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 an excerpt from Benteen’s after action report regarding his command at the Battle of Westport:
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…
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
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