May 10, 1861 – Federal troops led by Captain Nathaniel Lyon sparked a riot in St. Louis by preëmptively seizing the allegedly secessionist Camp Jackson on the city’s western outskirts.
Brigadier General Daniel M. Frost, a former army officer and politician, had set up a training base for Missouri militia at Lindell’s Grove in western St. Louis, in accordance with Missouri law. Called Camp Jackson, it was named for Governor Claiborne F. Jackson, a pro-secessionist who requested its creation. The camp came under close Federal scrutiny for its alleged Confederate ties.
On May 8, Captain Lyon secretly reconnoitered Camp Jackson. Borrowing a carriage from the mother-in-law of influential Federal politician Francis P. Blair, Jr., Lyon pretended to be an elderly woman paying a visit to her son. He rode into the “nest of traitors” wearing a shawl, dress, and sunbonnet, concealing his red beard with a veil, and carrying two revolvers hidden in a wicker basket.
Lyon returned to his camp and reported observing streets named for Confederate leaders such as Jefferson Davis and P.G.T. Beauregard, Confederate flags flying over some tents, and troops carrying arms taken from the Federal arsenal at Baton Rouge. Later that night, crates arrived at Camp Jackson from Baton Rouge; they were labeled “marble” but they contained four cannon and ammunition. These were sent in response to Governor Jackson’s request that the Confederacy provide artillery for the secessionists to seize the Federal arsenal at St. Louis.
Although General Frost planned to disband the camp on May 11, Blair urged Lyon to seize it due to the militia’s “unscrupulous conduct, and their evident design” to facilitate Missouri’s secession. Lyon, suspicious of Jackson’s call for militia, proved willing to overstep any legal boundaries to make sure that the St. Louis arsenal remained in Federal hands.
Lyon led his 7,000 men (four regiments of German immigrants and two regiments of Regular soldiers) in a preëmptive attack on some 625 secessionists at Camp Jackson. Frost had directed his men to disassemble their muskets in preparation for disbanding the next day. He sent a message to Lyon assuring that he intended no hostility toward the Federals, concluding: “I trust, after this explicit statement, we may be able by fully understanding each other to keep far from our borders the misfortunes which unhappily afflict our common country.”
Lyon refused to receive the message and directed his Federals to surround the camp. Frost replied to Lyon’s demand to surrender:
“I, never for a moment having conceived an idea that so illegal and unconstitutional a demand as I have just received from you would be made by an officer of the United States army, am wholly unprepared to defend my command from this unwarranted attack, and shall therefore be forced to comply with your demand.”
Frost and his men surrendered without resistance, and the Federals found large supplies of Confederate ordnance in the camp. When the secessionists refused to swear loyalty to the U.S., Lyon resolved to publicly humiliate them by marching them at gunpoint through the city to the St. Louis arsenal. The escorting Federals were predominantly Germans belonging to the Unionist Home Guard, or “die Schwartze Garde.”
Enraged residents and city leaders gathered to protest “Hessian” aggression and shouted, “Damn the Dutch!” and “Hurrah for Jeff Davis!” Some protestors threw stones or brickbats at the soldiers. When a shot rang out, the Federals fired into the crowd, killing or mortally wounding some 28 people, including women and children. Lyon dismissed the Germans upon reaching the arsenal, but mobs looted and burned sections of St. Louis throughout the stormy night. Some 30 people died, most of whom were Germans. City saloons were closed.
The militiamen were detained as prisoners, although it remained unclear whether they were prisoners of war (even though no war had been declared in Missouri) or under arrest for breaking a law (even though no charges were presented or any law cited as having been violated).
Lyon’s rashness may have saved the arsenal (and possibly Missouri itself) for the U.S., but it also prompted many Missourians to join the secessionists. Governor Jackson reported the Federal capture of Camp Jackson to the Missouri legislature, and within 15 minutes the legislators approved a measure forming a State Guard and “switching funds from the state’s charitable institutions and schools to the militia.” Financing included a $1 million state government loan through the issuance of state bonds. Jackson and his secessionist supporters relocated from the state capital at Jefferson City to Neosho.
The next day, General William S. Harney, commanding the Federal Department of the West, returned to St. Louis to take command of the garrison there. He expressed dismay with Captain Lyon’s actions the previous day that sparked rioting in the city.
Harney met with General Frost, imprisoned with his men at the St. Louis arsenal. Frost explained that “in accordance with the laws of the State of Missouri, which have been existing for some years, and in obedience to the orders of the Governor, on Monday last I entered into an encampment with the militia force of St. Louis County for the purpose of instructing the same in accordance with the laws of the United States and of this State.” Frost protested that his men were imprisoned even after having sworn an oath to protect and defend the U.S. Constitution.
Meanwhile, rioting continued in St. Louis as Federals placed the city under military rule. At Fifth and Walton, the 5th Reserve Regiment fought with protestors, leaving at least two soldiers and four civilians dead. Residents began fleeing the city to avoid the military’s wrath. The Memphis Packet Company provided steamboats for frightened people who did not leave by buggy, horse, or train.
On Sunday the 12th, General Harney issued a proclamation:
“The military force stationed in this department by authority of the Government, and now under my command, will only be used in the last resort to preserve the peace. I trust I may be spared the necessity of resorting to martial law, but the public peace must be preserved, and the lives and property of the people protected.”
A witness stated that by that afternoon, some 3,000 residents had left “over the river, down the river, up the river, anywhere to escape the fury of the Dutch.” While the violence prompted many Missourians to resent Federal rule, the Federal military response suppressed secession sentiment in St. Louis.
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