The Changing Tide: Battle of Carthage - July 5, 1861

Posted on Thursday, July 28, 2011 - 10:35am


Jim Denny at Rural Missouri wrote this piece about the Battle of Carthage. It's reprinted with the permission of Rural Missouri magazine and originally appeared in the magazine's July 2011 issue. Learn more about Rural Missouri at


It didn’t take long for the fighting to get underway on the morning of July 5, 1861. Northern and Southern armies confronted each other on the prairies 10 miles northwest of Carthage.

The Union force of 1,100 soldiers, mainly German-American St. Louisans, was led by Col. Franz Sigel. Facing the Union force 700 yards to the north was a mile-long line of Missouri state guardsmen along the brow of a hill, led by Missouri’s recently exiled Gov. Claiborne Jackson. Under his command were 4,375 armed men and 2,000 men without weapons.

Both sides had artillery, but Sigel lacked cavalry. Jackson’s 1,358 mounted men outnumbered Sigel’s entire force. The Union commander was in a dangerous fix facing 4-to-1 odds. He had little chance of winning a military victory against the secessionists.

Sigel’s small force would more likely be attacked from all sides and annihilated. It seemed like the tides of fate might be turning toward the South in Missouri’s rapidly developing Civil War.

Sigel was supposed to be part of a pincers movement. According to the master strategy, Gen. Nathaniel Lyon should have been smashing into Jackson’s rear flank with 4,500 troops.

Lyon knew from the outset of his campaign that he had to keep hot on the heels of Jackson, who was racing south to link up with Confederates in northwest Arkansas. Along the way, he was gathering hundreds of recruits.

If Lyon could catch Jackson and bring him to battle, he might be able to smash the state guard between two armies and prevent this link-up. Such a maneuver could nearly ensure Union victory in Missouri.

Should Lyon fail to destroy his enemy, however, Jackson — along with state guard commander, Gen. Sterling Price — could forge an alliance with Gen. Ben McCulloch’s Confederate forces to create an army perhaps 15,000- to 20,000-soldiers strong. This, in turn, would transform southwest Missouri into a Confederate stronghold from which invasions could be launched to redeem Missouri for the South.

But Lyon wasn’t there to help Sigel spring the trap. At this critical juncture, Lyon’s star was starting to desert him. After the Battle of Boonville, Frank Blair had to leave Missouri and take up his congressional seat. The Blair-Lyon duo that had accomplished so much was now broken up.

Also, as so often happened to leaders during the Civil War, “friendly fire” behind his back derailed Lyon’s campaign as much as the enemy to his front. Just at the time Lyon needed to be running Jackson to ground, he was stymied by a slippery and corrupt quartermaster in St. Louis, who confiscated all the wagons and mules destined to resupply Lyon and dismissed their teamsters, citing improper paperwork as his excuse.

Two precious weeks slipped away while Lyon scoured the countryside trying to cobble together a supply train. When at last he was ready to move out, incessant rains began to fall, turning roads into mire and streams into raging torrents. By then, many miles separated Jackson and Lyon.

Along the route of Jackson’s withdrawal, a murderous little conflict took place near Cole Camp. The battle seldom finds a place in Civil War chronologies, despite the fact that the ambush at Cole Camp resulted in as many casualties as most “battles” fought during the time, whether in Missouri or in the East.

A German-American home guard unit, some 400 strong, was stationed in two barns near Cole Camp. These “Dutch” needed to be cleared out to make way for Jackson’s passage through the region. In the wee hours of June 18-19, while the green volunteers slumbered in the barns with their arms stacked outside and no sentries posted, state guardsmen launched a surprise attack.

“No mercy for the Dutch,” were the last words some 35 unarmed home guardsmen heard as they were shot dead. Some 60 more were wounded.

The raiding party was from Warsaw, just 20 miles away. Their captured federal property included 350 badly needed muskets. It was a vicious kickoff to Missouri’s personal war of hatred and revenge, where neighbor killed neighbor and no one was safe.

At the Battle of Carthage, the deciding factor turned out to be which group of soldiers had the better discipline and unit cohesion — not who had the biggest army.

Sigel, an excitable and erratic German revolutionary who had fled to America, fancied himself a skilled military leader. Yet he had committed a major blunder when he marched his men forward to meet the enemy while his 32-wagon supply train trailed 3 miles behind, a ripe plum ready for the plucking.

An hour was wasted in an ineffective artillery duel. Afterward, Jackson ordered the horsemen on both ends of his line to encircle Sigel and attack from both the flank and rear. Sigel, seeing this massive movement of men on both sides, finally realized how vulnerable his unprotected supply train was to enemy attack. He then conducted one of the most skillful maneuvers of his checkered military career —a long, fighting retreat back the way he came.

At Dry Fork Creek, he concealed five companies and a four-gun battery in the timber and brush along the creek. These soldiers managed to lay down a heavy fire that stalled the main body of Jackson’s infantry for two hours.

The bloodiest fighting of the battle took place here as opposing troops — now only 30 or 40 yards apart — poured deadly volleys of lead into each other’s ranks. Sigel’s disciplined soldiers, meanwhile, had to charge and scatter a band of mounted guardsmen, who had attempted to blockade Buck Branch Creek.

Finally, Sigel reached his supply wagons. With the federal supply train protected on all sides by infantry and artillery, no mounted guardsmen dared approach close enough to suffer a serious threat to Sigel’s retreat, which continued across Spring River and through Carthage.

The state guard abandoned the chase on the outskirts of Carthage. Sigel’s bone-weary troops continued their withdrawal all the way to Sarcoxie, 15 miles away.

Considering the forces involved, casualties were light. Sigel sustained 13 killed and 31 wounded, while Jackson lost 30 men and another 125 wounded. The Union commander had saved his army, but Jackson could claim his first major victory. No more Yankees barred his way to a link-up with the Arkansas Confederates.