A Battle for Independence Missouri; 08/11/62

On August 1, 1862, John T. Hughes, now a brigadier general, moved into Jackson County with seventy-five men to recruit a brigade for the Confederate army. After the Confederate defeat at Pea Ridge on March 7-8, many Southern men from Missouri had straggled home. Hughes hoped to reenlist these ex-soldiers and enlist other men of recruitment age. But his eye was set primarily on mustering men in the area north of the Missouri River. Hughes and the Confederates, therefore, needed to seize Independence, Missouri, which would secure an area of safe passage for the men when they were marched South. Hughes set up a recruiting camp on the Charles Cowherd farm near Lee’s Summit, where he erected a tall flagpole that sported the Confederate Stars and Bars. On a clear day, his camp could be seen from the top of the courthouse in Independence. This should have sent a chilling message to Buel, the local army commander. Curiously, Buel seemed unconcerned about the danger. Hughes, on his part, planned to either capture Buel or expel him from Independence by force.  General John T. Hughes.                         

With this project in mind, Hughes contacted Quantrill and Colonel Upton Hays for men and support. Hays rushed to Hughes aid with 300 men; Quantrill offered another twenty-five. At Independence, Buel had under his command no more than 500 men. But because he was responsible for patrolling the area and for providing escorts for the mail and wagon trains, his command in Independence was composed normally of a smaller force than that, often less than 400 men. The guerrillas in western Missouri had been operating in the almost impenetrable woods and thickets that blanketed much of the area. Thus, they could remain hidden from Buel’s scouts until they emerged for a raid, during which time, small bands might coalesce into a small, compact army capable of lightning strikes.

Buel’s command in Independence was composed of three companies of the Seventh Missouri Cavalry commanded by Captain Breckinridge; Captain W. H. Rodewald’s company of the Sixth Regiment of Missouri Enrolled Militia; and two companies of Colonel Neugent’s (or Newgent’s) Second Battalion, Missouri Provisional Militia, commanded by Captains Jacob Axline and Aaron Thomas.

Buel’s headquarters staff was stationed in the Southern Bank building on Lexington Street, at the southwest corner of the Independence Square. Rodewald was situated across the street in a two-story building. Acting Provost Marshal, Lieutenant Charles W. Merrihew (or Merryhew) was positioned at the jail, one block north of the northeast corner of the square, on North Main Street. Buel’s vulnerability came from his placement of the bulk of his men one-half mile south of the square in a cavalry encampment. The camp was situated in a low-lying, open cow pasture, with the only defensive structure being a stone fence that lay about one hundred feet west of the encampment and extended for a half mile. The trouble with this sprawling disposition, of course, was that it made mutual support of the various components of the command quite difficult.

Captain Breckinridge, only a few days earlier, had returned from an eleven-day scout and informed Buel that he had encountered no guerrillas or other troop concentrations. In this report, Buel heard exactly what he had wanted to hear--that there was simply nothing at all to fear. Meanwhile, Morgan Mattox, one of Quantrill’s men, entered Independence in the guise of a farmer selling pies and onions to soldiers. He cased the town thoroughly, pinpointing the likely number of troops and their exact deployments. As they frequently did, the guerrillas had already won the intelligence-gathering battle.

At about 10:00 P.M., Sunday night, August 10, a Mrs. Wilson, a Union supporter who lived three miles north of Blue Springs, rushed into Buel’s headquarters and informed him that the word was out that he would be attacked that night by a large force presently camped near Blue Springs, as well as by another force from the Sni. In fact, she had seen the Blue Springs men, and there were some 1,000 to 1,200 of them. Rodewald and Thomas were present, and Rodewald listened intently.

When Mrs. Wilson finished her excited speech, Buel answered sarcastically: “We have heard such reports several times lately, and don’t you see we are here yet!” He told Mrs. Wilson “she had better go home, or go and stay all night with some friend, and go home in the morning.”  As Mrs. Wilson left Buel’s headquarters, she ran into Captain Rodewald again and retold her story. She then asked him to direct her to the home of General Lucas, a local Union supporter. After she told Lucas her story, he went to Buel and remonstrated that he should place his men on high alert and insisted that Mrs. Wilson was a highly reliable witness.  The supremely confident Buel answered him that “he wished that people would stop bringing in such reports--‘that we always know how to take care of ourselves.’” Lucas, his feelings ruffled, turned on his heel and left. Buel told Captains Rodewald and Thomas that they might just as well go to their homes in town that night, not stay close as they often did during emergencies. No extra precautions, moreover, were given to the men at the camp. Mrs. Wilson’s warning, however, had impressed the more prudent Rodewald, and he alerted his men of a possible attack and ordered them to load their carbines and to be ready.

 At 3:50 A.M., one of Rodewald’s guards screamed: “Halt! Halt! Halt!” and fired at men approaching him. Quantrill and his men, acting as the advance guard, shot all such sentinels on Spring Street (or Spring Branch Road or Big Spring Road), near Burford’s gate at the east end of town. Hughes and his men were immediately behind Quantrill in full support. The rebels stopped at the courthouse square and hitched their horses, then marched in double-quick time toward the army camp to the south. The square quickly filled with Confederates, and Rodewald’s men began firing at them from the second story of their quarters in the bank. One of the Confederates cried out: “For God’s sake don’t fire, it’s your own men.” This ruse caused the Union fire to stop temporarily. Rodewald, meanwhile, brought his men out of the building, placed them into line, and ordered them to fire at the Confederates riding through the square toward the military camp. The first volley struck Colonel Kit Chiles, killing him in front of the bank. Rodewald held his position at the corner of Lexington and Liberty Streets until 6:00 A.M., repulsing three charges. Soon, Buel ordered Rodewald’s men into the headquarters building, where they took up more-protected defenses in the windows on the first and second stories. He also stationed men in the west yard, the side of the building without windows. Quantrill and his guerrillas now manned the building across the street from the headquarters building and rained a steady pistol fire through the windows of the headquarters.

Buel now asked Rodewald where the U.S. flag was, and Rodewald told him that it was at the company quarters across the street. Buel wanted to hoist the flag to signal the men at the camp that he was still in the fight. Rodewald’s sixteen-year-old bugler, William O. Buhoe, volunteered to retrieve the flag and rushed barefoot through heavy fire and obtained it, returning miraculously unscathed. Because there was no flagstaff on the building, two of Rodewald’s men attempted to fasten the Stars and Stripes to the chimney. Both men were killed in the attempt. Then, a recently captured Confederate lieutenant and one of his men were ordered to place the flag. Despite this violation of the laws of war, they did so successfully, as the guerrillas recognized them and carefully held their fire. Quantrill’s orders for the raid had been to pin down Buel and to picket the town after the raid was completed. He had accomplished the first chore by boxing in Buel.

Meanwhile, Acting Provost Marshall Merrihew, at the jail, fired a volley at the enemy, dashed out of the building with fourteen men, and fled toward Kansas City, arriving there that afternoon. The guerrillas immediately took possession of the building. When George Todd entered the jail, he looked into one of the cells and stepped back in amazement. There was Jim Knowles, the guide who had led Buel to the ambush that had killed Todd’s friends, John Little and Ed Koger, at the Little Blue River near Blue Cut. Knowles, ordinarily the town marshal, had been put in jail recently for the intemperate killing of an Irishman, who had been drunk and only “cutting up a little,” it was said. Todd emptied his revolvers into the unfortunate Knowles in a paroxysm of anger.

Earlier, two columns of rebels, one led by Colonels Thompson and Chiles and the other by acting Brigadier General Hughes, had dismounted at the square. Thompson, now that Chiles was dead, marched with the men down Lexington Avenue; Colonels Hughes and Hays’ column went down Walnut Street. The Federal camp was sandwiched between these two streets. When the Confederates got into position to the north and west of the camp, they fired into the Federal tents at a range of 100 feet, surprising the Union soldiers and decimating them. No pickets had been placed on duty. Captain Breckinridge, one of the commanders in the camp, thoroughly intimidated, shouted, “Boys, we are completely surrounded, and we had better surrender.” His fellow officer, Captain Axline, had a different view of the matter and shouted: “Boys, get your guns and ammunition and rally behind the rock fence,” by far the cleverest Federal decision of the day.

The rebels, once they entered the abandoned camp, began to plunder it and lost much of their focus and momentum. This departure from the planned attack allowed Axline to regroup his men behind the stonewall and to prepare to resist. At daylight, Hughes and a number of his men attempted to flank the Union troops and turn the tide of battle, but Hughes was shot in the forehead and killed. The stonewall had turned out to be an excellent extemporaneous field fortification. Some rebels, however, took up enfilading positions south of the wall and made it hot for the Union men.

Colonel Gideon Thompson next assumed command and sensibly attempted to turn the Federal right, but he was wounded in the knee. Colonel Hays then assumed command and wisely avoided frontal attacks for the time being. The fight now degenerated into a sharpshooting match. Soon, Hays was wounded in the foot, but he continued to fight. To eject Axline, without flanking him on the right, now seemed impossible. Axline, meanwhile, ordered Lieutenant Harrington to report to Colonel Buel’s headquarters to receive instructions. Harrington, instead, put discretion ahead of valor and repaired to Kansas City, à la Merrihew, and was out of the fight.

At 9:15 A.M., Buel ordered his men to cease firing and sent his adjutant, Lieutenant Preble, with a flag of truce (a bed sheet rapped around a ramrod) to the commanding officer of the Confederates, who by now was the wounded Hays. About 11:00 A.M., Hays returned with Preble, and the two commanders, Hays and Buel, worked out surrender terms. Rodewald’s company of ninety-one men subsequently stacked their arms in front of the Union headquarters. Twenty-five minutes later, Axline’s men marched onto the Independence Square to do likewise. Colonel Thompson, though wounded, now paroled the Federal officers, enlisted men, and prisoners. Twenty-six Federal soldiers had been killed in the initial attack on the camp, and seventy-four Union troops were wounded (eleven of whom later died). The Confederates lost twenty-three men killed, ten of whom were officers--a high rate of relative casualties and a sign the Union sharpshooters were maximizing their fire by targeting Confederate commanders. Nine rebels were mortally wounded.

At five o’clock that afternoon, the Confederates left Independence in the direction of their camp near Lee’s Summit, carrying with them some “fifteen wagonloads of arms, ammunition, and quartermaster and commissary stores.” On August 16, Quantrill returned to Independence and obtained several wagonloads of gunpowder, which he hid in a cellar on the Morgan Walker farm. Meanwhile, the paroled Union men were ordered to Benton Barracks, where they were mustered out of the service. With some merit, Quantrill and his men claimed credit for the victory.

©Donald L. Gilmore, Pelican Publishing 2006 & quantrillsguerrillas.com "Permission should be requested and agreed to before using this copyrighted essay and or image." He is an image of Quantrill in a red battle shirt taken  early in the conflict.                                            



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