Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon, an abolitionist with strong support from the Lincoln administration, had become commander of Federal forces in Missouri in late May. His predecessor, Brigadier General William S. Harney, had signed an agreement with Major General Sterling Price, commander of the Missouri State Guard, under which Federal forces would not infringe on the rights of Missourians as long as Price’s Guard maintained law and order. Price continued to abide by this agreement, but Lyon would not because he considered it an act of treason.
Rumors quickly spread that Lyon intended to impose martial law on the state, which would include the confiscation of personal firearms. Price responded to these rumors by issuing a proclamation: “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 secessionist 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 the 11th.
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 the state, not Federal officials. Lyon and Blair said that they would not tolerate state officials trying to dictate where Federal troops would be stationed or transferred.
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 that the governor had previously called upon the Confederate government for military aid, 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. When Jackson suggested that the personal meeting end and negotiations resume in writing, Lyon refused 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 every man, woman, and child in the state, dead and buried. This means war.” He then stormed out and immediately began preparing to place Missouri under Federal military occupation.
Lyon planned on launching an offensive with two major columns. The first column, led by Lyon himself, would move west out of St. Louis, advance up the Missouri River, destroy Price’s Missouri State Guard, and capture the state capital of Jefferson City. The second column, led by Brigadier General Franz Sigel, would move southwest out of St. Louis, cut Price’s line of retreat should Lyon be unable to destroy him, and prevent Price from joining with Brigadier General Ben McCulloch’s forces in northwestern Arkansas.
Jackson and Price took a train back to Jefferson City, arriving at 2 a.m. on the 12th. They ordered the destruction of bridges over strategic waterways, and Jackson issued a proclamation that read in part: “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.”
The governor recounted how Federal troops had invaded Missouri soil and jailed civilians without charges, and how “unoffending and defenceless men, women, and children have been ruthlessly shot down and murdered” in the St. Louis riot of May. He called for 50,000 volunteers to join the Missouri State Guard “for the purpose of repelling such invasion, and for the protection of the lives, liberties and property of the citizens of this State.”
Although Jackson acknowledged that Missouri still belonged to the United States, he reminded Missourians that their “first allegiance is due to your own State, and that you are under no obligation whatever to obey the unconstitutional edicts of the military despotism which has introduced itself at Washington, nor submit to the infamous and degrading sway of its wicked minions in this State.” Jackson concluded: “Arise, then, and drive out ignominiously the invaders who have dared to desecrate the soil which your labors have made fruitful and which is consecrated by your homes.”
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 and the legislators prepared to transfer state records and archives to Boonville, 50 miles northwest of Jefferson City on the south bank of the Missouri River.
Meanwhile, Price’s 1,300-man State Guard continued destroying bridges to hinder the Federal advance as they moved toward Boonville. Along the way they were joined by cavalry troopers under Captain Joseph O. Shelby, who had gained fame during the border war. Price set up Camp Bacon, a few miles east of Boonville, and prepared to collect more volunteers and meet the Federal advance there. But for some reason, Price sent his artillery to Tipton, 20 miles south. Why he sent his guns away while expecting a confrontation went unexplained.
Lyon’s Home Guards arrived at Jefferson City on steamboats on the 14th 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.
Lyon issued a proclamation accusing Governor Jackson and the Missouri legislature of treason for opposing Federal authority. He explained that his superiors had ordered him to suppress rebellion in the state, and he would do so. Lyon barely paused before resuming the march to Boonville. The long-awaited clash between the Missouri State Guard and the Federal Home Guards was imminent.
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