Battle of Newtonia (1864)
The Second Battle of Newtonia took place October 28, 1864. It came nearly two years after the brief success of the Confederate Army in the same southwestern Missouri County. This battle, as part of Sterling Price’s ill fated Raid into Union-held Missouri, didn’t fare as well for the Rebels.
By mid 1864, the fate of the Confederacy was visible from the halls of Richmond, the saddles of the war weary Rebel military leaders, and the homes of the secessionist sympathizers across the country. The War had been going on for years, had caused incalculable grief for citizens across the Border States, and took an especially hard toll on the poor. It was the landless poor that sent their men to the front lines. They were out in the far reaches of the countryside, unprotected and at risk for bushwhacking, and they were wholly unrepresented in the issues of the War. Not being slave owners, and not having enough land on which to establish profitable planting, they could only wait and suffer until the War came to a grisly end. These were the people of the Ozarks.
Price’s army had been on a two month raid throughout Missouri, recruiting, stocking up on arms and supplies, and destroying what they could to impede Union success. His raid was arguably successful, until he approached Kansas City from the east. There, two federal forces intercepted him, and his offensive shifted to defense. The Battle of Westport ensued. Two days later, he was again routed at Mine Creek, Kansas, on October 25th.
On the morning of the 28th, Price approached Newtonia from the north, having encamped on Shoal Creek the previous evening. A small Union garrison was reported at Newtonia by two Rebel scouts, allegedly commanded by “Captain Christian, a notorious bushwhacker…robber, and murderer, noted for his deeds of violence and blood.”1 Killing Christian would have been justification enough for the ragged forces under Price; they quite possibly had less faith in the merits of their ongoing mission than immediate aid for their aching feet, growling stomachs, and escape from a life of slash and burn.
A good number of Price’s forces were armed with utterly unsuitable weapons, if they were armed at all. That they could assemble en masse and successfully storm a federal garrison with little more than a Rebel yell is highly remarkable and lucky. But, once again, as in September of 1862, the federal garrison at Newtonia was evacuated in the face of oncoming Confederate forces. CSA Brig. General M. Jeff Thompson, commanding a brigade of Brig. Gen. “Jo” Shelby’s division, was in the fore, and some of Thompson’s pursuing soldiers were able to kill Christian. Price’s command moved through Newtonia to the south, and established a camp very near Camp Coffee, of the First Battle of Newtonia. Shelby’s division became Price’s rearguard, and camped between the former Camp Coffee and the southernmost timbered edge of Newtonia.
Focused as they were on moving toward their Southern haven, Price didn’t know that Federal forces were closing in behind him. Leading the charge was Major General James Blunt. Blunt was a capable, determined officer, even more so after the harrowing experience at Baxter Springs, Kansas, a year prior. William Quantrill and his gang had killed nearly one hundred men at the federal outpost, and Blunt had barely escaped. A devout and angry Unionist, Blunt had fought Price at Westport, and had since been tailing his disintegrating forces. Riding under Blunt was none other than the infamous Charles R. Jennison, known as well for his Jayhawking as Quantrill was for his bushwhacking. As the two forces met on that late autumn day, Blunt’s army was outnumbered eight to one by Price’s forces.2
No sooner had Blunt’s men entered the northern edge of Newtonia than 2000 of Price’s forces scrambled to break camp and cover the rear of the Rebel force. Brig. General M. Jeff Thompson had been called in from the East to replace a fatally wounded Colonel riding under Brigadier General Joseph O. “Jo” Shelby. Thompson commanded the brigade responsible for most of the fighting.
We had been in camp but a few hours when our scouts reported that the main body of the enemy were approaching on the same road we had come. I was ordered to form the brigade on foot and proceed to meet them…soon we were notified that it was a false alarm…We had scarcely commenced the ordinary duties of camp when we…found the enemy drawn up before us on the opposite side of the small field. The firing commenced immediately…
Brigadier General M. Jeff Thompson
Blunt would report of the same encounter:
Their superiority of numbers enabling them to press upon my flanks with a large force compelled me to fall back about 500 yards from my first line…The enemy pressed forward their center, but were promptly checked by the canister from the First Colorado Battery. It was now near sundown, and my command had been engaged near two hours…when very unexpectedly…General Sanborn’s (brigade) came up. …the enemy…now retreated rapidly under the cover of night…leaving their dead and wounded in our hands.3
A hasty retreat was much more than a notch in the loss column. Leaving behind the dead and wounded was sacrilege. The “enemy” had hospital wagons, as well, and the parole of prisoners between Price and his adversaries continued in the most pragmatic manner available in those difficult times. In both Union and Confederate reports of the Battle of Newtonia, a sense of diplomacy reigns. Each calls the other “an enemy,” but neither seem willing to label their living foes the shameful, negative monikers that are associated with men like Christian and Quantrill. Multiple versions of valor and glory fill pages for both sides in the engagement; in all, the Battle of Newtonia is estimated at 650 casualties.
War is a game of offensive and defensive measures, and success is often contingent upon the literal lay of the land. By mid 1864, the Rebel Army overall was operating in defensive mode, as the third year of fighting back the encroaching Union Army had begun to wear on the people and the soldiers from the borderlands. After the fall of Vicksburg, which cut the Confederacy in two, the measures of success – be it through battle, mortality, or simply feeding the citizenry – were far lower and yet more difficult to achieve. The Union was counting on Price needing more than he could beg, borrow, or steal. Their strategy, in fact, depended on it.
Everything now promised complete success in view of our close proximity to the enemy, his exhausted condition, and his disastrous defeat. He was still in a fruitful section of Missouri, but by pressing him another day or two, he would have not time to collect supplies, and would reach the devastated, destitute region of Arkansas without provisions, and must surrender or starve…4
Major General S.R. Curtis, Newtonia, Missouri, October 28, 1864
…No one has fired a shot at the enemy since the battle of Newtonia…The enemy lost very largely in men and horses in Northern Arkansas and the border. My idea was, and is now, when we got him below Newtonia and the region of grain mills and cattle we should not crowd him anymore, but rather make an effort to hold him in this land of starvation, as we would garrison out of supplies, until his army broke up and divided. Deserters were very numerous while Price was in this section, but I have seen none since he was pushed off toward his supplies.…5
Brig Gen John Sanborn, Springfield, Missouri, November 12, 1864.
Support for the Confederacy was waning in former Rebel rich areas like Northern Arkansas and north central Missouri. Their families starving at home, rebel soldiers began to desert one by one, then by the hundreds after unsuccessful encounters with the Union. Sterling Price’s 1864 Raid into Missouri, culminating with the Battle of Newtonia on October 28, exemplified the struggle that the Confederacy had in the hearts and minds of the people.
- War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Washington, D.C., Government Printing Office, 1893. Series 1, vol. 41, Part 1, page 637-38.
- O.R., Series 1, vol. 41, Part 1, page 577.
- O.R., Series 1, vol. 41, Part 1, page 509.
- O.R., Series 1, vol. 41, Part 1, page 510.
- O.R., Series 1, vol. 41, Part 1, page 513.