Battle of Westport a haunting omission from Annals of Platte County

During the past year, Citizen columnist Bill Graham has penned numerous columns in recognition of the 150 year anniversary of the Civil War in Platte County. Following is another piece in the series.

The mood must have been very somber in many Platte County households 150 years ago this week.

Word of the Battle of Westport that raged through Jackson County the week before would be in the newspapers. Bushwhackers hiding from Union troops likely brought first- or second-hand accounts to farm houses, riding out of the brush at night to visit southern-leaning family or friends.

The Border Times newspaper said two-thirds of Platte County families were disloyal to the Union, historian W.M. Paxton wrote in his “Annals of Platte County.” People passionate for both sides — and many just trying to stay neutral and alive — were in the county, but clearly much of the population leaned south.

And in late October, 1864, the South’s last hope for taking Missouri was whipped and routed by Union troops in a fight along or near Brush Creek in what would become Kansas City.

Platte County was already drained from the war: men killed in cold blood by both sides, families fleeing a border war, troops burning houses and towns to root out southern sympathizers, bushwhackers seeking revenge.

Probably county men from both sides fought at Westport. Certainly, there were those on the southern side, or Bushwhackers, trying to support the southern army. Now for those favoring the South, an already grim war grew grimmer.

Oddly, our good friend Mr. Paxton, who watched Platte City be burned twice by Union troops, said nothing about this battle in his Annals. He only mentioned once what was considered an invading or liberating southern army, depending on your point of view.

“Gen. S. Price, with a strong force, is near Jefferson City,” he wrote for the date Oct. 3, 1864. That’s his only reference. Maybe Paxton didn’t know the full extent, as history sometimes takes awhile to be fully fleshed out after it happens. Maybe it was because the fighting was not here. He may have been indignant that Missouri and his county’s war history was not addressed well in the national literature in the decades after the war. His Annals was first published in 1897.

But Confederate Gen. Sterling S. Price’s raid into Missouri with a large southern army was in the news a lot that summer and fall.

Price had intended to take Jefferson City and incite families to rise up and retake the state for the South in a cause that was waning nationally. Instead, he veered across the state in a series of battles and skirmishes that culminated in what came to be called the Battle of Westport.

And afterwards a string of running fights ensued through western Kansas and southern Missouri as Price’s army limped back toward Texas for the winter.

Paxton the lawyer, keen observer and journal keeper surely knew all this. Some readers of the Annals have said he secretly leaned against slavery’s injustices and toward the Union, although he clearly despised murder and injustice from any quarter. He maintained an appearance of neutrality throughout the war that, along with his Masonic status, kept him alive.

This is my opinion, too.

I suspect the Battle of Westport is not in his book because the war’s bitterness was so intense, he wished to maintain that appearance of neutrality to the end. That the end of the Confederate cause was so apparent after the battle would make dwelling on the fighting and outcomes in the book a nod to the North.

Paxton certainly minced no words about the war’s fighting and death within the county.

Union troops had a brush with bushwhackers and wounded one on Aug. 16, 1864, he wrote. Union Calvary chased feared bushwhacker Si Gordon and five of his men on Aug. 18 but failed to capture them.

Dr. Joseph Walker was among those who in the 1850s had threatened to kill any northern Methodist preaching in Platte. Rev. Charles Morris was eventually killed in the border bloodshed over slavery before the war. One of Morris’ sons came north in August, 1864, seeking revenge for his father. He led an execution of Walker and “the tragedy produced consternation in the county,” Paxton wrote.

On Sept. 18, 1864, Paxton wrote that the estate was administered in court for Thomas L. Thomas, who was killed for his southern sympathies. That same month David Gregg was “met in the road by a squad of Col. Jennison’s (Union) men, and questioned upon his sympathies. He avowed his leaning to the South, thereupon they shot him, and left him where he fell. He was an old and highly esteemed farmer.

Paxton praised a poem that appeared in the Border Times called “Peace At Any Price.” That was a few days before Bloody Bill Anderson led the killing of 21 Federal soldiers in central Missouri.

October came and Paxton noted that “the condition of the county is deplorable: business is suspended, stores are closed, we have to go to Leavenworth for daily supplies, and men apprehend confiscation, banishment, or the draft.”

Paxton noted little else for that month. His omission of the Battle of Westport is strange. Maybe ghosts of the war still haunted.

Bill Graham, who lives in the Platte City area with his family, may be reached by e-mail at