The Battle of Carthage

July 5, 1861 – Secessionists defeated a Federal detachment in a minor clash as both sides scrambled to link with larger forces in southwestern Missouri.

By July, secessionists and Federals had both fielded several military units to ensure that Missouri either remained in the U.S. or joined the Confederacy. On the Federal side:

  • The main force under Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon remained at Boonville in central Missouri since late last month due to heavy rain.
  • Major Samuel D. Sturgis led some 2,200 Regulars and Kansas volunteers to the Harrisonville area in western Missouri near the Kansas border.
  • Colonel Franz Sigel, a former German revolutionary, commanded a 1,100-man Home Guard of mostly German immigrants at Springfield in southwestern Missouri.

Lyon, the overall commander, sought to join forces with Sturgis at Osceola, 90 miles northeast of Carthage in southwestern Missouri. From there, they would march to join with Sigel at Springfield, east of Carthage.

On the Confederate side:

  • General Sterling Price had left the secessionist Missouri State Guard to obtain recruits, but he only netted 800; they were at Poole’s Prairie, six miles south of Neosho in far southwestern Missouri.
  • The Missouri State Guard, led by Governor-in-exile Claiborne F. Jackson, camped at Lamar, 20 miles north of Carthage, after having retreated from Lyon’s Federals at Boonville.
  • A third force of two Arkansas brigades under Colonel Ben McCulloch entered Missouri on July 4 and linked with Price’s recruits.

On the night of the 4th, a detachment of Colonel Sigel’s Home Guard that had searched for Governor Jackson’s forces bivouacked a mile southeast of Carthage. When Federals went into town to commandeer supplies, they learned that Jackson was 10 miles north with a small force moving toward them. They informed Sigel of this news.

Jackson had been focused on Lyon’s Federals behind him, but now he received intelligence that Sigel was in his front. Despite lacking military experience, Jackson decided without advice from his military officers to defend the high ground outside town against Sigel’s Federals. Meanwhile, Sigel issued orders to attack before dawn.

The next morning, Sigel’s Home Guard confronted some 6,000 Missouri secessionists (though only about 4,000 were armed) about nine miles north of Carthage. Neither Sigel nor Jackson had a definitive battle plan when the forces collided.

The Battle of Carthage, or Dry Fork Creek | Image Credit:
The Battle of Carthage, or Dry Fork Creek | Image Credit:

Jackson invited attack from atop the ridge, confident that his superior numbers could repel the enemy. Sigel, despite knowing that he was outnumbered and had no cavalry, obliged by sending his infantry down the opposite slope and into the woods, where secessionist pickets were stationed a few miles in front of their main force.

An hour-long artillery duel ensued, and when the cannon stopped, the Federals pushed back the enemy pickets, crossed Dry Fork Creek, and advanced three miles to the main secessionist defenses. The Missourians nearly folded under the bold Federal drive, and the enemy’s artillery unnerved Jackson so much that he ordered 2,000 of his unarmed cavalrymen to take cover in the woods.

Federals observed the enemy troopers moving into the brush toward the Federal rear, which Sigel interpreted as a flank attack. He therefore ordered his men to disengage and sounded the retreat back across Dry Fork Creek.

The Federals withdrew through Carthage, using their cannon to hold off the enemy’s pursuit before regrouping at Spring River. There they fended off another flank attack before withdrawing to Sarcoxie, where they halted for the day. Jackson’s men stopped at dark, having fought from 10 a.m. to nearly 9 p.m. and driving the Federals 12 miles back. The Federals suffered 13 killed and 33 wounded or missing, while Confederates lost 10 killed and 64 wounded (though Sigel reported that he had inflicted 350 to 400 casualties).

The secessionist victory temporarily halted the Federal drive into far southwestern Missouri. It also bolstered the morale of pro-secession Missourians who had been demoralized after the humiliating defeat at Boonville last month. Nevertheless, Jackson’s men did not follow up against Sigel; instead they resumed their withdrawal in hopes of linking with General Price.

Meanwhile, a detachment of Ben McCulloch’s Arkansans under Captain James McIntosh captured a Federal detachment of 94 soldiers at Neosho. McCulloch had joined forces with Price, and now they were en route to link with Jackson.


Sources; Davis, William C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 118; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 55;Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 91-92; Nevin, David, The Road to Shiloh: Early Battles in the West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 19-21, 24-25; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 138-40


Leave a Reply