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Sterling Price was a farmer, politician, and soldier who served as a general from Missouri in Arkansas during the Civil War. Most notably, he commanded the Confederate Department of Arkansas during the fall of Little Rock (Pulaski County) to Federal forces and during the Camden Expedition.
Born in Prince Edward County, Virginia, on September 20, 1809, into a wealthy planting family, Price attended Hampton-Sydney College for one year and then studied law. Sterling’s parents, Pugh Price and Elizabeth (Williamson) Price, had three other sons and a daughter. Around 1831, Price accompanied his parents west to Missouri. There, he married Martha Head on May 14, 1833, and was active in a number of enterprises, most notably tobacco farming. Residing near Keytesville in Chariton County, Price went on to serve six years in the Missouri state legislature, including four as the speaker. In 1844, Price was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
In August 1846, Price resigned from Congress and took command of a regiment from Missouri to participate in the Mexican War. Assigned to Santa Fe, New Mexico, Price served as the commander of the American forces in the area. After quelling an uprising by the local Pueblo Indians, he led an invasion into Mexico itself, capturing the city of Chihuahua.
Returning to Missouri as a brevet brigadier general, Price parlayed his war record and a schism in the state’s Democratic Party into the governorship in 1853. His administration was marked by a lack of involvement in the border war that erupted with Kansas over the issue of slavery. Leaving office in 1857, he returned to his plantation and served as bank commissioner. He was elected as a conditional Unionist to the 1861 Secession Convention and presided as its president. As war broke out, Price witnessed an incident in which Federal troops fired into a crowd of civilians who were protesting the arrest of pro-Southern militia men. He was soon selected as the commander of the Missouri State Guard with the rank of major general.
At the August 10, 1861, Battle of Wilson’s Creek, Missouri, Price’s Missouri State Guard and Confederate forces, including units from Arkansas under the command of Brigadier General Benjamin McCulloch, met the Union army and pushed back its advance into southwestern Missouri. Later in the summer, Price led his troops to Lexington, Missouri, where they captured the Union garrison stationed there.
During the winter of 1861–1862, many of the Missouri guardsmen transferred into the Confederate army, and two Missouri brigades were formed. Early in 1862, the Federal army forced Price and his men to withdraw from Missouri and enter Arkansas. On March 7–8, the Confederate army, including the Missouri units and Price, engaged the Union army at the Battle of Pea Ridge. After the battle, Major General Earl Van Dorn’s army was transferred from Arkansas across the Mississippi River and moved to defend Corinth, Mississippi. Price, in the meantime, had finally accepted a commission as a major general in the Confederate army.
Participating in the battles at Iuka and Corinth, Mississippi, Price traveled to the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, in early 1863. Visiting with Confederate officials, including President Jefferson Davis, Price requested that he and the Missouri troops be transferred back west of the Mississippi. Instead, Price returned to the Trans-Mississippi Theater without his men.
Price led part of the Confederate attack on Helena (Phillips County) on July 4, 1863, which was repulsed. Due to the difficulty of the terrain and a misinterpretation of orders, Price launched his attack well after other Confederate commanders had sent their men forward. After a protracted fight, Price was able to seize his objective of the Federal artillery position atop Graveyard Hill, but the guns had been spiked, and Confederate forces had to withdraw. After the battle, command of the entire army passed to Price, and the army returned to Little Rock to prepare for a Union attack, which came in late summer. Price was forced to abandon the capital city with only a minimum of resistance. The Confederates retreated to Arkadelphia (Clark County) and eventually Washington (Hempstead County) and Camden (Ouachita County).
On March 16, 1864, Price was given command of the Confederate District of Arkansas to coincide with his field assignment as commander of the troops in the area. Thus, he defended the Arkansas Confederate capital at Washington during the Camden Expedition later that month. Stripped of all available infantry support, Price was able to defend Washington, but the Federal army under the command of Major General Frederick Steele was able to move into the previously fortified city of Camden. Price ordered his forces to attack a Union supply train near Poison Spring. After the resulting victory, Price was superseded by General Edmund Kirby Smith, commander of the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department. At the Engagement at Jenkins’ Ferry, Price led a division from Arkansas and a division from Missouri onto the field, but they were repulsed.
While Price did not give an outstanding performance during the campaign, he did serve adequately enough to gain permission to lead a raid into Missouri to gather men, procure supplies, and disrupt Federal communications with the ultimate goal of taking St. Louis. In late September 1864, his army of Missouri and Arkansas troops reentered Missouri and fought several pitched battles but was unable to take St. Louis—or even come close. Moving across the state, Price’s army was attacked at Westport, Missouri, where the largest battle in the Trans-Mississippi Theater ended with a Confederate defeat. Continuing his retreat, Price was again defeated at Mine Creek, Kansas. After numerous small engagements and the near destruction of his army, Price returned to Arkansas and set up his headquarters at Laynesport (Little River County). Price did not actively serve in the field again during the war.
With the end of the war, Price did not surrender but rather led some of his men into Mexico, where they planned to join Emperor Maximilian. After living in Mexico for a few years, he and his family returned to St. Louis, where he died on September 29, 1867. Price is buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery.
For additional information:Castel, Albert. General Sterling Price and the Civil War in the West. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1968.
Lause, Mark A. Price’s Lost Campaign: The 1864 Invasion of Missouri. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2011.
Rea, Ralph. Sterling Price: The Lee of the West. Little Rock: Pioneer Press, 1959.
Reynolds, Thomas. General Sterling Price and the Confederacy. St. Louis: Missouri History Museum Press, 2009.
Shalhope, Robert. Sterling Price: Portrait of a Southerner. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1971.
Warner, Ezra. Generals in Gray: Lives of the Confederate Commanders. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1959.
David SesserHenderson State University
Last Updated 11/1/2011
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