Confederate troops halted — again — in re-creation of Battle of Westport

A Confederate battery prepared to reload and fire another volley at Union troops during Sunday’s Battle of Westport re-enactment. The actors pay for much of their own equipment and travel.
A Confederate battery prepared to reload and fire another volley at Union troops during Sunday’s Battle of Westport re-enactment. The actors pay for much of their own equipment and travel. Special to The Star

It was different kind of October day in western Missouri 150 years ago.

Cold and drizzle had settled on bare trees. Fog hugged the ground. A thin coat of ice covered Brush Creek.

And 32,000 men fought bitterly atop the area’s gently rolling hills, part of the last major Civil War battle west of the Mississippi River.

Hundreds of spectators got a glimpse of what the fight might have looked like during a weekend exhibition commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Westport.

Under balmy skies Sunday, more than 100 re-enactors in full period regalia skirmished in Swope Park’s western greensward. Cannons boomed and pistols popped. Nearby, a young soldier played “Yankee Doodle Dandy” as commanders barked orders at the troops. Mounted cavalry officers traded black-powder fire.

No blood was shed. But the re-enactors said the exhibition brought history to life.

“It’s very important,” said Thomas Robinson of Bonner Springs, Kan., an organizer who played a Confederate soldier Sunday. “If we forget our history and our past, we’re doomed to repeat it. So many people say that, but rarely do they take it to heart.”

What is now called the Battle of Westport took place Oct. 21-23, 1864, with the fight reaching its climax near modern-day Loose Park. Organizers said performing the re-enactment there would have been impractical — too loud, they said — but the weekend commemoration, sponsored by a group called the Battle of Westport 150, included walking tours of the close-in sites.

And since some of the initial skirmishes took place along the Blue River, the exhibition’s authenticity seemed clear.

“We study the original battle,” said James Crofutt of St. Joseph, a re-enactor on the Union side Sunday. “There are a lot of good scenarios to portray.”

The portrayals weren’t limited to gun battles and cavalry charges. Re-enactors set up camp in the park, where they cooked breakfast over open fires. Others played period music. Some rested under shade trees or read period books.

Women and children took part, wearing replica clothes from the era.

“Our scenario is, the Union came in and burned my house down, so now I go with my husband,” said Kat Plummer of Barnett, Mo. “I’m the camp cook, and I do the washing and the sewing. … The more I learn, the more I enjoy it.”

Plummer said the re-enactment community works to exclude as many modern conveniences as possible. A few cellphones were visible Sunday, but only a few.

Re-enactors pay for their own equipment, travel, clothing and other accessories. Sponsors defrayed the costs of park rental and other expenses.

Roughly 1,300 people watched Saturday’s re-enactment, organizers said, with another 300 or so turning out Sunday. The weekend included lectures, a demonstration by a medical corps, and other events.

“It’s a great time,” said Tanya Wortman of Overland Park. “I love to come out and see these things.”

That was not the reaction 150 years ago, of course. An estimated 3,000 combatants were killed or wounded in the original Battle of Westport, which decisively ended a Confederate attempt to claim Missouri.

For all practical purposes, the battle ended the fight for the western United States. Six months later, the Civil War itself would be over.

The weekend re-enactors say they are all friends and can portray either side of the conflict when necessary. But their exhibition also hints at the bitter fury of that time: Union and Confederate troops camped apart from each other over the weekend.

“They didn’t camp together during the war,” Robinson said. “So we don’t.”

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.