Confederate General Kirby Smith’s sweeping triumph over Union forces in Arkansas and Louisiana during the Red River Campaign in the spring of 1864 emboldened him to authorize a daring cavalry raid into Missouri in September. Smith chose Major General Sterling Price to lead the foray. Price’s objectives were to divert Union troops away from Richmond and Atlanta, enlist Confederate recruits, capture and destroy Union war materials, and, if possible, capture St. Louis or Jefferson City. Smith also hoped that Confederate successes in Missouri would damage President Abraham Lincoln’s reelection hopes.
Confederate Army of Missouri on the Move
During the summer, Price assembled three divisions of cavalry, mounted infantry, and supporting artillery, commanded by Major General James F. Fagan, Major General John S. Marmaduke, and Brigadier General Joseph O. Shelby. Price’s force, known as the Army of Missouri, totaled roughly 12,000 ill-provisioned men. Perhaps as many as 4,000 of them were unarmed.
Price’s Expedition began on August 28, 1864, when the Army of Missouri departed Camden, Arkansas. On September 19, he led his men into Missouri near Doniphan and headed north toward St. Louis.
Battle of Fort Davidson—September 26-27, 1864
Eager for a morale-boosting victory early in the campaign, Price decided to attack Fort Davidson, a lightly defended Union garrison, about eighty miles south of St. Louis on September 26. The two-day battle that followed proved costly for the Confederates. Although the Rebels forced the Yankee garrison to abandon the fort, Price suffered roughly 1,100 casualties while doing so. More importantly, the delay enabled Union officials to strengthen their defenses around St. Louis, forcing Price to abandon plans to strike his primary objective. Instead, Price led his army west toward Missouri’s capital, Jefferson City, near the center of the state.
For the next week, the Army of Missouri rampaged across central Missouri, destroying railroads, burning bridges, and looting. Bogged down by wagons loaded with supplies and plunder, the slow, undisciplined caravan did not approach the Missouri capital until October 6, 1864. On that date, Price’s vanguard skirmished with federal pickets and forced a crossing of the Osage River six miles below Jefferson City. By that time, Brigadier General Clinton Fisk, commander of the Union District of Northern Missouri, had ringed the city with formidable defenses.
Fearing a repeat of the costly defeat at Fort Davidson, Price decided to bypass Jefferson City. Instead, he headed his army toward the Missouri-Kansas border on October 8. On the same day, Major General Alfred Pleasonton arrived in Jefferson City and took command of all Union mounted forces. Pleasonton ordered his cavalry into the field to harass Price’s rearguard.
As the Army of Missouri continued its slow trek west, the Confederates assaulted Glasgow and Sedalia on October 15. The Rebels carried off roughly 1,500 muskets, 150 horses, and wagonloads of supplies during the raids.
Price’s raids and pillaging in Missouri came at a steep price. The army’s slow progress enabled Union officials to consolidate their forces. On October 9, 1864, Major General Samuel Curtis, commander of the Department of Kansas, learned that Price had left Jefferson City headed toward Kansas. Curtis countered by convincing Kansas Governor Thomas Carney to mobilize the state militia. The next day, Curtis declared martial law and began merging the 4,000 regular troops under his command with 8,000 Kansas militiamen to form a force to confront Price.
Curtis partitioned his army into two divisions. Major General James G. Blunt, in charge of the District of South Kansas, commanded the army’s 1st Division, which comprised three brigades of volunteer cavalry regiments and a fourth brigade of Kansas state militia units. Major General George W. Dietzler commanded the 2nd Division, which comprised all the Kansas state militia units except one.
By October 13, 1864, Curtis was referring to his combined command as the Army of the Border in official correspondence. On October 14, in a memorandum, Curtis informed Major General Henry W. Halleck who was General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States, that “I denominate my forces the Army of the Border, and I will do all I can to make it felt by the enemy.”
Pleasonton’s Provisional Cavalry Division
While Curtis was organizing his Kansas troops, Major General William S. Rosecrans, commander of the Department of Missouri, began rounding up cavalry units under his jurisdiction to stop Price. By early October, Rosecrans had assembled roughly 5,500 Union troopers at Jefferson City led by Major General Alfred Pleasonton, commander of the District of Central Missouri.
Second Battle of Lexington—October 19, 1864
As the Army of Missouri inched west, Price found himself between two hostile forces. Pleasonton’s cavalry was still nipping at his heels, as roughly 2,000 Federals from Blunt’s division of the Army of the Border headed toward Lexington, Missouri, to await Price’s arrival.
On October 18, Blunt established forward positions on the eastern outskirts of Lexington, expecting to be reinforced by Dietzler’s division. Blunt learned the next morning that he was on his own because the Kansas militia had balked at crossing the state line into Missouri.
At two o’clock that afternoon, General Shelby’s division collided with Blunt’s scouts and pickets about three miles south of Lexington, Missouri. After pushing the Yankees back, the Rebels engaged Blunt’s main line. Initially, the Federals held their ground until Fagan’s and Marmaduke’s divisions entered the fray and drove the Yankees through the town.
The victorious Confederates abandoned the pursuit of their foe at nightfall. Blunt withdrew and established new lines along the Little Blue River, while the Rebels encamped near Fire Prairie Creek.
After the battle, Price reported his losses as “very light.” Blunt suffered roughly forty casualties.
Although the engagement was a Confederate victory because the Federals retreated, Blunt gathered intelligence regarding the weaponry and size of Price’s force that would prove invaluable as the campaign continued.