Sterling Price Papers

General Sterling Price
Image courtesy of Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield

Sterling Price was born in Edward County Virginia on September 20, 1809. His family grew tobacco on a large farm, and owned many slaves. In his adolescence Price attended a local school and then went on to attend Hampden Sidney College where he studied Law.1 He arrived in Missouri in 1831 at the age of 22 and established a farm near Keytesville in Chariton County. A year later he married Martha Head and they had seven children, five of which survived until adulthood.2 Price was a good business man and farmer and developed a southern style manor named “Val Verde.” During the Mexican War, Price was commissioned by President Polk as a colonel and served in the 2nd Missouri Mounted Volunteers.3 After Price returned from the Mexico War, he embraced a career in policies. He had previously served in the state legislature in 1838, but in 1852 he was elected Governor of Missouri.

Price fully embodied the southern antebellum way of life. While owning several dozen slaves, he opposed the secession of Missouri from the Union.4 After Nathaniel Lyon captured Camp Jackson, the Missouri General Assembly authorized the formation of the Missouri State Guard. Price firmly believed in states’ rights and began to organize an army at Booneville. The Missouri State Guard would recruit and drill in McDonald County under Price’s command and go on to engage federal troops throughout Missouri. The men fighting under Price were devoted to him and followed his command.

In the summer and fall of 1861, the Missouri State Guard scored several victories against Union troops. Price united forces of Confederate General Benjamin McCulloch and was victorious at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek on August 10 1861. While McCulloch and Price had worked together the cooperation between the two men would soon dissipate. McCulloch thought Price’s troops were unruly and was concerned about “undisciplined condition of his men.”5 McCulloch along with other officials in the Confederacy thought Price put the priorities of his own state above the priorities of the entire Confederacy. McCulloch refused to support Price’s advance into western Missouri, citing his orders were to protect Arkansas from Federal troops not invade Missouri.

Price mobilized roughly 7,000 men on his march to Lexington. The town was held by Col. James A. Mulligan and his force of 2,700 Federals. Southerners flocked to Price, and by September 18 his army had grown to nearly 10,000 men. The Missouri State Guard surrounded the Union troops barricaded in the town’s Masonic College. The Federal soldiers repelled the Missouri State Guard’s assault for several days, until they exhausted their supplies.

On September 20, the Confederates discovered a large quantity of hemp bales stored in a nearby warehouse. The guardsmen rolled the bales onto the battlefield slowly charging the Union trenches. The bales provided ample protection for the men; even the Union cannons could not penetrate the dense hemp. Finally, the guardsmen advanced close enough to charge the Union line. Hand-to-hand combat erupted, and soon Mulligan realized surrender was his only option. Price captured several pieces of artillery, 3,000 rifles and 750 horses.

Price fell back to Springfield, Missouri, only to be pushed out of the city in late October of 1861. He retreated to Arkansas and once again joined forces with McCulloch at the Battle of Pea Ridge. The Union victory at Pea Ridge caused Confederate forces to withdraw from Arkansas and move across the Mississippi River. The loss at Pea Ridge, ensured Missouri would remain in Union control, a bitter disappointment for Price. Over the next year Price would lead Missouri troops in combat in the Western Theater, while he vowed to one day reclaim Missouri from Union control.

In 1864, Ulysses S. Grant’s campaign in Virginia turned into a bloody stalemate. Casualties mounted at an unparalleled rate and many Northerners grew tired of the war. A strong peace movement was active in many Northern states, coinciding with the November presidential election. The race between Abraham Lincoln and Democratic challenger George B. McClellan was clearly a referendum on the war. If McClellan won, Confederate independence was virtually assured. With Missouri still under Union control, Price believed the talks of peace would place Missouri forever out of the grasp of the Confederacy. However, instead of mounting an assault gain control of the State, Confederate commanders elected to conduct a raid into Missouri to diverge pressure off of Confederate operations in Georgia.

Authorization for the raid came on August 4, 1864. Smith’s orders made it clear St. Louis was the ultimate goal, but Price was also reminded about objectives more easily achieved. Above all else the Confederacy needed men. Even if he had to retreat from Missouri, the expedition would be successful if a sizeable number of recruits were brought into the army. If driven out of Missouri, Price was ordered to seize all the military supplies he could while retreating through Kansas and the Indian Territory.

By September 18, Price had organized his 12,000 man Army of Missouri into three divisions under James Fagan, John S. Marmaduke, and Joseph O. Shelby. They entered Missouri attacking Pilot Knob in southeast Missouri and moved north and advanced on Jefferson City. His army captured large quantities of Union weapons and uniforms along the way, all of which were distributed to the ragged troops. Price reached Boonville, and turned west. They fought at the Little Blue River on October 21 and at Westport on October 23. The army crossed into Kansas on October 24, and headed south. Price attempted to avoid the Union controlled Fort Scott and entered combat at the Battle of Mine creek, which resulted in a crushing defeat for Price. Two Confederate generals, Marmaduke and William Cabell were captured along with eight colonels.

Fallout from the Price’s Raid was severe. It destroyed any Confederate hopes of reclaiming Missouri, and put Price under political siege. His men pillaged and destroyed property throughout the state and he failed to capture Jefferson City. In 1865, Price went to Mexico where he was the leader of a colony of Confederate exiles at Carlota in the state of Vera Cruz.

I have chosen not to write you for prudential reasons, but now that the unfortunate storm has blown over so far as I am concerned, and I have arrived sage in this great city, & there are no further reasons why I should not do so, I again resume my correspondence with you, with great pleasure to myself I am here with Gov. [Trusten] Polk, Gov. [Isham] Harris of Tennessee, Gov. [Henry] Allen of Louisianna [Louisiana], Judge [John] Perkins of the Same State
Sterling Price Letter, September 7, 1865

Price and the other gentlemen hoped to start anew in Mexico and try to rebuild their lives has they were before the War. The colony though was ruined by guerrilla attacks, crop failure, and illness. Price returned to St. Louis in 1867 and established a commission business. He died in St. Louis on September 29, 1867.6

Price was highly criticized by members of both the Union and Confederacy for his actions and decisions during the Civil War. Governor Reynolds was disgusted with the military blunders of Price’s Missouri campaign. Reynolds launched a bitter vendetta against Price that ended in a Court of Inquiry. Though the court adjourned and failed to rule before the war’s end, bitter feelings lingered among Missouri Confederates. Price was a leading figure in the Civil War and his contribution to Missouri’s history remains the legacy of the intrepid general.

Contributed by Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield

  1. Rex T. Jackson, Notable Persons and Places in Missouri’s History, (Cassville, MO: Litho Printers, 2006), 79-84.
  2. James F. Muench, Five Stars: Missouri’s Most Famous Generals (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2006), pg 33.
  3. Jackson, 82.
  4. Albert Castel, General Sterling Price: And the Civil War in the West (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996), pg 3.
  5. Benjamin McCulloch letter to Sterling Price-Aug. 23, 1861.WICR 30947 Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield, Republic, Missouri.
  6. Darrell L. Maples ed., “Major General Sterling Price,” The Governor’s Guard (Jefferson City, MO: M. M. Parsons Camp #718), September 1995,