Major General Sterling “Pap” Price had withdrawn his secessionist Missouri State Guards from Lexington under pressure from Major General John C. Fremont’s larger Federal Army of the West. Price moved southwest, seeking to join forces once more with the secessionist army under Brigadier General Ben McCulloch in Arkansas. Price had no more than 12,000 ill-equipped men in his command. Fremont, whose Federals were also ill-equipped and trained, had nearly 40,000.
Price left a small garrison at Lexington, which was overrun by Major Frank J. White’s First Squadron Prairie Scouts on the early morning of October 16. White reported that “the rebels ran in every direction” while his Federals freed their imprisoned comrades and seized arms, 25 horses, two steamboats, and several Guards who could not escape.
While the Federals resumed their occupation of Lexington, Fremont’s main force continued southwest toward Springfield. Price fell back to Neosho, where a “rump session” of the popularly elected Missouri legislature was scheduled to take place. This was on the way to join McCulloch, whose men were 20 miles south at Pineville.
McCulloch wrote Price that he sought to advance on Springfield while directing “Col. Stand Watie, with one regiment of Cherokees, to move into the neutral land and Kansas, and destroy everything that might be of service to the enemy.” McCulloch urged Price to destroy Federal resources around Carthage and concluded, “If the enemy should not advance beyond Springfield, we might with our cavalry lay waste Kansas.”
Price responded that although he agreed Kansas’s support for the Federals “should be broken,” he would not “destroy that which is absolutely necessary for the subsistence–I may almost say the existence–of the surrounding inhabitants.” Price proposed destroying the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad, which would cut Fremont’s supply line from the east.
He argued that Kansans were aiding the Federals along the Missouri River: “It is there that abolition reigns; it is there her wealth is held; it is there her fighting men are raised; in short, it is the center from which all her depredations upon Southern rights and Southern property radiate.” If McCulloch’s “gallant men” advanced there, they would bring the “thorough establishment of Southern independence to the Mississippi Valley.”
While Price and McCulloch debated strategy, Federal cavalry under Major Charles Zagonyi of Leuchtenburg routed a token secessionist force and occupied Springfield on the 25th. The Federal force consisted of Fremont’s Kentucky bodyguard; the men rode bay chargers and wore colorful feathers in their hats. They drove through the Confederate pickets and into the courthouse square before the secessionists knew they were being attacked. The Federals sustained about 100 casualties.
Fremont’s main force arrived at Springfield two days later, with Fremont setting up headquarters in the same red brick building that Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon had used as headquarters before his death at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. Fremont sent a message to Washington boasting that retaking Springfield was “an atonement for Bull Run, Wilson’s Creek and Lexington.”
He further declared that he would “clear the state entirely of the enemy.” Fremont based this on false information that Price’s Guards were just nine miles away and advancing on Springfield from the southwest. In reality, Price was still at Neosho, over 50 miles away, having put a considerable distance between himself and the Federals due to Fremont’s lethargy.
Back at Springfield, an apparently insane man hurrahing alternately for Jefferson Davis, Jesus Christ, and Satan burned down the court house in the town square, where Federals had jailed several alleged secessionists. As Federals tried to extinguish the blaze, the man clapped his hands and prayed to God for “burning up a million devils and destroying the souls of 10,000 bodies.” This bizarre event somewhat embodied the tumultuous Missouri situation, of which Fremont was quickly and unwittingly losing control by month’s end.
- Cutrer, Thomas W., Theater of a Separate War: The Civil War West of the Mississippi River. The University of North Carolina Press, (Kindle Edition), 2017.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- Nevin, David, The Road to Shiloh: Early Battles in the West. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.