Born in Prince Edward County, Virginia, on September 11, 1809, Sterling Price was the son of a tobacco planter of middling status who provided a comfortable home and a good education for his five children. In 1830 the Price family joined the growing numbers of Virginia planters seeking new lands in Missouri.
Sterling Price tried his hand at storekeeping and the tobacco commission business, investing his profits in land around his father’s extensive holdings near Keytesville. A handsome and personable young man, he mixed easily in local society and politics. Within two years of his arrival, Price was elected colonel of the Chariton County militia regiment. In May 1833 he married Martha Head, daughter of Judge Walter Head, a wealthy planter who came to Missouri from Orange County, Virginia, in 1830. The couple eventually had seven children, five of whom survived to adulthood.
Early in his political career, Price allied himself with the powerful Central Clique or “Boonslick Democracy,” a group of wealthy Southern planters and merchants who settled Boone, Howard, and Chariton Counties, and who, in uneasy alliance with Thomas Hart Benton, dominated Missouri politics in the 1830s and 1840s. Price’s tact, persuasive skills, and powerful presence made him an effective politician. He easily won election to the General Assembly in 1838. Returned to office in 1840, he was unanimously elected Speaker of the House. By this time he was an established political leader, planter, and entrepreneur. With partner Lisbon Applegate he operated a general mercantile business in Keytesville. He was building one of the finest tobacco plantations in the state, and in 1843 he built a tobacco warehouse at Keytesville Landing on the Missouri River to expand his commission business. In 1844 he was elected to the US House of Representatives. When the United States declared war on Mexico, Senator Benton secured Price a commission as colonel of volunteers to raise and lead a regiment of Missourians in Stephen Watts Kearny’s Army of the West.
Despite a severe illness, Price led his regiment to Santa Fe in September 1846, where he assumed command of the American army of occupation. In January 1847 he crushed a rebellion against the Americans, marching from Santa Fe with 350 men, driving the insurgents back to Taos, storming the town, and forcing their surrender. Price was promoted to brigadier general for this action, though political enemies and professional soldiers alike characterized the promotion as due more to political influence than merit.
With the war drawing to a close, Price needed a smashing victory to silence his critics. In late February 1848 he reported rumors of another insurrection being planned to the south. Ignoring War Department orders to remain in his own district, he pushed his men on a grueling march southward until he located a Mexican army unit at Santa Cruz de Rosales. Although the peace treaty between the United States and Mexico had just been signed, Price attacked, killing more than two hundred Mexicans and losing four of his own men before accepting the Mexican surrender. Back in the United States the Democratic press celebrated his victory, and Price served briefly as military governor of Chihuahua. By October 1848 he was back home, enjoying the praise of supporters ranging from the president, James Polk, to the local press.
In 1852 Price was elected governor of Missouri. In national politics he was a Douglas Democrat, a nationalist who supported a transcontinental railroad on a central route to unify the nation, and who regarded popular sovereignty as the only constitutional solution to the question of slavery in the territories. Within the state Price favored a conservative policy of funding major railroad lines through equal contributions from state and private funds. He saw public support of local lines as a dangerous overextension of the state’s credit, and considered the governor’s role that of watchdog over the legislature. He relentlessly vetoed pork-barrel legislation, which secured him the respect and affection of Missouri voters while alienating the state’s political leadership.
Price supported the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, hoping for a peaceful resolution to the question of slavery in the territories. As opposing forces massed to claim Kansas, the Boonslick Democrats supplied the initial proslavery leadership and much of its rank and file. Price sympathized with them, but regarded their methods as a threat to national unity. He feared the abolitionists even more, believing their ultimate goal to be the subversion of the Constitution and the destruction of the American government and institutions. Consequently, while he declined to aid the Missourians then moving into Kansas, he did nothing to hinder them or to suppress the ensuing violence along the border.
During this time, state political leadership fell increasingly into extremists’ hands, and moderates such as Price were shunted aside. In January 1857 he gladly relinquished the governorship, returning to his neglected tobacco business and a project to prove that local railroad lines could be built with local funds. As president of the Chariton and Randolph County Railroad Company, he threw his resources and prestige into raising private capital to build the line. As a result, he neglected his own financial affairs, and the economic depression following the panic of 1857 nearly ruined him. Friends secured him an appointment as state bank commissioner, and the salary eased his financial difficulties and allowed him to take an active role again in state affairs.
In January 1861, as Southern states seceded from the Union, Missouri’s governor Claiborne Fox Jackson called for a state convention to determine Missouri’s position. Voters overwhelmingly elected Unionists to the convention. Conditional Unionists such as Sterling Price hoped for compromise to prevent war and regarded secession as a desperate last resort, to be employed only after all other remedies to preserve the Union while protecting the constitutional rights of the states had failed. Price was easily elected president of the convention meeting in St. Louis through February and March 1861. He presided over the passage of resolutions calling for union, peace, and compromise between North and South, and constitutional amendments to protect the rights of minority states.
St. Louis politician Frank Blair, determined to force Missouri into active support for the Union, organized a paramilitary unit he called the Home Guards, drawing primarily on pro-Union Germans in St. Louis. He convinced Captain Nathaniel Lyon to muster these men into federal service. On May 10, 1861, Blair and Lyon used the Home Guards to arrest Missouri militiamen then gathered for their annual spring training at Camp Jackson, a bivouac near St. Louis. The Home Guards marched their prisoners through the streets of St. Louis, provoking a riot in which guardsmen shot and killed at least twenty-eight unarmed civilians.
The event outraged pro-Southern Missourians. Price, who witnessed the disaster, hurried to Jefferson City to offer the governor his services. Although secessionists within the state government distrusted Price’s moderate stance, they recognized his tremendous prestige and popularity. Somewhat reluctantly, Governor Jackson appointed him major general in command of the militia, or State Guard. Price immediately met with federal commander Major General William S. Harney to draft a truce between Unionist and state forces. Blair used his Washington connections to have the conservative Harney replaced by the radical Lyon. State and federal officers met again in St. Louis on June 11; the meeting ended when Lyon declared the state to be at war.
On June 15, Lyon captured Jefferson City, forcing the government to flee the capital. On June 18 he scattered state forces at Boonville. Price rallied the State Guard at Lexington, where he was attempting to repel Kansas raiders. Federal forces from Kansas, Iowa, and St. Louis converged on his position, but Price and his men slipped their trap. While Jackson led the State Guard’s withdrawal southward, Price rode to Arkansas and won the support of Confederate forces under Brigadier General Ben McCulloch. When Lyon rashly attacked the combined Missouri-Confederate forces at Wilson’s Creek on August 10, the federals were routed, leaving their commander dead on the battlefield. The victorious allies briefly occupied nearby Springfield before McCulloch returned to Arkansas and Price struck north to clear the western counties of Kansas marauders, gather recruits, and secure the Missouri River. He trapped a federal army at Lexington and forced the surrender of thirty-five hundred men. Federal forces massed against him, and Price’s outnumbered State Guard was once again forced to retreat southward.
Meanwhile, Jackson convened exiled state legislators at Neosho on October 20, 1861, where they quickly passed an ordinance of secession. On November 28 the Confederate Congress admitted Missouri as the twelfth member of the Confederate States of America, although the majority of Missourians continued to oppose secession. Price’s victories and skillful retreats were widely publicized throughout the South, bringing him considerable popular acclaim. He was praised as another George Washington, whose leadership sprang from natural ability, good sense, and personal courage rather than the paper degree of a military academy. At odds with popular sentiment, Confederate president Jefferson Davis and the West Point–trained officers on whom he relied disdained such amateur soldiers and showed little interest in defending Missouri or the critical Mississippi valley. When Price was forced from Missouri to Arkansas in February 1862 by overwhelming federal numbers and the lack of Confederate support, he became a symbol for Davis’s political opponents of all that was wrong with the president’s conduct of the war.
In early March, McCulloch and Price joined forces under Major General Earl Van Dorn to attack federal forces at Pea Ridge (Elkhorn Tavern), Arkansas. The Confederates were defeated and again retreated southward. As in his previous battles, Price’s reckless courage and his concern for his men (though himself shot in the arm, Price personally looked after his wounded during the retreat) intensified the soldiers’ admiration for the fatherly leader they affectionately called “Old Pap.”
Before Van Dorn could regroup to resume the offensive, the Davis administration virtually abandoned the trans-Mississippi states, concentrating all western units on the east side of the river. Price was commissioned a major general in the Confederate army and ordered to Memphis with his men. He promised his “boys” that they would soon return, pledging that their government would not ask them to sacrifice their lives far from home while their beloved state fell prey to an army of occupation.
Davis, however, had apparently given up the struggle for Missouri. In June 1862, Price met the president in Richmond. The two men quarreled violently; Price offered his resignation, but Davis could not let Price leave the army. There was talk in Richmond of making the popular Missourian the next president, or the head of a military junta to replace Davis. There were rumors of Price’s interest in a proposed “Northwestern Confederacy” independent of either Confederate or federal governments. Davis made enough concessions to pacify Price and keep his Missourians east of the Mississippi.
In September 1862, Price captured a large federal supply depot at Iuka, Mississippi. The federals moved quickly to encircle him, but, as General William Rosecrans warned, Price was “an old woodpecker” impossible to trap. The Missourian escaped with his men and the stockpiled supplies. He rejoined Van Dorn for an assault on Corinth, Mississippi, where the Confederates were defeated with terrible losses. Price’s Missouri Brigade was celebrated as one of the finest units to serve in either army during the war, but the men’s lives were squandered in fierce and hopeless assaults on impregnable enemy positions. Time and again they nearly carried the day, charging headlong against overwhelming odds, only to be thrown back at the last when promised support never came. After the bloody fight at Corinth, Price wept openly for the hundreds of “his boys” who lay dead or dying on the battlefield.
In March 1863 Price was sent to Arkansas to command a division under Major General Theophilus Holmes while his men remained in Mississippi. Davis relied on Price’s popularity to raise another army in Arkansas and Missouri. Federal officials also recognized the power of his leadership, and offered him a full pardon if he returned to Missouri and took an oath of loyalty to the Union. Instead, Price went to work recruiting men and improving the living conditions of those already in service.
In early July, Price and his recruits joined Holmes’s ill-conceived attack on the federal stronghold at Helena, Arkansas, where the Confederates were repulsed with heavy losses. In March and April 1864 Price rallied and drove the enemy from Camden, pursued them to a hard fight at Jenkins Ferry, and pushed them back to Little Rock.
Price then launched his long-awaited offensive. On September 19, 1864, he crossed into Missouri with twelve thousand men, mostly raw recruits, and many unarmed. After a bitter fight to take Fort Davidson at Pilot Knob, Price lacked the manpower to seize his main objective, St. Louis, and so turned toward Jefferson City. As federal troops massed against him, he again diverted his march westward along the river.
With federal armies converging on him from all directions, Price fought his way across the Little Blue on October 20–21, 1864. After a hard fight his army crossed the Big Blue at Byram’s Ford on October 22. Federal troops closed in at Westport on October 23, and the subsequent battle was the largest of the trans-Mississippi war, engaging thirty-two thousand men. Although heavily outnumbered, Price saved the bulk of his army and supply train, retreating through Kansas and Indian Territory to Arkansas. The 1864 raid achieved Confederate military objectives in diverting federal troops and relieving pressure on other sectors, but failed to reestablish a Confederate state government in Missouri. There would be no second chance: a treaty terminating hostilities in the Trans-Mississippi Department was signed at Shreveport on May 26, 1865. In early June, Price and other Missouri Confederates set out for Mexico rather than accept surrender.
Price led in establishing the largest Confederate colony in Mexico. As Emperor Maximilian’s regime weakened, this pro-government settlement situated in the Cordova valley west of Vera Cruz made an easy target for rebels and outlaws, and could not be sustained. Broken in health and fortune, Price returned to Missouri in January 1867. As a gesture of reconciliation, his old enemy Frank Blair offered him a presidential pardon. Price replied simply, “I have no pardon to ask.”
Price and his family settled in a house purchased by friends with the donations of thousands of Missourians, a token of their devotion to their former leader. In the spring he opened a commission business with his sons in St. Louis, but the old soldier’s health steadily declined. On September 29, 1867, General Price died. He was buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery, with the largest funeral procession St. Louis had ever seen.
To pro-Southern Missourians, Price represented heroism, a reluctant secession forced by Northern aggression, and self-sacrificing patriotism through all the hardship of war. The United Confederate Veterans of Missouri erected a bronze statue of Price in the Springfield National Cemetery in 1901. In 1911 his admirers petitioned the state legislature for $5,000, part of the governor’s salary that Price never collected. That sum with private donations was spent in erecting a monument to the general’s memory in his old hometown of Keytesville.
This article was first published in Lawrence O. Christensen, William E. Foley, Gary R. Kremer, and Kenneth H. Winn, eds., Dictionary of Missouri Biography (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999), and appears here by permission of the author and original publisher.
Castel, Albert. General Sterling Price and the Civil War in the West. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1968.
Lause, Mark A. The Collapse of Price’s Raid: The Beginning of the End in Civil War Missouri. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2016.
———. Price’s Lost Campaign: The 1864 Invasion of Missouri. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2011.
Reynolds, Thomas C. General Sterling Price and the Confederacy. Edited by Robert G. Schultz. St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press, 2009.
Shalhope, Robert E. Sterling Price: Portrait of a Southerner. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1971.
Sinsi, Kyle S. The Last Hurrah: Sterling Price’s Missouri Expedition of 1864. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.
Published September 20, 2021; Last updated September 23, 2021
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