By Josh Letner
When former Missouri governor and Confederate Maj. Gen. Sterling Price led an invasion of the state in 1864, he hoped to liberate Missouri from what he believed was Union occupation that had been in place since the first year of the war.
It wasn’t long, though, before Thomas Reynolds — the man Price wanted to install as Missouri’s governor — claimed the only things liberated by Price and his men were horses, jewelry, food and other personal property.
“It would take a volume to describe the acts of outrage; neither station, nor age, nor sex was any protection. Southern men and women were as little spared as Unionists; the elegant mansion of General Robert E. Lee’s accomplished niece and the cabin of the Negro were alike ransacked,” he wrote of Price’s column.
By late October 1864, what began as a grand campaign of liberation had collapsed into a full retreat made agonizingly slow by Price’s desire to escape with a long wagon train of plundered supplies. As Federal troops nipped at the heels of his slow-moving column, Price spent the lives of hundreds of men to protect the only remaining reward of his month-long march through Union territory. By the time his campaign ended in Texas, Price’s army had almost entirely disappeared, his reputation was severely damaged and the Confederate cause in the Trans-Mississippi was dead.
ARMY OF MISSOURI
A critical year for the nation was 1864 because it was an election year in the North, and no nation had ever held a successful election in the midst of a civil war.
Key Union victories at Vicksburg, Miss., and Gettysburg, Pa., the previous year seemed a distant memory. Since then, Union armies had become bogged down in prolonged sieges of Petersburg, Va., and Atlanta. Federal offensives in Louisiana and the Shenandoah Valley also had ground to a halt, and President Abraham Lincoln was sure he would be defeated at the polls in November by George McClellan, the Democratic nominee and former Union general whom Lincoln had twice relieved from command of the Army of the Potomac. One of the key planks to McClellan’s platform was a negotiated peace with the Confederacy to end the bloodiest war in American history.
In Shreveport, La., Gen. Kirby Smith, commander of Confederate armies west of the Mississippi River, summoned Price to his headquarters to discuss an invasion of Missouri.
The hope was to divert Federal troops from Petersburg and Atlanta, prolong those sieges, undermine Northern confidence in victory and thwart Lincoln’s chances. Southern control of Missouri would be important if Lincoln lost and McClellan agreed to terms with Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
In early August, Smith instructed Price to make arrangements to invade Missouri as soon as possible. Price was given command of three divisions of mounted troops under Brig. Gen. John S. Marmaduke, Maj. Gen. James Fagan and Brig. Gen. Joseph Shelby. Both Shelby and Marmaduke were Missouri natives and eager to return to the state.
But logistical problems that plagued the entire Confederacy were even more acute west of the Mississippi River. Price was forced to augment his ranks with conscripts and deserters from other units. These troops, numbering about 4,000, marched off without weapons in the hope of capturing arms and ammunition along the way. Historian Robert Shalhope has written that the odds were against Price and his expedition before it even entered Missouri.
“Four years of war had doomed this calculated risk to failure — most of his conscripts were forced to accompany him unwillingly and others joined only to plunder and gain revenge on the federals for driving them from their homes. This last desperate effort was made up in great part of the dregs of a department that had been sapped of its strength throughout the war.”
Price set his eyes on St. Louis and the vast amount of supplies stored there. After that, he hoped to turn west, capture Jefferson City and install Reynolds as the governor. Price was then to continue west and capture Westport, Kansas City and Fort Leavenworth, Kan., which also housed large amounts of supplies. After taking Fort Leavenworth, Price was to travel south through Eastern Kansas cutting a wide swathe of destruction until he reached the safety of Arkansas or Indian Territory. Price assumed that when his army entered Missouri, thousands of volunteers would flock to his banner and swell his ranks.
Arnold Schofield, former administrator of the Mine Creek Battlefield State Historic Site in Linn County, Kan., says the popularly accepted term “raid” used to describe Price’s plan is misleading and does not accurately reflect the orders under which he was operating.
“I do not call this a ‘raid,’” he said. “A raid by definition is going into the enemy territory and leaving enemy territory for whatever reason. I would suggest that this is a campaign, not a raid, because one of the goals of the campaign was for the Confederacy to re-occupy Missouri. Price wants to come back to Missouri, he wants to stay in Missouri, he wants a Confederate presence in Missouri, and they want a Confederate governor installed.”
Price’s three divisions totaling 12,000 men crossed into Missouri on Sept. 20, 1864. They traveled parallel paths to maximize their foraging capability and create confusion as to their ultimate goal. As they made their way north, the Confederates fought several small skirmishes against Union troops, who fell back to Fort Davidson, a small hexagonal fort just outside Pilot Knob.
To their great excitement, the Confederates learned that Union troops inside the fort were commanded by the hated Brig. Gen. Thomas Ewing, author of Order No. 11, which depopulated much of the western Missouri border a year earlier, often by violent means. Ewing was ordered to Pilot Knob by Union Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans, commander of the District of Missouri, and Ewing scraped together about 1,000 men before marching south. Ewing’s men took refuge in the small earthen fort with 16 pieces of artillery.
Fagan and Marmaduke urged a frontal assault, assuring Price their 7,000 men could take the small fort in under 20 minutes. Based on the urging of his subordinates and a report that Ewing had taken southern sympathizers into the fort as human shields, Priced signed off on the plan. The Confederates dismounted and attacked the fort, but artillery and rifle fire from the fort’s defenders broke their lines. Twice the attackers were able to reach the six-foot-deep ditch at the base of the walls but were unable to advance. The assault lasted about 20 minutes, as Marmaduke and Fagan had predicted, but instead of taking the fort, they lost 1,000 to 1,500 of Price’s better trained troops. Union losses were reported at 200 men.
That night, Ewing’s force slipped out of the fort and escaped toward Rolla. An hour after the Union troops evacuated, a slow-burning fuse ignited the fort’s powder magazine, thus keeping Price from obtaining the ordinance left behind.
After the losses at Pilot Knob and the discovery that Union troops were reinforcing St. Louis, Price was deflected from his attack on the river city and instead turned west toward Jefferson City, where he hoped to complete his second objective. But when Price arrived at Jefferson City, he discovered that the Union garrison there had been reinforced the day before by 2,400 men and eight pieces of artillery. After hesitating for a day, Price decided that objective also was too well protected and set off toward Kansas City.
As they followed the Missouri River, Price’s army was finally in an area where Southern sympathizers were plentiful. At Booneville, they were treated as conquering heroes and many men and boys did join Price’s campaign. Price could not linger for long, however, because days earlier Rosecrans had dispatched Union Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasanton, the head of a provisional cavalry division, to pursue Price and hound his every step. Pleasanton was a capable cavalry commander with experience at Antietam and Gettysburg. Making matters worse, Price’s force was encumbered by a train of approximately 600 wagons filled with plunder.
As the Confederates moved westward, Rosecrans alerted the commander of Union troops in Kansas, Maj. Gen. Samuel Curtis, that Price was coming. Curtis asked the Kansas governor to call up the state militia and made preparations to meet Price’s force before it entered Kansas.
After two sharp engagements in which the Confederates forced crossings of the Little Blue and Big Blue rivers near Kansas City, the stage was set for not only the largest battle of the campaign, but also the largest battle fought west of the Mississippi, near Westport. More than 20,000 troops from both sides fought along a front that extended from Westport through what is now the Country Club Plaza and south along modern-day Wornall Boulevard angling toward Shawnee Mission, Kan.
Price attempted to break through but Curtis had established a strong defensive position. After repeated assaults, and with Pleasanton’s troops approaching the rear of the Confederate force, Price was forced to withdraw to the Southwest. The defeat nearly turned into a rout, but a gallant rear-guard action by Shelby’s cavalry using a series of stone fences as defensive breastworks allowed Price and his army to escape. The battle cost each side about 1,500 men and proved the decisive moment of the campaign. Before Westport, Price’s force was the aggressor as it marauded its way across the state, but afterward, the army was in flight, hoping only to escape with its long wagon train of spoils.
After a brief rest to reach a command arrangement between Curtis, commander of Union forces in Kansas, and Pleasanton, who answered to Rosecrans in St. Louis, Union cavalry began the pursuit of Price’s column, which was strung out across the prairie for nearly 11 miles. Federal troopers caught up with the Confederates on the morning of Oct. 25, 1864, near a settlement named Trading Post on the Marais De Cygnes River and drove them southward. Price’s column was delayed by a crossing at Mine Creek approximately 10 miles to the south. Several wagons had difficulty climbing the steep banks of the creek and blocked the ford. As Union troops approached, the task of delaying them fell to Marmaduke and Fagan, who deployed their men in a defensive line approximately a mile long at the edge of the woods on the north side of the creek. Their orders were to protect the wagon train at all costs.
Although Confederates outnumbered the Federals two to one, their position had several disadvantages. First the Confederates had a rain-swollen creek behind them that prevented an orderly withdrawal. Second, Marmaduke ordered his men to remain mounted despite the fact that they were armed with muzzle-loading weapons that could not be reloaded on horseback. Finally, according to Schofield, many of the Confederates were recent recruits or green troops who were untrained, and they and their untrained mounts were unlikely to withstand an attack for long.
Union troops on the other hand were battle-hardened veterans who spent the past few years fighting guerillas in Missouri. They were armed with breach-loading carbine rifles, sabers and often multiple revolvers. A few Union units were also armed with repeating rifles, which increased their volume of fire far beyond that of their Southern counterparts.
Two Union brigades formed on the ridge opposite of the Confederate line. From his position, Col. John Phillips could see Price’s wagon train winding up the far side of the valley. Union Lt. Col. Frederick Benteen decided to attack the Confederate line and ordered a mounted charge of the Confederate line, asking Phillips to “charge with me for God’s sake.” His troopers crashed into the right side of the Confederate line and went to work with their sabers and revolvers.
“Then began a fierce hand-to-hand fight, one that surpassed for the time it lasted (any) than I have ever witnessed,” Benteen wrote in his after-action report. “The enemy was completely routed and driven in the wildest confusion from the field.”
Many of the Confederate soldiers could do little more than fire once and then use their discharged weapon as clubs. As one Confederate officer recalled: “My men were armed with long infantry rifles, which (they) were unable to load on horseback and consequently were unable to oppose successfully the Federal charge, but broke and fled with the wildest confusion.”
As the Confederates fled, the creek behind them became a major obstacle to freedom. The ford became choked with panic-stricken men and horses.
“The stream everywhere was full of men and horses,” Confederate survivor James Darr wrote. “The Confederates trying to make their escape and the Federals trying just as hard to capture or kill them.”
In the course of the fight, Marmaduke was captured, 260 Confederates were killed, 300 were wounded, and 600 were reported captured. The Union lost just eight men killed and 80 wounded. The battle had been the second-largest cavalry engagement of the war and it was a crushing Union victory, but Schofield is careful to point out that Marmaduke and Fagan were also successful in their mission.
“Even though hundreds of Confederates are killed and Marmaduke is captured, the next battle does not occur for another four hours, therefore it is a successful rear guard action,” he said. “The mission of the rear guard hasn’t changed in any army in the world today. The mission of the rear guard is to protect the rear of a column from an advancing enemy so that the column can continue to move. You can be killed, captured, you can lose the battle, or you can be victorious, but as long as you delay the advancing enemy, you are successful in your mission.”
Two other engagements occurred on Oct. 25 at the Little Osage river near Fulton, Kan., and Charlots Farm near Deerfield, Mo.
In all, five battles were fought over about 55 miles as Price tried to escape to the south. That night, Price burned roughly a third of his wagons — turning the night sky red. The Federals paused to resupply themselves at Fort Scott, Kan. The Confederates continued to move south passing through Carthage and two days later Union Maj. Gen. James Blunt caught up with part of Price’s forces at Newtonia, where he led an ill-advised attack and was nearly surrounded by Shelby before reinforcements arrived.
The fight at Newtonia marked the end of the last large-scale campaign west of the Mississippi River. In all, Price had suffered nearly 4,000 casualties since entering Missouri in September but had not accomplished a single one of his objectives during the 1,400-mile campaign. Lincoln, meanwhile, rode to victory in large part because of strong support among Union soldiers.
MARCH TO TEXAS
After Newtonia, Price’s army slipped into Northwest Arkansas, then into Indian Territory where it crossed the Arkansas River on Nov. 8, 1864. All along the route, thousands of Confederates simply melted away into the countryside choosing to return to their homes rather than continue fighting. Price reached Clarksville, Texas, on Nov. 28. His troops had marched nearly 1,500 miles by then, but he had little to show for the effort.
Kirby Smith determined Price’s invasion to be a success because it diverted Federal troops from operations in the East, but Reynolds accused Price of gross mismanagement and negligence at the expense of his men, and called for him to be sacked.
Before a court of inquiry could be concluded, the war came to an end. Price, Shelby, and many other Confederates chose to flee to Mexico, but eventually returned to Missouri after the war.
Sources: This narrative was reconstructed from a variety of sources, including “Battle Cry of Freedom,” by James McPherson; “The Civil War Battlefield Guide”; “Civil War on the Western Border” by Jay Monaghan; “The Battle of Mine Creek” by Jeffrey Stalnaker; “Sterling Price, Portrait of a Southerner,” by Robert Shalhope; and “General Sterling Price and the Civil War in the West,” by Albert Castel; as well as interviews with Arnold Schofield and Adrian Zink at the Mine Creek Battlefield State Historic State.