The Battle of Marais des Cygnes took place on October 25, 1864, in Linn County, Kansas during Price’s Missouri Raid in the American Civil War. It is also called the Battle of Osage, or the Battle of Trading Post. It proved to be the first of three interconnected actions on this same day, all involving elements of Major General Sterling Price’s Confederate Army of Missouri, and the Union’s Provisional Cavalry Division commanded by Major General Alfred Pleasonton.
During this battle, two brigades of Pleasonton’s cavalry, one under Colonels John F. Philips and the other under Frederick Benteen, caught up with Price’s rear guard at Trading Post, Kansas. Price’s army covered the crossing of the Marais des Cygnes River with a Southern supply train. Though unable to prevent the crossing or inflict serious damage on Confederate forces, Pleasonton’s troopers did manage to capture prisoners and artillery, forcing Price to continue his retreat. This led in turn to a second engagement at Mine Creek later that morning, followed by a final battle at Marmiton River in the afternoon. The three Union victories won on this day sealed the fate of Price’s campaign.
During the American Civil War, the Confederate authorities were looking for an edge in the upcoming U.S. presidential election of 1864. Due to this, they decided to attempt to take over the territory of Missouri to help persuade the people of the North to vote against current President, Abraham Lincoln. With Missouri as a Confederate territory, they were convinced it would give them the advantage in winning the war. With commands from Lt. Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith, Sterling Price assembled an army to take on this challenge. After this, he lost his infantry units to reassignment, and was forced to create a cavalry for the raid.
Price then led an expedition into Missouri seeking to capture that state for the Confederacy, or at least to negatively affect Abraham Lincoln’s chances for re-election in 1864. Price moved up through the state winning battles along the way, until he was halted by Union troops at the Battle of Westport, near modern day Kansas City, Missouri. Price’s army was defeated by Union forces under the command of Major Generals Samuel R. Curtis and Alfred Pleasonton. Price began to quickly withdraw south toward his base in Arkansas. Meanwhile Pleasonton, commanding a Union cavalry division, pursued him into Kansas hoping to capture or destroy his army before he could reach Confederate territory. This led to the three battles on October 25 that destroyed Price’s cavalry, and led to his evacuation of Kansas. The three battles were the Battle of Marais des Cynges, the Battle of Mine Creek, and the Battle of Marmiton River.
After the defeat at Westport, General Price’s retreating army was hampered by the presence of a rather large supply train, containing upwards of 500 wagons partly filled with desperately needed war supplies for the South. On October 24, Price and his cavalry set up camp next the Marais des Cygnes River near Trading Post. The weather that night was terrible with rain and cold temperatures. Pleasonton’s cavalry was closing in on Price, and knew that he had set up camp in the area. Pleasonton sent out two brigades to overtake Price. The First Brigade, under the command of Colonel John Philips consisted of three regiments of Missouri State Militia and totaled 1,500 men. The Second Brigade under Lt. Colonel Frederick Benteen included regiments from Iowa, Missouri and two companies from the 7th Indiana. During the next foggy morning, around 4am, Pleasonton’s army fired artillery, and after these were fired, Pleasonton’s men attacked the camp.
This caused Price to order his troops to cross the river immediately, leaving Brigadier General James Fagan to take on the Union troops while Price evacuated the supply train. According to one account, the Confederates abandoned their camp so rapidly that attacking Union cavalrymen came upon campfires with meat still cooking on spits above them. Another account of the battle stated that the rifle fire from both sides was mostly ineffective because of the fog. Confederate fire was also affected by the height that they were shooting from, being positioned on a high-ridge about two-hundred feet above the Union troops. Casualties are unknown, but it is known that there were not very many. Despite the fact the Union troops were not able to prevent Price from crossing the river and escaping momentarily, Union troops captured about 100 Confederate men, and two cannons. After this battle, the Union troops continued to pursue Price’s army, but they were delayed due to the rain and the swollen condition of the river.
After the Union victory at Marais des Cygnes, the Union forces continued to follow Price on his attempt to retreat to Confederate territory. About six miles south of the battle site on the Marais des Cygnes, Phillips and Benteen and their cavalry brigades caught up to Price’s wagon train as it struggled to cross Mine Creek. The resulting Battle of Mine Creek, would turn out to be one of the largest, if not the largest cavalry engagements of the entire Civil War, and resulted in the capture of two Confederate Generals, the death of another Confederate General, and the capture of hundreds of Confederate troops. The Union troops also caused the Confederates to leave behind much of the supply train that they were moving.
After the altercation at Mine Creek, Price and his officers attempted to rally their troops where a river was blocking their escape plan. Here, at Marimton River, Union troops under the command of Brigadier General John McNeil attacked Price and the Confederate troops. Many of the Union troops were unarmed, and McNeil was unsure of the exact size of Price’s troops, and after a few hours of skirmishing, McNeil decided they couldn’t effectively pursue the remaining Confederate troops, and ceased the attack.
This ended the Union pursuit of Price’s army, he found his way back to Arkansas. His orders and plans to overtake Missouri for the Confederacy had ended. He had not only failed his mission, but it resulted in a large loss of men. This raid lasted about one month, but never truly had a chance.
Little girl lost
William Forse Scott, a Union participant in the battle, wrote in The Story of a Cavalry Regiment: the Career of the Fourth Iowa Veteran Volunteers about an encounter that the men had with a young girl. They were moving over the crest that they had just driven the Confederate troops from during the Battle of Marais des Cygnes. As two men were moving forward and heard a cry coming from near them, they then heard a second cry and began to look around.
When they found where the cry was coming from, they found a small girl lying close to a rock. They stated that the girl could not have been more than six years old. They were far from the closest road, and no houses were in sight. When asked, the young girl confirmed that she could find her way home if they got her to the road, and one Union man went back with her and made sure that she reached a house that was occupied. After making sure the girl would be helped, the man made his way back.
The rest of the troops descended from the crest, and on their way down they noticed a school-house nearby. It is assumed that she must have been there the day before, and because the Confederate troops were occupying the nearest road with their supply train, she must have tried to avoid them and become lost on the hill on the way. This would mean that she was fast asleep when the Union troops attacked. She had lain between the two cavalries and not been harmed during the battle.