A map of the battlefield at Newtonia on October 28, 1864. [State Historical Society of Missouri Map Collection, 850 P9311]
General James G. Blunt, in command of the First Division of the Army of the Border, pursued the retreating Confederate troops to Newtonia. [Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2018669676/]
General M. Jeff Thompson, in charge of the Confederate advance guard, took control of Newtonia and attempted to hold the town against the advancing Union forces while the rest of Sterling Price’s army continued its retreat. [State Historical Society of Missouri, Missouri Military Portraits Photograph Collection, P1197-012388]
General Samuel R. Curtis, commander of the Army of the Border, arrived midway through the battle. Within days his army would drive the Confederates out of Missouri. [Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-cwpb-06211]
A postwar photo of Richard A. Collins, who directed Confederate artillery fire during the battle. He later served in the Missouri state legislature. [State Historical Society of Missouri, Missouri General Assembly Portraits, P0217-018577]
The Union and Confederate lines at the start of the battle. [Courtesy of Larry E. Wood]
The Confederate charge. [Courtesy of Larry E. Wood]
The Union counterattack after the arrival of Sanborn’s brigade. [Courtesy of Larry E. Wood]

From the time Confederate forces were driven out of Missouri in early 1862, General Sterling Price, former commander of the Missouri State Guard, longed to reclaim the state for the South. Confederate authorities finally approved such an undertaking in 1864, and Price was given command of the expedition. 

Price’s mission to take back Missouri, however, went awry almost from the time he entered southeast Missouri on September 19. After encountering stiff resistance at the Battle of Pilot Knob on September 27, his army veered northwest instead of marching on St. Louis as Price had planned. After crossing the state to its western border, he met defeat again at the Battle of Westport on October 23 as Union forces closed in on his men. Fleeing down the Missouri-Kansas border, Price suffered another serious setback two days later in Kansas at the Battle of Mine Creek, which left his army in disarray. Originally estimated to be about twelve thousand strong, the Confederate force had dwindled to about eight thousand men, and Price had also lost much of his ordnance and equipment.

After Mine Creek, the Federals rested briefly in the Fort Scott area, allowing Price’s ragged army to continue its retreat south. General James G. Blunt, commanding the First Division of Samuel R. Curtis’s Army of the Border, resumed the chase on October 26, and the exhausted Confederates camped at Carthage, Missouri, that night. Price continued his flight late the next morning, and Blunt reached Carthage at about 1:30 that afternoon. His advance guard went into camp south of town just as the last of Price’s stragglers disappeared from view. 

Leading his Fourth Brigade, Blunt kept up the pursuit on October 28, as the flying Confederates retreated into Newton County. The Confederate advance under General M. Jeff Thompson of General Joseph O. Shelby’s division reached the town of Newtonia about midmorning and overran a small Union fort. Some of Thompson’s men chased after the fleeing Federals and killed the local Union commander, Lieutenant Robert Christian. Shelby’s division camped at the edge of some timber three miles south of town, while the rest of Price’s army continued farther south and went into camp near Big Spring, about six miles southeast of Newtonia.

At about 2 p.m., Blunt’s advance guard, under Colonel James H. Ford of the Second Colorado Cavalry, reached a ridge a few hundred yards west-northwest of Newtonia and saw the disposition of the Confederate forces below. The troops occupying the town and guarding its western approaches also noticed Ford, and they formed at the edge of a prairie near a cornfield to meet the Union advance. Ford posted his battery on the ridge, formed the rest of his troops in two lines to support the artillery, and began shelling the Confederate skirmish line.          

After the battery, commanded by Captain William D. McLain, opened fire, General Blunt came up to direct the battle and ordered a charge. The Union line started down the ridge, driving the Confederate skirmishers across the prairie in a southeasterly direction toward their camps at the edge of the woods. The Federals left the road and gave pursuit, with Blunt leading the charge.

Word passed quickly back through the Union ranks that the advance had overtaken the Confederates and a skirmish was under way. The First Brigade, including a section of howitzers under Sergeant George Patterson, raced forward to reinforce the Fourth Brigade and join the march across the prairie toward the Confederate camps. Meanwhile, the First Colorado Battery still commanded the ridge northwest of town. Blunt’s total force, consisting of two fragmented brigades, numbered between nine hundred and one thousand men.

The Confederates at the edge of the woods heard the roar of the Union guns, and the pickets rushed in with news that the bluecoats were advancing across the prairie. Two fields surrounded by rail fences lay between the woods and the advancing Federals, with a small lane running north and south between the two fields. The Confederates, consisting primarily of Shelby’s brigade (commanded by Thompson) and a second brigade from Shelby’s division under Colonel Sidney Jackman, hurried to reach the south fences by the time the Federals got into position behind the north fences. 

Both sides brought up their artillery as soon as they approached the fences enclosing the fields. McLain’s battery rumbled down from the elevation and unlimbered at the center of the Union line, and Patterson’s howitzers occupied the right. Meanwhile, Shelby sent two pieces of the Missouri Battery under Captain Richard Collins to take a position on the Confederate right.

The opposing armies reached the rail fences at about the same time; in the words of a Leavenworth (KS) Conservative correspondent, “The battle opened fierce and furious.” At first, it was strictly an artillery duel, because the combatants faced each other from opposite sides of the enclosed fields, at least five hundred yards away and out of range of small-arms fire. The artillery of the two armies boomed away at each other “in a perfect hail-storm,” fighting to a virtual draw for some time.

As the battle raged, Thompson sent messengers requesting reinforcements, but none were forthcoming. Price had already started his wagons and most of the rest of his army south at the first sound of the Union guns. It hardly mattered anyway, because Shelby’s brigade, sometimes called the Iron Brigade, was the only effective fighting force left in Price’s army. On more than one occasion during the Confederate retreat, Shelby’s brigade had saved the Southerners from complete destruction, and it was now called upon once again to cover the withdrawal, buying time for Price’s army to get farther south.

When Collins’s gunners finally softened up the Union line, Thompson ordered a charge. His men promptly jumped the rail fence and started across the field, while Jackman’s brigade stayed behind to protect the battery. Even though Thompson pressed forward with only the thinned ranks of Shelby’s brigade, the Confederate force still outnumbered the Federals who faced them. Opening fire with small arms when they were within range, the graycoats gradually pushed the Union men back. Thompson passed up the lane between the two fields on horseback, “directing the men to keep cool and go slow,” as he later recalled.

The Union line had fallen back several hundred yards by the time the Confederates reached the field’s north fence, and after only a moment’s pause, the Southerners leaped the second fence and resumed their steady march across the open prairie. The dismounted Confederates could not effectively charge the mounted Federals, but they slowly pushed them back with their superior numbers and threatened to flank them until a few well-placed artillery rounds from Patterson’s howitzers forced them to fall back momentarily.

Soon, however, the long Confederate line was again threatening the outnumbered Federals, and Blunt ordered the Colorado battery to fall back to a position near the cornfield west of Mathew Ritchey’s mansion. The hasty retreat of the battery caused a mild panic among the Union line, as some of the cavalry, seeing the artillery galloping to the rear, also started falling back. The Confederates pressed forward with renewed vigor when they saw the retreat. The Union officers finally stayed the stragglers as McLain’s artillery came into battery, and Blunt reformed his line in the face of what he called “a terrific fire.” A few hurried rounds from the Colorado guns not only halted the Confederates but once again drove them back, as the two sides alternately advanced and retreated.

Regrouping, the Confederates threw out a large force on the Union left and began to press forward yet again, “their fire telling fearfully upon our small force,” according to Colonel Ford. Some of the men of the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Kansas cavalries exhausted their ammunition, because Blunt’s hurried chase after Price had outrun the ammunition train. Still, according to one of the officers of the Fifteenth, the Kansans stood “under fire a long time without a cartridge to return the galling fire of the enemy.” 

As sundown neared, the Confederate force on the Union left threatened a flanking movement around and through Ritchey’s cornfield to completely encircle the Federals. Blunt was running low on ammunition and was unable to extend his small line to meet the threat. He instructed the Colorado battery to fall back to the foot of the ridge northwest of town and was about to order a general retreat when a brigade under General John B. Sanborn from the Second Division of Curtis’s army appeared atop the ridge. 

Arriving with Sanborn’s brigade, General Curtis saw some of the Union troops “hard pressed and giving way” and a number of stragglers retreating without orders. As Sanborn hurried forward to reinforce Blunt, Captain McLain immediately turned his guns on the Confederates. Seeing the fortunate turn of events, the slackers faced about and dashed back to the field with a shout.

Blunt immediately placed Sanborn’s brigade on his left with orders to advance through the cornfield to meet the Confederate flanking column. Because the field, like much of Ritchey’s estate, was surrounded by stone walls, Sanborn dismounted his troops and ordered them forward on foot. Sanborn’s brigade advanced steadily through the field, and the Union right, reinvigorated by the timely arrival of reinforcements, also pressed forward. At the same time, a section of artillery attached to Sanborn’s command opened fire on the Confederate center.

General Thompson had brought up his battery to support his line as it advanced across the prairie, but now, as the bluecoats marched forward, he withdrew the artillery. When the Union advance got within range and fired two or three volleys in quick succession, the Confederate cavalry also began to retire, and a jubilant cheer went up among the Northern ranks. The rejuvenated Union line pursued the retreating Confederates for some distance across the prairie toward the woods before calling off the chase. 

Both sides claimed victory, but the fact remains that the Southerners left the field in Union hands, abandoning some of their dead and wounded. Thompson and Shelby had stalled the Federal pursuit long enough, however, to let the rest of Price’s army move off unmolested. The Federals stayed on the battlefield until after dark and then retired to Newtonia to spend the night. Meanwhile, Shelby lingered in the woods south of town until about midnight; he then retreated along the Pineville road to catch up with the rest of the Confederate train, leaving a detachment behind to watch the Union movements.

The number of casualties at Second Newtonia was approximately equal on each side. Some estimates have placed the combined total as high as 650, but this is almost surely a considerable overstatement. The best estimate of Union losses is about 115 killed, wounded, and missing. The aggregate of Confederate losses is less certain, since none of the Confederate commanders who filed after-action reports gave any indication of the number of casualties. However, most Union estimates placed the number at two hundred or less, and even that figure is likely an exaggeration.

After a belated start because of the withdrawal of the Second Division, General Curtis, with Blunt’s fragmented First Division and some troops who were called back from the Second, finally started after Price again on the morning of October 30 and ultimately drove the Confederates out of Missouri and into Arkansas, where Price’s army disintegrated. Continuing south, Price reached Bonham, Texas, on November 23 with what remained of his command. His great raid into Missouri had ended in utter failure, and the Second Battle of Newtonia would stand as the state’s last significant military engagement. After Price’s raid, the war in Missouri was reduced to occasional skirmishing and raiding by guerrilla bands.

Further Reading

Collins, Charles D., Jr. Battlefield Atlas of Price’s Missouri Expedition of 1864. Fort Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute, US Army Combined Arms Center, 2016. 

Lause, Mark A. The Collapse of Price’s Raid: The Beginning of the End in Civil War Missouri. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2016.

Sinisi, Kyle S. The Last Hurrah: Sterling Price’s Missouri Expedition of 1864. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.

Wood, Larry E. The Two Civil War Battles of Newtonia. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2010.

Published May 15, 2024; Last updated May 16, 2024

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