Captain Nathaniel Lyon’s Home Guard of mainly Unionist German immigrants had captured Missouri state militia at Camp Jackson for suspected Confederate sympathies. These suspicions seemed confirmed when hardly any of those captured would swear an oath of allegiance to the United States. Lyon responded by having them marched at gunpoint through St. Louis to the arsenal as prisoners. A Missourian under guard wrote: “We are to be marched to the arsenal to-night, and God knows what will become of us.”
This act of public humiliation enraged city residents, most of whom supported the Missourians and despised the German “die Schwartze Garde.” They gathered in the streets to protest the “Hessian” aggression, shouting “Damn the Dutch!” and “Hurrah for Jeff Davis!” Some threw paving stones and bricks at the Federals. William T. Sherman and his son were in the crowd, and Sherman heard “some hurrahing for Jeff Davis, and others encouraging the troops.” Suddenly, a shot rang out, and the Federals retaliated by firing into the crowd.
Sherman recalled: “I heard the balls cutting the leaves above our heads and saw several men and women running in all directions, some of whom were wounded.” The Federals killed or mortally wounded some 28 people, including women and children. Anywhere from 50 to 75 were wounded. Two Federal soldiers were killed, along with three of their prisoners. Lyon’s decision to march his prisoners through town had backfired terribly. He dismissed the Germans upon reaching the arsenal, but the damage was done.
Most residents of St. Louis who were undecided on their loyalties before this incident joined the secessionists, as mobs looted and burned sections of the city throughout the stormy night in protest of the “Camp Jackson Massacre.” Some 30 people died in the pandemonium, most of whom were Germans simply caught up in the anti-German hysteria. The mayor ordered all city saloons closed “during the continuance of the present excitement.”
The militiamen were held under guard, although it remained unclear whether they were prisoners of war (even though no war had been declared in Missouri) or under arrest for breaking a law (even though no charges were presented or any law cited as having been violated).
In the long run, Lyon’s rashness may have saved the arsenal (and possibly Missouri itself) for the U.S., but in the short term it generated much support for secession. Governor Claiborne F. Jackson, who wanted his state to leave the Union, reported the incident to the Missouri legislature, and within 15 minutes that formerly Unionist body approved forming a State Guard and “switching funds from the state’s charitable institutions and schools to the militia.” Financing included a $1 million state government loan through the issuance of state bonds. Jackson and his secessionist supporters relocated from the state capital at Jefferson City to Neosho.
Rioting continued the next day as Federals placed the city under martial law. At Fifth and Walton, the 5th Reserve Regiment fought with protestors, leaving two soldiers and 10 civilians dead. Residents began fleeing the city to avoid the Federals’ wrath. The Memphis Packet Company provided steamboats for frightened people who could not leave by buggy, horse, or train.
Brigadier General William S. Harney, commanding the Federal Department of the West, returned from Washington to take back command from Captain Lyon. He was briefed on what had happened and expressed dismay with Lyon’s actions. Harney then met with Brigadier General Daniel M. Frost, the militia leader who was imprisoned with his men at the St. Louis arsenal. Frost explained that “in accordance with the laws of the State of Missouri, which have been existing for some years, and in obedience to the orders of the Governor, on Monday last I entered into an encampment with the militia force of St. Louis County for the purpose of instructing the same in accordance with the laws of the United States and of this State.”
The Missourians were released after all but one swore an oath to protect and defend the U.S. Constitution. Although Harney disapproved of the capture of Camp Jackson, he would not renounce it. And while he would not interfere with the governor’s right to raise state militia, he would “suppress all unlawful combinations of men, whether formed under pretext of military organizations or otherwise.” Harney wanted to disband the German Home Guard, but Francis P. Blair, Jr., Lyon’s politically connected backer, told him that he did not have the authority to do it.
On Sunday the 12th, Harney issued a proclamation to the people of St. Louis. He stated that “no one can more deeply regret the state of things existing here than myself.” He pledged to “carefully abstain from the exercise of any unnecessary powers.” If he had to use troops to quell any future disturbances, he would use Regular Army troops and not the German Home Guard. Harney continued:
“The military force stationed in this department by authority of the Government, and now under my command, will only be used in the last resort to preserve the peace. I trust I may be spared the necessity of resorting to martial law, but the public peace must be preserved, and the lives and property of the people protected. My appeal I trust may not be in vain, and I pledge the faith of a soldier to the earnest discharge of my duty.”
A witness stated that by that afternoon, some 3,000 residents had left “over the river, down the river, up the river, anywhere to escape the fury of the Dutch.” While the violence prompted many Missourians to resent Federal rule, the Federal military response curbed secession sentiment in St. Louis.
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