Extraordinary and Unscrupulous Conduct

Missouri Governor Claiborne F. Jackson wanted his state to join the Confederacy, but due to the Federal military presence, particularly at the arsenal in St. Louis, he needed time to build up his militia before making any moves. Jackson called for a special session of the state legislature on the 3rd, where he delivered a message declaring that even though President Abraham Lincoln’s call for Missouri volunteers to destroy the Confederacy was despotic, Missouri “at this time has no war to prosecute.”

This did not appease Captain Nathaniel Lyon, the Unionist commander at St. Louis, who was suspicious of Jackson’s call for militia. Lyon had raised a militia of his own numbering some 6,000 officers and men, most of whom were German immigrants who supported the Union and the Republican Party. They were known as the “Home Guard,” or “die Schwartze Garde,” and they were generally hated by southern-leaning natural born Missourians. Lyon also had political connections through Francis P. Blair, Jr., son of an elder statesman and brother of Lincoln’s postmaster general.

Lyon had his Home Guard defending the Federal arsenal in St. Louis, as rumors swirled that secessionists might try to seize it at any moment. Adding to this threat was the fact that Brigadier General Daniel M. Frost had set up a training base for state militia at Lindell’s Grove in western St. Louis, in accordance with Missouri law. Called Camp Jackson, it was named for the governor who had requested its creation, and it consisted of less than 700 officers and men. A U.S. flag flew over the camp, but it nevertheless came under close Federal scrutiny for alleged Confederate sympathies.

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

Jackson had asked Confederate President Jefferson Davis for artillery which he could use to seize the St. Louis arsenal, but by the time the guns arrived from Baton Rouge, Lyon’s Federals were firmly in control of the place. There was nothing more that Jackson could do except disband the militia. Accordingly, Frost planned to do so on the 11th. Lyon, not willing to wait that long, planned a preemptive strike on Camp Jackson. He secretly reconnoitered the camp by borrowing a carriage from Blair’s mother-in-law and pretending 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. Two revolvers were hidden in a wicker basket.

Lyon returned to his camp and reported seeing streets in Frost’s camp 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. On the night of the 8th, crates had arrived at Camp Jackson from Baton Rouge; they were labeled “marble,” but they contained four cannon and ammunition. Blair urged Lyon to seize Frost’s camp due to what Lyon later reported was the militia’s “extraordinary and unscrupulous conduct, and their evident design… to take a position of hostility to the United States.” Lyon proved willing to overstep any legal boundaries to make sure that the St. Louis arsenal remained in Federal hands.

William T. Sherman, a St. Louis resident who had recently resigned as superintendent of the Louisiana State Seminary of Learning & Military Academy, observed Lyon’s Home Guard regiments filing into line to receive ammunition on the 9th. Sherman later recalled: “I saw of course that it meant business, but whether for defense or offense I did not know.” Word quickly reached Frost that the Home Guard was preparing for action. His men had already begun disassembling their muskets in preparation for disbanding, and he wrote Lyon asking for an explanation:

“I am greatly at a loss to know what could justify you in attacking citizens of the United States who are in the lawful performance of duties devolving upon them under the Constitution in organizing and instructing the militia of the State in obedience to her laws, and therefore have been disposed to doubt the correctness of the information I have received. I would be glad to know from you personally whether there is any truth in the statements that are constantly poured into my ears… I trust that… we may be able, by fully understanding each other, to keep far from our borders the misfortunes which so unhappily afflict our common country.”

Lyon imperiously refused to receive the message and ordered his Federals to mobilize. They marched through St. Louis in seven columns on the afternoon of the 10th, and each man “was eager to teach the German-haters a never-to-be-forgotten lesson.” They surrounded Camp Jackson, and Lyon sent Frost a message:

“Your command is regarded as evidently hostile towards the Government of the United States. It is, for the most part, made up of those secessionists who have openly avowed their hostility to the General Government, and have been plotting at the seizure of its property and the overthrow of its authority… it is my duty to demand, and I do hereby demand, of you an immediate surrender of your command, with no other conditions than that all persons surrendering under this demand shall be humanely and kindly treated.”

The law prohibited Federal military forces from interfering with state militia. But Frost was outnumbered nearly 10 to 1, with many of his men unarmed. Therefore, he replied bitterly: “I never for a moment having conceived the 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, I am wholly unprepared to defend my command from this unwarranted attack, and shall therefore be forced to comply with your demand.”

Frost, his 49 officers, and his 639 men surrendered without resistance. The Federals seized 10 guns, 1,200 muskets, and other Confederate ordnance. Lyon issued orders through Lieutenant John Schofield for Frost’s command to stack their muskets, march out of the camp, and swear an oath of loyalty to the United States. Only eight men agreed to take the oath. This enraged Lyon, who resolved to publicly humiliate the men by marching them at gunpoint through the city to the St. Louis arsenal. This decision would have tragic consequences.


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