In 1918, urged on by his son Harry, John Benton Hart began to tell stories of a three-year period in his youth. He recalled his days as a trooper in the Eleventh Kansas Cavalry, fighting in Missouri and on the frontier, and his time as a civilian jack-of-all-trades doing risky work for the U.S. Army on the Wyoming-Montana Bozeman Trail in the middle of the Indian resistance campaign known as Red Cloud’s War. Once started, John Benton Hart became an enthusiastic raconteur, describing events with an almost cinematic vividness, while his son, an aspiring writer, documented his father’s testimony in what became several manuscripts. Compiled and reproduced here, edited by historian John Hart, John Benton Hart’s great-grandson, this memoir is a singular document of living history. As a young Kansas cavalryman, John Benton Hart participated in two momentous episodes of the Civil War era—Sterling Price’s Missouri Expedition of 1864, including the Battle of Westport, and such engagements in the Plains Indian Wars as the Battle of Platte Bridge in July 1865 and the Hayfield Fight near Fort C. F. Smith in 1867. In the engaging style of a natural storyteller, Hart re-creates these events as he experienced them, giving readers a rare glimpse at moments of historical import from the point of view of the “ordinary” soldier. In arresting detail, he also tells of crossing the Plains as a bullwhacker, carrying the mail between the beleaguered forts on the Bozeman Trail, and befriending scout Jim Bridger and Mountain Crow Chief Blackfoot. Framed and supplemented with the editor’s biographical, historical, and explanatory notes, Hart’s memoir offers a new perspective on events long fixed in the historical imagination. As history writ large or on a personal scale, Bluecoat and Pioneer tells a remarkable story.
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UNDER MOONLIGHT IN MISSOURI
The Eleventh Kansas Cavalry was organized initially as an infantry regiment in the fall of 1862 and saw its first serious action at the Battle of Prairie Grove, Arkansas, on December 7. The following April the regiment was mounted — converted to cavalry — and placed under the command of Colonel Thomas Moonlight. This strikingly named military man was born in Scotland. In the United States by 1850, he settled in Leavenworth County, Kansas, in 1860. Moonlight would earn much praise for his Civil War service and much blame for some blunders made in fighting Indians later on. Johnny, for his part, idolized his regimental commander.
The Eleventh Kansas spent the middle years of the war engaging in small actions against Confederates and guerillas on either side of the Kansas-Missouri state line. Johnny's company would have been in eastern Kansas when word came of a much larger threat to the region in the autumn of 1864.
Major General Sterling Price invaded Missouri in September 1864 with more than ten thousand men in a desperate attempt to divert Union forces from the East, to recruit volunteers and capture supplies, and perhaps to influence the November elections. After failing to destroy the garrison of Fort Davidson at Pilot Knob, Price aborted a planned assault on St. Louis and turned west toward Jefferson City, the state capital, which he threatened but also chose not to attack. He worked his way on toward Kansas, creating short-lived jubilation among Confederate sympathizers as he passed but not provoking the full-scale pro-Southern uprising he apparently banked on. While Major General Samuel R. Curtis dug in to defend Westport and Kansas City, Major General James Blunt moved east with two thousand men, including the Eleventh Kansas, to locate Price and then to impede his advance. Meanwhile, larger forces under Major Generals Alfred Pleasonton and Andrew J. Smith were closing in on the invaders from the rear. Blunt urged Curtis to march eastward and face the Confederates at the Little Blue River on October 21, but his superior had to decline: the Kansas State Militia, an essential part of his force, would not go that far into Missouri. Blunt, and notably Moonlight, nonetheless made an effective stand at the Little Blue before retreating grudgingly through Independence to the main Union position along the Blue (also called Big Blue) River.
On October 22 General Price located an unguarded ford on the Big Blue, penetrated and flanked the Union defenses, and drove the Federals back on Westport, then a separate town south of Kansas City. On the same day, a messenger from Curtis made it through to General Pleasonton, who at last accelerated what had been a leisurely advance. It would have shocked Johnny, who thought he was part of a closely coordinated campaign, to know that Curtis and Pleasonton had not been directly in touch for several days: the telegraph lines were down.
On October 23 the battle surged back and forth across Brush Creek south of Westport. Union troops were already gaining when Pleasonton, having forced his own way across the Big Blue, appeared out of the streamside timber. Price quickly disengaged and began his long retreat back toward the Arkansas River, punctuated by several more pitched battles with the pursuing Union forces.
Price's invasion, historians agree, did little to change the course or even to delay the conclusion of the larger war, but its scale and regional importance were huge. This campaign has surely gotten less than its share of discussion. A hundred years would pass before these events received their first thorough modern treatment, Howard Monnett's Action before Westport (1964); more than fifty more went by before publication of Kyle S. Sinisi's The Last Hurrah (2015) and Mark Lause's The Collapse of Price's Raid (2016). Johnny's recollections might have been useful to all.
Written down half a century after the events, Hart's account cannot be read as a literal guide to the last days of Price's raid. The chronological and spatial framework he provides is sometimes questionable. At one point he speaks of a sixteen-day running fight leading up to the Battle of Westport; the calendar allows five days.
Yet Johnny captures well the enlisted man's experience of a prolonged cavalry campaign, the round-the-clock movements, and the snatched sleeps. Time is not so much stretched as it is rearranged. Company I's journey from Hickman Mills, Missouri, where the Kansans' march began on October 17, to Lexington and back and down the Kansas-Missouri line to Fayetteville, Arkansas, on November 4 encompassed every bit of sixteen days (and many nights) in the saddle. General Curtis estimated the distance traveled at 850 miles.
Unlike some other contemporary witnesses, Hart did not yearn for the larger eastern battlefields but took with utmost seriousness his role as a defender of Kansas. His lack of personal animosity toward the Confederates (whom he always calls "the Johnnies") extended also to Southern sympathizers he encountered. Also notable are the almost affectionate interactions he reports between officers and men. As Johnny wrote, "the officers in the Civil War would talk to their men, somewhat sociable at times. They could dine with their men in a pinch and not feel lowered by so doing."
Blunt's force reached Lexington, after an all-night march from Holden, on the morning of Tuesday, October 18, and saw its first action on Wednesday. Johnny appears to conflate the two days. He opens on a theme that will resound many times: the search for provisions.
We marched through Lexington, and went into camp a little way outside of town. As there could not be enough corn provided for our horses from the merchants in town, something had to be done. Andy [Andrew G.] Todd and myself, and some others, were detailed to go under the command of a sergeant out among the farms and get what was needed. So, off we went for near a mile and a half to a big house, and on arriving there found plenty of corn of which we took one wagon load.
But just as the wagon load of corn was being driven off, Andy Todd and I sat down on the porch of the house where the people lived for a little rest. We were expected to bring up the rear in a few minutes.
While resting here the lady of the house came out on the porch where we were, and asked us if we would like some bread and milk. We replied that we would. She went back into the house, but she left an impression with us, for she seemed kind, had a neat appearance, a soft voice and wore earrings that looked like diamonds. In a little while a Negro woman came out with light-bread and milk. She cut slice after slice for us, and we had a feast, nothing in our lives tasted so good as that lightbread and milk. We thanked the lady of the house who was standing in the doorway, then made for our horses.
Just as we were mounted, the lady came running out to where we were. She threw her arms up and grabbed me by the trouser leg, and now the ear rings were gone, her ears were bleeding, her hair was down over her shoulders and face and the pretty dress she wore all torn to pieces. "Come!" she said, "they are killing my father, come in the house quick! Oh, please, come!" ...
Back we went pell-mell into the house, through two rooms and started up a flight of stairs; here we pulled out our guns. "That's right, boys. God bless you," she said, and all the time kept hurrying us up the stairs. As soon as we were on the landing could hear arrogant demanding voices through a door. The lady opened a door and pushed us into the room.
There was a very old gentleman sitting in a high backed rickety-looking chair. His hair was white and his face nearly as white, and his hands looked lean and bony and thin. His head was pushed back against the back of the chair, his head was all bruised up and bleeding a little. There was two men from the Fifteenth Kansas, pushing the barrels of their revolvers against the old gentleman's forehead, hissing through their teeth, "Where's your money, old man? Where's your money?" I poked my gun into one fellow's neck and at the same time jerked him off his feet while Andy Todd did the same with the other one. They did not make very much resistance. Down the stairs they went with not very much ceremony, but somehow they managed to take a sack of silverware with them. We was going to make them leave that, but the lady said, "Let them have it! Let them take it! Get them out of here! That's all I want!" Out of the house they went, and we after them like a couple of bulldogs.
In the yard once more the lady thanked us, indeed, she had been doing so every minute it seemed to us. Then the mother soul in her bared itself free. She wanted to save, to pay a debt of gratitude to two boys in blue; while the blood of her race wore the gray. "Price," she said, "will be here in fifteen minutes and my husband is a colonel in his Southern Army, a man with influence and pull. You may be killed going now. You may get killed, you can't get away, it's too late. I will guarantee you boys protection, you will not be mistreated." And, as if to punctuate her plea for us like an orderly from Heaven, we could hear firing on the pickets. The lady said it was Price's men. No we said, we would have to go, and go we must. "Well," she said, "remember both of you if you are ever wounded or in trouble of any kind, please let me know and I will pay the price no matter what it is. You boys saved my father — and goodbye."
We rode away with all the haste we could after what she had told us, about Price being so near, who knows, maybe it was so. Just as we were riding out of view from the house, Andy Todd glanced back over his shoulder, saw the lady kneeling facing us as if praying for us. "That's an angel of a woman, she's good, Johnny," he said. We rode on for about a mile when we met the Negro coming back with the corn. He was scared, we told him to take the corn back to the lady and tell her that we would not take anything from her.
The Fifteenth Kansas Volunteer Cavalry was commanded by Colonel Charles R. Jennison, a notorious pro-Union guerrilla, or Jayhawker. Jennison had been forced to give up command of another unit early in the war in part because it too often engaged in such pillage as Johnny describes. During Price's raid, the Fifteenth Kansas made up the core of the First Brigade, one of the two brigades Blunt took into Missouri.
The narrator's idealization of the Southern lady seems extreme. But unlike some other sentimentalized passages, this one is present in the plainer first version of the events as well as in the more self-conscious second version.
The little detachment hurried through hostile Lexington with revolvers drawn and caught up with Company I. They received a light scolding from 1st Lieutenant William Y. Drew: "You fellows are always fooling around somewhere when you're needed. Fall in line and be good for a while, if it's in you."
Our company lined up in the middle afternoon about one half mile south of the fairground and two miles south of Lexington. We were dismounted and lined up facing south (or was it northeast?) toward Price's men across a sweet potato patch; some of the potatoes were dug and heaped up in hills; there was corn, some of it in shocks and some still uncut: an ideal place for a hungry horse and soldier. Was eying one of those sweet potato piles about twenty feet in front of me and longed for just one of them. And like a flash left the ranks headlong for one of them. Just as I picked up one nice big fat fellow an officer ordered me back. And it seemed like every one of the boys in that line had something to say about that sweet potato. "What are you going to do with that potato?" "Give me a bite!" "Going to send it home to Ma?" And last a little bit of a dried-up fellow asked, "Let me carry it for you for a while, Johnny?" I wanted to knock that dried-up lad a rap, but dared not. That potato was crowded into my shirt bosom against a time when it could be baked.
Price's army advanced against the Federals, and the fighting retreat began. Johnny describes a tactic by which Blunt divided his force into two equal units. While one group made a stand against the Confederates, the second would retire to improvise a new defensive line. As its position became untenable, the forward group would fall back through the rear group and take its turn preparing a new line. Johnny describes this "saving and protecting maneuver" correctly, but according to Blunt and others, the tactic was employed only later, west of the Little Blue. The reality on the evening of October 19 was, if anything, more impressive: the Eleventh Kansas alone — about one-quarter of the available Union force — covered the Blunt's retreat.
Our next stand was on a ridge where we could see all around. The Johnnies were executing a flank movement on us and it was hurrying our boys to get through our lines and on ahead to their next stand.
Presently Company I was ordered to fall back in platoons. There was a large gate that had been opened nearly on top of a little rise for the artillery to go through. Along came a man with a howitzer on double quick; while there was plenty of room for him to get through, he couldn't do it; but just had to jam the tongue of the carriage against a gate post a foot square and split it up into splinters. Colonel Moonlight, who was nearby, ordered the officer in charge, Captain [James E. Greer of] Company I, to dismount a platoon of men and get 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 grabbed ahold of a wheel, while others got a hold anywhere they could to help the good work along. The old howitzer was moving right along up that hill, pretty good, when a shot from the rear came in and hit the trunion in such a manner that the lead was forced into fine little drops of spray. My arm just then was near the top of the wheel, so the underside of my arm was just peppered with red hot lead clear into the skin.
I jumped up into the air, don't know how far, whirled around and grabbed my trousers and then my arm; but when that lead was pulled out or rubbed loose it felt like cactus stickers into my flesh. I did not know how bad the wound was or how many times I had been shot. At least must have done a few record-breaking stunts in a very short time. For Colonel Moonlight laughed until his side ached am very sure; he seemed to be having the time of his life. "Did something hit you, Johnny? What in the world do you want to hop around like that for?" "Yes," I said, "something did hit me all right, my arm is full of little pieces of red-hot lead." "Does it hurt?" he said, and rode away laughing, and on, way in advance, I could still hear him laugh.
The last encounter of the day was a twilight skirmish at one of the crossings of Fire Prairie Creek, a site not now identifiable.
Our place this time was a rather hard one. We had to cut a new road through trees and brush as best we could and at that it was crooked, in the form of a big horseshoe. You see the Johnnies had burnt the bridge, just enough to let the end next to us fall down into the water, so that a part of the abutment had to be torn out and thrown into the creek, therefore the new road had to be built so as to get to water. All the troops had to go into the water then up the slanting floor of the bridge, it was the only way to cross in a short time. We expected a lively time there, if the Johnnies crowded us very hard. We were not disappointed.
Soon the men came crowding through there, but most of them had considerable of a time getting up the slanting floor of the bridge. It became wet in a little while causing horses' feet to slide back down and some of them fell and rolled down causing more trouble. It couldn't be helped, there was not enough time to do better. Most of our men managed to get through that crooked road in good time; but it was growing dark and still the road was yet 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 the commotion they made. They passed the word forward, "They are cutting the rear all to hell." Every soldier knows what that means. He does not have to be knocked [down] to understand.
Company I was ordered to line up just where our new road commenced on the left side of the road; and two companies were lined up on the right side of the road. It was dark and I do not know what two companies were lined up over there. ... Colonel Moonlight rode up and down in front of our company, begging us to hold our fire, and with each word 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, to see the real life being lived in a few minutes. Across the colonel went to the other two companies begging them like he had us to hold our fire. We didn't want to hold our fire, but it is well that we did, many thanks to the colonel.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Bluecoat and Pioneer"
Copyright © 2019 John Hart.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
List of Illustrations,
1. Under Moonlight in Missouri,
2. At Platte Bridge with Caspar Collins,
3. The Wells Fargo Mule Train,
4. Fort C. F. Smith,
5. The Hayfield Fight,
6. Into the Mountains,
7. The Mysterious Mail Carrier,
8. The Mountain Crow War Dance,
9. Two Dangerous Pranks,
10. Captured by the Cheyenne,
11. Lieutenant Colonel Bradley Asks a Favor,
12. Running Fight Carrying the Mail,
13. The Crow Annuities,
14. Last Days at Fort C. F. Smith,
Epilogue: The Box from Colorado, by Lawrence Hart,