Monday, September 21, 2015

Sinisi: "THE LAST HURRAH: Sterling Price's Missouri Expedition of 1864"

[The Last Hurrah: Sterling Price's Missouri Expedition of 1864 by Kyle S. Sinisi (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015). Hardcover, 21 maps, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:379/449. ISBN:978-0-7425-4535-9 $55]

With Confederate General Sterling Price's mounted Army of Missouri traveling nearly 1,500 miles through Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, and Indian Territory and fighting over a dozen battles and countless other skirmishes in the course of being utterly defeated, it is a marvel that no one has written a competent full length military history of this fascinating campaign of epic sweep until now. This seemingly quixotic late war adventure hasn't been entirely neglected in the literature, though. A command study and a two volume social and political history1 have been written, as have a number of books and articles detailing some of the battles fought. While the climactic clash of the campaign, the October 21-23 Battle of Westport, still lacks a dedicated modern military study2, two fine books examine perhaps the operation's most well known engagement at Pilot Knob3. Citadel history professor Kyle Sinisi's The Last Hurrah: Sterling Price's Missouri Expedition of 1864 is the first comprehensive operational study of the entire campaign.

The Last Hurrah effectively recounts the campaign from inception to conclusion. Near the end of summer 1864, Sterling Price would finally get his grand opportunity to try to wrest control of his home state from federal forces. On September 6, Price and two divisions made an unopposed crossing of the Arkansas River and linked up with a third division under General Jo Shelby in NE Arkansas. While indifferently armed and equipped, all three divisions were mounted. On September 27, the Confederates surrounded and assaulted Union-held Fort Davidson in SE Missouri's Arcadia Valley, suffering a bloody repulse and, adding insult to injury, allowing the enemy garrison to escape during the night. Giving up the cherished goal of capturing St. Louis, Price veered toward the state capital of Jefferson City but federal reinforcements secured the fortified town before the Confederates arrived. At this point, the operation transformed from a war of conquest and occupation to a more traditional raid.

As Price moved his army up the Missouri River Valley, capturing important towns like Boonville, Glasgow, and Lexington along the way and gathering both recruits and supplies, Union forces bent on his destruction were converging on Price's front and rear. Missouri Department commander William Rosecrans placed ex-Army of the Potomac cavalry chief Alfred Pleasonton in charge of a provisional division of four mounted brigades and sent him against the tail of Price's wide column. Meanwhile, along the Missouri-Kansas border, Department of Kansas head Samuel Curtis was assembling a large combined host of volunteers and Kansas State Militia. In a series of late October engagements at Independence, the Little and Big Blue rivers, and on the plain just south of Westport, Curtis and Pleasonton completely defeated Price and sent the Army of Missouri reeling into headlong retreat. Catching up with Price in eastern Kansas, the Union vanguard nearly destroyed the Confederates at Mine Creek, rendering impossible Confederate hopes of capturing the desperately needed supplies stored at Fort Scott. The final stand up fight of the campaign, a tactical draw at Newtonia in SW Missouri on October 28, nevertheless forced Price into another rapid retreat, this time a tortuous journey through NW Arkansas, the Indian Territory, and back to SW Arkansas at Laynesport on December 2. After casualties, desertions, and wholesale furloughs, only 3,500 of the original 10-12,000 Confederates were left in the ranks.

Sinisi's assessment of Sterling Price's many flaws as army leader is far more nuanced than the one passed down through history. The author agrees with Price's critics that deem the Missourian an indifferent planner and disciplinarian as well as a poor battlefield commander but Sinisi recognizes that Price operated under many physical and material constraints. Uniquely limited Trans-Mississippi logistics meant that Price's horses (for men and wagons) would never be in top condition and, at this late stage of war, obtaining mass replacements while on the march were out of the question. With the army afforded no time to coalesce as a unit and packed with green recruits forcibly added to the ranks and large numbers of men used to operating as lawless guerrillas, enforcing regular discipline in the Army of Missouri would have taxed the best leader's abilities. While Price did move too slowly at inopportune times, observers that generally and vehemently condemn the popular Missourian for moving at the speed of infantry throughout most of the campaign fail to appreciate that the campaign was not originally conceived as a raid. Price has also been generally mocked for the immense size of the Confederate wagon train, generally presumed to have been loaded down with loot, and his sustained efforts to preserve it. Sinisi finds no evidence that the train was inordinately large in size (more like 250 wagons vs. 600). In terms of shoulder arms and artillery, the Army of Missouri was very poorly equipped and thousands were without weapons entirely. With only a few brigades in the army able to fight effectively, it's noteworthy that the Confederates were able to achieve any battlefield success at all. Price also lacked critical support from his immediate superior, Trans-Mississippi Department commander Edmund Kirby Smith, who did nothing to aid either the launch of Price's campaign or its return march.

It seems miraculous that Price's army should have escaped destruction, but, as Sinisi demonstrates in the book, this was largely a consequence of the Union army's divided command structure and key blunders. The Union commander in Arkansas, General Frederick Steele, made no attempt to quash the Confederate campaign in its infancy. Instead, he allowed Price to cross the Arkansas River and meet up with Shelby in the northeast corner of the state unopposed. Compounding this dereliction of duty, Steele also failed to gather any intelligence as to Confederate movements and forward them to Rosecrans in Missouri. Finally, he did nothing to hinder Price's retreat back into Arkansas when the Confederates were in desperate straits. In all aspects, it was an abysmal command performance. Lacking information, Rosecrans was slow to react to Price's invasion and nearly lost the state capital in the process. He recovered, though, and assembled a powerful striking force to operate against the rear of the Confederate army as it moved west across Missouri. In Kansas, Curtis dealt rather ineptly with the state's fiercely partisan Republican political factions and was too deferential in his dealings with troops from Rosecrans's department. In the middle of the pursuit down the Kansas-Missouri border, Pleasonton, who otherwise aggressively chased Price across Missouri, inexplicably decided to declare victory and end his command's role in the campaign. By the time Curtis was able to get the pursuit back in high gear, the Confederates escaped. Even though Union victory was clear cut it was incomplete and the failure of Washington to provide for a unified command at any point during the three month operation bore bitter fruit.

Covering such a vast campaign in a single volume of reasonable size is a difficult proposition but Sinisi's efforts toward maximizing available space succeed admirably. His description and analysis of the Missouri Expedition in all three major military dimensions — strategic, operational and tactical — are appropriately weighted and balanced. For a work of this scale the amount of tactical detail provided for the many battles and skirmishes fought is more than satisfactory. The roughly one hundred pages devoted to the October 19-23 series of battles fought just east and south of Kansas City comprise the best treatment yet of what one might consider collectively as the Battle of Westport. In support of the narrative is a very useful set of 21 maps created by Larry Hoffman. In general terms, the cartography of the Missouri Expedition is scant and woeful in the collective literature and The Last Hurrah goes a long way toward rectifying this deficiency. The somewhat complex movements and side-movements of Price's army are clearly traced on the book's operational scale maps and the many tactical maps correlate well with the text descriptions of the unit and landscape battlefield tableau associated with each one.

Research is heavily weighted toward primary sources and the author consulted a bevy of manuscript collections located all over the country. Revisions both large and small to the traditional story of the campaign abound. Some of these have already been noted above but just a few additional examples involve the question of how much Pilot Knob really debilitated Price's army, an original interpretation of the path of Price's wagon train on the retreat from the Westport battlefield, post-battle atrocities, and the extremely high mortality rates among Confederate POWs that survived initial capture. Indeed, while both sides killed civilians and captured soldiers during the campaign (especially along the Kansas-Missouri borderlands), Confederates scooped up during the retreat had a high likelihood of being summarily shot. Detailed inquiry into the latter is beyond the scope of this particular volume but historians would do well in future to widen their net around the general subject of Civil War atrocities and better explore other incidents deserving of further study alongside those associated with racial violence. As one might expect, the book also accepts many of the traditional interpretations of the campaign. Some remain questionable. For example, the author assumes, as have many others before him, that Confederate artillery would have shelled the Union defenders out of Fort Davidson if only Price had had the patience to do it; however, the notion seems open to question and even doubt given how roughly the Confederate guns that were deployed on the high ground during the battle were handled by Union siege guns mounted in the fort.

Nothing should be regarded as a serious deal breaker but there are a few unfortunate issues related to the book's presentation. Typographical errors are frequently encountered in the text and some expected features of military studies of this type (e.g. detailed orders of battle and useful supplementary data like unit strength/casualty tables) are absent.

For students of the Civil War in Missouri, The Last Hurrah: Sterling Price's Missouri Expedition of 1864 has been well worth the considerable wait. The first thorough military treatment of the campaign, this deeply researched and skillfully composed study also holds the added distinction of ranking among the finer examples of Civil War operational military history regardless of subject. Highly recommended.

1 - Michael J. Forsyth's The Great Missouri Raid: Sterling Price and the Last Major Confederate Campaign in Northern Territory (2015) and Mark Lause's Price's Lost Campaign: The 1864 Invasion of Missouri (2011) along with it's perpetually delayed companion The Collapse of Price's Raid: The Beginning of the End in Civil War Missouri (2015?).
2 - A handful of Westport studies exist but the standard account is Howard N. Monnett's dated Action Before Westport, 1864 (1964) which was lightly revised by the author's son, historian John M. Monnett, in 1995 and re-issued by the University Press of Colorado. Fred Lee's The Battle of Westport, October 21–23, 1864 (1976 and 1996) is another important book.
3 - Where Valor and Devotion Met: The Battle of Pilot Knob by Douglas Gifford (2014) and the recently revised and expanded edition of Bryce Suderow's 1986 classic Thunder in Arcadia Valley: Price's Defeat, September 27, 1864, retitled The Battle of Pilot Knob: Thunder in Arcadia Valley and co-authored with R. Scott House (2014). Both are thorough histories of the Pilot Knob battle along with the initial stages of the campaign as a whole.


  1. All books written hereafter on the raid will be measured against Sinisi's account. It is a magnificent book.

    1. Jim,
      I have an interview with the author coming up soon, too.


    2. I will be glad to hear his comments. Be sure and ask him what his next project might be.

    3. I forgot to ask but if you go to his teacher bio it mentions that he's working on a Curtis biography and a study of the Civil War and Charleston. I wonder how close Bill Shea is to finishing his own Curtis book.



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