Lt. Col. Frederick Benteen’s Report on the Battle of Westport October 1864
In late August 1864, Major General Sterling Price and a 12,000 man Confederate Army left Princeton, Arkansas and headed north to Missouri. Price had an ambitious goal. He would invade Missouri, capture St. Louis, and retake the Show Me State for the Confederacy. Along the way, he expected to pick up recruits for his army (a couple of thousand joined along the way, many of whom were guerrillas already fighting in irregular units) which was greatly outnumbered by Union forces in the state. Price moved north toward St. Louis, fighting several engagements, but found the city too well fortified to capture. He then headed west, again fighting his way across the state.
In mid October, Union Major Generals Samuel Curtis and James Blunt organized a defense in western Missouri in front of Price’s advance. In addition, a cavalry division under the command of Major General Alfred Pleasonton closed in on Price’s rear. There was fighting at Lexington, the Big and Little Blue Rivers, and at Independence, Missouri, delaying the Confederate advance. Finally, Curtis and Blunt set up a defensive line at Westport, a town outside Kansas City. With Union forces closing in from two sides, Price decided to attack and defeat Curtis first and then turn and attack Pleasonton.
Curtis had established a strong defensive line that held despite repeated attacks. Pleasonton caught up with Price, and with Union forces attacking on two sides, the Confederate commander was forced to retreat south to avoid annihilation. The Battle of Westport was a decisive Union victory, and Price retreated though Missouri, Kansas, and the Indian Territory, with Federal cavalry harassing him along the way.
One of Pleasonton’s brigade commanders was Lt. Col. Frederick Benteen. Benteen was the commanding officer of the 10th Missouri Cavalry of Pleasonton’s 4th Brigade. He assumed command of the brigade after its commander, Col. Edward F. Winslow, was wounded on October 23rd. Here’s Benteen’s after action report:
HEADQUARTERS FOURTH BRIGADE, CAVALRY DIVISION,
Cross Timbers, Mo., November 3, 1864.
GENERAL: I beg respectfully to submit the following report of the operations of this brigade since I have had the honor of commanding it: On the morning of the 23d of October, Colonel Winslow commanding, was unfortunately wounded in the leg and had to retire from the field, and the command devolved upon me as the next ranking officer. At that time I found the enemy well posted on the opposite side of the Big Blue with a very strong position and in considerable numbers. Captain Dee, of the Fourth Iowa Cavalry, had succeeded, with a detachment of that regiment, in gaining a position on the same side with the rebels and the brigade of General Brown had been ordered to the front. As soon as the command devolved upon me I dismounted the Third Iowa Cavalry, Maj. B. S. Jones commanding, and advanced them as skirmishers toward the enemy, through the woods that lined the immediate banks of the creek, until I arrived at an open space, some 200 yards in width, on the near side of which I found 200 or 300 men of the Missouri State Militia posted behind some houses at which the enemy was pouring a very hot fire. By dint of great urging and exertion of authority, I succeeded in getting them from behind their places of shelter, and then, with them and my dismounted men, advanced across the field at a double-quick to the woods beyond; the enemy at the same time resisting us stoutly. The woods attained, we pushed the enemy through them rapidly to the prairie beyond, where he had stationed a battery, from which he played among us shell after shell. My command, nevertheless, moved on and with such rapidity that the rebel commander, fearing, I suppose, for the safety of his cannon, withdrew them with his command rapidly and fell back quite a distance across the prairie beyond even the range of artillery. In the meantime I had sent for the Fourth Iowa Cavalry and dismounted them and advanced them in line of skirmishers as a support to my advanced line. The enemy thus for the moment having been pushed beyond our reach, my whole command was brought forward on the prairie, and after a few minutes being allowed for rest the whole was mounted, and, at your direction, 1 moved out on what was called the Ridge road toward the position the enemy had taken. It had now got to be past noon, and after some distance had been gained, I sent Captain Young to find you and obtain permission to feed our hungry animals. The captain shortly after reporting that he could not ascertain your whereabouts, I took the responsibility upon myself to halt my command in a large corn-field and take a few minutes to feed. I had not taken much time when I perceived there was work to be done, as I could plainly see a battle raging in our front, and immediately ordered my men into the saddle and moved out on a trot toward the State line. A few minutes sufficed to bring us to the scene of the conflict. Here I found the enemy making a charge and some of our troops ingloriously falling back. I tried, with the assistance of Captain Young, to rally them, but without avail. I then ordered my leading regiment, the Tenth Missouri Cavalry, to form a line to the left and ordered them to make a counter-charge, which they did in gallant style, turning the rebels and driving them. I then formed the rest of my brigade and ordered a charge, in which the whole command participated, driving the enemy far beyond the battle-ground, beyond Missouri into Kansas and beyond the town of Santa Fé. In this charge Second Lieut. M. C. Auld, Company I, Tenth Missouri Cavalry, was severely wounded. Our horses having become jaded and worn down, I formed my column and proceeded to a point just beyond the Kansas line and about two miles and a half from Santa Fé, and halted to rest both animals and men. Here I received orders from you to go into camp for the night and in the morning move out and meet you at or near the last-named town.
On the morning of the 24th, just after daylight, we moved out to Santa Fé, and taking our position just in the rear of General Sanborn’s command marched until late that night, reaching the Osage River, where, on the order of General Sanborn, we bivouacked around the house of Elder Williams, that officer deeming it too dark and the enemy too well posted for an attack that night. That day we marched over a desolated country, where even water was scarce, at a speed that necessarily kept the rear at a trot, and bivouacked, without forage for our jaded horses, a distance of at least forty-two miles. The morning of the 25th broke and gave promise of a dull and dreary day, when I was ordered with my brigade to march to the river and cross, receiving from you the order to charge the enemy whenever the opportunity offered. I crossed, and reaching the prairie formed my column in the following order: First, the Tenth Missouri Cavalry, Maj. W. H. Lusk; second, the Fourth Iowa Cavalry, Maj. A. R. Pierce; third, the Third Iowa Cavalry, Maj. B. S. Jones, and fourth, the Seventh Indiana Cavalry and Fourth Missouri Cavalry, consolidated, under the command of Maj. S. E. W. Simonson, of the former regiment, and moved as rapidly as possible after the retreating enemy. The skies now cleared, and the sun smiled out upon the scene as if foretelling the glorious day that awaited us. After forming, a few advanced skirmishers were thrown out to prevent a too sudden approach upon the enemy, who might be behind any of the numerous hills of the undulating prairie. Three short miles were scarcely accomplished when one of the advanced skirmishers galloped back and reported that the enemy was only a few hundred yards ahead in line of battle, in large force, and with eight pieces of artillery. About the same time Major Hunt, of General Curtis’ staff, came up and told me the enemy’s exact position, stating that there was a brigade already in position in his front, but too weak to begin the attack. I at once determined to form on the left of this brigade, especially as a few more paces brought us in view of the line of rebels; seeing the position in which he had his artillery, I immediately surmised that the rebel commander had committed a fatal blunder, and resolved to capture it. I sent an officer to the commanding officer of the brigade on my right with the information that I was going to charge, and a request for him to charge with me, for God’s sake, and at the same time formed my command in column of regiments in the same manner I had formed them for marching, and immediately sounded the charge. The line of the brigade on my right was soon passed, but it did not charge with us; this brigade I have since learned was the one commanded by Col. J. F. Philips, of the Missouri State Militia. The fire of the enemy was now so hot that for a moment it staggered even my own gallant regiment, but it soon recovered and went on with an exulting yell. At the time the charge was sounded, I gave the orders for the different regiments to execute a right half-wheel, and dispatched my staff to see it executed, then to completely cut off the enemy’s chance to escape with his artillery. This maneuver was successfully executed, and we captured the guns in a shorter space of time than is necessary to record it. Then began a fierce hand-to-hand fight, one that surpassed anything for the time it lasted I have ever witnessed.
My loss in this part of the day’s transaction was large, but in comparison with the gains it was small. Lieutenant Curtiss, of the Fourth Iowa Cavalry, was instantly killed while gallantly encouraging on his men,. and Lieut. B. Armbrust, Company A, Fourth Cavalry Missouri Volunteers, was wounded in the bridle-arm while bravely charging at the head of his company. The enemy was completely routed and driven in the wildest confusion from the field; several of his wagons were abandoned in the narrow road that crosses the creek just in the rear of his position. Many of his force were left dead and wounded upon the field and in our hands. It is a matter of impossibility for me to state the number, as I had no opportunity of passing over the scene of the conflict afterward. After the action of the morning my brigade took no part in any lighting, until the final one of the day, when the enemy drew up his whole force in the afternoon upon what I am informed is called the Little Marmiton Creek. In this action I formed my command as you ordered for a charge as follows: The Tenth Missouri in line of battle, the Third and Fourth Iowa and Major Simonson’s command in column of squadrons in their rear, with the intention to charge as soon as a striking distance could be reached. I ordered the charge at one time, but the enemy fell back too rapidly upon his strong lines and I felt that it would be more than useless to continue, so I halted and formed a line of battle, my ammunition by this time being reduced to a very few rounds per man and my horses completely tired out. Major Simonson’s command was not included in the line of battle, as you had stationed him to support the section of artillery you had stationed to the left and rear of the command.
In this lost action we lost several men wounded, and amongst them Maj. A. R. Pierce, of the Fourth Iowa Cavalry, who was severely wounded in the foot while leading his men toward the rebels. He did not leave the field until the night had set in and the command bivouacked on the field, the enemy in the meantime having retired. This ended the fighting up to the present time in which we have had any participation. The next morning I moved my command to Fort Scott, halting to feed on the road. The next day I received orders from you to report to Major-General Curtis, and am at present still under his orders.
This report does not pretend to give any history of our operations previous to my assumption of command. I suppose Colonel Winslow, my predecessor, will make his report as soon as possible of the movements up to the time of his departure.
You will find annexed Exhibit A, which gives a list of the casualties of the command for the whole period of time the command has been in pursuit of Price. Hundreds of prisoners have fallen into our hands, but owing to the nature of our movements, I have not been able to keep a record of them.
My thanks are due to the officers and men for their gallant and cheerful performance of duty at all times. Maj. W. H. Lusk, of the Tenth Missouri; Maj. A. R. Pierce, of the Fourth Iowa; Maj. B. S. Jones, of the Third Iowa; Maj. S. E. W. Simonson, of the Seventh Indiana, and Captain Knispel, of the Fourth Missouri, are entitled to especial mention for the brave examples they set their men and the gallant style in which they led them into danger. To Private James Dunlavy, Company D, Third Iowa Cavalry, belongs the honor of capturing Major-General Marmaduke, and to Sergt. Calvary M. Young, of the same company [Company L,] and regiment, that of taking General Cabell. We also captured besides the guns and prisoners two stand of colors. Of my staff, I beg particularly to mention Capt. J. F. Young, Tenth Missouri Cavalry, acting assistant adjutant-general, and Lieut. August Thiel, of the Fourth Missouri Cavalry, acting aide-de-camp, for their gallantry in the field and their unceasing attention to duty at all times. I do not desire to make any invidious distinctions, however, for all did well and nobly and deserve the thanks of their country.
In conclusion, allow me, general, to return you my sincere thanks for the uniform kindness you have displayed toward me during our official connection, and I shall always cherish it with the kindest of feelings and regard.
I remain, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
F. W. BENTEEN,
Lieut. Col. Tenth Cavalry Missouri Vols., Comdg. Fourth Brig.
Maj. Gen. A. PLEASONTON.
Though guerrilla and other smaller actions continued until the end of the war, the engagements of the Price Expedition were the last large scale battles of the Civil War in Missouri.
Frederick Benteen served throughout the Civil War, but is best remembered for his military service afterword. Benteen remained in the army, and eventually was assigned to the 7th U.S. Cavalry under the command of George Armstrong Custer.
On June 25th, 1876, near the Little Bighorn River in Montana Territory, Custer divided his command into three battalions, one of which was a three company battalion commanded by Benteen. Benteen was ordered to scout the left flank, and Custer attacked the Sioux and Cheyenne encampment on the banks of the river. Custer who had greatly underestimated the size of the encampment and number of warriors, was overwhelmed and send word for Benteen to reinforce him. Upon arrival at the besieged position of the 7th’s third battalion under Major Marcus Reno, Benteen decided any attempt to reach Custer would result in the annihilation of his own command, and he elected to remain with Reno. The Reno-Benteen position withstood attacks on both the 25th and 26th before the Sioux and Cheyenne left the area.
Benteen fought bravely and his leadership under fire saved many of his men from the fate of Custer, who was killed along with his entire command in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Still, he was criticized for not attempting to relieve Custer. Benteen maintained that had he followed the order, the entire 7th Cavalry including his and Reno’s battalions, would have been destroyed by the overwhelming number of warriors on the battlefield.
Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era
by James McPherson
The Custer Adventure compiled by Richard Upton
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume XLI, Part 1