Lyon Replaces Harney in Missouri

May 31, 1861 – Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon replaced Brigadier General William S. Harney as commander of the Federal Department of the West. Lyon quickly began working to destroy secessionism in Missouri.

The Lincoln administration worked hard to keep the border state of Missouri in the Union, despite Governor Claiborne F. Jackson’s support for secession. Jackson declared that President Lincoln had provoked civil war and tended toward despotism by issuing his militia proclamation. Jackson asserted that Missourians sympathized with the Confederacy, and state forces seized Federal ordnance in Kansas City.

Federal Cpt. Nathaniel Lyon | Image Credit:
Federal Cpt. Nathaniel Lyon | Image Credit:

While William S. Harney was in Washington to discuss strategy, his second in command, Nathaniel Lyon, seized the allegedly pro-secessionist Camp Jackson, sparking a riot in St. Louis. Harney returned and helped restore order.

Secessionist members of the Missouri legislature hurriedly assembled at midnight on May 13 at the Jefferson City State House. Fearing that Lyon’s Federals would soon drive west from St. Louis to attack the town, they quickly approved a measure giving the state government absolute power to raise an army and defend Missouri against Federal aggression.

Harney, still trying to maintain order, issued a proclamation the next day calling on Missourians to ignore the bill. The St. Louis Republican denounced Harney for encouraging the people to disregard their popularly elected legislators: “We are bound hand and foot; chained down by a merciless tyranny; are subjugated and shackled.” Federal troops soon closed the newspaper’s offices.

Although Missourians condemned Harney for overriding their state government, Lincoln administration officials began souring on Harney because he seemed reluctant to back his proclamations with action. Lyon showed no such reluctance as he deployed Federal troops to protect Unionists at Potosi. The troops seized several alleged Confederate sympathizers.

Francis P. Blair, Jr. | Image Credit:
Francis P. Blair, Jr. | Image Credit:

Influential Republican politician Francis P. Blair, Jr. was one of Lyon’s biggest supporters. Blair’s brother-in-law, Franklin Dick, met with President Lincoln on the 16th to argue on Blair’s behalf that Lyon needed to replace Harney. Dick noted that Harney had a southern background, and “a number of his St. Louis relatives had become avowed secessionists.”

The next day, Lincoln issued an order promoting Lyon from captain to brigadier general, and giving Blair the authority to replace Harney with Lyon. But then Lincoln reconsidered and wrote to Blair that he may have issued the order prematurely. He gave Blair discretion to observe the situation and decide whether Harney should be removed. Blair waited for the time being.

On May 18, former Missouri Governor Sterling Price became a major-general of the State Guard. By that day, “more than 1,000 volunteers had gathered at Jefferson City” to oppose the Federal occupiers. Three days later, Harney and Price negotiated an agreement to hopefully end the animosity between Federal troops and state militia:

“The undersigned, officers of the United States Government and of the government of the State of Missouri, for the purpose of removing misapprehension and of allaying public excitement, deem it proper to declare publicly that they have this day had a personal interview in this city, in which it has been mutually understood, without the semblance of dissent on either part, that each of them has no other than a common object, equally interesting and important to every citizen of Missouri–that of restoring peace and good order to the people of the State in subordination to the laws of the General and State governments.”

Harney agreed that he would not bring any more Federal troops into Missouri as long as Price’s State Guard maintained law and order. This agreement enraged Blair and Lyon, who denounced it as a treasonous surrender of Missouri to the secessionists. The St. Louis Republican Committee sent a message to Lincoln strongly condemning the Harney-Price agreement. Members urged Lincoln to place Missouri under military rule and assured the president that they had the troop strength to enforce that rule.

When Governor Jackson and General Price refused to disband the Missouri State Guard, Blair wrote to Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, a political ally, calling Jackson a “traitor.” Unionists began sending letters to Washington describing alleged “outrages” committed by Jackson to justify Federal military rule over Missouri. In response, Lincoln ordered Harney to stop this alleged mistreatment. Lincoln also warned the commander to be suspicious of state officials claiming to be loyal to the U.S.

Finally on May 31, Blair exercised the authority Lincoln had given him and replaced Harney with Lyon. Blair asserted that Harney’s removal was necessary to annul the hated Harney-Price agreement that essentially granted Missouri neutrality. Harney had also faced criticism from administration officials for not acting decisively enough upon allegations that Unionists were being persecuted.

The tentative peace that Harney and Price had negotiated soon degenerated into internal warfare, as Lyon and his backers resolved to drive the secessionists out of Missouri.



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