Protecting the Peaceful Inhabitants of Missouri

Missouri Governor Claiborne F. Jackson was a secessionist, and when he received President Abraham Lincoln’s call to provide 3,123 Missourians to destroy the Confederacy, he refused: “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 asking for artillery to help Missourians seize the 60,000 stands of arms in the Federal arsenal at St. Louis:

“Missouri has been exceedingly slow and tardy in her movements hitherto, but I am now not without hope that she will promptly take her stand with her Southern sister states. The Arsenal at St. Louis, now under the command of an abolition officer, it is feared will be greatly in our way—in the event of active hostilities being commenced against the Confederate States. To remove this obstacle it will probably become necessary to have a few large guns to batter down its walls and drive out our enemies.”

Secessionism seemed to be the prevailing sentiment in Missouri, with Governor Jackson leading the way. Anti-Union candidates won most of the St. Louis city elections early this month, and rallies took place in the major towns of Boonville and Jefferson City in support of leaving the Union. It was reported in the German language newspaper Mississippi Blatter that in St. Joseph, a secessionist flag was “hung in the market square with no opposition.” Missouri militia seized the arsenal at Liberty, near Kansas City.

The “abolition officer” in charge of the St. Louis arsenal was Captain Nathaniel Lyon of the 2nd U.S. Infantry. Lyon was a staunch Unionist, and he was backed by Frank P. Blair, Jr., who represented Republican interests in Missouri. Blair was the son of powerful statesman Francis P. Blair and brother of Lincoln’s postmaster general Montgomery Blair. Lyon and Blair worked to recruit a “Home Guard” of Unionist volunteers to meet Lincoln’s troop quota. The volunteers were largely comprised of German immigrants who supported the Union and the Republicans.

Brigadier General William S. Harney, commanding the Western Military Department that oversaw Missouri, thought that what Lyon and Blair superseded the law and thus prohibited them from taking arms from the arsenal and giving them to the recruits. Lyon responded by directing the recruits to turn the arsenal into an armed fortress that would make secessionists think twice before trying to attack it. Meanwhile, Blair used his political influence to try to get Harney ousted as department commander.

On the 21st, Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas directed Lyon to “immediately execute the order previously given to arm the loyal citizens, to protect the public property, and execute the laws. Muster four regiments into the service.” Two days later, Harney issued General Orders No. 9, in which he “hereby relinquishes command of the Department of the West,” and went off to Washington to discuss strategy. Lyon and Blair got what they wanted, at least temporarily.

During this time, 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. Secessionists surrounded the arsenal and waited for the moment that Missouri seceded to attack. Lyon, Blair, and the Home Guards holed up within the arsenal and prepared defenses. Lyon feared that the secessionists might “take away the available war material, and drown the hated Dutch (German Home Guards), one and all, in the Mississippi.”

Illinois Governor Richard Yates, an administration ally, was alarmed by the possibility that a Confederate state on his western border could disrupt trade on the Mississippi River. He believed that this threat could be tempered by transferring the weapons at the St. Louis arsenal across the waterway into his state before the secessionists could seize them. Yates arranged for Captain James H. Stokes of the Illinois militia to go to St. Louis and work with Lyon and Blair to move the weapons.

Rumors of Stokes’s mission quickly spread throughout St. Louis, and the secessionists surrounding the arsenal were on high alert. 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 surged forward to seize this cargo, Stokes and his Illinois troops docked another steamboat near midnight. This vessel transferred over 20,000 muskets, 110,000 cartridges, and other supplies. The arms were safely taken by boat up the Mississippi to Alton, Illinois, and then by railroad to Springfield, where they were distributed to Illinois militia. Other weapons were distributed among Lyon’s Home Guard.

On the 30th, Secretary of War Simon Cameron granted Lyon extraordinary powers in Harney’s absence to “enroll in the military service of the United States the loyal citizens of Saint Louis and vicinity, not exceeding, with those heretofore enlisted, ten thousand in number, for the purpose of maintaining the authority of the United States; for the protection of the peaceful inhabitants of Missouri; and… proclaim martial law in the city of Saint Louis…” Cameron also endorsed the transfer of weapons from St. Louis to Springfield.

Lyon replied that as of the 30th, “some 3,300 have offered” their services, “and 3,082 are armed… I shall still accept these volunteers till countermanding orders are received. This is unavoidable, both because the Government needs the services of these men, and because of the fear of State tyranny to force them into the secession ranks. No doubt 10,000 men can be raised here, and indications are that they will be needed…”

Granting Lyon these sweeping powers while depriving Missourians of weapons proved a serious detriment to secessionist aspirations.


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