A Region Distracted with Civil Commotion

Following their victory at Carthage, Governor-in-exile Claiborne F. Jackson and his secessionist Missouri State Guard joined forces with Major General Sterling Price’s Guard in southwestern Missouri. Price had gained several thousand recruits, swelling the force to about 7,000 men, though 2,300 of them had no weapons. The weaponless men were instructed to follow the armed troops and retrieve guns from the dead and wounded. The next order of business for Jackson and Price was to try to join with Brigadier General Ben McCulloch’s forces in Arkansas.

Maj. Gen. Sterling Price | Image Credit: Wikipedia

Meanwhile, Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon led his 4,500 Federals southwest to join forces with Colonel Franz Sigel, who had withdrawn to Springfield after his defeat at Carthage. As Lyon’s Federals crossed the Osage River, Lyon learned of Sigel’s defeat. He ordered a 50-mile forced march in an effort to get to Springfield before Jackson and Price could unite with McCulloch. Unbeknownst to Lyon, McCulloch had returned to Arkansas since Missouri was not part of the Confederacy. Jackson and Price were moving south toward Cowskin Prairie.

Nevertheless, the Federals began their march in a positive mood, singing “The Happy Land of Canaan” as they marched all day and night. By the 10th, they had marched for over 30 straight hours in their rush to reinforce Sigel. That afternoon, Lyon received word that Sigel faced no danger at Springfield, and when the news spread among the exhausted men, they halted 30 miles away from the town and camped for the night.

Lyon advanced his men to Pond Springs, outside Springfield, fearing his troops would loot the town if they found out that the supplies Lyon had ordered to be brought there had not yet arrived. Lyon notified his superiors in Washington that his three-month enlistments were about to expire, which would leave him with about 4,000 men. He asserted that the secessionists “will soon have in this vicinity not less than 30,000. I must have at once an additional force of 10,000 men, or abandon my position.”

Brig. Gen. Nathaniel Lyon | Image Credit: Wikipedia

While stationed in the Springfield area, Lyon dispatched Captain Thomas Sweeny and 1,200 Federals to seize Forsyth, a depot and suspected secessionist recruiting center about 50 miles south of Springfield. The troops left on July 20 and covered just seven miles in the sweltering heat. They camped near White Oak Grove, seeking shelter in the nearby Baptist Church or the covered bridge over the James River when rain started falling.

Sweeny’s force approached Forsyth two days later. Federal cavalry captured a secessionist, who warned Sweeny that his men would “get badly whipped for we have a thousand men in Forsyth.” Sweeny brought up the infantry, and the secessionists fled the town. Despite Sweeny’s orders to take only what was needed, his men looted and destroyed Forsyth.

Around that same time, celebrated explorer Major General John C. Fremont arrived at St. Louis to take command of the Federal Department of the West. Fremont had been a famous explorer before the war, as well as the first Republican candidate for president. He was especially popular among the Blairs, the highly influential political family that helped shape military policy in Missouri for the Lincoln administration. Fremont was to command all Federal troops from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, but his main objective would be to secure Missouri for the Union.

The situation in Missouri was highly problematic due to divided military and political loyalties, widespread guerrilla warfare, army corruption, and threats of Confederate invasions from Arkansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Fremont set up headquarters at St. Louis, which was dominated by German immigrants who shared his loyalty to the Union and abolition. But the city was riot-torn, and Fremont did nothing to ingratiate himself by settling into a mansion and surrounding himself with a flamboyant and extravagant staff.

Fremont reported that St. Louis was “in an enemy’s country.” The city had been taken over by secessionists, and the state was “in active rebellion against the national authority.” He had about 23,000 men, but 8,000 of these were “three-months men” whose enlistments were about to expire. These men could not be counted on to reenlist. About 6,000 men were with Lyon and Sigel in southwestern Missouri, while the remaining 9,000 were in northern Missouri.

Near mid-month, Brigadier General John Pope took command of the Federal District of North and Central Missouri. This region was rife with lawlessness and, according to Pope, “a single spark would have been enough to put the whole of North Missouri into a flame.” Pope was to conduct operations along the Mississippi River with his three main subordinates: Brigadier General Stephen A. Hurlbut in Macon City, Colonel Ulysses S. Grant in Mexico, and Colonel Leonard F. Ross in Warrenton.

Pope announced that anyone taking up arms to oppose the Federal occupation would be prosecuted by the military “without awaiting civil process.” He also declared that “no arrests will be made for opinions sake, unless the parties are engaged in open acts of hostility, or are stimulating others to such acts by inflammatory words or publications.” His objective was “to restore peace and safety to a region distracted with civil commotion, and to bring to punishment the infamous assassins and incendiaries who have been infesting this country.” Pope also held civilians responsible for secessionist attacks on the railroad lines, “so that no damage or outrage could be done by them without the direct injury being laid upon the shoulders of their friends and relatives.”

Meanwhile, Ben McCulloch and Brigadier General Nicholas B. Pearce brought 6,500 Arkansans and Texans back into southwestern Missouri to join with Price’s 7,000 Missouri State Guards. The forces joined on the 29th about 40 miles southeast of Carthage. Price lacked ammunition, so McCulloch gave his men enough “to warrant them in again taking the field.” Pearce contributed 1,000 flintlock muskets for the ill-equipped Missourians. The three commanders decided that McCulloch would lead this diverse force of Missourians, Arkansans, Texans, and Confederates. They began advancing along the old Butterfield Stagecoach route.

Lyon received word that some 10,000 Confederates were advancing from the south and west to attack him. Lyon’s force had shrunk to about 5,000 men due to the loss of the 90-day enlistments. He was still near Springfield, and if the enemy tried to besiege him there, his force would be destroyed. He was also dangerously far from his supply railroad at Rolla, some 100 miles northeast. The only thing he could do was to retreat to Rolla and hope the united force of secessionists did not catch up to him.

To the east, Brigadier General Gideon Pillow led about 6,000 Confederates into New Madrid, an important defensive point just across the Mississippi from the Kentucky-Tennessee border, about 175 miles from St. Louis. He planned to join forces with Brigadier General William Hardee in northeastern Arkansas, and then move west to unite with the McCulloch-Price-Pearce contingent. But when Pillow and Hardee disagreed on tactics, the movement was canceled.

As all these units maneuvered throughout Missouri, a new provisional state government was being organized at the state capital of Jefferson City. Since Governor Jackson and most of the legislature had been exiled, the only remaining body that could govern the state was the convention that had been formed in March to consider secession. Most of the secessionists had fled thanks to Lyon’s seizure of Jefferson City, so the convention was dominated by Unionists.

Convention delegates unanimously pledged loyalty to the Union and voted to relocate the capital to the more friendly town of St. Louis. They vacated all state offices and filled the vacancies with those loyal to the Union. They voted 56 to 25 to expel Governor Jackson and install Hamilton R. Gamble as the new governor. Gamble was a brother-in-law of U.S. Attorney General Edward Bates and was considered a political moderate who could attract support from both secessionists and abolitionists. But most secessionists continued supporting Jackson, and abolitionists disliked Gamble’s conciliatory attitude toward slavery.

This convention was compared to the Long Parliament of the English Civil War, and it became known as the “Long Convention.” A loud minority argued that only a popularly elected legislature had the power to remove state officials from office, but the majority (led by Gamble) asserted that the convention overrode the state constitution, citing several cases in U.S. history dating back to the 18th century. They also cited the state constitution itself, which allowed for a convention to change “their Constitution and form of Government, whenever it may be necessary to their safety and happiness.”

This convention remained in session, controlling Missouri until 1865. It now had power to levy and collect taxes, and raise a new state militia that could work in concert with the Federal occupation forces. This helped embolden the Federals, and it left the Missouri State Guard and its allies without political support. This would seriously hamper all future efforts to take Missouri out of the Union.


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