Monday, September 28, 2015

Author Q & A: Kyle Sinisi on "The Last Hurrah: Sterling Price's Missouri Expedition of 1864"

Citadel history professor Kyle Sinisi's new book The Last Hurrah: Sterling Price's Missouri Expedition of 1864 was published this summer by Rowman & Littlefield. He is also the author of Sacred Debts: State Civil War Claims and American Federalism (2003) and co-editor of Warm Ashes: Issues in Southern History at the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century (2003). The Last Hurrah, a groundbreaking operational history of the Confederate campaign in Missouri in 1864, is the subject of this interview.

DW: The staff at Fort Davidson has attempted to compile a list of names of those that fought with Price at some point during the 1864 Missouri Expedition. Considering the older consensus view that Price took 10-12,000 men into Missouri and that strength waxed and waned as men deserted and others were added (many forcibly), what they came up with is quite striking. Walter Busch is confident that the Confederate numbers swelled to 20-25,000 by the time of Westport. What are your thoughts on the subject?

KS: The Fort Davidson list is among the more valuable data compilations that you can find in Civil War military history. All researchers on the war in the Trans-Mississippi are indebted to Walter Busch and his staff for the data base. That said, it is a list in need of careful interpretation and further cross-checking. The list includes all types of men who were not really attached to Price’s army. There are guerrillas tagged to leaders such as Quantrill and Anderson, and still many others who can only be identified as “guerrilla” or “irregular.” Others on the list include numerous members of isolated bands of recruits who either never made it to Price’s army or who only reached Price once he stopped his retreat at Laynesport. Large groups led by Eli Hodges and Salem Ford fit this category. Due to the variety of sources used and a lack of uniformity in nineteenth-century spelling and name initials, there are no doubt some repeated entries. However, I think the biggest issue to navigate with the list concerns when exactly these men entered or left Price’s army. For every entry that specifies, or hints, at a period of service, there are three or four entries where that service may not even coincide with the expedition let alone some portion of it. At the end of it all, I think there is every reason to believe that Price “enrolled” near to 20,000 men in the army. Given the desertion and straggling that afflicted the army, I think it unlikely that Price ever had 20,000 men in the ranks at any one time. Although the Fort Davidson list allows us to guess and estimate with a greater confidence, there is still a bunch of guessing and estimating taking place.

DW: On the Confederate side, reaching the Missouri border at all (let alone untouched) was an achievement in itself and the result of enormous good fortune. Union general Frederick Steele is generally well regarded in the Civil War literature and was thought highly of by his contemporaries yet his complete failure to engage Price in Arkansas (either coming or going) when the Confederates were extremely vulnerable to interdiction represents one of the worst command performances of the war. Did you discover any reasonable explanation for this? Psychological speculation is always dangerous but do you think the near disaster of the earlier Camden Expedition contributed to his command paralysis?

KS: Frederick Steele’s performance is one of the great mysteries of the campaign. I really have no deep explanation for why he allowed Price to roam freely through Arkansas either at the beginning or the end of the campaign. I simply think he was overwhelmed by the rush of events and a flood of different reports as to Price’s intentions and location. I also do not think he was well served by his subordinate commanders, especially Powell Clayton at Pine Bluff, in the scouting or pursuit of Price. Was Steele scarred by Camden? Possibly, but in the end I do not think he was suited for higher-level command and the risky decisions (and guesses) that came with it. He was a capable field commander, but he was overwhelmed when it came to commanding a far-flung department.

DW: Do you believe that the contemporaneous uptick in guerrilla violence throughout Missouri during the summer of 1864 was more a function of coincidence or planned coordination with Price?

KS: This is one of those issues that I address directly in the book. I do not believe there was any significant connection between Price and the guerrilla uprising. Although Price in early August did dispatch several couriers into Missouri in search of guerrilla leaders, there is scant evidence these couriers ever linked with the primary leaders. Indeed, there is only evidence that one courier, Jeremiah Moore, made contact with Quantrill on September 12. John Edwards, who was famous for inventing many parts of his historical narratives, claims that another courier made contact with George Todd on September 8. Assuming these stories are true, they nevertheless illustrate how Price could not have orchestrated guerrilla actions. The guerrilla uprising had started in June, three months before any of Price’s couriers could have relayed orders. I think the best explanation for the uprising, and its success, is that Missouri had been stripped of its Union manpower. By the summer of 1864, about 67 percent of the Department of the Missouri’s troops had been shipped east across the Missouri River. Missouri was relatively undefended, and the guerrillas knew it.

DW: One of the most common criticisms of Price is that he overburdened his column with wagons and moved too slowly. However, most of this seems predicated on the false impression that the operation was conceived as a raid from the beginning. In your opinion, how much censure over the measured Confederate rate of movement is warranted?

KS: I think the criticism of the trains and Price’s march speed is largely overblown. A summary starts with the fact that the whole expedition was not designed as some quick raid in and out of the state. Price was going there to stay, and he commanded an army that could not easily feed its men and horses along the route. Price needed a lot of wagons to carry the food, ordnance, and forage necessary to sustain that army. Price very much understood the importance of the trains based upon his experience in the Camden campaign against Frederick Steele. Price defeated Steele by destroying his support trains. With all of this in mind, Price then assembled his trains in accordance with Confederate regulations, which gave him about 250 wagons at the outset of the expedition. First-hand accounts of the size of the trains remained pretty constant throughout the expedition with one Union observer counting “about 250” in the vicinity of Lexington. Even if this particular account was off by two-hundred wagons, the reality is that by this time of the operation, Price needed more, not fewer, wagons. The size of his army had swelled to at least 17,000 men, and he needed a corresponding increase in his supply transport. While the wagons were ponderous and they did slow the advance of the army, of far greater importance in slowing the army were hundreds of dismounted men who walked among the trains. That number grew throughout the expedition as dismounted recruits and prisoners got added to the trains. One other thing slowing the march would have been the cattle in the trains that were absolutely vital to feeding the army. Jeff Thompson’s attack on Sedalia alone netted Price over 1,000 cattle. Price’s conduct of his march adhered to the standard procedures and regulations for cavalry during the war. He also issued an extraordinary set of orders at the outset of the campaign that sought to mitigate straggling and delays in the march. Nevertheless, the accumulated weight of the dismounted men, livestock, and wagons in the trains did slow Price’s march. Price exacerbated things with poor execution in the juggling of units on daily marches. Perhaps worst of all, Price waited far too long to jettison the bulk of the trains when it became obvious that his army was in jeopardy near to Kansas City.

DW: If Price had moved faster do you think he could have captured St. Louis, or if not St. Louis then Jefferson City?

KS: I don’t think any reasonably accelerated march would have resulted in the capture of St. Louis. Price’s rate of march through Arkansas and into southeast Missouri befitted an army with wagons, livestock, and hordes of dismounted men who walked along in the trains. Price really could not have traveled all that much faster without disintegrating the force before it even arrived at Pilot Knob. Regardless, there is perhaps an even more intriguing point to consider. Assuming the gods of war had smiled upon Price and allowed him to capture a very well defended St. Louis, there could be no reasonable expectation of holding the city for an extended period of time. There was simply too much Union combat power in the region. Price would have been quickly evicted or crushed had he chosen to stay at St. Louis. Jefferson City involves much the same consideration. Price most certainly lost a great deal of time in his march from Pilot Knob. The diversion of troops to chase Ewing slowed him down as did the pace of the main body as it moved toward the Missouri River. But at the same time, Price was in Missouri to foment a popular rebellion and add troops to his army of occupation. His pace through the state would be dictated not just by the number of dismounted men in his column, but also by the daily attempts to recruit large numbers of men and sort through captured prisoners and conscripts (most of whom were dismounted). A quick dash from Pilot Knob to Jefferson City was really not in the cards. Finally, and just as in the case of St. Louis, the question needs to be asked “so what”? If Price had indeed captured Jefferson City and moved Thomas C. Reynolds into the governor’s mansion, how long could he have held it and what would have been materially changed about the expedition? The capture would have no doubt sent shock waves through Missouri’s Union population and government. It may also have added more men to Price’s ranks. But in the end, Price could not have held the city for an extended period of time. Everything depended upon a massive uprising of Missouri’s population on behalf of the Confederacy. That simply was not going to happen.

DW:  Price’s opponent, Missouri Department commander William S. Rosecrans, is a controversial figure. How would you assess his response to the Confederate advance into Missouri?

KS: Rosecrans faced three big problems in defending the Department of the Missouri. First, he had about 17,600 troops to defend the state. The bulk of his manpower had been transferred east. Second, no one important liked or trusted him. Edward Stanton, Henry Halleck, and Ulysses Grant all thought Rosecrans a nuisance who was prone to exaggerate the difficulties he faced. Rosecrans was thus a distrusted general commanding a department whose purpose was to provide men for other departments. Magnifying his problems, Rosecrans bought into the conspiracy theory of an uprising of the Order of American Knights, and he tried repeatedly to get all of Washington to see the looming danger in Missouri. This sort of thing made Grant, especially, even more dismissive of Rosecrans. Grant wanted to replace Rosecrans, and the commanding general did his best to insult him and then deny him the responsibility of actually dealing with Price. Grant even had Halleck give A.J. Smith the “problem of catching Price,” and Halleck thus instructed Smith to operate independently of Rosecrans if necessary. Fortunately for the Union, Smith deferred immediately to Rosecrans and his orders. The third big problem Rosecrans faced concerned information regarding Price’s movements. Frederick Steele failed terribly in this regard, and Rosecrans was left to guess where Price would enter the state all the while carefully husbanding scarce manpower. Given all of these issues, Rosecrans did about as well as anyone could have expected right up until the point where Price reached Jefferson City. Thereafter, Rosecrans lost tactical control of his pursuit forces. He was forever displaced too far to the rear and unable to react to changing developments and new reports. By October 21, Alfred Pleasonton was too detached from Rosecrans’s actual tactical control, and the cavalryman presented Rosecrans with a fait accompli when he engaged Price. Pleasonton was thus in no position to pull out or dispatch a part of his force to block Price to the southwest. A.J. Smith’s infantry got caught up in this commitment to battle in the vicinity of Kansas City as Rosecrans now ordered it to try and support Pleasonton. Perfect hindsight lets us imagine that Smith could have been better used in a march south toward the Kansas-Missouri border where he could have blocked Price’s escape or at least altered it to the advantage of the Union.

DW: Given the qualitative unevenness and gaps in coverage in the literature of the expedition it’s problematic to say that a master narrative even exists. Even so, enough has been written to form some degree of consensus on key aspects of the operation. In the introduction to your book you mention that your study revises the traditional history of the campaign in many different ways. Can you briefly talk about two or three examples?

KS: Yes, there are quite a few things that could be mentioned here. The first would have to concern Price’s intentions for the expedition. He desired the conquest of Missouri and anticipated a popular uprising that never came. To label the expedition a raid distorts what Price intended to do from the outset. Among some of the other conclusions is that Price’s defeat at Pilot Knob was not nearly as debilitating as we generally think. The casualty figures were fairly low as a percentage of his army, and his turn from St. Louis really had nothing to do with the defeat. The reassessments of the size of Price’s trains and his rate of travel are important. But if given only two other things to mention, I would go with the maps and the study of the expedition’s aftermath. Although there have been some excellent maps produced on Pilot Knob, we really have been stuck with some map interpretations that have repeated errors since the campaign itself. I have tried to correct the errors as well as provide maps for various parts of the expedition that have heretofore been missing, especially in marking the passage of the various forces in between the major engagements. As to the aftermath, I think you get a better sense of the impact of the expedition by looking at what happened after the shooting stopped. Here you can chronicle the attempts of up to 2,000 men who chased after Price trying to join his army while that very same army disintegrated due to exposure, disease, desertion, and starvation. Another important facet of the aftermath concerned the treatment of Confederate prisoners. In a war where the average mortality of Confederate prisoners stood at 12 percent, over 30 percent of Price’s men died in the Union camps within just five months. Yet another aspect of the aftermath relates to how Union authorities dealt with the hundreds of men who claimed to have been conscripted at gun point into Price’s army. Needless to say, Union authorities were not very trusting of such stories, which then meant that more men were incarcerated and proceedings had to be instituted to determine the loyalty of all those caught up in the path of Price’s army. One final part of the expedition’s aftermath that has not really received all that much attention down through the years was the return march of Union forces through Arkansas and Missouri. Things did not go well for the citizenry as the men of Frederick Benteen’s and Doc Jennison’s commands created a swath of destruction that typified the carnage of the border war. For as much as Sterling Price, Samuel Curtis, and several other subordinate commanders tried to restrain their soldiers, the learned savagery of the border wars could not be eliminated by well-meaning senior commanders.

DW: In terms of numbers present, the multi-day conflict around Westport (arguably?) comprised the largest Civil War battle fought west of the Mississippi yet until your book came around the fullest available treatment remained Howard Monnett’s dated Centennial monograph. You cover Westport in some detail. Did your research lead you to conclude that we need to reassess the battle in any fundamentally different way(s)?

KS: Howard Monnett’s book has been the standard history of Westport for quite a while. However, it is time for a fresher look. Some of this fresher look has to do with emphasizing how poor, or at least defective, Union cartography shaped the battle and its historiography. Some of the Union maps failed to label properly the various fords across the Big Blue. One consequence was that on October 22 a significant ford, Hinkle’s, was left completely unguarded when Thomas Moonlight took his brigade to another ford he thought was Hinkle’s. Shelby readily exploited this error, and he pushed troops across the Big Blue at Hinkle’s and yet another ford further to the south. Curtis’s line then collapsed as a result. Battlefield cartography has also been terribly muddled as it regards the passage of Price’s trains through the battle area and John McNeil’s lost opportunity to destroy them on October 23. I think The Last Hurrah helps to clarify the path of the trains and the location of the McNeil’s aborted attack at what was known as Hart Grove Creek. Of great help in revising the story of the trains, and McNeil’s problems, were Union courts martial records. These records also allow a much more detailed study of the Union attack at Byram’s Ford and help reveal the misunderstandings and confusion that led to Alfred Pleasonton’s sacking of James McFerran and Egbert Brown. The courts martial records, and other materials, facilitate an evaluation of the combat performance of the Missouri State Militia in comparison to Edward Winslow’s brigade of volunteer cavalry at Byram’s Ford. There are some other new insights about the battles around Kansas City, especially in the book’s coverage of the actions at Rock Creek and the Mockbee Farm on the 22nd and at Brush Creek on the 23rd. However, I think one of the fundamental reassessments of the battles has to do with casualties. Historians have badly inflated the total casualty figures that range as high as 5,300 for both sides for the period from October 21-23. Howard Monnett claimed 1,500 casualties on October 23 alone. I think the evidence points to a much smaller figure, especially for October 23, where there were no more than 800 total casualties. My sense of the casualty counting is that ongoing research may well prove the number is even lower. This downward revision of casualties begs the question of why the battle was less bloody than we have long thought. Here I try to look at the marksmanship of both sides in light of Earl Hess’s studies. In the end, I think the armies were filled with men, especially on the Union side, who did not have the training to maximize the effectiveness of their weapons. They were, in other words, typical soldiers for the war.

DW: Looking back, it surely strikes most modern observers that the campaign was foolhardy at best, with the Confederates needing a heavy dose of good luck just to survive. After finishing your project and knowing what we know now, what was Price’s best case scenario for his Missouri expedition?

KS: Price’s best case scenario was essentially what happened in fact. Price intended to redeem the state for the Confederacy. It had been his sole focus, and that of Missouri’s exiled Confederates, ever since Price had been expelled in 1861. For Price to retake the state he needed not only military victories, but for Missouri’s population to rise in a popular revolt against Yankee rule. Price’s passage through Missouri netted him in the vicinity of 8,000 recruits. This was far below the tens of thousands of men that Price and his followers believed represented the true sentiments of Missouri. Given then a people who did not want to be liberated, it was inevitable that his expedition would deteriorate into what looked like a raid. Ultimately, the best, and most realistic, course of events for Price would have been victory at Pilot Knob and then a march through the heart of the state much as actually took place. A victory at Pilot Knob would have provided a morale boost to Price and his Missouri Confederates. It may have bolstered recruiting. It may also have further diverted troops from the eastern side of the Mississippi River. However, none of these things would have altered his stay in Missouri or the larger course of events during the war. In the end, Price’s biggest mistake was to loiter too long in the Boonslick and to not turn south at Lexington, which provided him his best (albeit slim) chance of escape. In that way, he could have possibly preserved his army and any of the men or material he garnered along the way.

DW: Some writers have suggested that Price’s campaign in Missouri significantly prolonged the war (by some estimates, up to two months). What is your view on the strategic outcome of the operation?

KS: I would not agree. The argument for the prolongation of the war is usually that Union troops earmarked to participate in either the attack upon Mobile or Sherman’s March to the Sea were diverted to fight Price. The diversions thus delayed the actions, and the war was prolonged. A corollary might be that Price’s Expedition so concerned the Union command structure that it also served to delay Sherman’s March. For Mobile, a plan existed to begin an attack in November 1864. It was indeed delayed until April 1865. Although the attack may have been delayed because of a diversion of troops to combat Price (and I am not convinced the delay was because of this), the whole argument is largely irrelevant. For all of Mobile’s importance early in the war, by the beginning of Price’s Expedition the city had little strategic value for the Confederacy. Farragut’s victory at Mobile Bay made sure of that. Not a single blockade runner had entered or exited the city since July. The city was strategically insignificant without a viable port. Farragut’s victory prompted Grant to say, “We have all of Mobile that is valuable.” The loss of the city may well have been the final nail in the coffin of the Confederacy in April 1865, but the cover on the coffin had been securely in place since July and August 1864. As to Sherman’s March, the chronology of events does not support Price’s Expedition delaying anything. Atlanta fell September 2. Sherman then took several weeks to restructure his force, deal with civilians and prisoners, and plot his next move. What concerned Sherman most was not Sterling Price but logistics as he wrestled with what to do next. Once Sherman settled on his objective, Savannah, he waited for two things to finish before he marched the army. As Anne Bailey has written in her book, War and Ruin, those two things were the results of the November presidential election and for the rains to cease in Georgia. Plainly, Sherman’s actions were not controlled by Price’s Expedition. One final point to make is that any continuation of the war past April 1865 depended entirely upon the ability of Robert E. Lee to extract his army from Petersburg and then to link with Joe Johnston somewhere in North Carolina. Nothing Sterling Price did in Missouri, or the Union’s reaction to Price, was going to affect this.

DW: That was a great discussion. Thank you for participating in this author Q&A and, even more, for being the one to finally fill a 150 year old gaping hole in the military historiography of Missouri’s Civil War. Again, the book title is The Last Hurrah: Sterling Price's Missouri Expedition of 1864 and, readers, you can also find my review here.

1 comment:

  1. Drew: An excellent exchange with Professor Sinisi. I agree that his book breaks new ground in several aspects of the campaign. It is now the standard book on Price's expedition and I expect that it will be for years to come.


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