Keeping Kentucky and Missouri Loyal

April 26, 1861 – President Abraham Lincoln met with a Kentucky Unionist to keep that state loyal, while Federal troops in Missouri worked to keep weapons out of secessionist hands.

Kentucky State Flag | Image Credit:
Kentucky State Flag | Image Credit:

On April 17, Kentucky Governor Beriah Magoffin responded to Lincoln’s call for volunteers to destroy the Confederacy: “Your dispatch is received. I say emphatically, Kentucky will furnish no troops for the wicked purpose of subduing her sister Southern states.” Magoffin received support from both Unionists and secessionists in his state, largely because Kentuckians sought neutrality in any struggle between North and South.

Kentucky’s dominance of the Ohio River meant that if it joined the Confederacy, the state could threaten Ohio’s security and even the Great Lakes trade that furnished the material for northern factories, foundries, and furnaces. On the other hand, if Kentucky joined the U.S., it could threaten Tennessee’s security. Thus, both the Federals and Confederates handled Kentucky with caution out of fear it would join the opposing side.

Secessionists had the influential support of Kentuckian John C. Breckinridge, the former U.S. vice president under James Buchanan. Addressing a large crowd at Louisville, Breckinridge denounced Lincoln’s militia proclamation as illegal. Governor Magoffin also began leaning toward the Confederacy; on the 24th he called on militia to defend the state and scheduled the legislature to meet in special session on May 5. Magoffin sought to persuade legislators to abandon “neutrality” and follow Tennessee’s lead in aiding the Confederacy.

To combat the secessionist wave, Lincoln met with Garret Davis, a prime leader of Kentucky’s Union Party. Lincoln assured Davis that he did not intend to occupy Kentucky, even though “he had the unquestioned right at all times to march the United States troops into and over any and every state.” As long as the state “made no demonstration of force against the United States, he would not molest her.” This satisfied Davis that Lincoln would not invade Kentucky if the state maintained its neutrality.

Meanwhile another vital border state, Missouri, also began moving toward the Confederacy. Missouri Governor Claiborne F. Jackson strongly rejected Lincoln’s call for 3,123 men from his state:

“Your requisition, in my judgment, is illegal, unconstitutional, and revolutionary in its object, inhuman and diabolical, and cannot be complied with. Not one man will the State of Missouri furnish to carry on any such unholy crusade.”

Jackson then wrote to Confederate President Jefferson Davis requesting artillery to help Missourians seize the 60,000 stands of arms at the Federal arsenal in St. Louis.

Missouri State Flag | Image Credit:
Missouri State Flag | Image Credit:

Sensing that the situation in Missouri was more ominous than Kentucky, the Lincoln administration moved more aggressively against secessionism. On the 23rd the War Department recalled General William S. Harney, the renowned commander of the Department of the West, from his St. Louis headquarters to Washington to discuss strategy. Politician Francis P. Blair, Jr., representing Republican interests in Missouri, had persuaded the Lincoln administration to pull Harney out so command would pass to Captain Nathaniel Lyon, a fellow Republican. The command included the vital St. Louis arsenal.

A second order, orchestrated by Blair, granted Lyon extraordinary powers in Harney’s absence to “muster into the service the 4 regiments which the Governor had refused to furnish” according to President Lincoln’s militia proclamation. Lyon was to raise as many as 10,000 recruits to maintain Federal control of St. Louis; he had already been secretly arming a force of primarily German immigrants called the Republican Home Guards.

Meanwhile, President Davis wrote to Governor Jackson confirming that Jackson’s envoys had arrived in Montgomery and declaring that the Confederate government would support Missouri secessionists if they seized the St. Louis arsenal. Davis hoped that such support would entice Missouri into joining the Confederacy.

Lyon soon learned that Jackson was organizing 700 secessionist militiamen in western St. Louis. He and Blair responded by enlisting militia Captain James H. Stokes of Chicago into Federal service by transferring muskets from the arsenal across the Mississippi River to Illinois.

Rumors of Lyon’s order to Stokes spread throughout St. Louis, and a crowd of secessionists gathered at the arsenal on the night of the 25th. Lyon decoyed them by positioning several thousand troops on hills around the city while sending boxes of obsolete flintlock muskets to a docked steamboat. As the crowd seized these boxes, Stokes and his Illinois troops docked another steamboat near midnight. They made off with over 10,000 modern muskets and other supplies.

The arms were safely transferred to Alton, Illinois, where they were distributed to Illinois militia. On April 30, Secretary of War Simon Cameron expanded Lyon’s authority even further by authorizing him to declare martial law and enforce it with his rapidly increasing force. Granting Lyon these sweeping powers while depriving Missourians of weapons proved a serious detriment to secessionist aspirations.



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