January 2006

The Last Major Attempt in Missouri (1864)
by Jim Walker, as presented to Civil War History chat several years ago.

To spark a general uprising against the Federal occupation in Missouri, General Sterling Price initiated the war’s longest raid in September of 1864.  Wiley Britton of the 6th Kansas Cavalry writes in his “Resume of Military Operations in Missouri and Arkansas, 1864-1865”; “The remaining Confederate troops under Cooper, Maxey and Gano, in the Indian Territory and western Arkansas were to make demonstrations  against Fort Smith and Fort Gibson, and the line of communication between those points and Kansas, while another part of the Confederate army was to threaten Little Rock.”  While these demonstrations were put into effect, Price marched northeast on the 19th of September from Pocahontas, Arkansas with approximately 12,000 men - mostly mounted infantry -  entering Missouri fasting and furnishing his troops on the rich products of the Missouri Valley.  Learning of his approach, detachments of Missouri militia skirmished with the oncoming Confederate forces at Arcadia, Ironton and Mineral Point.  His original plan to attack St. Louis, whose warehouses were stocked with useful goods, was dropped when he learned of the strength of its defenses, manned by 8.000 Federals, having been swelled temporarily by General A.J. Smith’s veteran division of the Army of Tennessee 4,500 strong on it’s way up the Mississippi River to join Sherman’s army.  Instead Price decided to initiate a full attack and capture Fort Davidson just below Pilot Knob.  Price arrived on the afternoon of the 26th of September and skirmished until nightfall with detachments of the Federal cavalry, which had been thrown out to meet his advance.  On September 27th Price’s 7,000 raiders charged the fort’s thick walls.  The Federals, commanded by Thomas Ewing, held off the attack with only 1,000 men with small arms and eleven guns, inflicted 1,500 casualties on the Confederates at the cost of only 200.  After refusing to surrender to Price and also having determined that he couldn’t hold out another day against the superior attacking force, Ewing secretly evacuated the fort during the night, leaving a slow fuse burning in the powder magazine which exploded in a huge sheet of flame when Ewing and his men were well on their way to Rolla.

Price then proceeded to Jefferson City, intending to capture the state capital for political purposes.  However skirmishes south and east of the city while crossing the Osage River on October 7, (close to where Highway 50 crosses the river today), revealed its defenses too strong. Consequently, Price moved west to threaten Kansas City, conscripting and pressing into service every man and youth able to bear arms along the way.  Following the Missouri River, and meeting little Federal resistance, Price defeated a small militia unit and captures Boonville on the 9th of October.  Splitting his forces Price sends Jo Shelby’s men toward Sedalia, while Marmaduke’s division moves on Glasgow on the same day, on October 15.   Both attacks were successful and the towns captured.  Regrouping further west again, Price continues his approach toward Kansas City assaulting and defeating Federal detachments at Lexington and Independence.  On October 22, he defeated Federal defenders at Byram’s Ford on the Big Blue River who were trying to block his approach to Westport.  These men were part of the troops from Kansas and northwestern Missouri which General Samuel Curtis was  concentrating against Price.

Supported by forces under Major General Alfred Pleasonton - who had been pursuing Price from the east - Curtis blocked Price’s advance on Kansas City at Westport. Curtis had some 20,000 men, while Price’s raiders had been reduced by cumulative losses and desertion to some 8,500 men.  Intending to defeat General Curtis’s Federals to his front at Westport, and then turn to face Pleasonton’s force approaching from his rear, Price ordered Jo Shelby to attack shortly after daybreak on October 23rd.  Shelby’s assault began well, but the Federals countercharged, and the fighting swayed back and forth across “Brush Creek.”  The Federals meanwhile found a route up a small ravine which enabled them to turn the Confederate left.  Price now learned that Marmaduke, had failed to hold Pleasonton at Byram’s Ford, and the Federals  were now coming up on Price’s flank and rear.  By early afternoon, Curtis had  triumphed and Price was forced to withdraw all his Confederates south.  Casualties were about 1,500 on each side.  The battle of Westport, the largest engagement west of the Mississippi River, had been a decisive Federal  victory.

Crossing into Kansas, Price had camped along the Marais des Cygnes River when, on October 24, the pursuing Federals attacked his rear guard, then overtook his main force as it withdrew.  Although outnumbered more than two-to-one, Pleasonton’s Federals routed the Confederates, capturing nearly all of the Confederate artillery and a large number of prisoners, among them Generals Marmaduke and Cabell and many other officers of lower rank.  Price escaped by making a forced march toward Carthage, Missouri, camping on the Marmatou River just 8 miles east of Fort Scott Kansas and it’s much coveted stores.  Early the next morning, Price continued south to Newtonia, Missouri, where on the 28th of October he made his last stand.  He was attacked by the close following troops of Curtis and Pleasonton and driven from the field with heavy losses.  Price finally reached Cane Hill, Arkansas, on November 1, destitute, disarmed, disorganized, and avoiding starvation by eating raw corn, and slippery-elm bark.

Price had inflicted millions of dollars in damage to government and private property, and had captured over 3,000 Federals - a significant accomplishment - but he lacked the logistical support system to hold any of the territory he liberated.  Although it greatly alarmed the Federals, Prices’s raid, the last great Confederate offensive in the Trans-Mississippi, was no more than a diversion.  It is certain that Price lost more than he gained in war material and that the raid did not tend to strengthen the Confederate cause in the West.  He did not capture and take off a single piece of cannon on his raid.  Large numbers of the men he conscripted and pressed into service during the raid left him at the first opportunity and returned to their homes, or were picked up by the Federal cavalry and paroled.

Price later summarized in his report about the raid; “I marched 1434 miles; fought 43 battles and skirmishes; captured and paroled over 3000 Federal officers and men, captured 18 pieces of artillery, 3000 stands of small-arms, 16 stand of colors ...  a great many wagons and teams, large numbers of horses, great quantities of subsistence and ordnance stores.....  and do not think I go  beyond the truth when I state that I destroyed... property to the amount of 10,000,000 in value....  I lost 10 pieces of artillery, 2 stand of colors, 1000  small-arms, while I do not think I lost 1,000 prisoners......  I brought with me at least 5,000 recruits.”

And thus ends the last attempt to capture Missouri and Kansas for the Confederacy   

Sources for the story are “The Atlas of the Civil War; edited by James M. McPherson”; “Battles and Leaders of the Civil War; by Castle Publishing, edited by Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel of the editorial staff of “The Century Magazine”; and “The Civil War Day by Day’ compiled and edited by E.B. And Barbara Long.”

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