By July, secessionists and Federals had both fielded several military units to ensure that Missouri either remained in the U.S. or joined the Confederacy. On the Federal side:
- The main force under Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon, numbering about 2,350 men, had remained at Boonville in central Missouri since late June due to heavy rain.
- Major Samuel D. Sturgis led some 2,200 Regulars and Kansas volunteers out of Fort Leavenworth to the Harrisonville area, in western Missouri near the Kansas border.
- Colonel Franz Sigel, a former German revolutionary, commanded a 1,100-man Home Guard of mostly German immigrants at Springfield in southwestern Missouri.
Lyon, the overall commander, sought to join forces with Sturgis at Osceola, 90 miles northeast of Carthage in southwestern Missouri. From there, they would march to join with Sigel at Springfield, east of Carthage.
On the secessionist side:
- Major General Sterling Price had left the secessionist Missouri State Guard to raise recruits, but he only netted 800; they were at Poole’s Prairie, six miles south of Neosho in far southwestern Missouri.
- The Missouri State Guard, led by Governor-in-exile Claiborne F. Jackson, camped at Lamar, 20 miles north of Carthage, after having retreated from Lyon’s Federals at Boonville. Jackson had asked the Confederate government for military aid, but Secretary of War Leroy Walker replied that since Missouri was not a Confederate state, Walker could not “extend to you that measure of relief called for by your necessities.”
- Brigadier General Ben McCulloch commanded two Arkansas brigades, and when he learned that Lyon and Sigel were closing in on Jackson, he ordered his men to cross into Missouri because that state would “fall entirely under the control of the North” without his help.
On the 4th, Lyon joined forces with Sturgis and advanced to the Osage, north of Osceola. Sigel’s Home Guard reached Carthage, the Jasper County seat. When Federals went into town to commandeer supplies, they learned that Jackson’s State Guard was 10 miles north and heading their way. The Federals brought this news to Sigel.
Jackson had been gaining recruits during his slow retreat from Boonville, swelling his ranks to about 6,000 men, but many were unarmed and more of a hindrance than a help. Jackson planned to join forces with Price and confront Lyon behind him, but that changed when he learned that Sigel was now in his front. Although Jackson had no military experience, he would not defer to the officers in his command, instead positioning his men on the high ground opposite Coon Creek, north of Macon. Sigel, though outnumbered 2-to-1, ordered an attack of his own before dawn.
The next morning, Jackson ordered his Missourians to “get into fighting order,” as Sigel’s Home Guard confronted them about nine miles north of Carthage. Sigel, despite having no cavalry and a numerical disadvantage, was confident that the Missourians would break and run like they did at Boonville. Jackson invited attack from atop the ridge, confident that holding the high ground with superior numbers would gain him victory. Neither Sigel nor Jackson had a definitive battle plan before the forces collided.
Sigel sent his infantry down the slope opposite Jackson’s position, where they advanced into the woods and faced enemy pickets a few miles in front of their main force. An hour-long artillery duel ensued, and when the cannon stopped, the Federals pushed back the enemy pickets, crossed Dry Fork Creek, and advanced three miles to the main secessionist defenses.
The Missourians nearly folded under the bold Federal drive, and the enemy’s artillery unnerved Jackson so much that he ordered 2,000 of his unarmed cavalrymen to take cover in the woods. Federals observed the enemy troopers moving into the brush toward the Federal rear, and Sigel interpreted this as a flank attack. He therefore ordered his men to disengage and sounded the retreat back across Dry Fork Creek.
The Federals withdrew through Carthage, using their cannon to hold off the enemy’s pursuit before regrouping at Spring River. There they fended off another flank attack before withdrawing to Sarcoxie, where they halted for the day. Jackson’s men stopped at dark, having fought from 10 a.m. to nearly 9 p.m. and driving the Federals back 12 miles. The Federals sustained 46 casualties (13 killed and 33 wounded or missing), while the Missourians lost 10 killed and 64 wounded (though Sigel claimed to have inflicted 350 to 400 casualties).
The secessionist victory temporarily halted the Federal drive into far southwestern Missouri. It also bolstered the morale of pro-Confederate Missourians who had been demoralized after their humiliating defeat at Boonville in June. Nevertheless, Jackson’s men did not move to destroy Sigel’s force; they instead resumed their planned withdrawal to link with General Price.
Meanwhile, a detachment of Ben McCulloch’s Arkansans under Captain James McIntosh captured a Federal detachment of 94 soldiers at Neosho. McCulloch ordered his forces back to Arkansas when he learned of Jackson’s victory, as his main assignment was to protect Arkansas and the Indian Territory. But he remained near the border with orders to provide “active and direct assistance” to Jackson and Price “when it is quite clear that co-operation will be likely to avail.”
- Cutrer, Thomas W., Theater of a Separate War: The Civil War West of the Mississippi River. The University of North Carolina Press, (Kindle Edition), 2017.
- Davis, William C. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- Nevin, David, The Road to Shiloh: Early Battles in the West. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
- Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (facsimile of the 1866 edition). New York: Fairfax Press, 1990.