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What Happened To The Dead Soldiers In The Battle Of Westport?

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Above image credit: This sign, part of the Battle of Westport walking tour in Loose Park, references the mass graves from the battle. (Mike Sherry | Flatland)

During one of her periodic walks through Loose Park on a nice day this winter, Kelly Akers came across a sign she had not noticed before about the Battle of Westport. Part of the self-guided tour of the battlefield, the marker mentioned mass graves, including one near 55th Street and Ward Parkway.

Akers, of Overland Park, Kansas, wondered whether there was still a mass grave somewhere near the park, preferably not under her feet. So, she turned to curiousKC for an answer. We were a little spooked, but decided to see what we could … uh … dig up.

The Battle of Westport, fought in October 1864, has been termed “the Gettysburg of the West.” It was the largest and last full-scale battle west of the Mississippi River, and in Missouri, during the Civil War.

The battle — which involved about 32,000 troops and resulted in around 3,000 casualties — occurred amidst the border war between slave-holding Missouri and free-state Kansas. The Union forces routed Gen. Sterling Price and his Confederate soldiers in a three-day battle.

Maj.-Gen. Sterling Price (Missouri Valley Special Collections)

The Confederates turned tail so quickly that they could not collect their dead and wounded, according to “The Battle of Westport,” a book by Paul Kirkman. Union dead also remained on the battlefield. Some of the bodies were recognizable only by their uniforms and dog tags.

Fearing the spread of disease from rotting corpses, farmers buried the dead temporarily until relatives could, hopefully, identify the soldiers and give them a proper burial.

The unclaimed Confederate soldiers were moved to unmarked graves in Forest Hill Cemetery, which is now located at 6901 Troost Ave. in Kansas City. Because Union losses were limited, historians say all their dead were ultimately retrieved by loved ones.

Homes around the city served as makeshift hospitals for the wounded from both sides. One of the residences used was the family home of John Wornall, who farmed about 500 acres and sold his crops to wagon trains heading west on the Santa Fe and Oregon trails.

It is said that the amputation pile was up to the second-story window of the Wornall House. A few years back, bones were found near the house and a test was done to see whether they were human remains. It turned out to be a horse, but it made for an exciting time.

Price Raid
This painting by Samuel J. Reader depicts the second regiment Kansas State Militia, prisoners of war on their way to ‘Camp Ford’ prison pen, near Tyler, Texas. (Contributed | Kansas Historical Society)

Akers loved learning about such a significant battle. She is a history buff and was blown away to discover that such an important Civil War engagement occurred so close to the Westport of today.

As it turned out, the sign on the self-guided tour alluded only to the temporary mass graves that existed right after the battle. Akers was relieved to find out she was not strolling over the bones of long-deceased soldiers.

To learn more about the Battle of Westport, visit the visitor center and museum, or take yourself on the self-guided auto tour through Kansas City.

Claire Bradshaw completed this project as part of a convergence journalism class at the University of Missouri-Columbia

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