Sterling Price, born in Prince Edward County, Virginia on September 11, 1809, would become one of the most influential Missourians of the nineteenth century. In 1844, Price a wealthy tobacco planter and slave owner, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington D.C. as a member of the Democratic Party. In August of 1846, after the start of the Mexican American War, Sterling Price resigned his seat in Congress to join a regiment of Missouri volunteers. By the end of the war, Price had gained the brevet rank of brigadier general and was known throughout the Midwest for his military successes. In 1853, Sterling Price was elected governor of Missouri. Despite his unwillingness to restrain the violence between Missourians and Kansas during the time known as Bleeding Kansas, Price became a popular and beloved politician and leader.
During the secession crisis, the state of Missouri was torn not by geographical localities but by political loyalties. Most Missourians, whether they owned slaves or not, were conditional Unionists, meaning they opposed secession but believed that the U.S. had no right to force any state to remain in the union. Price was a very outspoken conditional Unionist. After the violence at Ft. Sumter and then the St. Louis Massacre, many, however, changed their minds on the issue of and threw their lots in with South. After personally witnessing the St. Louis Massacre, an event he considered to be one of the worst acts of his time, Price went to the capitol at Jefferson City and offered his services to pro-secessionist governor Claiborne Fox Jackson. Soon after, he accepted the commission of a military unit that fought on behalf of Missouri’s secessionist leaning factions known as the Missouri State Guard.
The Missouri State Guard troops under Major General Sterling Price fought mostly in Missouri, at battles such as the Battle of Wilson’s Creek and the siege of Lexington, as well as many other engagements. Supply issues involving weapons, ammunition and food, constantly plagued the Missouri State Guard because they were not a part of the Confederate army and operated in a state that the Federal government never recognized as seceding. Confederate commanders, especially Benjamin McCulloch, Brigadier General of the only Confederate command in the Western Theater within distance to aid Price, believed that Price’s Missourians were little more than an armed mob. These Confederate Regulars saw the Missourians as an untrained, unarmed, ill quipped collection of backwoods ruffians. Price and McCulloch would have a very contentious relationship that would contribute to the failure of Confederate plans in the west.
After the Southern victory at Wilson’s Creek, Sterling Price and his Missouri Troops separated from McCulloch’s confederates. In January 1862, Price’s Missourians held Springfield but by February 12, they were forced to retreat towards the safety of Confederate Arkansas due to Brigadier General Samuel Curtis’ advancing Federals. Price joined the Confederate army at the Boston Mountains and when Earl Van Dorn arrived to take command, helped formed the Southern plan of attack and moved on the Federals now occupying areas around Little Sugar Creek and Bentonville.
With Major General Earl Van Dorn now leading the newly named Army of the West Price and McCulloch’s troops moved northward in an effort to skirt Curtis army and attack the Federals from behind. The night of March 6, Van Dorn and Price took half of this army and moved northward on the Bentonville Detour in order to move south towards the Federal rear via the Telegraph Road, while McCulloch moved eastward along the Ford Road. The goal was to join the two divisions at the intersection of Ford Road and Telegraph Road. This plan was unsuccessful because McCulloch’s troops became occupied with fighting Federals at Leetown and Van Dorn and Price’s troops had a difficult time moving up the ravines north of the Elkhorn Tavern, which were held by Federal troops.
Price commanded his troops in the woods east of the Elkhorn Tavern and, by the night of March 7, his troops successfully outflanked the Federals and forced them to retreat south. During the day’s fighting, Price was wounded in the abdomen and right arm but continued to command his men. When night fell, Price and Van Dorn set up headquarters at the Elkhorn Tavern and attempted to prepare their troops for fighting the next day, despite a lack of ammunition, food and other supplies. On the morning of March 8, the Federals and the Confederates faced each other in the fields south of Ford Road. The Federals forced the Confederates off the field after just two hours of fighting.
For the remainder of the Civil War, Sterling Price participated in events such as the battles of Iuka and Corinth, and secured permission from Confederate President Jefferson Davis to allow him to return to Missouri and try to wrest it from Federal hands. Price’s 1864 invasion of Missouri, called the Missouri Raid, ended in failure as he was forced to retreat all the way to Texas. When the Civil War ended, Price led what was left of his Rebel army into Mexico rather than surrender. Eventually he would return to Missouri and would die in poverty on September 29, 1867. Sterling Price is buried in St. Louis.