Introduction: Price’s March of 1864

In commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Price’s raid on Missouri and Kansas, KHC is featuring excerpts from “Price’s March of 1864” Shared Stories of the Civil War reader’s theater script. The Shared Stories of the Civil War reader’s theater project is a partnership between KHC and the Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area.

This introduction is intended to provide context to the reader’s theater script. It is not a comprehensive examination of Price’s march or the events surrounding it. It has been developed to remind us to consider the violence and complexities of the time period as we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. “Price’s March of 1864” reader’s theater script was created using excerpts taken from historical letters and witness accounts, and both historical and contemporary newspaper articles.

Citations for all quotations featured in the introduction and the script can be found on the “Price’s March of 1864” Citations page.  Links to the citations page are available on each blog post.                   

Sterling Price

Sterling Price. Photo courtesy of kansasmemory.org, Kansas State Historical Society. Copy and Reuse Restrictions apply.

In the winter of 1861, before the Civil War in the Eastern United States officially began, many observers believed that war between North and South would be quick and decisive.  The Confederacy, in particular, thought that fighting following their secession would be bloodless.  “A lady’s thimble will hold all the blood that will be shed,” many in the South assured themselves, and in a speech in Montgomery, Alabama, the Confederacy’s own Secretary of War claimed that any blood spilled in civil strife could be wiped up with a pocket handkerchief.

But by the autumn of 1864, sectional warfare had raged for three years — much longer in Missouri and Kansas, ten years total — and it was horrifically bloody.  Neither side could claim a clear victory: the Confederacy had won more battles, but after 1863 the tide seemed to be turning toward the Union.  The U.S. had a presidential election scheduled for the fall of 1864, and that too seemed uncertain.  President Abraham Lincoln himself believed he might not be reelected, an outcome toward which the Confederacy fervently worked.  On both sides, “[c]asualties mounted at an unparalleled rate, and many Northerners grew tired of the war. A strong peace movement was active in many Northern states, coinciding with the November presidential election.  The race between Abraham Lincoln and Democratic challenger George B. McClellan was clearly a referendum on the war.  If McClellan won, Confederate independence was virtually assured.”  To turn public perception against Lincoln in the North and bolster the Southern cause with a victory which, it was believed, would expand the size of the Confederacy, General Edmund Kirby Smith had a plan.  Smith, the commander of Confederate forces in the Trans-Mississippi West, decided in the autumn of 1864 to capture the state of Missouri.

The Confederacy thought of Missouri as one of her own — the state had held a convention to decide on secession but ultimately voted to remain with the Union.  While most Missouri residents remained anti-secession throughout the Civil War, the state continued to have a large pro-secessionist population.  General Smith knew that “[t]housands of Rebel Missourians” had traveled south to Arkansas to join the Confederate Army, and that “most of [them] were convinced that Missouri was but a conquered province of the North, held in subjugation against the will of the pro-Southern populace by force of Federal arms…. Intelligence from Missouri portrayed the state as groaning under the iron heel of Northern occupation, praying for deliverance by Southern arms, and ready to rally to the Confederate cause.  Even the Missouri militia was said to be disaffected and prepared to desert the Union.  A Confederate military presence, it was confided, could rally these Rebel Missourians, enlist them in the Southern army, and supply them with weapons that might be captured from the Federal arsenal at St. Louis.  Capture her principal cities, St. Louis and the state capital of Jefferson City, and Missouri would be taken out of the Union to join her southern sisters of the Confederate States.”  This was, in the words of one historian, “a wildly and fatally optimistic plan,” a view with which most contemporary scholars and many historical participants have agreed.

To lead this mission, General Smith chose Sterling Price, a former Missouri governor who had previously led Missouri soldiers in combat during the Mexican-American War, and had fought alongside Missourians in the Confederate ranks of the current war.  An ambitious soldier and politician, Sterling “Price dreamed of leading a campaign that would wrest Missouri from Union control.  Known to his troops [at age 55] as ‘Old Pap,’ Price was loved by his soldiers,” though Confederate leaders thought somewhat less of him: President Jefferson Davis labeled him “the vainest man I ever met.”  Still, “Price remained popular in Missouri, and Confederate leaders believed he could attract more volunteers there than anyone else.”  He also had experience leading expeditions through the state.  Every autumn of the Civil War, right at harvest time, Price and his troops marched through Missouri appropriating any food, livestock, horses, and supplies they could gather for the Confederate army.  They also gathered eager volunteers and less-than-eager conscripts during these raids, as Price attempted to rally Missouri’s pro-secessionists to his side.  In addition, Price had the added advantage of being familiar with the neighboring free state of Kansas and its well-stocked military fortifications at Leavenworth and Fort Scott.  As a colonel in the Mexican-American War, Price had assembled his Missouri infantry regiment at Fort Leavenworth before departing for Santa Fe, and he knew what Union bounty might be seized, should a raid on Kansas forts prove successful.  He seemed the perfect man for the 1864 mission.

General Price received his command with orders to first capture the Union arsenal at St. Louis, and to recruit as many Missouri men as possible into the Confederate army.  “To that end, Smith implored Price: ‘You will scrupulously avoid all wanton acts of destruction and devastation, restrain your men, and impress upon them that their aim should be to secure success in a just and holy cause and not to gratify personal feeling and revenge.’  If driven out of Missouri, Price was ordered to seize all the military supplies he could while retreating through Kansas and the Indian Territory.”  To accomplish the duel goals of raid and recruitment, Smith gave Price command of “8,000 Missouri troopers with 4,000 cavalrymen from the Department of Arkansas.”  However, Price’s mission was handicapped from the start: his soldiers were a mix of “battle-hardened veterans with ill-trained and half-hearted conscripts.”  Nearly a third of the combined force had no weapons, and thousands had no horses.   “[T]hus a cavalry raid was slowed to the pace of infantry, sacrificing…speed and surprise…”

“In mid-September, 1864, word reached Fort Leavenworth that General Price was again moving north through Missouri.  This time he brought with him 10,000 seasoned cavalrymen, eight 25-pound guns, a number of 12-pound howitzers, and a 500-wagon baggage train.  In southern Missouri he was able to procure an additional 6,000 men, not all of whom were mounted.  It was the largest force he had yet commanded…Another northward thrust by Price had not been anticipated, and most of the troops from [Fort Leavenworth] were in the West pursuing Indians.” 

Price then began his mission.  “The first major engagement in Price’s Raid occurred at Pilot Knob, [south of St. Louis,] where he successfully captured the Union-held Fort Davidson but needlessly slaughtered many of his men in the process… From Pilot Knob, he swung west, away from St. Louis (his primary objective) and towards Kansas City, Missouri and nearby Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.  Forced to bypass his secondary target at heavily-fortified    Jefferson City, Price cut a swath of destruction across his home state, even as his army steadily dwindled due to battlefield losses, disease and desertion.  Although he defeated inferior Federal forces at Glasgow, Lexington, the Little Blue River and Independence, Price was ultimately boxed in by two Northern armies at Westport, southwest of modern Kansas City, and forced to fight against overwhelming odds…[and] retreat into hostile Kansas.  A new series of defeats followed, as Price’s battered and broken army was pushed steadily southward towards Arkansas, and then further south into Texas, where Price remained until the war ended. Price’s Raid would prove to be his last significant military operation, and the last significant Confederate campaign west of the Mississippi.” 

Price’s 1864 expedition had significant military, political, and economic results, most of which disadvantaged the Confederacy.  “Fallout from the Price Raid was severe. While unlikely in the first place, it crushed forever any Confederate hopes of reclaiming Missouri.  [Leaders were] disgusted with the rampant pillaging and military blunders of the campaign…[and] bitter feelings lingered among Missouri Confederates…Not only did the Confederates fail to capture Missouri, for all practical purposes, they lost the war.”  Though “Price’s Raid drew, according to official Union Army reports, not less than 22,650 troops from the Federal armies east of the Mississippi,” the Union retained adequate troop strength to defeat the Confederacy not only in Missouri and Kansas but elsewhere.  William Tecumseh Sherman’s army captured Atlanta in early September 1864, prior to Price’s raid, and “victories later that fall in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley…strengthened Union morale, …assured Lincoln’s reelection, and with it, Union victory” in the Civil War.

“The state of Kansas paid a heavy price to drive [Price’s] Rebels from its borders.  Of course the loss of life could not be replaced, but Kansas tried to compensate its citizens for the destruction of their property…Believing the state would be reimbursed by Washington, D.C., legislators…assumed over $547,000 in debt.  This amount was submitted to the federal government, but on June 8, 1872, Congress appropriated just over $337,000 to settle the claims.”  The state’s efforts to distribute the appropriations were mired in corruption and scandal.  “While compensation for the Price Raid started with the best of intentions, it ended with a major political embarrassment for the state of Kansas.”

Price himself suffered political and military embarrassment as well.  His reputation, health and fortunes plummeted after the 1864 expedition.  “Instead of surrendering at the war’s end, Price led what was left of his army into Mexico, where he unsuccessfully sought service with the Emperor Maximilian…Price became leader of a Confederate exile colony in Carlota, Veracruz, but when the colony proved to be a failure, he returned to Missouri.  Impoverished and in poor health, [only two years after the conclusion of the Civil War,] Price died of cholera in St. Louis, Missouri,” at age 58. 

Price’s Raid of 1864 thrilled some Missourians, but terrified and terrorized countless more citizens across Missouri and Kansas.  On both sides, in both states, this is their story, in their own words.

Questions to Consider:

1. How did Price’s March affect the lives of civilians in Missouri and Kansas during September and October 1864?

2. What characteristics must soldiers possess in order to keep fighting what must have seemed an unending struggle?

3. What does victory look like? Both sides in this reading–Union as well as Confederate–describe the grim realities of war in Missouri and Kansas. Did it seem to matter if one side prevailed over the other in a particular battle? If so, how did it matter? Is victory the absence of war?

4. What did it mean to be American after the Civil War? Does the experience of the Civil War shape what it means today to be American? Does it matter where someone lives–North, South, or West; Kansas or Missouri?

Be sure to check the KHC blog on September 28th for the next installment of the script!