Price, Sterling

Encyclopedia entry by ,
University of Cincinnati

Photograph of General Price, by Daniel T. Cowell. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

Biographical information:

  • Date of birth: September 20, 1809
  • Place of birth: Prince Edward County, Virginia
  • Claim to fame: Missouri congressman, 1845-1846; governor of Missouri, 1853-1857; major general of the Missouri State Guard, 1861-1862; major general in the Confederate States Army, March 6, 1862 to the dissolution of the Confederacy in 1865; led the Missouri Expedition in 1864
  • Nickname: "Old Pap" Price
  • Political affiliations: Democratic Party
  • Date of death: September 29, 1867
  • Place of death: St. Louis, Missouri
  • Cause of death: Cholera
  • Final resting place: Bellefontaine Cemetery, St. Louis, Missouri

Sterling Price, a U.S. congressman, governor of Missouri, and Confederate major general, was born in Prince Edward County, Virginia, to a slave-owning planter family. Educated briefly at Hampden-Sydney College, Price read law before moving with his parents to Missouri in 1830. There, he raised hemp and tobacco on a large farm near Keytesville and in 1850 owned 19 slaves.

A lifelong proslavery Democrat, Price was elected to the Missouri House of Representatives and served as its speaker of the house before being elected to Congress in 1844. He left his seat to lead a regiment in the Mexican War, during which he received a promotion to brigadier general. In 1853, he was elected governor of Missouri and served one term.

In 1861, his popularity and moderate politics earned him election as president of the state convention that voted overwhelmingly against Missouri’s secession, the only such delegation called in any state that ultimately voted against secession. When unconditional Unionists in St. Louis (in particular U.S. Congressman Frank P. Blair and Capt. Nathaniel Lyon) suppressed secessionists in St. Louis, Price accepted overall command of the Missouri State Guard.

A Kurz and Allison painting of the Battle of Wilson's Creek, where Generals Sterling Price and Ben McCulloch led Confederate troops to victory in 1861. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Price signed an agreement with federal department commander, William S. Harney, which pledged neutrality on both sides – an agreement that Unionists Blair and Lyon promptly abrogated. After the famous failed June 11 conference with Governor Claiborne F. Jackson and these federal leaders at St. Louis’s Planters’ House, Price organized and led the local state troops in an unsuccessful defense against Lyon’s riverine expedition, which captured the state capitol and kept Missouri in the Union.

Although not present at the State Guard's defeat at the Battle of Boonville, Price joined the retreating troops and led them to the southwestern corner of the state, where he recruited, trained, and armed a larger force. Ultimately, Price commanded about 12,000 enlisted State Guard at Cowskin Prairie. While there, Price also convinced Confederate General Ben McCulloch to enter Missouri from Arkansas in order to attack Lyon, encamped at Springfield.

Price then marched to Lexington, where his army besieged and forced the surrender of a 3,500-man fortified garrison of federal troops and Home Guard.

On August 10, 1861, at the Battle of Wilson's Creek outside Springfield, Price’s and McCulloch’s combined force defeated Lyon, forcing the federals’ withdrawal. At Wilson’s Creek, Lyon earned the unenviable distinction of being the first Union general killed in the war. In September, Price marched northward, driving from the border counties Kansas Jayhawkers under the command of James H. Lane. Price then marched to Lexington, where his army besieged and forced the surrender of a 3,500-man fortified garrison of federal troops and Home Guard under James A. Mulligan.

Pressed by troops under John C. Frémont, commander of the Department of the West, Price soon retreated into the southern counties, where he attended the “rump session” of the legislature and voted for secession in Neosho. After a brief occupation of central Missouri, Price and his state troops went into winter camp near Springfield, where they transferred into Confederate service and in February withdrew to Arkansas.


View Price's Raid in a larger map

In March 1862, Price again joined forces with McCulloch in the newly-formed Army of the West, under overall command of Major General Earl Van Dorn, to drive federal forces under Samuel R. Curtis from northern Arkansas.

Defeated at the battle of Pea Ridge on March 6-7, 1862, Price and his troops retreated with Van Dorn to northern Mississippi to defend against advancing federal forces under Ulysses S. Grant. The Confederates’ abandonment of Missouri caused Price twice to travel to Richmond, Virginia, in unsuccessful attempts to convince President Jefferson Davis to support the Trans-Mississippi Theater.

Price led forces in defeats at the battles of Iuka and Corinth before transferring again to Arkansas in spring 1863. After a mismanaged attack on Helena on July 4, Price wintered his troops at Camden. While he participated as an independent command with Edmund Kirby Smith against federal forces in Arkansas in the spring of 1864, Price lobbied the Confederate administration for authorization to lead a campaign into Missouri.

Price invaded Missouri with a force of 12,000 soldiers, mostly made up of cavalry, to destabilize Union control of the state, raise recruits, and attempt to sway the election against President Lincoln.

In the fall of 1864, Price invaded Missouri with a force of 12,000 soldiers, mostly made up of cavalry, to destabilize Union control of the state, raise recruits, and attempt to sway the election against President Lincoln. In September, Price lost time and men in a defeat at Pilot Knob before heading northward to threaten St. Louis. Badly outnumbered, he turned west along the Missouri River, gathering troops and supplies along the way.

Finally defeated at Westport in what has been called the “Gettysburg of the West,” Price and his troops retreated in late October through the Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma) to Texas.  By December, when they returned to Arkansas, only 3,500 of Price’s men remained. During the winter he publicly feuded with the exiled governor of Missouri, Thomas C. Reynolds, over the Missouri campaign. When the war ended, rather than surrender, Price dismissed his men and with a number of his officers escaped to Mexico, where they founded a colony of ex-Confederates named Carlota. The colony foundered, though, and in 1867, Price returned in poor health to St. Louis, where he died of cholera.

Suggested Reading: 

Castel, Albert E. General Sterling Price and the Civil War in the West. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1968.

Phillips, Christopher. Damned Yankee: The Life of General Nathaniel Lyon. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1996.

Shalhope, Robert E. Sterling Price, Portrait of a Southerner. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1971.

Cite this page: 
Phillips, Christopher. "Price, Sterling" Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. The Kansas City Public Library. Accessed Mar, 30, 2017 at http://civilwaronthewesternborder.org/encyclopedia/price-sterling

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