(originally published 1/31/19)
Despite its sobriquet as “The Gettysburg of the West,” the story of the Battle of Westport remains largely unknown, even locally. Likely if you’ve heard of it you understandably assume it took place in Westport, which it didn’t. If you know a bit more, you know its signature battle took place around today’s Loose Park. What is not as well known is that some of the skirmishes that comprise the larger Battle of Westport took place along Wornall Road, and into Waldo. This piece is revised from a feature in my 2012 book, The Waldo Story: Home of Friendly Merchants.
By 1864, the declining Confederacy was looking to the west for a much needed boost –the chance to claim fresh supplies, gain a swift victory or two, and try to shift public opinion. Western Missouri seemed the best opportunity. The job fell to General Sterling Price, whose original directive was to take command of St. Louis. He never made it. His troops, a mix of battle weary veterans and recaptured deserters lacked either the skills or the stamina for conquest. As Price moved west, they skirmished with Union troops but never bested them. They managed to add supplies to their stores, but with each new encounter, the troops grew wearier and the supply wagons grew heavier. At Sedalia and Lexington, Price finally scored victories, though he could not secure either town for long.
On October 21st, 1864, Price crossed the Little Blue River and took Independence, then the seat of Jackson County. Westport was his next target. Word of the Confederate advance had reached Westport days earlier, resulting in a frenzy of worry and preparation for the settlers south of Westport – including those in the Waldo area. But the news gave the Union time to prepare. When Price reached the eastern bank of the Blue River, the Union army waited for them on the other side.
Despite the fact that Price’s Army was on its third consecutive day of fighting, it prevailed in the first clash with the Union troops. From there, the Confederates moved southwest, along Town Fork Creek, to a site near today’s 79th Street and Holmes Road. This was the farm of the Mockbee family, one of the area’s large landholders. There, the two sides met in what Paul Kirkman describes in his book, The Battle of Westport as “some of the most intense fighting of the day.” The Rebel cavalry was pitted against the Kansas Militia, armed with a 24-pound howitzer cannon. When the rebels grew tired of the cannon blowing holes into their ranks, they mounted a full-on cavalry charge accompanied by the famed “rebel yell.” The tactic worked. The assault claimed one hundred souls on the Union side. The Confederates followed the Union troops as they retreated north along Wornall Lane (Wornall Road).
The battle started early on a frosty Sunday morning, October 23, 1864. The Union forces held the area between Brush Creek and Westport, and fought from the creek’s north side. The Confederacy controlled everything south of the creek, including the homestead of John Wornall, which was commandeered as a hospital. Later in the day, when the tide was turning against the Confederate Army, it evacuated the house and started its retreat down Wornall Lane, Now it was the Union Army that commandeered the Wornall house as a hospital. The Wornall House history records that once the fighting had finally left the Wornall property, there were mounds of amputated limbs in the yard, naked of any sign of which side their former owners had served.
The fleeing Confederate army continued south, taking up positions as it could to try to mount another attack and reverse the momentum. They made a final defense along today’s Gregory Boulevard (71st Street), in a flank that ran at least from the state line east to what is now Troost Avenue, using stone walls of farms as their barricades. The effort was to no avail. South of Gregory Boulevard, the Confederacy was in full retreat, and the Union was in full pursuit.
The battle consumed the entire day. It was not a swift exodus for either side, dragging the heavy artillery, bearing the wounded and dead. The long columns of men and machinery took hours to move south through the area. When it was over, the farm families south of Westport felt the relief of the battle’s conclusion, and the horror of what it left in its wake. The countryside was littered with shell-ridden houses, broken wagons, dead horses, and dead and dying men. The women in the area took to nursing the wounded regardless of their uniform, and men turned their farms into cemeteries, as the dead of all species were hastily buried before contagion set in. No wonder that for a time “Wornall Lane” came to be known as “Bloody Lane.”
(Photo credit: “Shelby and his Men at Westport,” Andy Thomas, Carthage, Missouri artist. andythomas.com)