The fighting was decades past, but the old man liked to tell his Civil War stories. Finally, a son got the notion to preserve them for possible publication, but John Benton Hart’s memoir of his part in the October 1864 Battle of Westport remained lost to history.
It wasn’t until 1919, long after perhaps the biggest battle of the West, that the Kansas cavalryman’s stories — being shot by a sneak with a derringer, the struggle to cook a sweet potato on the run, the hard rides to ultimate victory — were put to paper. Shared with The Star by a great-grandson, the memoir gives us fresh testimony, sometimes poignant, sometimes puzzling, sometimes pretty funny, to the last days of Confederate Maj. Gen. Sterling Price’s great raid.
Today they call it a raid, but it was intended to be far more than that. When he crossed from Arkansas in September, Price had hoped to take St. Louis, raise the Stars and Bars over Jefferson City, create a diversion to lift pressure off Richmond and Atlanta, and undermine Abraham Lincoln’s re-election.
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None of this happened. Yet as they marched slowly toward Westport and Kansas City, collecting loot along the way, the rebel divisions were still in a position to do a great deal of damage.
Union Maj. Gen. Samuel Curtis, in command at Leavenworth, declared martial law and called up the Kansas militia. Most of the seasoned regular soldiers available, about 2,000 men, were under Maj. Gen. James G. Blunt.
The pugnacious commander rode east to test the strength of Price and to hamper his advance. Another northern army under Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton was fast closing in on the rebels from their rear. The federals hoped to crush Price between them.
It should be noted that Hart’s recollections, offered 55 years after the struggle, do not coincide exactly at times with the record. But then neither do the many official or personal accounts made by men within just days of the Brush Creek fighting.
Memory does battle with time, but Hart’s telling generally fits very snugly — better than some histories — with what we know today, 150 years later.
Wednesday, Oct. 19
Hart, a young man from Nortonville, Kan., had volunteered in 1862 for the regiment that became the 11th Kansas Cavalry, now facing its severest test under Col. Thomas Moonlight.
After an all-night ride, the Kansans reach a position 2 miles south of Lexington, Mo., to await the arrival of the “Johnnies,” as Hart calls the enemy. When the superior numbers of the rebel columns force Blunt to retrace his steps, Moonlight’s 600 men make stand after stand to slow the Confederates. Hart describes one of these skirmishes, possibly on Sni-a-Bar Creek. Here The Star begins excerpts of his story:
We were dismounted and lined up facing … a sweet potato patch. Some of the sweet potatoes were dug and heaped up in piles; there was corn, some of it in shock and some still uncut, an ideal place for a hungry horse and soldier. …
Like a flash (I) left the ranks for a sweet potato … a nice good large one. Just as I had seized a big fat fellow an officer ordered me back to the ranks. Every one of the boys in that line had something to say about that sweet potato … crowded into my shirt bosom against a time when I could bake it in hot ashes and coals.
Our next stand was on a ridge where we could see all around. The Johnnies were executing a flank movement and it was hurrying our boys in front holding the line. …
Presently Company I was ordered to fall back in platoons.
There was a large gate which had been opened nearly on top of a little rise for the artillery to pass through.
Along came a howitzer manned with men on the double quick. While there was plenty of room to go through the gate, they couldn’t do it, but had to jam the tongue of the carriage against a gate post a foot square, splitting it all into splinters.
Colonel Moonlight, who was nearby, ordered the officer in charge, Captain Greer, Company I, to dismount a platoon of men and push the howitzer up the hill.
The Johnnies were firing on us here, pretty heavy, and the delay was getting us into it worse every minute. I seized hold of a wheel, while others placed themselves anywhere they could to help the good work along.
The old howitzer was moving along up the hill pretty good, when a shot from the rear came in and hit the trunnion in such a manner its lead was forced into little drops of spray. My arm just then was near the top of the wheel, so the underside of my arm and a part of my leg just had to be peppered with hot lead clear into the skin.
I jumped up into the air, don’t know how far, whirled around and around. Would seize my trousers leg and then my arm and then jump around some more. When that hot lead was pulled out or rubbed out, it felt like a million points of cactus sticking into my flesh.
Did not know how bad the wound was or how many times had been shot, at least, must have executed some very good record-breaking stunts for the time being. For Colonel Moonlight laughed the laugh of his life, I feel quite sure. He got to laughing and couldn’t stop and all the time solid shot was plowing up the ground all around him.
“Did something hit you, Johnny?” he shouted. “What in the world do you want to go hopping around that way for?”
Most of our men managed to make it through that crooked road in good time, but it was growing dark and still the road was crowded with the last remnant of our men.
Suddenly the Johnnies crowded into the lane … in the rear of our men. Immediately everything in that lane became a fighting bunch, all mixed up. It was evident they were being crowded pretty hard from the noise and commotion they made.
They passed the word forward, “They are cutting the rear all to h---.” Every soldier knows what that means.
Company I was ordered to line up where our new road commenced on the left side of the road and two other companies were ordered to line up on the right side of the road.… This was a kind of ambush arranged in a hurry, and the medicine we intended giving was going to stop something, or know the reason why.
Colonel Moonlight rode up and down in front of our company begging us to hold our fire, and with each plea bringing his hand down good and hard, as if for emphasis, on his thigh. “Hold your fire until I say when! I’ll say when, boys. Don’t make a fool of yourselves.”
You have to see a man in action like that to appreciate the value of the man.… We didn’t want to hold our fire, but it is well that we did.… After all our men in the lane had just about gained the welcome protection of our new road, which allowed the Johnnies to come up close to us.
“Fire!” Colonel Moonlight yelled at the top of his voice.
It was almost as bright as day when three companies emptied their rifles into that lane full of horses and men. Then the order came to empty revolvers, “Shoot low in there, every man.…”
The Johnnies stopped crowding, they were down, horses and men. Everything in a bunch and the lane was blocked. It looked pretty hard from what we could see by the short glimpse of flash light from our guns, but it had to be done.
Everybody had a chance after that to draw a long breath. Never again did they crowd us so fast and furious as that. …
Friday, Oct. 21
The scene shifts to the west bank of the Little Blue River. Moonlight’s men are spread in defensive positions on both sides of the Independence-Lexington Road (U.S. 24). The Kansans have burned the bridge to make the stream a moat of sorts; Capt. Samuel Greer is sent north to cover two lesser used fords; Hart’s unit is to guard the farthestmost, so misses the Battle of the Little Blue. Greer pulls out without informing Hart’s commander, Lt. William Drew, who has to get his men west to safety amid swarming enemy forces, including those of Confederate Gen. John S. Marmaduke. At one point they are helped by a little girl at what might have been the Lawson Moore House, still overlooking the Little Blue Valley today.
After a while it began to be light, the day was breaking and then we could build fires. And then, out from my saddle pocket I pulled my old sweet potato and placed it in a bed of hot coals to bake.
Had just about got my potato good and hot when a picket fired a shot and on the heels of that shot came the order to fall in. Quick as I could, and that wasn’t very long, raked my potato out of the coals and shoved it into my saddle pocket and away we went.
Up on a little ridge … there hailed some dilapidated soldiers who looked similar to some of ours.… They said they were Yankees, soon, however, they proved to be Johnnies, for they came like the wind for us.… Lieutenant Drew ordered us to make for a house up on a hill where we could see a large gate and a girl standing outside by the house. Drew hallooed to her …
Quick! the bonnie lass ran like a deer and opened the gate for us and held it open until we all passed through. She held that gate open, mind you, under fire. Dozens of bullets were whizzing all around her with their intended mission of death. Every one of us boys thanked that splendid girl as we went through that gate on the dead run. She nodded her acknowledgment for each one of us. When we were through, the girl shut the gate and ran into the house.
Away we went into a cornfield like a bunch of Indians, excited and mighty uneasy, for behind us was five to one against us, all eager to take us prisoners or stop us from running on the way.
The corn in this field was high, but that made no difference, for our horses tore a swathe through that field forty feet wide. We managed to escape, but it was a good run with a narrow margin.
Up on another small ridge a quarter of a mile away Lieutenant Drew looked back toward the house where the brave girl had opened the gate for us. Some of the Johnnies were going back below the house and some of them were firing into the house.
Lieutenant Drew turned and shook his fist at them, every nerve in his body tense and on a quiver, so dead in earnest was he.
“You Johnnies!” he shouted. “Molest a hair on that girl’s head and we will come back here and blow your crowd into h---!”
For a long time we rode after that. Finally Lieutenant Drew said, “We must be about far enough back. The artillery firing sounds away back in the rear now.”
All hands then rode to the top of a ridge and peeped over. Much to our surprise, there below in the road was cavalry, marching four abreast as far as we could see up and down the road. Lieutenant Drew asked them who they were. They replied, “We are Marmaduke’s men …”
Their captain ordered “Fire!” without any preliminary maneuvers whatever, and a large bunch of their men came on a run for us. There was nothing for us to do but run for it back over the way we came. But before we knew it we were right in front of another column of cavalry marching four abreast coming toward us, some 300 yards away.
This rattled all our little band, because we had just crossed over down there a few minutes before, and not a single trooper of their company in sight. We were lost, in a hole. It was folly to turn back, death to go ahead, so the only way out was to run with them a race for our lives.
Down to a house beside a small creek we rode where we jumped our horses over a fallen tree close by the side of the house.… To add to our predicament, the people in the house commenced firing at us.
Out into the cornfield we scurried, couldn’t find a hole to crawl into, or anything up in the air to hold on to, but had to do something out of the ordinary.… At the edge of this cornfield was a swamp and that swamp didn’t look a bit inviting to our men.…
“Into it!” Lieutenant Drew shouted. “We can’t be taken prisoner here!”
The water and slimy mud splash(ed) all over ourselves and horses, but by good fortune (we) made the opposite side better than expected, as slough grass in the middle held up our horses to good advantage …
(It) began to shower a rain of bullets over our heads and gradually around us nearer and nearer as they found the range. Every one after that went for himself up that hill, keeping behind large trees something after the fashion a wild turkey will do in the wild woods to evade the man with the gun.
Our horses were all fresh mounts and were able to hold their own; while our enemy’s horses (were) good as well but had been ridden from Arkansas, so could not go into the wind quite as keen as ours. That is the only reason our men escaped the jaws of two columns of steel and muscle, so far.
Soon we would be in comparatively safe refuge of the timber on … sort of a ridge. But a little over halfway up this hill, my second bunkie, Tom Roderick, had the misfortune to be shot in the back and fall off his horse. He was the second bunkie of mine to be killed.
Lieutenant Drew examined him in a hurry, all the while Tom was begging us not to leave him, so I started back to pack him on my horse to the top of the hill.
“Go on!” lieutenant ordered, “His back is broke.” “Lieutenant,” I begged, “don’t want to leave him here, that’s pretty tough.”
“Yes it is, Johnny, but some more of us will get it, if we don’t get out of here,” the lieutenant answered.
On the summit of the hill we went scurrying away, one more look we must have down through the trees to where our comrade lay, and something hard for our eyes to stand we saw. The Johnnies were shooting Tom Roderick to death, finishing him then and there, but that even was consolation as it moved him out of his misery.
Good-by, Tom Roderick, my bunkie, good-by. If we meet again hope it will be where there is no war to part us and rip all there is to nothing.
We had a pretty lively skirmish about two miles from Independence, Missouri, and then about two hours afterward … the Johnnies were running through the streets both mounted and (on) foot.
We had formed a line clear across the street and were fighting like demons at the time, did not have time in which to look around very much. My position at the time was on the end of the line and on the sidewalk as close to a building as could get my horse.
All at once something hit my leg as if it had been struck with a light hammer. Immediately looked up above me. All I could see was a head popping back into the window of the house, but the glimpse was so vague could not tell whether it was a man or woman, whoever it was, was a young person, feel quite sure. Had my overcoat folded and tied over my saddle in front of me.
The bullet, which was fired from a derringer of some kind, went through three folds of the thick collar of my overcoat and then through other lighter folds of the coat, which must have nearly stopped the bullet, so when it went into my leg its power was nearly spent.…
The wound did not bleed much, therefore did not cause me much worry at the time.… I drawed my revolver and watched that window with a vengeance. In all probability it may not have been healthy for the owner to poke his head out that window again.
Soon after that we were ordered to fall back in platoons and then I fired into that window purely for revenge or satisfaction of doing something.
Saturday, Oct. 22
About midnight, the unit reaches the west side of Simmons Ford on the Blue River, behind which the federal cavalry and Kansas militia are dug in for miles. In the morning, Johnny says, he helped repel one attempted crossing of the enemy, but around 2 p.m. Price’s army punches across Byram’s Ford to the south (just north of Swope Park), forcing the 11th and others to fall back toward the state line.
We were all worn mean and cross and like a tiger at bay. It was not dark but we slept every chance we had, even if only for a few minutes, because our little army compared to that of General Price was continually pushed very hard day and night. So far the campaign was mostly a test of living without sleep.
The Johnnies had crossed the ford and were coming and forming too sure of themselves to suit our company. We were held in a line close up where we could see a Johnny officer riding a white horse and coaxing his men to hold the line. He rode back and forth on a run. All our men tried to shoot his horse from under him, but he seemed to be charmed. This was one thing that exasperated us.
Someone hallooed “Charge!” and away we went after that officer riding the white horse. Into the Johnnies we bolted. After that officer we ran around and around, and came near capturing him a dozen times in a dozen minutes.
Finally the officer discovering we wanted him, he dived into the ford where his horse fell down and the fine officer tumbled into the water rolling under a wagon. We caused a jam at that ford and stopped the Johnnies from crossing over to our side and whipped them plumb out, capturing a bunch of prisoners on the side for our pains.
But this charge without authorized orders from an officer was a bad move even if it was successful and did a lot of good. Colonel Moonlight raged and swore and rested for breath, and then started in on us again.
“Boys,” he said, “we are fighting this campaign for a principle, for what we think is right. Don’t ever charge again without orders from an officer, be honorable, be dependable. Your charge was successful … but if it hadn’t have been, we would be in a fine position now. You have stood firm against shot and shell before. Why weaken now? I bow my head in shame before boys I trusted and considered equal to anything under the sun.”
Sunday, Oct. 23
The morning begins with the Union forces arrayed on the north side of Brush Creek, with Moonlight’s men on the right flank near the state line. They and the rest of Blunt’s forces push south across the creek in the morning, are forced back by Gen. Jo Shelby’s division (across the Loose Park area), then — reinforced by militia units coming down from Kansas City — attack again. Meanwhile, Pleasonton, pursuing Price from the east, forces his way across the Blue River at Byram’s Ford, dislodging Marmaduke’s division. This leaves Shelby in danger of being cut off from the rest of Price’s army, which is retreating south; he has to try to fight his way out. This is probably the moment Hart reports witnessing from his position to the west.
We had been everywhere this Sunday and saw things changing before our eyes as in a dream. Whipped by the Johnnies in the morning and in turn they were whipped by us to a showdown and were on the retreat.
We could see at the bottom of the hill, where Johnnies were lining up and counting off, about three regiments of cavalry. About the time they were lined up and ready for action, here through the timber of the Blue came Pleasonton’s cavalry, about three regiments. They came out below us and formed as they came.
We knew there was going to be something doing pretty soon.… We shouted at the top of our voices, we stood up in our stirrups as if to make our noise carry farther.
We knew they drew their sabers because of the sun’s reflection on their steel. We could hear the bugle sound the charge. We could see that line of cavalry advance forward, then in a little while the bugle sounded the double quick and then the whole line of men lunged forward.
We cheered, we were excited, we wanted to be in on that charge, and all the time that line of Johnnies stood there, they never showed the white feather, they were as good as our boys, and why not? Weren’t they born under America’s stars? And, weren’t they our brothers?
Closer and closer Pleasonton’s cavalry advanced, now they were within about one hundred yards of the Johnnies, all on the double quick in earnest. And then we could see a soldier here and there along the line speed up and leave his comrades, daredevils they were, going to meet their death ahead of their time.
Now our line was up close to the Johnnies, and the Johnnies still stood there, don’t believe they batted an eye. It was steel against steel, muscle against muscle, sand against sand, fate against fate, all in the twinkling of an eye.
The line did reel and sway, and horses and men went down. We could see men leave their wounded horses and continue the charge on foot, unswayed, undaunted, and unwhipped.
Now that line all mixed up, two and two waging a battle, three and three, and bunches here and there. And all the time the line widening, scattering out.… The outcome of that charge was in doubt for some little time, a minute rolled by in the time of an hour.
Then, (one) could see breaking, running, hurrying and scurrying, the Johnnies were going, they were whipped.
The Yankees did not follow them, they were too near used up and had about all they wanted before the sun went down.… Afterward we could see hundreds of horses down and men administering to a wounded comrade.
And then the order came to march. We started out on the trot uphill and along the line of Price’s retreat in between Price and the Kansas line. General Price wanted to get into Kansas, and we were determined he should not. Kansas would have suffered if such a thing had happened.
There were plenty of wounded soldiers belonging to Price’s army there. One Southern soldier who was shot in the leg just above the knee … wore a splendid pair of new boots. And as I thought of aiding him another man came along and noticing his boots seized hold of his foot which was swelled inside of the boot and the wounded leg. He pulled as hard as he could to get that boot off … and the officer yelled in pain.
I pulled a revolver on the fellow and made him go clear off the hill, he said, “You ought to be on the Southern side, that’s where you belong.”
I came back with my knife and cut the boots off both the wounded officer’s feet. He said, “I thank you, sir. You are a gentleman. May God bless you even if you are of the North …”
There is a soft spot of comradeship running through all men, arouse that and you are accommodated.
Moonlight follows the battered Price column to the Arkansas River, where it splits up and escapes. Hart’s memories of this period run to the constant foraging for food.
After the weary march back north, the 11th Kansas was ordered to Wyoming to guard the Oregon Trail. Hart took part in the Battle of Platte Bridge, July 26, 1865, one of the volunteers who rode out under the doomed Lt. Caspar Collins (for whom Casper, Wyo., is named). Hart saw Collins carried off by his bolting horse into the mass of Lakota/Cheyenne warriors. Company I was mustered out at Fort Leavenworth on Sept. 26, 1865.
Two years later Hart went west again with his brother Hugh, eventually homesteading a valley, still called Hart’s Basin, in Delta County, Colorado. He served a term in the state House of Representatives and died in Eckert, Colo., in 1928.
Oh yes, Hart did finally finish cooking that sweet potato. The burnt and battered tuber became the talk of the company after he’d hurriedly pulled it out of yet another fire, put it in the wrong saddle bag — the one with some loose gunpowder in it — and his terrified horse, “Pones,” nearly trampled his comrades. When Lt. Drew shared a piece of bacon, the hungry soldiers split and savored the sweet potato, which was “flavored with a very nice powder smell.”
About this story
These excerpts from a never-before-published memoir were made available by John Benton Hart’s great-grandson, John Hart, a San Francisco area writer on environmental policy and history. A more complete version of the Kansas soldier’s recollections of the 1864 fighting on Missouri’s western border will be published in January by the Kansas Historical Society’s Kansas History magazine, which can be ordered for $7.
Learn more about the Civil War
During October, the John Wornall House Museum is hosting a series of programs celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Westport. The house, at 6115 Wornall Road, was used as a field hospital for both Union and Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. All programs are $5 a person and children under 10 are free unless otherwise noted.
▪ Sunday, Oct. 12, 2-3 p.m.
Medical Practices During the Battle
Michael Monaco of UMKC will discuss the medical practices of the Civil War era and how those practices evolved into modern medicine.
▪ Friday, Oct. 17, and Saturday, Oct. 18
Ghost Tours and Paranormal Investigations: A Family Caught in the Crossfire
In this annual tradition at the Wornall Home, guests take tours with the ghosts of the Wornall family.
Ghost tours: 6, 6:30, 7, 7:30 and 8 p.m. (check availability). Fee: $15 per person; children under 5 are free.
Paranormal investigations: 10 p.m.-midnight; midnight-2 a.m. Fee: $50 per person
▪ Sunday, Oct. 19, 2-3 p.m.
Roles of Doctors and Nurses
Historian Hershel Stroud will discuss the roles doctors and nurses played in the Civil War.
▪ Friday, Oct. 24, and Saturday, Oct. 25
Ghost Tours and Paranormal Investigations: Surgery by Candlelight
The Field Hospital turns into a ghostly place with a medical re-enactment performed by Western Bluecoats Field Hospital Co.
Ghost tours: 6, 6:30, 7, 7:30 and 8 p.m. (check availability). Fee: $15 per person; children under 5 are free.
Paranormal investigations: 10 p.m.-midnight; midnight-2 a.m. Fee: $50 per person
▪ Saturday, Nov. 1, 2-3 p.m.
Mourning Practices of the Civil War
Clara VanDraska, the house’s resident “widow,” will share the customs around death and dying.
▪ Sunday, Nov. 2, 2-3 p.m.
Join Lee Ward, owner of a Civil War and funeral museum and author of “Coffins, Kits and More,” about a Civil War embalmer, to learn about embalming practices of the time.