In the middle of Price’s Campaign, two Wild West icons crossed paths

I’m convinced all Civil War enthusiasts hold at least a “more than passing” interest in the “Wild West” and that portion of the post-war era.  Perhaps it is to offset the bitter side of that period of time.  Or perhaps just because we like men with wide-brim hats and six guns!

At any rate, 150 years ago, near or about October 5 or 6 or 7… maybe… two Wild West icons met up in the middle of Major-General Sterling Price’s campaign.  William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody was a trooper with the 7th Kansas Cavalry in the fall of 1864.  James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok was a scout working for Brigadier-Generals John Sandborn or John McNeil (depending on the account).  Cody related the incident in “The Life and Adventures of Buffalo Bill“:

After skirmishing around the country with the rest of the army for some little time, our regiment returned to Memphis, but was immediately ordered to Cape Girardeau, in Missouri, as a confederate force under General Price was then raiding that state.  The command of which my regiment was a part hurried to the front to intercept Price, and our first fight with him occurred at Pilot Knob.  From that time for nearly six weeks we fought or skirmished every day.

I was still acting as a scout, when one day I rode ahead of the command, some considerable distance, to pick up all possible information concerning Price’s movements.  I was dressed in gray cloths, or Missouri jeans, and on riding up to a farm-house and entering, I saw a man, also dressed in gray costume, sitting at a table eating bread and milk.  He looked up as I entered, and startled me by saying:

“You little rascal, what are you doing in those ‘secesh’ clothes?” Judge of my surprise when I recognized in the stranger my old friend and partner, Wild Bill, disguised as a Confederate officer.

“I ask you the same question, sir,” said I without the least hesitation.

“Hush! sit down and have some bread and milk, and we’ll talk it all over afterwards,” said he.

I accepted the invitation and partook of the refreshments. Wild Bill paid the woman of the house, and we went out to the gate where my horse was standing.

“Billy, my boy,” said he, “I am mighty glad to see you.  I haven’t seen or heard of you since we got busted on that St.Louis’ horse-race.”

“What are you doing out here?” I asked.

” I am a scout under General McNiel. For the last few days I have been with General Marmaduke’s division of Price’s army, in disguise as a southern officer from Texas, as you see me now,” said he.

“That’s exactly the kind of business that I am out on today,” said I; “and I want to get some information concerning Price’s movements.”

“I’ll give you all that I have,” and he then went on and told me all that he knew regarding Price’s intentions, and the number and condition of his men.  He then asked about my mother, and when he learned that she was dead he was greatly surprised and grieved; he thought a great deal of her, for she had treated him almost as one of her own children.  He finally took out a package, which he had concealed about his person, and handing it to me said:

“Here are some letters which I want you to give to General McNiel.”

“All right,” said I as I took them, “but where will I meet you again?”

“Never mind that,” he replied, “I am getting so much valuable information that I propose to stay a little while longer in this disguise.” Thereupon we shok hands and parted.

The sort of stuff that gets worked into a movie, don’t you think?

Well, “Buffalo Bill” was writing …or embellishing, was it?… for effect.

Historian Mark Lause, in Price’s Lost Campaign, used some circumstantial evidence to argue this exchange took place somewhere on the east side of the Gasconade River, and likely on October 4th or 5th, 1865. Regardless of the exact time and place (or even if it happened at all), we have an example of the legend and lore which is forever bound to the Civil War and post-war westward expansion periods.

(Citation from William F. Cody, The Life of Hon. William F. Cody, Known as Buffalo Bill, the Famous Hunter, Scout, and Guide: An Autobiography, Lincoln: U of Nebraska, 1978, pages 136-7.)

“If Price takes Jefferson City he will have to fight for it”: Price threatens Missouri state capital

After making his move towards St. Louis on October 1, 1864, Major-General Sterling Price looked westward to continue his campaign.  The Confederate Army of Missouri marched through the counties along the southern side of the Missouri River in the direction of the state capital at Jefferson City. Along this route were several important tributaries which lay generally perpendicular to Price’s line of march.  The most important of which were the Gasconade, Osage, and Moreau Rivers.  (The first two are labeled in light blue on the map below, with the Moreau reaching the Missouri just downstream from Jefferson City and not depicted here on the wartime map).


Price was in the most populous portion of Missouri (at that time).  And he still had an opportunity to score a notable victory by occupying Jefferson City. But the danger was getting pinned against the Missouri River while astride one of those tributaries.  The key to this movement was control of the river crossings.

On October 2, one of Price’s columns skirmished with Missouri State Militia in the river town of Washington, but the Federals managed to escape by boat.  The main body of the Army of Missouri covered 14 miles on October 3. Then on October 4, Major-General John Marmaduke’s division marched seventeen miles in the rain to reach Herman, another river town.  But just beyond the town, a couple companies of the 34th Missouri State Militia, under Captain Francis Onken, guarded the railroad bridge over the rain-swollen Gasconade.

There is scant indication that the Confederates considered forcing a crossing at that bridge.  But the militia did hold it until late on October 5, reporting no direct contact with the Confederates.  The militia fell back to the west – or perhaps more correctly, melted away. In the words of Onken, “I never would have left the Gasconade bridge if my men had staid with me.” When Marmaduke and Brigadier-General Joseph Shelby’s division crossed the Gasconade further upstream, he did send a detachment to burn the bridge.

With one obstacle down, Price turned next towards the Osage.  Columns led by Marmaduke and Shelby converged at the town of Linn, half-way to the river.  Inflated post-war accounts made actions at Linn into some important affair.  The skirmishing there was of no major concern to either side.  At the railroad bridge over the Osage, state militia in a blockhouse were compelled to surrender.  But once in possession, the Confederates were content to burn the bridge and move on.

Crossings elsewhere along the Osage brought Price’s men to the town of Taos, a scant few miles outside of Jefferson City.  An interesting historical sidebar offers a historical “twist of fate” laced with irony.  Taos was named for the (New) Mexico town of Taos.  In 1847, while commanding volunteer forces during the Mexican War, Price suppressed an insurrection against American forces stationed there.   The “Taos Massacre” was of course seen as a victory, secured Price’s reputation, and the community thus changed their name in his honor.  Now Price arrived leading a rebellion of his own!

The only barrier standing between Price and the state capital on October 7 was the Moreau River and a small garrison.  Brigadier-General Egbert Brown had less than 3,000 men in arms (probably closer to 2,300) at his disposal.  But he had tended to the defenses from the time Price had arrived in the state and had improved the earthworks around the city. Reporting the situation to Major-General William Rosecrans on October 3, Brown wrote,

Every precaution you have suggested and many more prompted by the situation have been made. My cavalry are holding all the fords below, with several small parties scouting on the flank and front of Colonel Philips, who is on the road between Castle Rock and Vienna with about 800 men. I have sent your telegram of the 1st to General McNeil by two scouts, and have also informed him of my situation.  If Price takes Jefferson City he will have to fight for it.

Brigadier-General John McNeil arrived from the south (having pulled out of the area around Rolla) to reinforce Jefferson City.  Brigadier-General John Sanborn brought in a brigade of cavalry to the city’s support.  Thus enlarged to around 8,000 and with proper fortifications, the Federals had rallied again in the face of Price’s invasion.

In the itinerary of his army’s progress, the entry for October 7 read:

October 7 (Camp No. 38). – Near Jefferson City. Fagan in front and the only division engaged. Enemy in strong position, but driven from one position to another, until about 3 p.m. they retired to their fortifications in and around the city, when we formed in line to west and south of Jefferson.  Cut the Pacific Railroad. Loss very slight; ten miles.

And thus another chance to score a signal success in Missouri that autumn faded with the sunset.  Though reaching the heart of Missouri, Price had failed to accomplish anything which could alter the balance of the war in the lead up to the elections.  Nor did the status of Missouri hang in the balance.  The campaign from October 7, 1864 evolved into less an invasion and more into a big “ride out” for the Confederate forces.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 41, Part I, Serial 83, pages 367, 645; Part III, Serial 85, page 589.)