Controversy in the West: “It is a fearful thing to accuse a man… Of being a traitor to his flag.”

While doing some reading just today, I stumbled across a citation to the ORs dealing with the aftermath of the Battle of Westport, in reference to some quarrel between Maj. Gen’ls Samuel R. Curtis and William S. Rosecrans. I have quite a bit of interest in Curtis and more than a passing one in Rosecrans, and I’d been doing some reading recently about Westport, so of course I was interested. In following the citation, I found what struck me as a rather remarkable document; the report of a Lieutenant George T. Robinson, Eleventh Kansas Cavalry. It’s not every day a Lieutenant accuses a Major General of treason in an official report! Without further ado, here it is.

Quote:
Numbers 69. Report of Lieutenant George T. Robinson, Eleventh Kansas Cavalry, Chief Engineer.

ENGINEER DEPARTMENT,

Fort Leavenworth, November 10, 1864.

COLONEL: In obedience to your request, I have the honor to submit a statement of different conversations held with Major-General Rosecrans and officers of his staff, October 26 and 27, 1864.

In obedience to an order of Major-General Curtis, a copy of which is hereunto annexed, under date of 21st of October, 1864, I left the line of Big Blue at midnight and proceeded to Kansas City with my assistants and immediately called out the citizens and militia to work upon the lines of fortification there. The battle of Westport commenced at daylight of Sunday, October 23, and the enemy commenced his retreat at about 12 m. of this date. I should here state that on Saturday night at 12 o’clock, in a conversation with General Curtis I understood him to say that he had no precise knowledge as to where Major- Generals Rosecrans and Pleasonton were, and in his general conversation and directions to me appeared to depend entirely on his own force to keep the enemy in check. I at this time proposed to Major-General Curtis to take a small steam ferry-boat lying at the levee, Kansas City, and run down the Missouri River until I could hear from or see some of the forces of Major-General Rosecrans and carry such dispatches and information as to our situation from General Curtis to General Rosecrans as might be proper. At first General Curtis approved the plan, but finally gave it up as being too hazardous, not knowing where to find, or rather not having any information as to where General Rosecrans could be found.

I did not know that our forces had the best of the fighting until Sunday night at dark, when ascertaining that Price’s forces had retreated and were being closely pressed by General Curtis, Blunt, and Pleasonton, I began to collect my tools from the trenches and prepare to follow on and catch up with the advance of our troops. My duty in collecting the Government property, for which I was accountable, kept me in Kansas City until Monday morning, October 24, at 10 o’clock, at which time I took the road with my assistants, and, accompanied by Colonel Ellithorpe, editor of Leavenworth Conservative, we reached Little Santa fe the same day at about 2 o’clock; distance, nineteen miles south of Kansas City. Here, as I was entering the town from the north, I met the advance guard of Major-General Rosecrans entering the town from the east or northeast, coming from the direction of Hickman Mills, General Rosecrans in person being some two miles in the rear of his advance.

I halted until the general came up, and after seeing him for a few minutes he informed me that he should encamp there for the night,as he informed my his maxim was “to camp early and start early.” He at the same time pressed me to remain with him until such time as we should catch the column of General Curtis, stating that he was anxious to push on before daylight and should undoubtedly catch General curtis before the next night (Tuesday); that he earnestly desired to see me after he had his supper to obtain such information as I was possessed of as to the movement of both forces from Lexington to the present time. A few moments after, Captain Hoelcke, engineer officer on the staff of General Rosecrans, came to me to procure maps of the country between Fort Scott and our present position, stating that the general desires to have him (Captain H.) make copies of the maps at once as General Rosecrans had no maps or guides for that section of country. I very cheerfully gave him full maps of the country and all the information I was possessed of.

At about 7 o’clock that evening I was told by an officer that General Rosecrans desired to see me. I went immediately to his quarters and found him at supper. I waited until he came out, when he desired me to give him a free statement of what General Curtis had been doing. I did so as nearly and correctly as I could. After finishing my statements the general turned around to his chief of staff (Colonel Du Bois, I think, was his name, although I was not introduced to any of General Rosecrans’ staff) and said to the colonel:

“Old Curtis appears to be trying to drive Price right back into Missouri.”

The colonel’s reply was:

“Yes; he is getting things beautifully muddled up.”

I said to the general:

“General, you do not suppose that General Curtis would open a clear road for Price to go straight through Kansas?”

General R. turned quickly toward me and said:

“But you know nothing about it.”

One of the officers, I think Colonel Du Bois, said General Curtis was a “regular old muddle-head.” Captain Hoelcke made the remark that-

“The old general was not what he used to be when he knew him; he was getting old and childish.”

There appeared to be a general feeling between all the staff officers of General Rosecrans against General Curtis. During the interview, General Rosecrans turned to me and said:

“My dear sir, I have had the greatest difficulty in getting General Curtis to believe that Price was in Missouri at all. I have sent him dispatch after dispatch, telegram after telegram, to the effect that Price, with his whole army, was in Missouri, and that he must be on the lookout for him, as it was Price’s intention to go to Kansas. In answer, I received from General Curtis a dispatch that the idea of Price, with 3,000 men being in the State of Missouri, was monstrous.”

General Rosecrans then turned to Colonel Du Bois and said:

“And now, colonel, I guess the old man finds that Price is no fiction; that he is a reality, eh?”

The colonel replied:

“I should think he did.”

Again General Rosecrans said to me:

“I have been overpersuaded by that man (having reference to Major-General Curtis) against my own military judgment to send all my troops via Kansas City. It was my wish to send them farther south, but the constant cry of Kansas city, Kansas City, induced me to order my troops there, with the beautiful result of losing the whole thing. Hereafter when I listen to another man and take his advance I shall be a bigger fool than he is.”

Again:

“I understand, sir, that Jim Lane is running this border ruffian institution, and actually in command of the whole machine.”

I told General Rosecrans that General Lane was certainly at the front and doing his duty as a common soldier as were many other Kansas men, but as to his having command of any portion of the troops it was not so. General R. said:

“On, yes, I understand the whole thing, sir, much better than you possibly can do; I understand and know Jim Lane thoroughly.”

A moment after he said to me:

“Lieutenant, you are not as much of a Fremont man as when you were on his staff.”

I told him I was not. Shortly afterward I went to my own quarters. The column took up the line of march next morning at 7 o’clock, marched until 12 m., making about twenty miles, when a halt was ordered for an hour. I then asked the general what time he intended to camp. His reply was, “Very soon.” I ventured to reply that such marching would not catch General Curtis. His reply was:

“My dear sir, when you get to be a general remember to start early and camp early, and when you do find your enemy you will be able to fight him with fresh men and fresh horses. You will see that I will have to finish this thing up yet with my infantry – slow but sure. I have the finest body of infantry in the world, and I shall catch Price with them after all the cavalry are used up. Such racing cannot last over forty-eight hours longer, and then comes my turn. ”

About 1.30 the column took up the line of march again, and at 3 p. m. halted for camp. Finding that if I continued with General Rosecrans my chance of ever rejoining my own command was exceedingly poor I decided upon pushing on and letting General Rosecrans came up with his infantry in his own way. Calling my men together I started on. General Rosecrans was sitting on a log at the side of the road, and asked me where I was going. I told him my place was with my command, and I thought I would not be able to reach it if I remained with him. He jumped up from the stump or log and in a very angry manner said, “Go on, then.” There I left him, nor saw nor heard of him afterward. Some five miles farther on my road south I saw coming from the northeast a column of cavalry approaching the road I was then on, moving south. Upon looking at them through my glass I saw a large white flag flying from a lance staff. We waited for them to come up, when I had a conversation with the officer in command. It proved to by a company of the Third Iowa Cavalry, under command of a first lieutenant, carrying a flag of truce, and from forty to fifty prisoners of war, captured at or near Lexington.

The lieutenant informed me he carried orders from general Rosecrans to take these prisoners into the lines of Price. I informed him that General Rosecrans was only about five miles back, camped, at which he seemed much surprised, and dismounting his men and prisoners, rode back to see General Rosecrans and get further orders. I marched on, leaving the command and prisoners dismounted on the road. The circumstance at the time struck me as very strange that prisoners should be sent into Price’s lines under a flag of truce upon the field of battle.

This, colonel, is a full and correct statement of affairs and conversations held with General Rosecrans. I could not fail to see plainly that a bitter feeling existed between General Rosecrans and his staff toward General Curtis. His actions were spoken of in a very sneering manner; that every move made by General Curtis was made wrong and in a “bungling manner,” or, in the language of Colonel Du Bois, “beautifully muddled up.” My first impression was (after ascertaining that General Rosecrans was hostile in feeling toward General Curtis) to leave General Rosecrans at once, but, I deemed it my duty to ascertain, as nearly as possible, what the precise difficulty was, so that if disaster should befall General Curtis through any lack of co-operation on the part of General Rosecrans I might, perhaps, be able in part to account for such lack.

After mature deliberation, coupled with such information as I could glean from casual remarks from different officers connected apparently closely with General Rosecrans, it is my firm conviction that the plan of General Rosecrans was to have Price whip the few raw, undisciplined troops of General Curtis and then crush Price himself (which it strikes me he could have done at any time after Price had entered Missouri), carrying off the palm of victory himself at the fearful cost of sacrificing the whole Kansas frontier.

It is a fearful thing to accuse a man, hitherto honored and respected as Major-General Rosecrans has been and is now, of being a traitor to his flag; yet his lack of co-operation, his tardy pursuit, cast a black shadow upon all his former services, and true, loyal men will see only a desire on his part to hand the State of Missouri over to our enemy without a blow being struck for its defense. I was informed by an officer at Fort Scott that Major-General Smith, commanding the infantry force, had repeatedly urged upon General Pleasonton the necessity of attacking Price and bringing him to bay, so as to allow General Smith to get up with his infantry and artillery force and bring on a general engagement. This General Pleasonton neglected to obey, and finally a fifth order was sent to General Pleasonton to the effect that if General Pleasonton did not attack Price at once he (General Smith) would be obliged to send General Pleasonton to the rear. If, colonel, this is the case (and the orders of General Smith can be readily obtained) there has been a criminal neglect upon the part of General Rosecrans and General Pleasonton to attack and defeat Price.

I am, colonel, your obedient servant,

GEO. T. ROBINSON,

I’ll give some context here for those with no background knowledge of the events here. In late 1864, Confederate general Sterling Price invaded Missouri with a largely mounted army of around 12,000 so, with the initial goal of threatening St.  Louis. He was reinforced by Confederate guerilla bands and local secessionists throughout the invasion. Price took heavy casualties in a bungled engagement at Fort Davidson, and turned timid; finding Federal strength concentrated against him whenever he approached an important point, Price chose to avoid most of the strongholds in Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans’ Department of Missouri, and instead started moving towards Kansas, the department of Maj. Gen. Samuel R. Curtis. Curtis gathered what soldiers he had on hand and deployed them under the command of James Blunt to conduct delaying actions against Price, buying Curtis time to assemble some of his Kansas militia along a defensive line near the state line (the militiamen were uncooperative about moving into Missouri), and slowing Price while a field force of cavalry from Rosecrans’ department under Alfred Pleasonton pursued Price from the rear. The result was the Battle of Westport on October 23, where Price was decisively defeated and fled the field.

Controversy began to stir within the Union effort to pursue and destroy Price however. Curtis, his aggressive instincts fully roused, was all for pursuing Price through Missouri, but faced a few awkward command issues. Curtis ranked Pleasonton, but Pleasonton wasn’t from his department, and this combined with the fact that most of Curtis’ militiamen wouldn’t enter Missouri, meant that Curtis would be conducting the pursuit mostly with troops that did not belong to him. Nevertheless, that is what he sought to do. Some of Pleasonton’s cavalry caught up to Price at Mine Creek and inflicted a shattering defeat on his command, taking hundreds of prisoners and all of Price’s remaining artillery. Following this, Curtis was in a position to press his pursuit against Price to the max, but the command structure began breaking down. Pleasonton chose to briefly retire to Fort Scott, allegedly to give his command forage and rest, but moreso to contact Rosecrans and recommend the end of the pursuit. An infuriated Curtis rode after Pleasonton and got his troops moving again, pressing Price into a barren region of southern Missouri, where he was confident that if he maintained the pursuit and gave Price no time to forage or rest, nature and logistics if nothing else would effectively put an end to Price’s command. Rosecrans however, intervened at this point, calling back all of the troops in his department from the pursuit, leaving Curtis with just James Blunt’s 2,500 exhausted horsemen. An outraged Curtis wired Washington, and Grant quickly overrode Rosecrans, but it was too late to efficiently restart the pursuit as Rosecrans’ commanders hesitated to obey Curtis. An infuriated Curtis blamed the failure of the pursuit on Rosecrans and sardonically needled his fellow department commander for failing to catch up to the pursuit force with the rest of his troops and take command himself. (Rosecrans ranked Curtis)

Rosecrans’ comments on Curtis, if accurately reported, are unfair and largely inaccurate; Curtis took the threat of Price quite seriously and in fact had to spend considerable time and effort convincing the Governor of Kansas to call out the militia and prepare to meet the threat, wiring him to this effect on September 17th, more than a month before the Westport engagement. Rosecrans’ alleged comment on Curtis believing Price to be a fiction has to be ranked as an outright lie. Obviously Robinson’s comments on Rosecrans are somewhat hyperbolic, but if his report of the attitude of Rosecrans and his staff is basically accurate, it’s a deeply unflattering portrait of Rosecrans’ attitude towards a fellow general and his willingness to cooperate in a time of a crisis, not to mention his conduct of the pursuit of Price. (Nor would this have been the first time Rosecrans incurred the wrath of others for a perceived failure of pursuit)

Sources: The war of the rebellion: a compilation of the official records of the Union and Confederate armies. ; Series 1 – Volume 41 (Part I); 546-550

Action Before Westport, 1864 by Howard N. Monnett.

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