July 2, 2012

Preservationists see new hope for keeping alive history of Battle of Westport

It took Union troops about six hours to control Bloody Hill during the October 1864 Battle of Westport. It’s taken Dan Smith and other officers of the Monnett Battle of Westport Fund about six years to acquire much of the surrounding area in the Big Blue Battlefield.

It took Union troops about six hours to control Bloody Hill during the October 1864 Battle of Westport.

It’s taken Dan Smith and other officers of the Monnett Battle of Westport Fund about six years to acquire much of the surrounding area in the Big Blue Battlefield, just north of Swope Park. They secured three more acres last week.

Fund members, who have worked since 1975 to preserve and mark Civil War-related locations across Kansas City, intend to demolish the warehouse that stands on the site. They also hope to acquire several other parcels near it and demolish the buildings that belonged to an industrial park on the old battlefield since the 1950s.

The fund now controls 27 of the approximately 40 acres of the flood plain district that both Union and Confederate soldiers referred to as “The Meadow” during the largest Civil War battle west of the Mississippi River. The area stands just north of East 63rd Street Trafficway near the Blue River.

“I’ve been carrying the torch on this for a while,” said Smith, a Kansas City area trial lawyer who serves as chairman of the Monnett Fund.

“But we are now on the downhill slope.”

Smith and his colleagues are the latest in a line of Kansas City-area Civil War preservationists who have worked to preserve local Civil War sites in general and the Big Blue Battlefield in particular.

That battlefield was part of the larger Battle of Westport, a sprawling action that occurred over three days in October 1864 in locations ranging from Independence to what is now Loose Park just south of Brush Creek, and to south Kansas City.

The battle, a Union victory, ended any hope of a significant Confederate presence in Missouri. It involved some 30,000 soldiers, about 11,000 of whom clashed Oct. 22 and 23 on the Big Blue Battlefield.

The area actually was contested twice, with Confederate troops crossing the Blue River at what was known as Byram’s Ford and pushing Union troops back to the west. The next day, different Union forces arrived and displaced the Confederates to the west.

Today the flood plain area, which sits just north of 63rd Street Trafficway, seems removed from the urban grid, with a line of trees obscuring the Blue River to the east and small hills that rise sharply on the west. But that didn’t stop it being developed as an industrial park beginning in the 1950s.

In 1990, the secretary of the interior declared Byram’s Ford to be one of the 25 most-endangered Civil War sites in the country.

Monnett Fund members had organized 15 years before that.

The fund, a nonprofit group, was named for Howard Monnett, preservationist and author of “Action Before Westport, 1864,” a 1964 book on the battle.

In 1983, the fund obtained a donation from Commerce Bank of 50 acres of the Big Blue Battlefield, including the actual crossing, or ford, on the Blue River. Six years later the fund obtained the designation of the Byram’s Ford Historic District in the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1995, the Monnett Fund, in tandem with what is now the Civil War Trust, a national nonprofit group, donated about 100 acres of the district to the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department.

In 2006, the fund launched its current “Saving Kansas City’s Battlefield” initiative. The program is designed to reclaim the entire Byram’s Ford site south of 59th Street.

“It’s not hard to stand there and be able to think about what happened there in 1864,” said Shirley Christian, a Kansas City area historian who is battlefield initiative co-chairwoman.

A 1996 archaeological survey on the field yielded a “plainback” button from a federal coat — so named because it carried no manufacturing identification on its back — as well as a fired .57 caliber Enfield bullet often associated with Confederate soldiers.

“This (land acquisition) is a major step, and we want to make the whole country more aware of this battlefield,” Christian said.

The restored battlefield also will represent an opportunity for Kansas City area African-American residents to grow more engaged with the ongoing Civil War 150th anniversary, said Joelouis Mattox, an area historian who also serves as a docent in the Battle of Westport Visitor Center Museum at 6601 Swope Parkway.

“The Civil War was being fought over slavery, but some people don’t want to talk about being enslaved by anyone,” Mattox said.

“But when they ask about black troops during the Civil War, that’s an opportunity to talk about what I call ‘The Black in the Blue.’ ” African-American troops wearing federal blue uniforms during the Battle of Westport included an artillery unit, Mattox said.

Smith is realistic about the chances of clearing the Big Blue Battlefield of industrial park buildings in time for an expected re-enactment of the battle on its 150th anniversary in 2014.

“It will be difficult and it may not be feasible,” Smith said.

“But we will certainly try.”

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