansas Cavalry were killed. Quantrill’s men then went after the wagons. The wagon containing the brigade band tried to get away, and when bushwhacker William Bledsoe rode up and demanded its surrender, he was shot and killed. Bledsoe was a popular member of Quantrill’s band, and his enraged friends chased after the band wagon. After only 50 yards or so the wagon lost a wheel. The wagon contained 14 musicians and the bandleader, one war correspondent, the wagon driver, and a 12 year old drummer boy. They attempted to surrender by waving white handkerchiefs, but all were shot and killed except the drummer boy who was shot and passed out, though still alive. The bodies were robbed of belongings and some were mutilated and stripped of clothing before being thrown under or into the wagon. The wagon and bodies were then set on fire. The drummer boy regained consciousness and with his clothes on fire, managed to crawl about 30 yards before dying.
General Blunt was able to escape, and he and the survivors of his group managed to make their way to Fort Blair. Pond had successfully defended his position, and Quantrill elected not to renew the attack. Federal casualties were listed as 80 killed, including six in the attack on the fort, and 18 wounded. Quantrill listed his losses as three killed and three wounded. Lieutenant James Pond was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions at Baxter Springs. Sources:
- Civil War Kansas: Reaping the Whirlwind by Albert Castel. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1997
- The Devil Knows How To Ride: The True Story Of William Clarke Quantril And His Confederate Raidersby Edward E. Leslie. New York: Da Capo Press, 1998.
- The Military History of Wisconsin in the War for the Union by E. B. Quiner. Chicago: Clarke and Co., 1866.
- The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Volume XXII, Part 1. Washington DC, US War Department, 1881-1901.