Tag Archives: Kansas

Mine Creek Battlefield State Historic Site, home of one of the least-known battles of the Civil War

The most fascinating thing about the Battle of Mine Creek is how little your average Kansan knows about it. It was one of the most important cavalry battles of the Civil War. It marked the end of the South’s last major campaign west of the Mississippi River.

Ask Kansans to rattle off important Kansas people or Kansas events connected to the Civil War, the list will probably be limited to William Quantrill, John Brown, the Lawrence Massacre, James Lane, and Bloody Bill Anderson.

Yet if you ask them about the day that brought nearly 10,000 men to a Kansas field and left more than 600 of them dead or wounded, they’ll probably look at you in bewilderment.

Welcome to the Battle of Mine Creek.

Here is a simplified version of events:

By late 1864, the War Between the States was shifting in favor of the Union. Fearful that the reelection of President Abraham Lincoln would lead to the South’s defeat, they CSA decided that if they could recapture a Union state and seat a Confederate governor, they might be able to change the outcome of the election and the war.

When most people think of border war states, they think of Kansas. But by the time the Civil War was underway, Kansas had pretty much settled on being a Union anti-slavery state, even if all of it’s residents didn’t agree. Missouri, on the other hand, was much more on the fence. Many of the pro-slavery people who fled from the sometimes-dangerously enthusiastic Kansas abolitionists ended up in Missouri, and though Missouri technically fought for the Union, many of its citizens owned slaves and sympathized with the Southern cause.

Enter Maj. Gen. Sterling Price.

In an effort to gain control of Missouri, Price was given this to-do list:

  • Conquer St. Louis, the most abolitionist of Missouri cities.
  • If that’s not possible, take over Jefferson City, and while there, seat a new governor.
  • If that’s not possible, smack down the areas around Kansas City.
  • If all that fails, destroy as much of Kansas as possible on the return trip.

While he was on his march across Missouri, he was to accumulate additional men and commandeer supplies. So began what was to be known as Price’s Raid.

By the middle of October, things were not going too well for Price’s men. St. Louis was too heavily fortified, as was Jefferson City. So they continued marching west, successfully adding men to the ranks and filling wagons with supplies, weapons, and ammunition. When the reached what now the Kansas City metro area, they were forced into retreat at what would be called the Gettysburg of the West: the Battle of Westport.

Missouri was lost, but Price and his men still had one item on the list they could accomplish: do damage to Kansas.

The Kansans, though, were ready. In October, the governor called the Kansas militia into service, and Gen. Samuel Curtis declared the state was under martial law. The Union was in hot pursuit of Price.

Meanwhile, Price and his men was storming through Kansas along the road to Fort Scott. That’s when the weather and geography sealed their fate. Heavy rains had filled the Marais des Cygnes River and Mine Creek. The ground was soft and muddy and both waterways were hard to cross. The men on foot could have managed, but the problem was the wagons and horses. By that time, Price’s men had amassed a fortune in ammunition, weapons, and other supplies, enough to form an entire wagon train–a slow-moving, frequently-stuck-in-the-mud wagon train. Price and many of his men rode ahead, but the wagons and the men guarding them found themselves in the bottom of a ravine trying to cross a swollen creek at a small rocky ford when the Union men caught up with them.

A view from the rocky ford in Mine Creek. Slowed down by heavy wagons sinking in the mud, Price's men were trapped when the Union cavalry arrived.

A view from the rocky ford in Mine Creek. Slowed down by heavy wagons sinking in the mud, Price’s men were trapped when the Union cavalry arrived.

In a field that rarely saw humans moving through it, about 10,000 men clashed with cannons, swords, rifles, and guns on October 25, 1864. The Confederates outnumbered the Union men nearly three to one, but the Northerners had higher ground and better weapons on their side, and by the time it was over, nearly 1,200 of Price’s men would be wounded, captured, or killed. The women from the nearby farm houses were tasked with caring for the injured and dying men. The dead were piled into a ravine and buried, and the smell of death lingered long after the battle was over.

Looking south at the Mine Creek Battlefield site. The land has been returned to native prairie, recreating how it would have appeared to men who fought there in 1864.

Looking south at the Mine Creek Battlefield site. The land has been returned to native prairie, recreating how it would have appeared to men who fought there in 1864.

It was an amazing defeat. Soon after, those very wagons were set ablaze so that they couldn’t be confiscated by the Union or further hold back the retreating men.

What amazes me about the Battle of Mine Creek is the fact that all we know about it is what was recounted in the letters and journals of the men who were there. The battle didn’t even have a proper name, because it didn’t happen in a town; it happened in a field with only a few farmhouses in the area. There were no reporters or photographers nearby. Yet it ended Price’s efforts to destroy Kansas.

Fortunately for us, the battlefield isn’t in an area where it was paved over and planted with houses before anyone realized they’d destroyed a piece of history. The Mine Creek Battlefield State Historic Site has preserved the land (even though their original land acquisition turned out to be west of the actual battlefield). The land has been returned to native prairie, making it look and feel much more like it would have 150 years ago. Mowed paths walk you through the battlefield, and kiosks highlight important elements of the battle. You can see for yourself where Price’s men found themselves trapped trying to cross the rocky ford on Mine Creek.

Get oriented at the historic site's museum, where you can watch a video detailing the history of the battle, see evidence of the battle recovered by archeologists, and study maps of the battlefield.

Get oriented at the historic site’s museum, where you can watch a video detailing the history of the battle, see evidence of the battle recovered by archeologists, and study maps of the battlefield.

But before you tackle the battlefield, I recommend visiting the museum itself. The 45-minute video, which originally aired on the History Channel, will orient you to the finer points of the battle (much of which I glossed over here). Artifacts collected by archeologists are thoughtfully interpreted and displayed. One of our favorite objects was a binder explaining the archeological process that helped determine the actual location of the Fort Scott road and the battlefield. Give yourself at least 90 minutes at the museum to really take in the information and ask questions.

Mine Creek Battlefield Sharps Carbine Bullets

One display shows the various types of ammunition found by archeologists on the site of the Battle of Mine Creek.

Then hit the trails, which are easy enough to follow (it’s pretty easy to see a trail when the grass is six feet tall on either side of a mowed path). Amazingly, we only confused ourselves when we tried to follow the trail map, which did not accurately represent the trails. If you go before a hard freeze, douse yourself in bug spray.

Well-maintained trails through the grasses and woody area by the creek are dotted with kiosks that tell the story of the Battle of Mine Creek. Bug spray is a good idea if you visit during the spring, summer, or fall before a hard freeze.

Well-maintained trails through the grasses and woody area by the creek are dotted with kiosks that tell the story of the Battle of Mine Creek. Bug spray is a good idea if you visit during the spring, summer, or fall before a hard freeze.

The battlefield land is quiet, save for the sound of insects and the wind blowing through the grasses and trees. It is easy to forget the present day, and as you look north up the hill from the creek, you can lose yourself in the moment and imagine what it must have been like for those Confederate soldiers, who were trapped by their wagons, as they watched the Union soldiers ride over the hill.

***

The battlefield trails and interpretive kiosks are open all year long from dawn to dusk. However, the museum is only open from April through October. If you’re traveling far to visit, consider spend the entire day in the area and visit the Marais des Cygnes Massacre Site  and the town and cemetery of Trading Post for a more complete understanding of how the area was repeatedly assaulted in the times leading up to and including the Civil War.

Sunday Snapshot: A Cow in a Field

I’m not sure how it happened, but I’ve managed to not post anything for almost a month, even though I have a whole bunch of things I can write about.

Here is a picture of a cow to tide things over.

We met on a minimum maintenance road somewhere in southeastern Franklin County. When we stopped to inspect a section of muddy road, this cow came by to say hello.

We met on a minimum maintenance road.

We met on a minimum maintenance road.

Sunday Snapshots: A walk on the prairie

Our weather station reported that today’s temperature reached 102.3 degrees. The air is thick with humidity, yet the ground is so dry the grass is brown and even the weeds are losing the will to live. But two weeks ago, parts of Kansas were blessed with heavy rains and mild temperatures, and Jim and I found ourselves at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve

The movement of clouds create ever-shifting light and shadows on the prairie.

The TPNP is quintessential Kansas, one of the few places where you can experience giant views of native prairie. In addition to the original homestead and school, the park includes bison that graze in the pastures, and nearly 40 miles of hiking trails weave through acres of grasses and prairie flowers. The trails are open 24/7/365, and the lighting around the visitor center is thoughtfully designed to minimize impact on the night sky, making it a perfect place for stargazers and photographers.

Southwind Nature Trail.

Following Jim along the Southwind Nature Trail.

Because we didn’t have a lot of time that day, a park ranger recommended that we follow the Southwind Nature Trail and the spur to Lower Fox Creek School, a total of less than three miles of walking. Yet in such a short hike, we climbed hills, crossed a creek, spotted butterflies, and were surrounded by cheerful birdsong. It was good for the soul.

Wide Open Spaces

Sunday Snapshot: Shoaf Monument at Union Cemetery

The twin columns of the Shoaf monument at Union Cemetery in Douglas County, Kansas.

The twin columns of the Shoaf monument at Union Cemetery in Douglas County, Kansas.

We were on our way home from a weekend drive–the storm clouds to the east of this monument would eventually produce a tornado near Atchison, Kansas–when we spotted this unique monument. Twin columns, twin urns.

Twins. Lost.

The epitaph for Ulles Uriar Shoaf (April 17, 1866–October 26, 1882) and Susan Marria Shoaf (April 17, 1866–November 20, 1882), reads:

They were lovely and pleasant in their lives.
By death they were not long divided.
Twin Son & Daughter of
Solomon & Margaret
Shoaf

Appanoose Museum in Franklin County

JIm and I first noticed this charming school building on one of our weekend wanderings not long after moving to Franklin County a couple of years ago. It was only recently, though, that we discovered the building is still in use as a museum and community center.

Appanoose School continues to serve as a community center and museum.

Appanoose School continues to serve as a community center and museum.

The first thing we learned: this is not the original school building. The first school, designed by Ottawa’s own George P. Washburn, was built in 1919 and burned down in 1934. The current building is the second building, which was used as a high school until 1963, when the high school consolidated with Pomona. In its history, the building has also served as an elementary school and, at one point, the school taught kids from first through twelfth grade.

The original Appanoose High School, which burned down in 1934.

The original Appanoose High School, which burned down in 1934.

Today, the building serves as a community gathering place, a small free lending library, and a storage space for the new elementary school. The gymnasium floor is maintained and often used for practice. But Jim and I were there to see the museum, which is open on Sunday afternoons from Memorial Day through Labor Day. This is truly a grassroots museum, a collection pulled together by a group of local history enthusiasts who wanted to preserve the story of Appanoose.

Appanoose was never a town, but rather a rural community. The museum shares the story of those who were brought together by Appanoose School, as well as the small surrounding communities, some of which only exist today in a church or cemetery name, like Richter and Greenwood. Displays also showcase rural life in the early 1900s.

A model of the Richter General Store.

A model of the Richter General Store.

Though not high-tech by any means, the displays are thoughtfully and cheerfully laid out, and despite having lived in Franklin County for more than two years now, I realized I still had a lot to learn about some of the smaller communities in the county’s history.

I was particularly charmed by a room filled with technological odds and ends, including a wonderful set of old typewriters and a telephone operator switchboard.

A telephone switchboard that was once in use in Franklin County.

A telephone switchboard that was once in use in Franklin County.

The museum also honors area veterans, and there are several displays about the local men and women from the Appanoose community who have served. There is also detailed display about James O. Baxter, a Pomona man who was shot down over Germany during the Battle of the Bulge, but whose remains were not recovered until 1999.

Admission to the museum is free, though donations are appreciated. The volunteers are truly interested in local history and are happy to answer questions. The museum is worth a look, and it’s a lovely introduction to the history of the northwest corner of Franklin County.

Sunday Snapshot: In the setting sun at St. Philippine Duchesne Memorial Park

I’m writing more about St. Philippine Duchesne Memorial Park later this month. In the meanwhile, here’s one of my favorite photographs of the plant life there, shot in the warm glow of the setting sun.

It looks a little like chamomile, but I think it's Daisy Fleabane.

It looks a little like chamomile, but I think it’s Daisy Fleabane.

Sunday Snapshot: Sharp-Morrison Cemetery

Sharp-Morrison Cemetery in Linn County, Kansas

Sharp-Morrison Cemetery in Linn County, Kansas.

It’s known as the Sharp-Morrison Cemetery, because the larger monument belongs to George J. Sharp (1809-1873) and the smaller one belongs to George J. Morrison (1871-1879). They are alone at the edge of a field, not far from where No. 15 School once stood, shielded by the ghost of a tree gone nearly as long as the two Georges.