Sterling Price was an antebellum governor of Missouri, United States Congressman, and prominent Confederate commander in the Western Theater of the American Civil War.
Sterling Price was born in Prince Edward County, Virginia, on September 20, 1809. He was the third son and the fourth of five children of Pugh Williamson Price and Elizabeth (Williamson) Price. Price went to local schools before attending Hampton-Sydney College in 1826 and 1827, where he studied law.
In 1831, Price accompanied his family when they moved to Fayette, Missouri. One year later, Price moved to Keytesville, where he eventually became engaged in several commercial enterprises, including tobacco farming.
On May 14, 1833, Price married Martha Head, daughter of Judge Walter Head who had also emigrated from Virginia to Missouri. Their marriage produced seven children, five of whom lived to adulthood.
Price’s political career began when Chariton County voters elected him to the Missouri General Assembly from 1838 to 1840 and again from 1840 to 1844. During his second term, Price was Speaker of the House. Missouri voters elected Price to a two-year term in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1844. He served from March 4, 1845 until August 12, 1846, when he resigned to volunteer for service in the Mexican-American War (1846–1848).
When the Mexican-American War began, Price raised a regiment of volunteers, the Missouri Mounted Volunteer Cavalry. Price received a commission as a colonel, and his regiment joined General Stephen Kearny’s Army of the West. Army officials assigned Price to occupation duty in New Mexico, where he served as military governor. In January 1847, Price suppressed a rebellion of Native Americans and Mexicans known as the Taos Revolt. On July 20, 1847, Price received a promotion to brigadier general of volunteers for subduing the insurrectionists.
In 1848, Price led an unauthorized expedition into Mexico and occupied the city of Chihuahua after a victory over Mexican forces at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Rosales (March 16, 1848). Although Mexico and the United States had signed the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo ending hostilities six weeks earlier (February 2, 1848), Price’s supporters back in Missouri used the campaign to promote his political aspirations. After a brief stint as the military governor of Chihuahua, Price mustered out of the volunteer army on November 25, 1848.
After the Mexican-American War, Price returned to Missouri. Voters elected him as the state’s governor in 1852. During his four-year term from 1853 to 1857, Price supported the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which endorsed the doctrine of popular sovereignty to resolve the growing national controversy over the expansion of slavery into the territories.
After his term expired, Price did not seek reelection and returned to private life. He speculated heavily in the construction of the Chariton and Randolph County Railroad Company. The Panic of 1857, which hit the railroad industry especially hard, nearly ruined Price financially. Price averted complete financial disaster when political allies secured him a position as a state bank commissioner.
When the Union began to dissolve after the election of Abraham Lincoln as president, the prospect of secession divided Missouri residents. In March 1861, Price presided over Missouri’s Secession Convention, which opted to remain in the Union despite the secessionist leanings of Governor Claiborne Jackson. Many Missourians, including Price, changed their allegiances, however, after Union Captain Nathaniel Lyon paraded captured members of the Missouri State Guard through the streets of St. Louis on May 10, 1861, inciting a riot that resulted in the death of twenty-eight civilians. After witnessing the event, Price offered his services to Governor Jackson, who placed Price in charge of the Missouri State Guard, with the rank of major general.
Despite Lyon’s provocative actions, Price remained committed to maintaining peace in Missouri. On May 21, 1861, he negotiated an agreement with Union General William S. Harney, known as the Price-Harney Truce. The agreement charged the Missouri State Guard with the responsibility of protecting pro-Unionist citizens in Missouri.
When Price could not fulfill his end of the bargain, radical Unionists schemed to have the more combative Lyon replace Harney as commander in Missouri. When President Abraham Lincoln requested 75,000 troops from Missouri to take up arms against the Confederacy, Governor Jackson withdrew his support of neutrality. A subsequent meeting between Jackson and Lyon did not resolve the matter. Instead, Lyon’s Army of the West and Price’s Missouri State Guard prepared for combat.
By mid-July 1861, Lyon’s army had driven Price’s forces into the southwestern corner of Missouri, where they received reinforcements from other Southern states. The Confederates united and reorganized their troops in the West under the command of Brigadier-General Ben McCulloch.
As McCulloch’s force continued to grow, Lyon determined to go on the offensive. On August 9, 1861, he led nearly 5,400 Union soldiers out of Springfield, Missouri to assault over 11,000 Rebels encamped near Wilson’s Creek, approximately twelve miles southwest of the city.
Lyon’s surprise attack, on the morning of August 10, caught the Confederates off guard. The Federals initially drove the Rebels back, but the Southerners eventually halted the Union advance. The Confederates launched three counterattacks during the day, but despite being outnumbered over two to one, the Federals held their ground.
During the battle, Lyon was killed, making him the first Union general to die in combat during the Civil War. Major Samuel D. Sturgis took command of the Union army and ordered a retreat later in the day as his exhausted soldiers ran low on ammunition. The spent Rebels did not pursue.
The Confederate victory at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek buoyed secessionist sympathies in Missouri and emboldened the Confederates to launch an offensive to regain control of northern Missouri. However, Union victories at the Battle of Fredericktown (October 21, 1861) and the Battle of Springfield (October 25, 1861) forced Price and the Missouri State Guard to abandon the state.
First Battle of Lexington
After the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, discord between McCulloch and Price resulted in the former moving back into Arkansas, while the latter continued operations in Missouri. On September 11, 1861, Price moved into position to assault the Union garrison outside of Lexington, Missouri. Two days later, he ordered a series of attacks that could not penetrate the federal defenses. Price then fell back and shelled the Union fortifications for a week. Another attack on September 18 also failed. On the next day, Price’s men launched a final assault, moving behind bales of hemp that they had soaked in the Missouri River during the night. A fusillade of fire from the Federal defenders could not penetrate the rolling bales of hemp. Facing the prospect of being overrun, the worn-out Yankees, who were short on drinking water, surrendered. Price’s victory at the First Battle of Lexington (also known as the Battle of Hemp Bales), yielded him nearly 3,000 prisoners plus some much-needed provisions, arms, and ammunition.
Wounded at the Battle of Pea Ridge
During the winter, Confederate President Jefferson Davis sought to coordinate operations west of the Mississippi River by resolving the rift between Price and McCulloch. In January, Davis appointed Major General Earl Van Dorn as commander of both men’s forces in the newly created Trans-Mississippi District. Van Dorn devised an ambitious plan to recapture Missouri that led to a disastrous Confederate defeat at the Battle of Pea Ridge (March 6–8, 1862). During the battle, Price received a wound in the arm, and McCulloch was killed. The loss at Pea Ridge forced the Rebels to retreat into Arkansas and to concede Missouri to Union control for the rest of the war.
Confederate Army Commission
After the Battle of Pea Ridge, the Missouri State Guard joined the Confederate military, and Price received a commission as a major general effective March 6, 1862. Price and his men advanced east of the Mississippi River to assist Major General P. G. T. Beauregard‘s defense of Corinth, Mississippi.
Clash with Jefferson Davis
After Beauregard abandoned Corinth in May 1862, Price traveled to Richmond for an audience with Confederate President Jefferson Davis. There, during a quarrelsome meeting, Davis denied Price’s request that he and his men take the war back to Missouri. Price threatened to resign his commission, but Davis convinced him to remain in the military.
Price reluctantly returned to Mississippi, where he engaged Major General William S. Rosecrans’ Army of the Mississippi at the Battle of Iuka on September 19, 1862. Although Price lost the battle, he saved his army from being destroyed.
A few weeks later, Price and his men took part in Van Dorn’s failed attempt to recapture Corinth at the Second Battle of Corinth (October 3–4, 1862).
In March 1863, officials reassigned Price to Arkansas, with him commanding a division in Major General Theophilus Holmes’s District of Arkansas. Price’s men, however, remained in Mississippi to help defend Vicksburg. To ease Union pressure on Vicksburg, Price took part in Holmes’s attack on Federal fortifications at Helena, Arkansas, on July 4, 1863. Not only was the operation a failure, but by coincidence, Vicksburg fell on the same day. Along with the Battle of Gettysburg, the Battle of Helena was one of three major Confederate defeats in just two days.
After the Battle of Helena, Holmes became ill, and Price assumed command of all Confederate forces in Arkansas. Price withdrew to Little Rock and tried to hold the state capital to no avail. He abandoned Little Rock to Major General Frederick Steele on September 11, 1863. Continued pressure from Steele forced Price to retreat to Arkadelphia, then on to Washington, and eventually, to Camden.
In March 1864, Steele launched an offensive against Camden as part of the larger Red River Campaign. Steele’s orders were to capture Camden and meet up with a combined army-navy force commanded by Major General Nathaniel Banks and Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter, which was moving up the Red River Valley from southern Louisiana. General Kirby Smith, commander of the Trans-Mississippi District, quickly defeated Banks’s offensive and reinforced Price in time to halt Steele’s expedition. Beginning on April 18, Confederate forces led by Price and Smith inflicted a series of ruinous defeats on Steele’s army. By May 3, the Union general was back in Little Rock, soundly defeated.
Flush with success after the Red River Campaign, General Kirby Smith authorized Price to mount a cavalry raid into Missouri in September 1864, with the goal of capturing St. Louis. Price’s Expedition began on August 28, 1864, when he departed Camden. On September 19, Price led 12,000 mounted soldiers into Missouri. A little over six weeks and a dozen or more battles later, Price limped back into Arkansas with only 6,000 survivors. For the rest of the war, hostilities west of the Mississippi comprised skirmishes and guerrilla raids.
Escape to Mexico
In the spring of 1865, Price led some of his men into Mexico, offering their services to the French puppet Emperor Maximilian, who had overthrown the Mexican government in 1864. Price’s hopes to establish a Confederate colony south of the border ended when forces led by Benito Juárez captured the Mexican dictator on May 15, 1867, and executed him on June 19.
Price returned to Missouri, impoverished and in ill health, yet he was a heroic figure to many Missourians who provided him with a home and financial help. Price opened a business with his sons, but he lived only a few more months. On September 29, 1867, Price died in St. Louis. His funeral, held at the First Methodist Episcopal Church, on October 3, 1867, was one of the largest in St. Louis history. Price is buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery, St. Louis.