Missouri’s history during the Civil War was as split as the northern and southern states themselves. Many citizens of the state wanted to side with the North while others were partial to the cause in South. Because of this split, Missouri supplied troops to both the Union and Confederate armies through the entirety of the war. Many battles and skirmishes were fought across our region of the country and Missouri is host to many battlefields, monuments and cemeteries to remember those who fought and died defining the word “freedom” for our great nation.
We have divided our information into three primary sections for you to browse through and enjoy learning about this important time period for our state and country.
On May 10, 1861 an incident that has become known as the Camp Jackson Affair occurred. On that day an encampment of the First Brigade of the Missouri state militia was surrounded and captured by volunteers in the service of the federal government. As the captured militia members were being marched away a clash took place between the federal volunteers and an angry mob that left a number of spectators either dead or wounded. This incident greatly inflamed feelings in St. Louis and throughout the state and galvanized many previously wavering Missourians to choose one side or the other in the impending civil war.
The extraordinary set of circumstances that led troops in service of the federal government to take the extreme measure of capturing a seemingly legal encampment of the state militia can only be understood within the larger context of Missouri’s relation to the Union during the tension-filled early months of 1861. Most Missourians in 1861 adopted a stance of “conditional unionism.” Such men dominated the state convention that met in February and March and decided against secession and in favor of a stance of neutrality.
The powerful secessionist minority was led by the newly elected governor, Claiborne Jackson. Leading the opposition was the unconditional unionist, Frank Blair, a Republican member of Congress from St. Louis.
During the early months of 1861, paramilitary organizations were created in St. Louis by both sides; unionists were formed as Wide Awakes, while the secessionists styled themselves Minute Men. Both groups kept their eyes on the St. Louis Arsenal. This federal armory contained a store of 38,000 muskets, 45 tons of powder, and 11 cannon. In the arsenal were weapons aplenty to equip a large army and seize control of the state.
In February, the Union cause was boosted by the arrival of Capt. Nathaniel Lyon, a Connecticut-born West Pointer who vehemently hated secessionists. During the next two months, Lyon energetically set about to strengthen the defenses of the arsenal and organize and train the Wide Awakes, who were being transformed into home guard companies. The Minute Men were not idle either; Lyon and Blair constantly heard rumors of plots by the secessionists to seize the arsenal.
In the tense weeks following the firing on Fort Sumter on April 12, after Governor Jackson defiantly refused Lincoln’s call for troops, Lyon and Blair stepped forward to fill this void. Soon some 10,000 men, mostly German Americans, were mustered into federal service. As a further precaution, Lyons arranged in late April to transfer most of the arms in the arsenal to Illinois.
In the face of the aggressive actions by the St. Louis unionists, the secessionists also stepped up their efforts. On April 20, they seized the small arsenal at Liberty, Missouri. At the same time, Jackson secretly wrote to Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, requesting siege guns with which to reduce the stout walls that ringed the St. Louis arsenal. He also issued orders for the pro-southern militia organizations in the state to muster for their six-day annual encampments. The main objective of the muster was to counter the buildup of union troops in St. Louis. It was with this in mind that Camp Jackson came into being.
Camp Jackson was located in a large parklike area known as Lindell’s Grove, situated on what was then the western edge of the city. On May 6, 898 men of the first brigade, including 300 Minute Men, assembled for the encampment. Two days later, the siege guns, which had been seized from the federal arsenal at Baton Rouge, La., arrived in St. Louis aboard a steamboat and were immediately hauled to Camp Jackson. Lyon’s spies quickly informed him of this clandestine delivery.
The following day, May 9, Lyon decided to scout the camp. Disguised as Frank Blair’s mother-in-law, he was driven around the camp where he observed the crated guns and noted streets named in honor of the prominent Confederates Davis and Beauregard. Armed with this evidence, Lyon was able to convince the unionist Committee of Safety that it was essential to capture the camp and eliminate the threat that an organized body of secessionist troops could pose to St. Louis.
On May 10, Lyon’s force of 6,000 volunteers was assembled at the arsenal. He divided this force into three detachments and ordered them to proceed by different routes to Camp Jackson. By 3:30 p.m. the camp was completely surrounded. Lyon immediately sent a note to the commanding officer of the camp. Gen. Daniel M. Frost, demanding the surrender of his forces. As General Frost was outnumbered eight to one, he had little choice but to accede to Lyon’s demand.
Some time was consumed organizing the captured militia for the march back to the arsenal. During this delay, word of the capture of Camp Jackson spread rapidly through the city and a large crowd began to gather at Lindell’s Grove. In the crowd were numerous southern sympathizers. As the crowd magnified in size it became increasingly belligerent. They first hurled epithets at the “damned dutch,” then clods of dirt, stones, and brickbats. Soon after the column of troops and their prisoners began to march down Olive Street, shots rang out and Capt. Constantin Blandovski fellmortally wounded. In response, the volunteers began to fire volleys into the crowd, which stampeded in panic, leaving 28 mostly innocent spectators dead and numerous others wounded.
Finally, at around 6 p.m., it was finally possible to resume marching back to the arsenal; the next day most of them were paroled.
The news of Camp Jackson electrified the entire state. The state legislature, amidst rumors of an imminent attack upon Jefferson City by Lyon and Blair, met in an extraordinary all-night session; they gave Governor Jackson the absolute powers he long sought to create and equip a state guard capable of resisting federal invasion. Many wavering unionists now flocked to the secessionist camp. Foremost among these was Sterling Price, the popular former governor and Mexican War hero who had recently served as president of the convention that voted to keep Missouri in the Union. Jackson immediately placed him in charge of the newly created state guard with the rank of major general.
As for the overall significance of the Camp Jackson Affair, Bruce Catton, the eminent Civil War historian, has offered a good summary:
“Blair and Lyon had won the civil war in St. Louis before it really got started, which was just what they set out to do, but as far as the rest of the state was concerned, they had won nothing; they had simply made more civil war inevitable. The fighting in St. Louis was clear warning that the middle of the road was no path for Missourians. No longer would carefree militiamen lounge picturesquely in a picnic-ground camp… Now they would fight, and other men would fight against them, and no part of the United States would know greater bitterness or misery.”
The Battle of Boonville took place on June 17, 1861. By most standards of warfare, the Battle of Boonville was more truly a skirmish or demonstration than a full blown battle. But small conflicts can sometimes have large consequences, and such was the case with the outcome of the Battle of Boonville. The battle was not only one of the first flash points of conflict in the rapidly escalating Civil War, but it also helped to decide in favor of the Union the then uncertain question of Missouri’s ultimate status. Ex-Confederate Thomas L. Snead summarized the consequences of the Battle of Boonville in 1888: “Insignificant as was this engagement in a military aspect, it was in fact a stunning blow to the Southern Rights’ people of the State, and one which did incalculable and unending injury to the Confederates.”
Months of mounting tension between Unionist and Secessionist factions preceded the outbreak of hostilities at Boonville. A pro-Southern faction, led by Gov. Claiborne Fox Jackson, was at work organizing a military force, the State Guard, to be placed under the command of Maj. Gen. Sterling Price. Backed by a powerful state military force, Gov. Jackson intended to lead Missouri into the Confederacy. Determined to thwart Jackson’s designs was a strong Unionist faction based in St. Louis and led by Congressman Frank Blair, Jr. and Gen. Nathaniel Lyon. The final break between these struggling factions came at a meeting, held on June 11, 1861, between Jackson, Price, Blair and Lyon, at the Planter’s House in St. Louis. Lyon concluded this stormy meeting by declaring that a state of war now existed between Jackson’s treasonous government and the United States.
Jackson and Price, fearing that Lyon’s army would soon be on their heels, quickly left this meeting and returned to Jefferson City to organize a hasty evacuation of the Capitol. Reasoning that Jefferson City was too pro-Union to defend, Gov. Jackson and Gen. Price ordered their volunteers to muster at either Boonville or Lexington, both strongholds of Southern sentiment. If Boonville could be held for a couple of weeks while Southern volunteers massed at Lexington, the State Guard might be transformed into an army capable of holding Missouri for the Confederacy.
On June 13, Jackson evacuated the capital city. Two days later, Lyon, Blair and 2,000 soldiers arrived in four boats to take control of Jefferson City. Lyon was well aware of the danger that could come from allowing Price and Jackson enough breathing space to assemble and train an army. Determined to prevent this by keeping his enemy on the run, Lyon continued steaming on to Boonville with 1,700 men.
Fearing that enemy artillery was emplaced on the bluffs near Boonville, Lyon disembarked his force some eight miles below town. At 7 a.m. Lyon set his army in motion. A march of two miles across the floodplain of the Missouri River led to a point where the road they were on, the Rocheport Road, began a gradual rise into the surrounding river hills. As the force started its ascent, State Guard pickets opened fire, and then fell back.
A mile to the west, an advance detachment of 400 or 500 State Guardsmen awaited Lyon’s approach. Earlier that morning, the Southern volunteers had moved out of their encampment, called Camp Vest or Camp Bacon, to take up their position on Rocheport Road. The commander of the guardsmen, Col. John Sappington Marmaduke, was not optimistic about the outcome of the coming fight. He knew that his total force of 1,500 poorly armed and untrained men was no match for Lyon’s disciplined and well-equipped soldiers. Marmaduke urged Gov. Jackson to concentrate his forces farther south, at Warsaw, where battle with the Federals could be had on terms more favorable to the Southerners. With a victory in hand, they might be able to launch a campaign to drive the Federals from the state. Jackson, however, was unwilling to depart from Boonville without offering a show of resistance, and insisted they make a stand whatever the odds.
The position chosen for the Southern stand was along a lane that intersected Rocheport Road about a mile west of where the pickets first fired on Lyon’s approaching army. On the northeast corner of the intersection stood a brick house behind which was a wheat field. Concealing themselves behind the house, its outbuildings and fences, and a thicket of woods, the state forces had a good position from which to pour fire into the exposed ranks of the advancing Federals.
The main portion of the battle opened at approximately 8 a.m. with a brisk shelling of the rebel position by Lyon’s artillery, under the command of Capt. Totten. The artillery occupied the center of Lyon’s column while infantry steadily advanced on either flank. For a while, according to one newspaper account, the air whined with bullets as both sides unleashed volleys at one another. Totten soon found his range, and two cannon balls came crashing into the brick house, and others poured into the Southern position. Thus dislodged, the defenders fell back across the fences and through the wheat field. The Southerners were able to stitch together a new line near the brow of a hill, advance some 20 paces and open fire. Lyon’s troops, now rapidly advancing, were compelled to cross a stretch of open ground. A body of the enemy concealed in a grove of trees unleashed what was described as a galling fire. This created the few casualties suffered by the Federal side. Again, Totten’s artillery was pressed into service while the troops on both flanks pushed the attack. It seemed at this point that the skirmish might assume the magnitude of a full-fledged battle, but the lack of arms and discipline of the Southern force began to take their toll. The superior military preparation and fire power of the Federal side soon overpowered the ill-prepared Southerners and Marmaduke gave the order to retreat. The battle had lasted little more than 20 minutes. The withdrawing Southerners made an attempt to maintain some semblance of order as they pulled back, firing at their pursuers from any available cover. Their retreat, however, progressively degenerated into a disorderly stampede.
While the Federal infantry pressed the attack, the McDowell steamed upriver to a point opposite Camp Bacon and began to shell the position with an eight-inch howitzer. This discouraged the Southerners from any attempt to linger in the encampment long enough to gather their belongings. The Federals marched into to the hastily evacuated camp to find food still on tables and much equipment left behind including 1,200 pairs of shoes, assorted tents, blankets, and other items.
The final Southern stand was made at the fairgrounds, about a mile east of town. During the evacuation of the Capitol, Jackson had moved the state armory to this location. The river-based howitzer was again called into service and lobbed shells onto the Southern position while the Union infantry closed in rapidly. The retreating Southerners were forced to leave behind their only two artillery pieces, a pair of six-pound cannons that were never used against the enemy.
By 11 a.m., Gen. Lyon was riding into Boonville to receive the surrender of the town from a local delegation of citizens. At the same time, Jackson was exiting the other end of town, bound for southwest Missouri to link up with Price and his troops who were at the same time evacuating Lexington. Word of the Boonville rout convinced Price that the rich and friendly Missouri River valley was no longer a safe haven. Lyon’s rapid action had denied Price and Jackson the precious time they needed to build up their army in the Missouri heartland.
As battles went, Boonville was clearly a small affair. Three Southerners were killed, and five to nine wounded, while the Federal toll came to five killed, seven wounded. Probably few battles of so minor a scale reaped such large results as did the Boonville triumph for Lyon. He had toppled the state government and sent the governor, general assembly and State Guard fleeing southward. Furthermore, the Missouri River was now a Federal highway that barred potential recruits in northern Missouri from joining Price and Jackson in southwest Missouri.
Eminent Civil War historian, Bruce Catton, summarized the significance of what Lyon had accomplished: “This fight at Boonville, the slightest of skirmishes by later standards, was in fact a very consequential victory for the Federal government. Gov. Jackson had been knocked loose from the control of his state, and the chance that Missouri could be carried bodily into the Southern Confederacy had gone glimmering. Jackson’s administration was now, in effect, a government-in-exile, fleeing down the roads toward the Arkansas border, a disorganized body that would need a great deal of help from Jefferson Davis’s government before it could give any substantial help in return.”