Confederate general Sterling Price’s attack on Missouri via Arkansas during the fall of 1864 has resulted in at least five separate book-length monographs since 1959. All of the writers examined Price’s Civil War service, particularly the tragic attempt to drive 1,450 Yankees from Fort Davidson near Pilot Knob, Missouri. In Price’s Lost Campaign, Mark A. Lause has clarified a number of important issues raised in these accounts, while examining the Union commander’s response to Price’s challenge. He has successfully argued that Price’s force represented an invasion, not a raid, regardless of what generals on both sides may have written in their final action reports. Originally, Confederate political considerations determined Price’s selection, despite his reputation as an infantry rather than a cavalry officer and his weight of at least three hundred pounds. He led an army of 12,176 men more than fifteen hundred miles, riding in a converted ambulance, reinforced to accommodate his size. Not all of his men were mounted or armed, and many had no previous combat experience, and a train of several hundred wagons slowed the army’s advance.
According to Lause, Price’s mission was the liberation of Missouri. St. Louis was the primary target because of the vast quantities of weapons and munitions located there and the publicity value of such a conquest. Additionally, the capture of Jefferson City, the state capital, was a high priority, which would allow the seating of Missouri’s Confederate governor, Thomas C. Reynolds. Confederates thought a combination of these successes would make possible the recruitment of thirty thousand men to Price’s army. Confederates anticipated that the U.S. War Department would need to redirect troop concentrations from the eastern theater and the Gulf to prevent Price’s army from threatening the north-central United States, relieving the pressure on already outnumbered Confederate forces. These events might influence the outcome of the 1864 presidential election by helping Gen. George McClellan to defeat President Abraham Lincoln.
Lause has focused on the Union response to this threat. He has demonstrated that prior to Price’s invasion more than twenty thousand troops had been withdrawn from Missouri for service east of the Mississippi river, leaving Union major general William Rosecrans, commander of the Department of Missouri, with only eleven thousand troops in five military districts stationed in small units throughout the state. This force was supported by the Provisional Enrolled Missouri Militia for the purpose of suppressing guerrilla units, hardly a match against a large invasion force. Worse, rumors of a Confederate troop movement from Arkansas had reached Rosecrans and the War Department in early September, but Rosecrans dismissed this information as unreliable. Brig. Gen. Thomas Ewing Jr., Rosecrans’s commander for the District of St. Louis, likewise disregarded intelligence confirming Confederate regulars operating in his district south of the city, but he gathered thirteen hundred [End Page 116] infantry men and traveled south by train in search of Confederates. Grossly discounting the enemy, he was surrounded at Fort Davidson and outnumbered 8 to 1. Ewing still underestimated the Confederate force, as did Rosecrans, who continued to procrastinate on a decision to counteract it.
Confronted with Ewing’s occupation of Fort Davidson and refusal to surrender, Price’s army came to a standstill. While preparing for the invasion, Price and his commanding officer, Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith, according to Lause, agreed that if Price’s army seized a significant part of Missouri, Smith would send a Louisiana infantry brigade to support Price and another twenty-five thousand infantry would follow. Therefore, Price had to remove the Union threat at Fort Davidson. Using artillery firing from the surrounding mountains into the fort seemingly would have decimated the garrison. However, the Union forces in the fort had larger and better quality cannons with rifled barrels for greater distance and accuracy. When Confederate batteries fired, the Union gun crews quickly silenced the Confederate cannons because of their superior equipment and greater skill...