American Civil War: Major General Sterling Price

Major General Sterling Price. Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Sterling Price - Early Life & Career:

Born September 20, 1809 in Farmville, VA, Sterling Price was the son of wealthy planters Pugh and Elizabeth Price. Receiving his early education locally, he later attended Hampden–Sydney College in 1826 before departing to pursue a career in law. Admitted to the Virginia bar, Price briefly practiced in his home state until following his parents to Missouri in 1831. Settling in Fayette and then Keytesville, he married Martha Head on May 14, 1833. During this time, Price engaged in a variety of enterprises including tobacco farming, a mercantile concern, and operating a hotel. Gaining some prominence, he was elected to the Missouri State House of Representatives in 1836. 

Sterling Price - Mexican-American War:

In office two years, Price aided in resolving the Mormon War of 1838. Returning to the state house in 1840, he later served as speaker before being elected to the US Congress in 1844. Remaining in Washington a little over a year, Price resigned his seat on August 12, 1846 to serve in the Mexican-American War. Returning home, he raised and was made colonel of the Second Regiment, Missouri Mounted Volunteer Cavalry. Assigned to Brigadier General Stephen W. Kearny's command, Price and his men moved southwest and aided in the capture of Santa Fe, New Mexico. While Kearny moved west, Price received orders to serve as military governor of New Mexico. In this capacity, he put down the Taos Revolt in January 1847. 

Promoted to brigadier general of volunteers on July 20, Price was appointed as military governor of Chihuahua. As governor, he defeated Mexican forces at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Rosales on March 18, 1848, eight days after the ratification of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Though reprimanded for this action by Secretary of War William L. Marcy, no further punishment occurred. Leaving military service on November 25, Price returned to Missouri. Considered a war hero, he easily won election as governor in 1852. An effective leader, Price departed office in 1857 and became the state's banking commissioner. 

Sterling Price - The Civil War Begins:      

With the secession crisis following the election of 1860, Price initially opposed the actions of the southern states. As a prominent politician, he was elected to head the Missouri State Convention to debate secession on February 28, 1861. Though the state voted to remain in the Union, Price's sympathies shifted following Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon's seizure of Camp Jackson near St. Louis and arrest of the Missouri Militia. Casting his lot with the Confederacy, he was appointed to lead the Missouri State Guard by pro-Southern Governor Claiborne F. Jackson with the rank of major general. Dubbed "Old Pap" by his men, Price embarked on a campaign to push Union troops out of Missouri.

Sterling Price - Missouri & Arkansas:

On August 10, 1861, Price, along with Confederate Brigadier General Benjamin McCulloch, engaged Lyon at the Battle of Wilson's Creek. The fighting saw Price win a victory and Lyon killed. Pressing on, Confederate troops claimed another victory at Lexington in September. Despite these successes, Union reinforcements compelled Price and McCulloch, who had become fierce rivals, to withdraw into northern Arkansas in early 1862. Due to the conflict between the two men, Major General Earl Van Dorn was dispatched to take overall command. Seeking to regain the initiative, Van Dorn led his new command against Brigadier General Samuel Curtis' Union army at Little Sugar Creek in early March. While the army was on the move, Price's major general commission was finally transferred to the Confederate Army. Leading an effective attack at the Battle of Pea Ridge on March 7, Price was wounded. Though Price's actions were largely successful, Van Dorn was beaten the following day and forced to retreat.

Sterling Price - Mississippi:

Following Pea Ridge, Van Dorn's army received orders to cross the Mississippi River to reinforce General P.G.T. Beauregard's army at Corinth, MS. Arriving, Price's division saw service in the Siege of Corinth that May and withdrew south when Beauregard elected to abandon the town. That fall, when Beauregard's replacement, General Braxton Bragg, moved to invade Kentucky, Van Dorn and Price were left to defend Mississippi. Pursued by Major General Don Carlos Buell's Army of the Ohio, Bragg directed Price's enlarged Army of the West to march from Tupelo, MS north towards Nashville, TN. This force was to be aided by Van Dorn's smaller Army of West Tennessee. Together, Bragg hoped this combined force to would prevent Major General Ulysses S. Grant from moving to aid Buell.    

Marching north, Price engaged Union forces under Major General William S. Rosecrans on September 19 at the Battle of Iuka. Attacking the enemy, he was unable to break through Rosecrans' lines. Bloodied, Price elected to withdraw and moved to unite with Van Dorn at Ripley, MS. Rendezvousing five days later, Van Dorn led the combined force against Rosecrans' lines at Corinth on October 3. Assaulting the Union positions for two days in the Second Battle of Corinth, Van Dorn failed to achieve victory. Angered by Van Dorn and desiring to take his command back to Missouri, Price traveled to Richmond, VA and met with President Jefferson Davis. Making his case, he was chastised by Davis who questioned his loyalty. Stripped of his command, Price received orders to return to the Trans-Mississippi Department.

Sterling Price - Trans-Mississippi:

Serving under Lieutenant General Theophilus H. Holmes, Price spent the first half of 1863 in Arkansas. On July 4, he performed well in the Confederate defeat at the Battle of Helena and assumed command of the army as it withdrew to Little Rock. AR. Pushed out of the state capital later that year, Price ultimately fell back to Camden, AR. On March 16, 1864, he took command of the District of Arkansas. The following month, Price opposed Major General Frederick Steele's advance through the southern part of the state. Misinterpreting Steele's objectives, he lost Camden without a fight on April 16. Though Union forces had won a victory, they were short on supplies and Steele elected to withdraw to Little Rock. Harried by Price and reinforcements led by General Edmund Kirby Smith, Steele's rearguard defeated this combined force at Jenkins' Ferry in late April.

Following this campaign, Price began advocating for an invasion of Missouri with the goal of reclaiming the state and endangering President Abraham Lincoln's reelection that fall. Though Smith granted permission for the operation, he stripped Price of his infantry. As a result, the effort in Missouri would be limited to a large-scale cavalry raid. Moving north with 12,000 horsemen on August 28, Price crossed into Missouri and engaged Union forces at Pilot Knob a month later. Turning west, he fought a string of battles as his men laid waste to the countryside. Increasingly hemmed in by Union forces, Price was badly beaten by Curtis, now leading the Department of Kansas & Indian Territory, and Major General Alfred Pleasonton at Westport on October 23. Pursued into hostile Kansas, Price turned south, passed through the Indian Territory and finally halted at Laynesport, AR on December 2 having lost half of his command.

Sterling Price - Later Life:

Largely inactive for the remainder of the war, Price elected not to surrender at its conclusion and instead rode to Mexico with part of his command in the hope of serving in the army of Emperor Maximilian. Turned down by the Mexican leader, he briefly led a community of Confederate expatriates living in Veracruz before growing ill with intestinal issues. In August 1866, Price's condition worsened when he contracted typhoid. Returning to St. Louis, he lived in an impoverished state until dying on September 29, 1867. His remains were buried in the city's Bellefontaine Cemetery.

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General Sterling Price." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). American Civil War: Major General Sterling Price. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General Sterling Price." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).