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Price-Harney Agreement

May 21, 1861

Concluded on May 21, 1861, the Price-Harney Agreement was an unsuccessful attempt to maintain peace in Missouri at the onset of the American Civil War.

When the Union began to dissolve following Abraham Lincoln's election to the United States presidency in November 1860, Missouri's loyalties were greatly divided. Most residents of the St. Louis area, which included a high concentration of German immigrants, were strongly pro-Union. The remainder of the state was more sympathetic to Southern secessionists. Three months prior to Lincoln's victory, Missourians elected Democrat Claiborne Fox Jackson, on August 6, 1860, as their governor. Jackson campaigned as an anti-secession candidate, but when the Union started crumbling, he began expressing support for Southern states that were seceding. Nonetheless, after a special state convention voted ninety-eight to one against Missouri's secession, the governor announced that Missouri would remain neutral if war erupted.

When President Lincoln called for seventy-five thousand volunteers from each state after the Civil War began, Jackson responded that, "Not one man will the State of Missouri furnish to carry on any unholy crusade." Jackson then began making clandestine plans to seize the federal arsenal at St. Louis, which housed extensive stores of arms and ammunition. The governor's designs were thwarted, when Captain Nathaniel Lyon's regular army troops, working in conjunction with volunteers assembled by United States Representative Frank Blair, secretly moved the arsenal's contents across the Mississippi River to Alton, Illinois in late April.

Jackson responded by assembling the Missouri Volunteer Militia on May 3, 1861, ostensibly for training purposes. When Lyon learned of Jackson's call to arms, he ordered his troops to surround Camp Jackson and to imprison approximately 670 militiamen who were training there on May 10. Lyon then marched the prisoners through the streets of St. Louis, thereby inciting pro-secessionist residents to protest. When a riot ensued, Lyon's soldiers fired on the angry crowd, killing twenty-eight civilians and wounding as many as fifty more. Lyon's actions fanned anti-Union flames in Missouri.

The day after the shootings, May 11, 1861, the Missouri General Assembly hastily approved, "An act to raise money to arm the State, repel invasion, and protect the lives and property of the people of Missouri." More commonly known as the Military Bill, the legislation extended Governor Jackson's executive powers to resist Union forces in the state. Jackson proceeded to reorganize the state militia into the Missouri State Guard and appointed former Governor Sterling Price as commander.

Despite Lyon's provocative actions, Price was committed to maintaining peace in Missouri. On May 21, 1861, Price met with Lyon's superior officer, Brigadier-General William S. Harney, commander of the Department of the West. The two men concluded a pact known as the Price-Harney Agreement. The two leaders agreed that Harney's federal troops would be responsible for maintaining peace in the St. Louis area. In return, Price would ensure that the Missouri State Guard would protect Unionists and their property from hotheaded secessionists throughout the rest of the state. Acclaimed by moderates, the deal inflamed extremists on each side. When Price proved unable to fulfill his end of the bargain, Congressman Blair successfully contrived to have Harney removed from his command. On May 30, 1861, Lyon relieved Harney as commander of the Department of the West.

With the status of the Price-Harney Agreement now uncertain, Governor Jackson requested a meeting with the new department commander. Still hoping for a peaceful resolution that would maintain Missouri's neutrality, Jackson and Price traveled from Jefferson City to St. Louis to negotiate with Lyon at the Planter's House Hotel on June 11, 1861. After four hours of wrangling proved fruitless, the quarrelsome Lyon stood up and announced that, "rather than concede to the State of Missouri for one single instant the right to dictate to my government in any matter, however unimportant, I would see you . . . and every man, woman, and child in the State dead and buried." He then abruptly stormed out of the meeting proclaiming, "This means war."

Jackson and Price immediately departed for Jefferson City, cutting telegraph wires and destroying railroad bridges along their route. Lyon set off in pursuit. On June 17, 1861, Lyon's federal troops skirmished with a unit of the Missouri State Guard commanded by Colonel John S. Marmaduke at Boonville. The Civil War in Missouri had begun.

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