Stirling Price, 1809-1867

Stirling Price was a Missouri politician, a conditional Unionist during the secession crisis, but a Confederate general once the fighting began. He was born in Virginia, where he studied law, but in 1831 he moved with his parents to Missouri, where he lived for the rest of his life.

He served as his county’s representative in the state legislature from 1836-38 and 1840-44. During his second spell in the legislature he was speaker of the house. In 1844 he was elected to Congress, but only served for two years before resigning in order to volunteer for service in the Mexican War.

He started the war as colonel of the 2nd Missouri Infantry regiment. By the end of the war he had risen to the rank of brigadier-general, and had served as military governor of Chihuahua. After the war he returned to Missouri politics, being elected governor of the State in 1852.

Eight years later that post was about to be held by Claiborne Fox Jackson, a pro-slavery pro-southern politician. As the secession crisis gathered momentum, Jackson began to agitate for Missouri to join with the south. At the end of 1860, as South Carolina seceded, Jackson persuaded the state legislature to organise the election of a convention, hoping that the voters of Missouri would agree with him, and elect a pro-secession convention. They let him down, and on 18 February elected a conditionally pro-Union convention.

Price was chosen to be the president of the convention. Under his leadership, it voted 89 to 1 against Missouri leaving the Union, but 89 to 6 against any attempt to coerce those states that did wish to secede. This was a blow to Jackson’s hopes, but did not stop his plotting. The convention adjourned on 22 March, and soon afterwards Jackson asked Price to take command of the state militia.

Jackson’s target was the U.S. Arsenal at St. Louis, one of the largest in the country. At this point it contained 60,000 muskets, enough to equip a huge army by the standards of the time. The arsenal was commanded by Captain Nathaniel Lyon, soon to become one of the Union cause’s first heroes. In turn he found active and able support from Frank P. Blair, the leader of Missouri’s unionists.  

The crisis at St. Louis came after the bombardment of Fort Sumter. On 15 April, President Lincoln issued his call for volunteers. For many conditional unionists this was a step too far. Jackson hoped to use this to move Missouri towards secession. There was already a force of state militia near to St. Louis, under General D. M. Frost, but they had no artillery, which would have made any assault on the arsenal very difficult. Jefferson Davis was more than willing to come to Jackson’s aid, arranging to send guns seized further south to help at St. Louis.

Lyon foiled Jackson’s plan. On 26 April he moved most of the guns into safely Unionist Missouri, only keeping enough to arm Blair’s pro-Union Missouri militia.  This should have been enough to frustrate Jackson’s plans, but Lyon was not finished. On 10 May he surrounded and effectively arrested the frustrated militiamen in the camp just outside the city. As the prisoners were marched back into St. Louis, a pro-Confederate mob gathered. Someone shot one of Lyon’s officers. His nervous soldiers fired on the crowd, killing twenty eight civilians.

This was a disaster for the Union cause in Missouri. It pushed many conditional Unionists into the southern camp. Amongst them was Stirling Price. He must already have been moving that way, for he was opposed to any attempts to force the south back into the Union, but the violence at St. Louis tipped him over the edge. Jackson, Price and the State Legislature met at Jefferson City, and continued to prepare for war.

There was one more chance for relative peace in Missouri. On 11 June Price and Jackson met with Lyon and Blair at the Planters’ House in St. Louis. The meeting did not go well, ending with Lyon storming out after declaring ‘this means war’.

Price’s war began badly. On 17 June Lyon, now a Brigadier-General, forced Price and the militia to retreat from Jefferson City. They moved west, along the Missouri River, to Boonville. On 17 June Price’s men were defeated in a minor skirmish at Boonville, and forced to retreat south. By the start of July he had been forced all the way into the south west corner of the state, close to the Arkansas border. Although he now had 8,000 men, rather more that Lyon’s 5,500, but the Union force was well armed and equipped, while many of Price’s men were actually unarmed! However, at Wilson’s Creek Price was joined by another 5,000 men under General Ben McCulloch. Lyon was now badly outnumbered, but he still decided to attack.

On 10 August Price won a significant victory. Lyon split his force, hoping to outflank Price. Instead, Price was able to defeat both attacks. The flank attack, under Franz Sigel, failed first. Price was then able to turn against Lyon’s main force. Lyon was killed in the fighting. His defeated army was forced to pull back to Rolla, in the centre of the state.

Price decided to strike back into the north. His target was Lexington, one of largest cities on the Missouri River. It was poorly defended, and after a short siege (18-20 September) was captured. However, Price could not maintain his position against a strong Union counterattack, and was soon forced to pull back to Springfield in the south of the state. Early in 1861 a Federal advance under Brigadier-General Samuel R. Curtis forced him to pull back even further, into northern Arkansas.

There he once again joined up with McCulloch. By now the two men detested each other - each was dedicated more to their own state than to what the other saw as the general good of the Confederacy. Some semblance of unity was provided by the appointment of Earl van Dorn to overall command west of the Mississippi. On 1 March he took command in person, and prepared to launch an ambitious counterattack that he hoped would liberate Missouri, capture St. Louis and even stop the Federal advance along the Mississippi.

His first problem was what to do about Curtis. The outnumbered Federal army had pulled back the Pea Ridge, on the edge of the Ozark Plateau, and prepared to receive an attack. Van Dorn settled on an ambitious plan based on a double out-flanking manoeuvre. McCulloch was to attack the Federal right, while Van Dorn and Price would continue and attempt to attack Curtis from the rear. The resulting battle of Pea Ridge or Elkhorn Tavern did not go according to plan. On 7 March McCulloch’s attack was defeated. McCulloch and his second in command were both killed in the fighting. Price’s march to the rear was detected, and Curtis was able to hold off the large Confederate forces in his rear for the rest of the day. The next morning Curtis had his army back together again, and easily drove off a final Confederate attack.

The defeat at Pea Ridge ended Price’s immediate hopes of returning to Missouri. Events east of the Mississippi soon called him away even from Arkansas. The spring and summer of 1862 saw the Confederacy loss control of most of the Mississippi. April had been particularly disastrous. A hastily gathered Confederate army had come close to success at Shiloh (6-7 April) before being forced to pull back in the face of Federal reinforcements. New Orleans had fallen to Federal forces at the end of the month. Corinth had been evacuated at the end of May, Memphis fell in June. In an attempt to cope with this series of disasters, Van Dorn and Price were called east.

Price was given command of the Army of the West, based at Tupelo, Mississippi. By the autumn he had an army 15,000 strong, as did Van Dorn, further west at Vicksburg. Braxton Bragg, their commander east of the Mississippi, had led a large army east, where he launched an invasion of Kentucky. Price and Van Dorn were meant to cooperate by launching a similar invasion of western Tennessee. The Federal commander, General Halleck, had split his army into several small detachments to deal with the newly conquered territories. Price and Van Dorn were faced locally by forces under General Rosecrans, under the command of U.S. Grant.

The Confederate plan was for an attack on Corinth. On 13 September Price captured Iuka, twenty miles south east of Iuka. Grant decided to launch a counterattack, making an attempt to trap Price in Iuka. Price detected this move, and despatched half of his army to deal with Rosecran’s flanking move. The second part of the Federal force, under General Ord, was meant to attack when it heard the sound of fighting, but unusual weather conditions caused an acoustic shadow, which prevented the sound reaching them. Despite this, Price was unable to defeat Rosecrans, who held his ground for two hours. Luckily for Price, he failed to block all of the roads south out of Iuka, and overnight Price was able to make his escape.

From Iuka he travelled west and joined with Van Dorn. The combined army was now just over 20,000 strong. Van Dorn was the senior commander. He decided to continue with the attack on Corinth, even though Rosecrans now had a similar sized army, and would be fighting on the defensive. The attack went in on 3 October (Battle of Corinth). The following day, Van Dorn and Price’s men managed to break into the city, but their attack ran out of steam in the street fighting that followed. Eventually Federal reinforcements began to arrive, and the Confederate commanders were forced to retreat.  The next day the retreating Confederate armies were nearly trapped at Hatchie Bridge (5 October), but managed to find an escape route in time, and returned to relative safety further south.

The next year Price was posted back across the Mississippi. Edmund Kirby Smith had been put in command of the Confederate trans-Mississippi. Price was transferred to Arkansas, to serve under General Theophilius H. Holmes. Price found a state that was on the brink of a Federal conquest. The north west of the state had been secured for the Union at the Battle of Prairie Grove (7 December 1862). At the start of 1863 Arkansas Post had been captured (10-11 January 1863), giving Union forces easy access to the heart of the state. Along the Mississippi every significant position was in Federal hands.

Holmes and Kirby Smith were under great pressure to do something to help the besieged garrison at Vicksburg. They decided to launch an attack on Helena, Arkansas, a comparatively weakly held Union enclave on the west bank of the Mississippi. Price had command of one division in the army that attacked Helena on 4 July 1863. His division was given the task of capturing Graveyard Hill, in the centre of the Union defences. He succeeded in this, but the rest of the attack failed, and Price’s men came under heavy fire from the entire Union line, and from a gunboat on the Mississippi. Eventually Holmes was forced to order an withdrawal from this vulnerable position. Price’s division had suffered very heavily in the fighting, losing 156 of the 173 Confederate dead and 587 of the 687 wounded.

After the failure at Helena, a Federal invasion of Arkansas was almost inevitable. That attack was launched at the start of August 1863. Major-General Frederick Steele, with 12,000 men, was soon approaching Little Rock. Price was temporarily in command, with 8,000 men, in the absence of Holmes. He attempted to stop Steele east of Little Rock, but his position on the north bank of the Arkansas River was outflanked on 10 September (Bayou Forche or Little Rock), and once again Price was forced to retreat to the south west corner of a conquered state.

Events were to give him one more chance in Missouri. The Red River campaign of 1864 was one of the more disastrous Federal attacks of 1864. Part of the plan had been for General Steele to advance south from the Arkansas River towards Shreveport, Louisiana, where it would meet up with General Banks’s, moving in from the south. However, when Banks was defeated, Steele found himself exposed to attack by Price, who had recently been reinforced, giving him an army possibly 12,000 strong. Price pressed Steele all the way to Jenkin’s Ferry, on the Saline River. There Steele was forced to turn and fight, inflicting a heavy defeat on Price (30 April 1864). Steele was able to continue his retreat to Little Rock unopposed.

Price’s real target was St. Louis, Missouri. Like so many other Confederate leaders in other states, Price believed that Missouri would rise for the Confederacy the moment there was an army in the state. There was certainly some evidence for continuing Confederate support in the state. Gangs of guerrillas roamed the state. Amongst them were many of the most famous in the war, men such as William Quantrill and ‘Bloody Bill’ Anderson. Price was probably the military head of an organisation known as the ‘Order of American Knights’, which was expected to lead a Confederate uprising in the state. Some of their Union counterparts were very nearly as ruthless.

Price and his army crossed into northern Arkansas at the start of September and were soon in Missouri. He had between 12,000 and 15,000 men, mostly veterans. Quantrill and Anderson raised chaos around the state, although the Order of American Knights proved to be a very feeble force. However, the biggest obstacle to Price’s success was that by this stage in the war the Union could easily raise enough troops to overwhelm him.

He received his first setback at Pilot Knob (26-27 September), close to St. Louis, where his attack was held off by a garrison only 1,000 strong. Overnight on 27 September that force withdrew to St. Louis. After a brief look at the defences of St. Louis, Price turned west, following the line of the Missouri to the state capitol, at Jefferson City, but he was repulsed there as well. His next target was Kansas, but once again enough Federal forces could be found to hold him off, close to the Kansas border. Finally, on 23 October he was forced to turn back south. When he finally reached relative safety in Arkansas, his force had been reduced to 5,000 men.

Price’s raid was one of the more disastrous undertaken by Confederate forces. Not only was his own army almost destroyed, but most of the guerrilla bands that had been plagued Missouri had joined with it, and left the state when it did. ‘Bloody Bill’ Anderson had been killed. Quantrill’s gang was dispersed, and he himself killed while travelling east (he planned to assassinate Lincoln). Price did not report it in quite those terms, focusing instead on the distance he had marched (1,434), the number of battles and skirmishes he had fought (43) and the number of prisoners he had captured (over 3,000). Still, he had at least managed to get some of his men back, and forced the Union to divert men and resources from other areas.

The end of the war was now rapidly approaching. In 1865 Price retreated to Texas, and then to Mexico. His refuge there was short-lived. In 1866 the French intervention in Mexico came to an end when the Emperor Maximilian was deposed. Price returned to the United States, dying the next year.

Price was one of many men to argue with Jefferson Davis during the war. After one conference Davies described him as the ‘vainest man he had ever met’, although this was after a meeting in which Price had threatened to resign when he had been refused permission to move west of the Mississippi. Davis’s well known preference for West Point graduates may help to explain why Price rarely held independent command, although the early failure of his and Governor Jackson’s attempts to get Missouri into the Confederacy probably also contributed. He was a competent General, although his most famous victory at Wilson’s Creek had as much to do with his opponent’s weaknesses as his own strengths. His final campaign, the Missouri raid, was a disaster, but by the end of 1864 the Confederacy had no choice but to take such risks.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (September 2007), Stirling Price, 1809-1867,

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