August 7, 2012

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Preserving Sacred Ground

Ritchey estate at Newtonia battlegrounds

520 Mill Street, Newtonia, Missouri



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    According to Tom Higdon, treasurer of the protection association, the First Battle of Newtonia on September 30, 1862, is thought to be the only engagement of the Civil War in which American Indian units of regimental strength fought on opposite sides. The Second Battle of Newtonia on October 28, 1864, is considered the last significant battle west of the Mississippi.

    In the summer of 1862, Confederate leaders determined to reestablish a presence in Missouri after having virtually abandoned the state a few months earlier following the decisive Battle of Pea Ridge. Col. Jo Shelby and his newly formed Missouri Brigade marched into southwest Missouri in early September and drove the Federal forces from Newtonia on September 13.

    On September 27, Col. Douglas Cooper with his Confederate Indian brigade joined Shelby at his camp south of Newtonia. Cooper took charge of overall Confederate operations in southwest Missouri and sent two officers to set up an outpost at Newtonia.

    Alarmed by the Confederate forays into the region, Federal officials started concentrating their forces around Sarcoxie to counter the Southern activity. On September 29, a Union scouting party under Col. Edward Lynde went out from Sarcoxie and skirmished briefly with the Southern soldiers at Newtonia before falling back when he realized he was outnumbered.

    Reinforcements arrived, and the First Battle of Newtonia began in earnest the next day. Shortly after daylight on September 30, the bolstered Union force drove the Confederate sentries a mile north of Newtonia and began shelling the town with artillery from long distance. The Confederates fell back and took shelter in a stone barn and behind a stone wall at the Matthew Ritchey estate at Newtonia. Federal soldiers kept up their cannonade and continued advancing until they were within a few hundred yards of the Rebels’ positions, at which point the besieged Confederates finally dug in and repulsed the Union advance with what Colonel Lynde called “a perfect stream of fire.”

    Colonel Cooper arrived with fresh troops and chased the fleeing Federals for three miles before dropping back to Newtonia. The arrival of additional Union reinforcements a few hours later prompted the Federals to advance on the town again and renew their cannonading. The lively exchange of fire between the two sides moved one Union soldier to describe the battle as “a beautiful sight, with just enough excitement to give it a ‘delicious flavor.’ ” The Confederates repulsed the attack, however, and once again drove the Federals from the field as darkness fell. After the Confederate victory at the First Battle of Newtonia, Colonel Cooper reported his casualties at twelve killed, sixty-three wounded, and three missing. Exact figures for the Union are unknown, though the Federal loss is thought to be considerably greater.

    The Second Battle of Newtonia happened at the end of the Confederate army’s failed invasion of Missouri in the fall of 1864 as the Rebels, with Brigadier General Shelby’s brigade in advance, were retreating from the state after their decisive defeat at Westport.

    On the afternoon of October 28, Shelby’s men routed a small Federal detachment stationed at Newtonia and then went into camp just south of town, while the rest of the Confederate army continued farther south. As Shelby’s men were still settling into camp, General James G. Blunt, leading the Federal pursuit, arrived on the scene and deployed his forces in a line across the prairie facing the rebels. With two intervening fences, both sides dismounted and started firing as they marched toward each other.

    Despite heavy artillery from the Federals, the Confederates crossed the first fence and began pressing Blunt’s outnumbered troops, who remounted and dropped back. The Rebels, though, crossed the second fence and continued their advance. Blunt’s line was about to give way when Union reinforcements arrived late in the afternoon, enabling the Federals to make a stand and repulse the Confederate attack.

    The Union cavalry made a halfhearted pursuit before returning to Newtonia, while the Rebels retreated south. Both sides claimed victory at the Second Battle of Newtonia, and the action was a stalemate in terms of casualties (about a dozen killed and approximately a hundred wounded or missing on each side). It is usually considered a Federal victory, though, since the Confederates left the battlefield in Union hands.

    The Newtonia Battlefields Protection Association Inc., was formed in 1994. In 2002, the group acquired the Ritchey home and surrounding grounds. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, the 1850s mansion served as a headquarters and hospital for the two armies during the battles of Newtonia and has been the centerpiece of the preservation effort. In addition to restoring the Ritchey mansion, the protection group oversees approximately twenty-five acres, including the old Newtonia Cemetery, where soldiers killed during the two battles were buried.

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