Sense of Place: The Battles of Newtonia

Sep 6, 2018

The Ritchey Mansion, east of Neosho in Ritchie, MO, stands tall some 168 years after it was built.  The two-story brick house is in a bucolic setting not far from Newtonia, surrounded by fields and farm roads.  But the area hasn’t always been peaceful.  During the Civil War, the house, built by Matthew E. Ritchey, served as a hospital for casualties of two Civil War battles that raged nearby.  And both Unions and Confederates used the house as their headquarters at different times during the conflict.   

Ritchey, a farmer, miller, merchant and politician, was a slave owner who sympathized with the Union.  He and his slaves built the Ritchey Mansion around 1850.

An old doorbell still alerts those inside to the presence of visitors.

Jim Ridenour, caretaker of the Ritchey Mansion answered the door and was happy to talk about the home’s history.  He said, in 1832, Ritchey and his mother came in a wagon to an area that had few settlers.

"They got here late in the fall, so they kind of had to survive the winter and then just be perserverance...he started working.  He had some businesses, he failed some businesses, but he finally got wealthy enough here that, not only was he involved in the founding of the town of Ritchey up the road, but, of course, he founded Newtonia," Ridenour said.

According to Ridenour, Ritchey was fairly wealthy when he arrived, having made money in farming and in business.  Ritchey married in 1835.  He and his family lived in the house until sometime in the 1880s and were witness to the battles that took place just outside their windows. 

The first took place on September 30, 1862 and had Native Americans fighting on both sides.  There were Choctaw, Cherokee and Chickasaw soldiers on the southern side and Cherokee soldiers fighting for the north as well. 

"Towards the end of the battle, as the Union is retreating, you have Native Americans fighting each other in hand to hand combat," said Connie Langum, an historian at Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield.  "That's very rare, even more rare outside Indian Territory."

About half of the Confederates mounted troops during the battle were Native Americans, according to Ridenour, and they took the brunt of the fighting.  The Native Americans fighting on the Union side, he said, were displaced, having been pushed out by Confederate Americans.  Many were dying from disease, and the Union Army was trying to take care of them.  Those who were well enough decided to fight in what was called the Third Indian Home Guard, he said. 

Battle of Newtonia 1862:

Confederate troops, under the command of Col. Douglas Cooper, arrived in the Newtonia area on September 27.  Two days later, Union scouts approached the town, but they were chased away.  Reinforcements arrived, and fighting began in the morning on September 30.  The battle was a Confederate victory with Union forces being forced to retreat.  Casualties, including those killed, wounded and missing, totaled 345, according to Langum.

Battle of Newtonia 1864:

The second battle near the Ritchey house was fought on October 28, 1864 and was the last major battle of the Civil War west of the Mississippi.  It occurred as Confederate Major General Sterling Price’s Army of Missouri was in retreat after defeats at Westport near Kansas City and at Mine Creek in Kansas.  The Army had stopped to rest on October 28 near the Ritchey house when five brigades in the pursuing cavalry division of Brigadier General James Blunt’s Union force arrived.  The soldiers caught the Confederates by surprise and attacked their supply chain.    According to the American Battlefield Trust, Confederate Brig. Gen. Joe Shelby’s mounted infantry soon arrived from the rear of Price’s column, dismounted and engaged the Yankees.  Shelby’s men forced the Union cavalry onto a cornfield on Ritchie’s plantation, where they held out until reinforcements arrived.  The Confederates were forced to retreat around nightfall.   There were 650 total casualties.

Langum said Newtonia and the surrounding area were attractive to both the Union and the Confederacy for two reasons.

"It's located close to Granby.  Granby has lead mines.  Bullets are made out of lead.  That's why Granby's significant," said Langum.  "Newtonia also has a mill, so to make flour for bread."

A stone barn near the Ritchey Mansion was also a reason the battles were fought there, Ridenour said.  The barn was made from limestone from a nearby quarry, and there were stone fences that surrounded it.

"It just made a perfect defensive position and a safe position, so the troops would go and probably sleep in there and around that area, so it was just a perfect place for them to come," he said.

Missouri was under martial law at the time, according to Ridenour, and the Ritchey Mansion was used by the provost marshal who would hear complaints during the war.  

"Basically, his job was, if somebody had a complaint, whether it was criminal, civil or military, he would listen to it and he would adjudicate on it, you know, he would make the decision, and if it was something big he would pass it on up the line," Ridenour said.

Ridenour said the provost marshal’s primary mission was to try to find any guerillas or southern sympathizers to question, and the house played a role in that. 

It’s said that Sterling Price spent the night at the Ritchey Mansion.  Another story tells of outlaw Belle Starr being imprisoned in the house and escaping. 

Today the Ritchey Mansion is preserved by the Newtonia Battlefield Protection Association, which purchased it in 2001.  Ridenour gives tours of the house and surrounding property, including the Ritchey Cemetery and an adjacent slave cemetery, when requested.  Each room contains a bit of history from when the house witnessed fighting during the Civil War.

A climb up wooden stairs leads to a large room that was thought to be used as an operating room during the battles.

A bed, dresser and night stand in the room were owned by Matthew Ritchey and were donated to the Battlefield Protection Association by a Ritchey family member.

Ridenour said as soon as he moved into the house, he felt at home.

"I love history so much that I just know I'm in here surrounded by it.  This has got more stories  than probably anybody could ever tell," he said. 

According to Langum, because of the Civil War battles that were fought there, a little town in southwest Missouri became highly significant in 1862 and 1864.

"Are those little engagements in September of '62 and October of '64 significant in and of themselves?  Maybe, maybe not.  When you combine them in the context of the Trans-Mississippi and of the Civil War, it has a huge impact, not only on the outcome of the war, but on the outcome of the war in Missouri, in particular," said Langum.

The Ritchey Mansion is open for tours each year during the Newtonia Fall Festival and during Hammer In, held every spring.

Learn more about the Newtonia Battlefield Protection Association here