The Federal Grip on Missouri Tightens

June 4, 1861 – General Sterling Price, representing the pro-Confederate Missouri State Guard, issued a proclamation in response to a rumor that the new Federal commander in the state sought to disarm Missourians.

Confederate General Sterling Price | Image Credit:
Confederate General Sterling Price | Image Credit:

Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon, an abolitionist with strong support from the Lincoln administration, had become commander of Federal forces in Missouri less than a week ago. Rumors quickly abounded that Lyon intended to impose martial law on the state, including confiscating personal firearms. Price proclaimed:

“The purpose of such a movement could not be misunderstood; and it would not only be a palpable violation of the agreement referred to, and an equally plain violation of our constitutional rights, but a gross indignity to the citizens of this State, which would be resisted to the last extremity.”

To avoid a statewide uprising, Lyon invited both Price and pro-Confederate Governor Claiborne F. Jackson to meet with him and Francis P. Blair, Jr., his political ally and liaison to the Lincoln administration, in St. Louis. Lyon assured them that they would be “free from molestation” if they came. The men accepted, and the meeting took place at the Planters’ House on June 11.

Thomas Snead, a journalist and aide to Governor Jackson, called this a curious pro forma meeting because neither side seemed willing to concede anything to the other. Jackson and Price contended that the right to recruit Missourians belonged to them, not Federal officials. Lyon and Blair said that they would not tolerate state officials trying to dictate where Federal troops would be stationed or moved.

Jackson pledged to disband the State Guard, prohibit arms from entering the state, protect all citizens equally regardless of their political persuasion, suppress all insurgent activity within the state, prevent Confederate troops from entering the state, observe strict neutrality, and keep Missouri in the Union as long as its neutrality was respected. In exchange, Jackson and Price asked Lyon to disband the illegally organized and armed Home Guard, and refrain from raising any more Federal recruits or occupying any territory besides what he already had.

Jackson called such terms “humiliating,” but he was willing to abide by them to keep the peace. Lyon, knowing the governor’s strong support for secession, did not trust his pledge. Conversely, Jackson distrusted Lyon’s and Blair’s intent because of their strong abolitionist ties and inclination toward military rule. In fact, Lyon outright announced that the Lincoln administration intended to place Missouri under martial law until it was in the “exact condition of Maryland.”

Four hours of discussion settled nothing. Lyon finally rose and declared: “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 you, and you, and you, and every man, woman, and child in the state dead and buried. This means war.” He then stormed out and immediately began issuing orders for troop mobilization.

Jackson and Price quickly returned to the state capital and Jefferson City and ordered the destruction of bridges over strategic waterways. The next day, Jackson called for 50,000 volunteers to prevent Lyon from overthrowing the popularly elected state government. He declared:

“A series of unprovoked and unparalleled outrages has been inflicted on the peace and dignity of this Commonwealth, and upon the rights and liberties of its people, by wicked and unprincipled men professing to act under the authority of the Government of the United States.”

Missouri had no law requiring an organized state militia, and few weapons were available to defend the state. But Jackson was determined to oppose Federal intervention in state affairs. Upon receiving intelligence that Federal forces were advancing on the capital from St. Louis, Jackson made preparations to transfer state records and archives to Boonville, 80 miles above Jefferson City on the south bank of the Missouri River. Meanwhile, Price’s State Guardsmen continued destroying bridges to hinder the Federal advance.

Jackson, Price, several legislators, and a small militia force evacuated Jefferson City on the 14th. Lyon’s Home Guards arrived on steamboats the next day and seized the capital without resistance. The Guards, many of whom were German immigrants, had been met on their journey from St. Louis by “cheering crowds at various points along the riverbank, which was not too surprising given the large number of Germans in those counties.” The Federals were also greeted at the Jefferson City docks by “an enthusiastic group of local Germans.” Bands played patriotic music as the troops raised U.S. flags over the city.

Meanwhile, Jackson and Price fled with their party up the Missouri River to Boonville. Cavalry under Captain Joseph O. “Jo” Shelby, who had gained prominence during the border war, joined them along the way. The overall force, poorly armed and trained, made camp at Boonville.

Lyon led 1,700 Home Guards up the Missouri on the 17th. They disembarked at Camp Bacon below Boonville, where they confronted about 1,500 Missouri militia. A sharp skirmish ensued as Jackson formed a line of defense. However, Lyon’s two cannon sent them fleeing in a rout after about 20 minutes.

Lyon occupied the town as Jackson and Price withdrew to the southwest. Both sides each lost three killed and 10 wounded; Federals captured one militiaman. A Federal soldier wrote, “We were both missionaries and musketeers. When we captured a man we talked him nearly to death; in other respects we treated him humanely. The Civil War was a battle of ideas interrupted by artillery.”

Despite the light casualties, this proved a major defeat for the secessionists because it gave the Federals control of northern Missouri and the lower Missouri River. It also allowed Lyon to disperse all Confederate sympathizers in the region. Lyon sternly warned Missourians that aiding their governor meant “treason.” He dispatched a force to pursue Jackson’s and Price’s men before they could link with Ben McCulloch’s force in Arkansas.

The secessionist militia advanced 25 miles to Cole Camp, where Lyon and Blair had stationed about 700 Home Guards to pursue them. The Guards were led by a Colonel Cook, who was especially hated in Missouri because he was the brother of B.F. Cook, a man who had been executed for his part in John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry. The secessionists attacked at dawn on the 19th and soundly defeated the Guards, killing at least 15 and capturing 362 muskets. This small victory temporarily reinvigorated secessionist morale.

The next day, some 800 secessionists led by Colonel John S. Marmaduke faced a Federal attack about five miles below Boonville. The Missourians ignored calls to retreat and fought an hour and a half before finally retreating in good order and inflicting heavy casualties. The “barefoot rebel militia” showed surprising tenacity.

As Jackson became a governor in exile with his withdrawal from Jefferson City, Unionist delegates to a state convention declared his office vacant and appointed Hamilton R. Gamble as provisional governor. Gamble was a moderate politician who opposed secession while favoring a compromise between state and Federal officials. The ousting of the popularly elected governor helped tighten Federal control over Missouri this month.



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