Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon, commanding the Federal Home Guards in Missouri, had led his forces out of St. Louis to destroy the pro-Confederate Missouri State Guard. The Federals moved in two columns: Lyon led one column westward to the state capital of Jefferson City, while Brigadier General Franz Sigel led the second column southwest to Rolla. By mid-month, Lyon had reached Jefferson City and was now on the march to confront the Missourians at Boonville, while Sigel’s forces had reached Rolla and was now on the move toward Springfield.
Sigel’s column was slowed by bad roads and inadequate rail transportation for his tremendous amount of supplies. These supplies were loaded into over 30 wagons, which troops derisively called “Sigel’s beer wagons.” This slowed the march even further. Troops derisively called them “Sigel’s beer wagons.” It took the Federals eight days to reach Springfield, but they received a warm welcome from the predominantly Unionist citizenry. From there, Sigel had orders to wait until Lyon’s column arrived to join forces.
On the 17th, Lyon’s 1,700 Federals moved up the Missouri River on steamers and disembarked about eight miles below Camp Bacon, just outside Boonville. This was the primary base for the Missouri State Guard, commanded by Major General Sterling Price. But Price had to be sent to Lexington due to acute diarrhea; he was replaced as commander by Missouri Governor Claiborne F. Jackson. Jackson hoped to stall Lyon long enough to bring up the guns the Missourians had at Tipton, 20 miles away.
As the Federals marched up the Rocheport Road toward Camp Bacon, Colonel John S. Marmaduke led 500 Missouri militiamen in trying to halt the advance. But Lyon’s Federals quickly overwhelmed them and forced them to retreat. Lyon reported that as they fell back, “the enemy took advantage of sundry points to deliver a fire and continue retreating.” Marmaduke’s men fell back to the main body at Camp Bacon, but when Lyon fired on them with his two cannon, all the Missourians hurriedly withdrew. Journalist Thomas W. Knox reported that the retreat was a “helter-skelter, pell-mell sort of affair,” and called the 20-minute engagement the “Boonville races.”
Lyon’s men captured Camp Bacon and found “a considerable number of old rusty arms and cartridges.” Soon after, Lyon entered Boonville without opposition. Both sides each lost three killed and 10 wounded; Federals captured one militiaman. A Federal soldier wrote, “We were both missionaries and musketeers. When we captured a man we talked him nearly to death; in other respects we treated him humanely. The Civil War was a battle of ideas interrupted by artillery.”
Though a very small engagement, Lyon’s victory at Boonville secured Federal control of northern Missouri. It forced the state’s governor and his strongest force to retreat to the southwest, which virtually ended any chance Jackson may have had to make Missouri a Confederate state. Thomas Snead stated that the Boonville engagement was “a stunning blow to the Southern-rights men of Missouri, and one which weakened the Confederacy during all of its brief existence.”
The next day, Lyon issued a proclamation stating that he had taken some prisoners from the Missouri State Guards, “most of them young and of immature age, who represent that they have been misled by frauds, ingeniously devised and industriously circulated by designing leaders, who seek to devolve upon unreflecting and deluded followers the task of securing the object of their own false ambition. Out of compassion for these misguided youths, and to correct impressions created by unscrupulous calumniators, I have liberated them upon condition that they will not serve in the impending hostilities against the United States Government.”
Lyon further granted amnesty to any of the Missouri State Guards by promising that if they would return to their homes and “relinquish their hostile attitude,” they would not be molested by his Home Guards. Those who remained hostile would not be so lucky. When Federals occupied Cameron, a soldier noted, “all the disunion men in the town and country were taken prisoners and probably will be taken to Leavenworth for trial for treason.” A nearby secessionist militia was taken prisoner, “and the officers will be shot.” The Mississippi Blatter of St. Louis stated: “The specter of rebellion dissolved into smoke.”
But all was not lost for the secessionists. Jackson led the remnants of his State Guard southwest and joined forces with another militia unit west of Tipton. His force now totaled about 650 men and four guns. Meanwhile, a separate militia force advanced on Cole Camp at Warsaw, where Lyon had stationed a detachment of the Home Guards. The Guards were led by a Colonel Cook, who was especially hated in Missouri because he was the brother of B.F. Cook, a man who had been executed for his part in John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry. The secessionists attacked at dawn on the 19th and soundly defeated the Guards, inflicting 119 casualties and capturing 362 muskets. More importantly, they opened an escape route for Jackson to continue southwest and possibly link with Brigadier General Ben McCulloch’s force in northwestern Arkansas.
The next day, some 800 Missourians led by Colonel Marmaduke faced a Federal attack about five miles below Boonville. The Missourians ignored calls to retreat and fought an hour and a half, inflicting heavy casualties before finally retreating in good order. The “barefoot rebel militia” showed surprising tenacity. These engagements forced Lyon to remain at Boonville, thereby leaving Sigel’s force isolated at Springfield.
As Jackson became a governor in exile with his withdrawal from Jefferson City, Unionist delegates to a state convention declared his office vacant and appointed Hamilton R. Gamble as provisional governor. Gamble was a moderate politician who opposed secession while favoring a compromise between state and Federal officials. The ousting of the popularly elected governor helped tighten Federal control over Missouri this month.
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