Sterling Price’s Missouri Expedition

Sterling Price
Image courtesy of the Civil War Museum at Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield.

Few people took the Confederate defeat at the Battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas on March 7-8, 1862, harder than Sterling Price. The battle ensured Missouri would remain under Union control indefinitely, a bitter disappointment for Missourians like Price. Though a native of Virginia, Price was fiercely devoted to his adopted state. He led Missouri volunteers in the Mexican War and later served a term as governor. A moderate on secession, Price served as president of the convention that voted not to secede. The turbulent situation in St. Louis however, turned him against the Union cause. After the Camp Jackson Massacre in May 1861, he assumed command of the Missouri State Guard. Despite victories at Wilson’s Creek and Lexington, Price abandoned Springfield and retreated into northwest Arkansas as General Samuel Curtis’ Army of the Southwest moved through the state in February 1862. After Pea Ridge, Earl Van Dorn moved his Confederate army, including thousands of Missourians, east of the Mississippi River. Missourians fought throughout the Western Theater for the next two years while Price dreamed of leading a campaign that would wrest Missouri from Union control.

Known to his troops as “Old Pap,” Price was loved by his soldiers. These feelings were not shared by his superiors. Price quarreled with many commanders and even Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Still, Price remained popular in Missouri and Confederate leaders believed he could attract more volunteers there than anyone else.1 Thus, Price was transferred back to the Trans-Mississippi. On February 27, 1863, he was ordered to report to General Edmund Kirby Smith in Little Rock.2 Price led troops in Arkansas throughout 1863, but his ultimate goal was still a return to Missouri. He finally got his chance in 1864.

Price’s return occurred at a critical time in the war. After a string of victories in the West, Ulysses S. Grant was appointed General in Chief of the Union armies. Northerners confidently expected similar results when the 1864 campaigning season started. Instead of final victory, 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.

The Northern political situation was certainly on Price’s mind as he planned the campaign. He believed Southern victory could be imminent, but with Missouri firmly in Union control, his beloved state would be left out of Confederate independence. Reports indicated that Union troops were widely dispersed and with numerous active guerrilla bands, Missouri seemed vulnerable.3 Confederate commanders discussed a Missouri expedition for several months. Exactly what form it would take remained a big question. Thomas Reynolds, Missouri’s Confederate Governor, insisted the offensive could not be a mere cavalry raid because he wanted to reestablish a Southern government in the state. A Confederate force would have to be strong enough to defeat Federal troops and hold at least some portion of Missouri. Despite Reynolds’ hopes, the issue was settled when the War Department ordered Kirby Smith to send all infantry in Louisiana and Arkansas to the Western Theater. Smith was also ordered to create a diversion which would take the pressure off of Confederate operations in Georgia. With no infantry available, the Missouri expedition had to be a cavalry raid.4

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. To that end, Smith implored Price: “You will scrupulously avoid all wanton acts of destruction and devastation, restrain your men, and impress upon them that their aim should be to secure success in a just and holy cause and not to gratify personal feeling and revenge.”5 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. Most of these men were veterans who had survived many hard fought battles. Their experience and discipline would be crucial in the campaign because approximately 4,000 of the troops were unarmed. Price’s command had been plagued with this problem before. Camp followers in the Missouri State Guard had been an early source of friction between Price and Benjamin McCulloch in 1861. Many of the unarmed men had no intention of obeying Smith’s order about protecting private property. They were often conscripts and deserters whose only real motivation was to gather plunder and get revenge on Unionists.6 The ability to secure arms for these men, and their reliability were serious questions as the raid began.

Feuding commanders was another source of concern for the expedition. Shelby and Marmaduke were often at odds, and both Fagan and Marmaduke questioned Price’s leadership. Adding to this volatile mix was Governor Reynolds, who chose to accompany the troops after all. Reynolds also had serious doubts about Price’s leadership abilities, but he worried the army would try to replace his administration once it got back on Missouri soil.7

After entering Missouri, Price changed the objective of his campaign. Fearing St. Louis was too well defended, he chose to turn west, after attacking Pilot Knob. Protected by Fort Davidson, an earthen stockade, and its tiny garrison, Pilot Knob was located in southeast Missouri, in Iron County. Although some intelligence indicated Price was changing course, Federal commanders remained understandably worried about any threat to St. Louis. Union control of Missouri’s rivers and railroads however, made it easy for the Federals to concentrate their forces. Such was the case with Major General Andrew J. Smith’s division of hardened veterans from the XVI Corps. Enroute from Louisiana to William T. Sherman’s army in Georgia, Smith’s Division was rushed to Missouri. Meanwhile, General Thomas Ewing, infamous for issuing Order Number 11 earlier in the year, was sent by train to Pilot Knob to evaluate the strategic situation. Ewing arrived in Pilot Knob on September 26. He quickly recognized Price’s objective; his location. Though he worried about being cut off from St. Louis, some of Smith’s troops had already arrived, and Ewing decided to make a stand at Fort Davidson.8

Price studied his options in Pilot Knob on September 27. Even though he feared making a direct assault, the fort seemed vulnerable. Still, the question of Fort Davidson divided the Confederate commanders. Shelby argued the army should not attack since the infantrymen could not pursue the mounted Confederates. An attack would only waste time and lives he reasoned. Fagan and Marmaduke however, urged an assault. The fort could be taken they said, and such a victory would illustrate the Army of Missouri’s strength. The Confederates made several heroic charges on September 28, but all broke apart in the face of a devastating fire from the Union defenders, which included local civilians and African-Americans.9

While the Federals successfully defended Fort Davidson, Ewing knew their position was untenable. He realized Confederate artillery on the heights surrounding the fort would force his garrison to surrender. Ewing decided to evacuate his position in the night, after detonating the command’s surplus black powder. Incredibly, the Union garrison marched right past the Confederate army to safety. A rear guard lit a fuse and escaped just before a gigantic explosion shattered the still night.

The Battle of Pilot Knob had disastrous consequences for the Confederate invasion. Price lost hundreds of his best men in futile assaults against Fort Davidson. The attack at Fort Davidson cost Price five days. Two days were spent preparing for the assault and the actual battle. Another three days were lost as Price pursued Ewing and prepared the Army of Missouri for its next movement.10 All the while, more Union troops moved closer to Price’s army.

Though unable to capture St. Louis, Price still made good on another of the raid’s objectives. As expected, several hundred recruits joined the Army of Missouri, though most were ill equipped for active service as one of the volunteers described:

Very few of them had any military training. A small percent had served in the Confederate army . . . while others had seen enforced service in the enrolled militia of Missouri. All were mounted on untrained horses, with equipment of every kind that country afforded. None were uniformed, but wore such clothes as they had or could procure around their homes. Probably one-third had not any kind of arms, and two-thirds carried muzzle-loading shotguns, muskets, squirrel rifles, and revolvers of various kinds and makes.11

Joining the Army of Missouri could have serious consequences. One of the volunteers was John H. Utz. A veteran of the Missouri State Guard, Utz fought at Lexington and Pea Ridge. He was discharged after six months and returned home where he took the Oath of Allegiance to the United States. Utz tried to join Price’s army but he was captured by Union authorities. Having violated his oath, Utz was sent to Gratiot Street prison in St. Louis and sentenced to death. The sentence was commuted to imprisonment for the duration of the war by President Lincoln.

Price advanced on Jefferson City after Pilot Knob. His army captured large quantities of Union weapons and uniforms along the way, all of which were distributed to the ragged troops. As the campaign progressed, Price’s men looked increasingly like Union soldiers. Even those who retained their Confederate shell jackets, or wore civilian clothes, still donned blue greatcoats. While desperately needed by the men, this attire soon had disastrous consequences.12

The Army of Missouri arrived in Boonville on October 10. Price was soon joined by about one hundred guerrillas under “Bloody Bill” Anderson. Price had long believed guerrillas would play a vital role in Missouri’s liberation. The appearance of the bushwhackers however, appalled him. Anderson’s men had been responsible for the Centralia Massacre two weeks earlier and many proudly displayed human scalps on their horses. Horrified, Price refused to meet with Anderson until they were discarded. Price may have been shocked by their brutality, but he fully appreciated the guerrillas’ potential. He ordered Anderson to destroy bridges along the North Missouri Railroad. Anderson’s men were unable to accomplish the mission and the bloodthirsty guerrilla was killed in action the following month.13

Like many other towns in its path, Boonville was looted by the Army of Missouri, even though most of its citizens were Confederate sympathizers. By now, both officers and enlisted men participated in the pillaging which seriously hampered the army’s effectiveness. Price’s progress was also slowed by unauthorized leaves of absence. The Missouri River Valley was home to hundreds of soldiers in the Confederate army, and many took the opportunity to visit their families. While the Rebels languished in “Little Dixie,” the pursuing Federals, especially Alfred Pleasonton’s 4,500 cavalrymen, closed in quickly. Approaching the Kansas border only added to Price’s problems. Kansas Governor Thomas Carney declared martial law and called out the state militia. Major General Samuel Curtis, commander of the Department of Kansas moved forward with 15,000 more troops.14

The decisive battles of the campaign were fought at the Little Blue River on October 21, and at Westport on October 23. The Confederates achieved a hard earned victory at the Little Blue, but success took a toll on Price’s command. Both men and animals were exhausted, and the ammunition supply was getting perilously low. These factors were apparently lost on Price, who seemed unwilling to retreat from Missouri and did not realize the danger his army faced. Shelby’s “Iron Brigade” forced its way across the Big Blue River at Byram’s Ford on October 22. The large wagon train made it across safely, with Shelby’s Division standing guard. Meanwhile, Pleasonton’s cavalry crushed the Confederate rear guard. That evening, Price finally realized his army was about to be surrounded and he would have to turn south. The Army of Missouri narrowly avoided destruction at Westport the next day and the retreat began.15

The army crossed into Kansas on October 24. Price had his army deployed on both sides of the Marais des Cygnes River shortly after midnight on October 25. Price continued his retreat around 2:00 A.M, but his march was slow, even though Curtis was just a few miles away. The Confederate march was delayed by a wagon train that had grown larger as the campaign progressed. Filled with plunder from Missouri and accompanied by civilians fleeing Union rule, the cavalcade looked like a “circus caravan,” to an eyewitness.16 Fortunately for Price, the weather gave his army a chance to escape. Heavy rain soaked the prairie and prevented Curtis from attacking that night.

With Marmaduke commanding his rear guard, Price led his army south on the Fort Scott Road, headed for the bountiful Union supply depot there. The Confederate column moved no faster as the Federals got closer. Price’s large wagon train struggled to cross Mine Creek at a narrow ford, the only passable location in the immediate area. Union cavalry charged into the Confederate position before Marmaduke’s and Fagan’s divisions could escape. Though Price’s men were enrolled Confederate soldiers, their use of Union equipment gave them the appearance of guerrillas. Union troops seldom showed those troops much mercy. In 1862, Federal commanders authorized the execution of prisoners who were captured wearing blue uniforms. Due to the Missourians desperate need for equipment, many Confederate soldiers met this fate at Mine Creek.17

Though it only lasted approximately thirty minutes, the Battle of Mine Creek was a crushing defeat for Sterling Price and his Army of Missouri. Two Confederate generals, Marmaduke and William Cabell were captured along with eight colonels. About one third of the wagons, so long an impediment to the campaign, were burned on Price’s orders the day after the battle. The army’s morale was crushed on the long retreat all the way into the Indian Territory and Texas. As they trudged south, the Confederates discarded much of what they had captured, including weapons.18

The state of Kansas paid a heavy price to drive the Rebels from its borders. Of course the loss of life could not be replaced, but Kansas tried to compensate its citizens for the destruction of their property. The federal government was responsible for much of the damage, but the Kansas legislature assumed the burden in 1865. Believing the state would be reimbursed by Washington, D.C.; legislators established a commission and accepted claims. Kansas residents submitted over $2,000,000 worth of losses. Fully half of these claims were clearly not legitimate and rejected, but still the review process allowed many fraudulent payments. A new commission was authorized in 1869 to audit the original claims. It assumed over $547,000 in debt. This amount was submitted to the federal government, but on June 8, 1872, Congress appropriated just over $337,000 to settle the claims. The distribution of this money was tarnished by corruption. A major political scandal ensued and ended with the resignation of Treasurer Josiah Hayes; but only after articles of impeachment were filed against him. While compensation for the Price Raid started with the best of intentions, it ended with a major political embarrassment for the state of Kansas.19

Fallout from the Price Raid was severe. While unlikely in the first place, it crushed forever any Confederate hopes of reclaiming Missouri. Governor Reynolds was disgusted with the rampant pillaging and military blunders of the campaign. Most of all however, he was enraged Price failed to occupy Jefferson City and establish a Confederate government. 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.

In many ways the outcome of the war was decided in the fall of 1864. Not only did the Confederates fail to capture Missouri, for all practical purposes, they lost the war. Sherman’s army captured Atlanta in early September. This victory strengthened Union morale, and combined with more victories later that fall in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, assured Lincoln’s reelection, and with it, Union victory.

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  1. Thomas C. Reynolds and Robert G. Schultz, ed., General Sterling Price and the Confederacy (St. Louis: Missouri History Museum, 2009), 65.
  2. Robert E. Shalhope, Sterling Price: Portrait of a Southerner (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1971), 232-33.
  3. Shalhope, Sterling Price, 259.
  4. Albert Castel, General Sterling Price and the Civil War in the West (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1968), 200-01.
  5. U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 128 Vols. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901), Series I, Vol. 41, Part 2, 1040.
  6. Shalhope, Sterling Price, 263-64.
  7. Shalhope, Sterling Price, 260-61, 264.
  8. Ronald D. Smith, Thomas Ewing Jr.: Frontier Lawyer and Civil War General (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2008), 234-37.
  9. Smith, Thomas Ewing Jr., 237-42.
  10. Castel, General Sterling Price, 221.
  11. Kip Lindberg, “Chaos Itself: The Battle of Mine Creek,” North & South (Volume 1, Number 6): 77.
  12. Lindberg, “Chaos Itself,” 77-78.
  13. Castel, General Sterling Price, 225-226.
  14. Lindberg, “Chaos Itself,” 78.
  15. Castel, General Sterling Price, 229-237.
  16. Lindberg, “Chaos Itself,” 79.
  17. Lindberg, “Chaos Itself,” 79, 84.
  18. Lindberg, “Chaos Itself,” 84-85.
  19. William G. Cutler, History of the State of Kansas (Chicago: A. T. Andreas, 1883), part 18.