Citizen soldiers have been the mainstay of the American military since the Revolutionary War. While each state had a small organized militia, even combined they could not counter the might of the British army. As a result, volunteers signed up, mostly white immigrants, African American freedmen or Indians, and like the recruits, the officers assigned to lead them were mostly inexperienced. To resolve this problem after the war, an act of Congress in 1802 established an officers training school, West Point, patterned after European institutions. In 1861, when Civil War was declared, 294 officers were available to serve the Union and151 joined the Confederacy. But that fell considerably short of the number needed. Civilians were recruited or joined, some because of political connections or favoritism, others because they had the innate ability of leadership. In either instance, citizen officers like Confederate General Stand Watie and Union General James Blunt from Kansas learned military leadership “on the job.” Watie, the civilian turned commander, went on to a storied list of military successes culminating in being promoted to Confederate brigadier general and the last to surrender in the Civil War, but Blunt’s career was more checkered.
Like most white settlers in the Trans-Mississippi, Blunt migrated to Kansas from the east. Born in Maine in 1826, exhibiting early potential, he became a sailor at 14 rising to the rank of captain by the age of 20. In 1845 he moved to Columbus, Ohio, married, enrolled in medical school and became active in the fledgling Republican Party. Moving to Kansas in 1856, Blunt established his medical practice and became involved in local politics and the arguments over slavery that resulted in “Bleeding Kansas.” Blunt, an anti-slavery advocate, also became involved with John Brown who eventually was hung at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859.
When war was declared, Blunt received a commission as a lieutenant colonel of the 3rd Kansas Volunteer Regiment. The next year he was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers and was responsible for ordering William Weer to lead the “Indian Expedition” that resulted in the first battle of Cabin Creek. The expedition was generally successful, occupying Fort Gibson and resulting in John Ross fleeing to Kansas under the protection of Union troops. But it was marred by the actions of Weer, eventually judged unfit for command by subordinates who took charge of the expedition. This was no direct reflection on Blunt and his choice of Weer, but undoubtedly was noticed by his superiors.
But James Blunt’s leadership was questioned when his two brigades, about 1,500 men joined others commanded by Colonel Douglas Cooper at Newtonia, Missouri, were defeated by Confederate troops. After initial assaults, Union soldiers fled, some to Sarcoxie, ten miles away. But, in two following battles, at Fort Wayne in Indian Territory then Prairie Grove, Arkansas, he redeemed himself with victories. The somewhat “roller coaster” success of this citizen soldier resulted in promotion to major general of volunteer soldiers, but the ride wasn’t over.
Following his victory at Honey Springs in July of 1863, Blunt decided to move his command from Fort Scott to Fort Gibson in Indian Territory. In October, with a small contingent that included a military band, he departed from Fort Scott. Unbeknown to him, William Quantrill and his guerillas proceeded Blunt on the Military Road and were in the process of attacking Fort Blair at Baxter Springs as Blunt arrived. The result was a massacre, although Blunt escaped, Quantrill and his 400 guerillas overwhelmed the small party, executing most of them. Blunt was summarily removed from command.
Either boredom or defiance followed his demotion. For some time Blunt had pursued an idea of organizing and leading an expeditionary force to Texas with little support from his superiors. Following numerous rejections and, what superiors deemed his meddling in official affairs, in the spring of 1864, Blunt was reassigned to Fort Riley in central Kansas, currently designated as a prisoner of war camp for Confederate soldiers. He also was tasked with quelling Indian depredations on isolated settlers. Apparently, within months his superiors needed officers because Blunt was reassigned and concluded the war assisting in victories at the Battle of Lexington, east of Kansas City and the Second Battle of Newtonia where he had failed before.
Following the war, the versatile citizen soldier James Blunt, instead of pursuing medicine, moved to Washington DC and became a successful lawyer. But in a twist of fate that somewhat mirrored the highs and lows of his military career, Blunt was later diagnosed with “erratic behavior,” committed to an asylum and died in 1879.
Author's Note: Snapshots of Cherokee Country is now available on Amazon.com and BARNES AND NOBLE.com
Bruce Howell is an author and retired educator. His work includes 1806, an exploration of the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory. He resides on Grand Lake with his wife, Kay.