After being driven from Missouri in 1861, General Sterling Price led a group of volunteers to join the Confederacy. He eventually would lead the District of Arkansas for the Confederates. Beginning in 1863 Price began to argue that he should lead a raid on the state of Missouri. He believed that the state was filled with supporters who would join his army. In addition, he thought that he could gain access to the stockpiles of weapons and supplies in the state.
His request was denied until 1864 when General E. Kirby Smith, who was Price’s superior, met with Thomas Reynolds, the exiled governor of Missouri. He had been elected as lieutenant governor in 1860 with Claiborne Jackson, and after Jackson’s death Reynolds took over. Once the Civil War began, the pro-secessionist government had been driven from the state by Union troops. They were replaced by a provisional government appointed by the state convention. By 1864, their term was nearing its end, and a new election would soon occur.
Reynolds believed that if he could some how take Jefferson City, return the exiled politicians there, and hold elections, that the state would elect a Southerner, putting the state legally in the hands of the South for the next four years. Reynolds convinced the Confederate leader to go along with this plan. General Price was reluctantly chosen to lead this raid because of his popularity in the state despite the fact the he and Reynolds were political enemies. In addition, there was concern about whether Price was healthy enough for a high-speed raid. Nevertheless, the plan was set in motion.
To accomplish their goals, General Price would oversee three divisions led by General James F. Fagan, Major General John S. Marmaduke, and Brigadier General Joseph O. Shelby into southern Missouri. They numbered 15,000 to 20,000 troops. They were poorly supplied—in fact, 4,000 of Price’s men had no weapons. This is why they planned to move quickly to St. Louis, taking supplies and recruits along the way and receiving a wealth of supplies in the city. Once St. Louis had been secured they would go by steamboat to Jefferson City and hold the city until elections could bring a pro-South government to power. Then, depending on the strength of their recruited army, they would attempt to drive Union forces from the state. They thought that even if they were defeated it would take some time for the Union to send enough troops, and they would already have a pro-South government. In addition, they would have forced the Union to pull troops from eastern states, and that would take pressure off of General Robert E. Lee. However, things did not go as planned.
Even before military action began, problems became apparent. General Price carried old grudges from his political life in Missouri before the war. He and Marmaduke, who was leading a large cavalry unit in the invasion, were political opponents. Price undermined Marmaduke through a series of unwise military actions. These decisions would come back to haunt him as the invasion continued.
Price and his troops gathered at Pocahontas, Arkansas. They left with each column taking a slightly different route toward St. Louis on September 19, 1864. Problems were encountered early as the divisions of both Marmaduke and Shelby were delayed trying to cross the river at Pitman’s Ferry. Gen. Marmaduke had tried to warn Price about this prior to the invasion, but he was ignored.
Arriving in Fredericktown on September 24, Price received word from Marmaduke that St. Louis was being reinforced with the veteran forces of General Andrew Jackson Smith. By September 26 they had set up defenses in Kirkwood, just west of the city.
The quick defense of St. Louis caused a rift among the leadership of Price’s army. Price and Gen. Fagan favored taking Fort Davidson in the Pilot Knob area. Marmaduke and Shelby continued to advocate the immediate taking of St. Louis. Shelby reflected after the war, “I favored moving rapidly into St. Louis and seizing it and I then and there stated what the result would be if we attacked Pilot Knob. I could see nothing as an inducement; it would only cripple and retard our movement, and I know too well that good infantry, well entrenched, would give us hell.” Despite these concerns Gen. Price moved forward with his plan to attack Fort Davidson.
Before the battle could even begin, the fighting between Price and Marmaduke undermined the Confederate mission. Instead of having the experienced Marmaduke lead his division, Price instead demanded that his ally, the inexperienced cavalryman General John B. Clark Jr., lead Marmaduke’s division to Fort Davidson.
The Union troops at Fort Davidson were led by General Thomas Ewing and numbered roughly 2,000. The time spent at Fort Davidson combined with the delays marching from Pocahontas gave the Union all the time it needed to organize its forces. After inflicting heavy losses on Price’s army, Ewing was able to escape with his troops.
With St. Louis fully defended, Price instead turned his attention to the capital, Jefferson City. As he moved west he received word that Jefferson City had been heavily reinforced. Price would again have to rethink his plans. He decided to move farther west, toward Kansas City. Price’s army engaged in minor skirmishes at Boonville, Glasgow, and Sedalia, where they were able to gain supplies. All the while, federal troops from Kansas and Missouri were organizing to trap Price before he could make it to Kansas City.
At Lexington, Missouri, Price’s army met 2,000 federal troops under Maj. General James G. Blunt. These troops were part of a larger force under Maj. General Samuel Curtis, the head of the Army of Kansas. However, Curtis was having difficulty because many of his troops were Kansas militia and would not cross into Missouri. Price’s army forced Blunt to retreat, engaging in fighting as they marched through Independence. These battles slowed Price’s march enough for 10,000 cavalry under General Alfred Pleasonton to threaten Price’s rear as he continued west.
Finally, with General Curtis and his full army ahead of Price in Westport and General Pleasonton closing in on his rear, Price was fully outnumbered. His only hope was to face them one at a time. He planned on using a rear guard to prevent Pleasonton from crossing the river so that he could face Curtis. With Curtis defeated he would turn and face Pleasonton. His plans failed however, and Pleasonton crossed the river, leaving Price threatened from both sides. With no choices left, Price and his tattered army retreated.
The retreating army marched into Kansas with General Pleasonton and his cavalry close behind. The forces met at Mine Creek on October 29, and despite having superior numbers Price’s army could not force back the Federals. They fought again at Marmaton River and Newtonia, but these battles were merely a struggle for survival. Price made his way back to Arkansas with 6,000 troops of his original 15,000–20,000.
Price’s raid would be the final major offensive in Missouri during the war. Its failure would lead to Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans retaining power in the 1864 election. Price would surrender what was left of his command in New Orleans in 1865. Along with some other Confederate leaders he fled to Mexico after the defeat of the Confederacy, only returning to Missouri shortly before his death in 1867 at the age of 59.