The Civil War in Missouri

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General Lyon's March of 1861

Battle at Wilson’s Creek, Missouri; Death of General Lyon (Download 1.9 MB PDF)
Background

Highlights

  • On May 31, 1861, General William S. Harney was replaced by the newly promoted Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon. 
  • Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson and General Sterling Price planned a face-to-face meeting with General Lyon at Planter’s House Hotel in St. Louis. 
  • The meeting took place on June 11. After four or five hours of discussion, Lyon decided that no agreement could be made. One version of events describes him rising from his chair and saying:

    “Rather than concede to the state of Missouri….the right to dictate to my government in any matter however unimportant, I would see you, and you, and you, and you, and you, and every man, woman, and child in the state dead and buried. This means war."

In-Depth

Following the capture of Camp Jackson a tentative peace was settled between the Union troops in Missouri under General William S. Harney and the rebellious Missouri State Guard under General Sterling Price and Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson. This agreement, known as the Harney-Price Agreement, was furiously opposed by unconditional Unionists such as Colonel Frank Blair Jr. and Captain Nathaniel Lyon. They believed that this agreement would never last, and provided the secessionists in control of the state government time to prepare defenses. Abraham Lincoln agreed when Blair took his concerns to the White House, and on May 31, 1861, General Harney was replaced by the newly promoted Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon. 

Lyon and Blair were right to be concerned, as Jackson had already requested Confederate troops be sent to Missouri. With Lyon in command, the Harney-Price Agreement was no more. Jackson and Price would try one last time to delay Union action. They planned a face-to-face meeting with Gen. Lyon at Planter’s House Hotel in St. Louis. The meeting took place on June 10 and after four or five hours of discussion Lyon decided that no agreement could be made.

One version of events describes him rising from his seat and saying,

“Rather than concede to the state of Missouri the right to demand that my government shall not enlist troops within her limits, or bring troops into the state whenever it pleases, or move its troops at its own will into, or out of, or through the state; rather than to concede to the state of Missouri for one single instant the right to dictate to my government in any matter however unimportant, I would see you, and you, and you, and you, and you, and every man, woman, and child in the state dead and buried. This means war.”

The March

Highlights

  • Gen. Lyon, assisted by Col. Frank Blair Jr., gathered a force to drive the secessionist government from the capital, Jefferson City. 
  • Lyon arrived with his force in Jefferson City on June 15 to find the city abandoned. Governor Jackson had determined that Boonville with its pro-South views was a better location to face Lyon. 
  • At Boonville, Lyon easily faced down a small force under the command of Jackson, but a larger force under General Price had already moved south to join with the Confederates. 
  • A second Union force under Col. Franz Sigel made its way toward Springfield to trap Jackson between Sigel’s force and Lyon’s. 
  • Col. Sigel decided to leave a small force at Neosho and marched with his main force to meet Jackson at Carthage. Outnumbered 4 to 1, Siegel’s force was defeated. This allowed Jackson to unite his forces with those of General Price and Confederate general Benjamin McCulloch.
  • Faced with a much larger Southern army, Lyon had to choose between retreating to the railhead at Rolla or facing Jackson, Price, and McCulloch. 
  • He marched to Springfield, where he attacked the enemy in what became known as the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. This battle resulted in large losses for the North, including the death of Gen. Lyon. The Union forces retreated to Rolla, and the Southern force claimed victory. 

In-Depth

Gen. Lyon, assisted by Col. Frank Blair Jr., gathered a force to drive the secessionist government from the capital, Jefferson City. He sent a second force under the command of Col. Franz Sigel, a veteran of the German Revolution of 1848. This force would take the railhead at Rolla and then proceed to set up a Union force at Springfield. Lyon believed that when he drove the secessionist government and Missouri State Guard from the capital they would flee down the western side of Missouri and try to join the Confederate army of Gen. Benjamin McCulloch in northern Arkansas. With Col. Sigel in Springfield and Gen. Lyon pursuing them from behind, the combined Union forces would be able to trap the secessionists before they could join the Confederates. 

Lyon arrived with his force in Jefferson City on June 15 to find the city abandoned. Governor Jackson had determined that Boonville with its pro-South views was a better location to face Lyon. At Boonville, Lyon easily faced down a small force under the command of Jackson, but a larger force under General Price had already moved south to join with the Confederates. The easy victory encouraged Lyon, but he was hampered by heavy rains and muddy roads. 

In the meantime, Jackson made his way south as quickly as possible. On the way he gained reinforcements, including 3,000 troops led by General James S. Rains. The Union forces under Col. Sigel made their way toward Springfield to trap Jackson between Sigel’s force and Lyon’s. Unfortunately, with Jackson in front of him and Price and McCulloch behind him the possibility existed that he himself would be trapped. Col. Sigel decided to leave a small force at Neosho and marched with his main force to meet Jackson at Carthage. Outnumbered four to one, Sigel’s force was defeated, and his remaining force at Neosho was defeated by Price and McCulloch shortly after. 

Lyon’s force was greatly in need of reinforcements in order to face the combined Southern force. The new commander of the Department of the West, John C. Frémont, decided to send what troops he had to defend the mouth of the Ohio at Cairo, Illinois, leaving Lyon on his own. Faced with a much larger Southern army, Lyon had to choose between retreating to the railhead at Rolla or facing Jackson, Price, and McCulloch. He marched to Springfield, where he surprise attacked the enemy in what became known as the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. This battle resulted in large losses for the North, including the death of Gen. Lyon. The Union forces retreated to Rolla, and the Southern force claimed victory.

Aftermath

Highlights

  • Following Wilson’s Creek, Gen. Price wanted to pursue the Union forces. Gen. McCulloch chose instead to head back to Arkansas. He was concerned about his supply train and had a deteriorating relationship with Price. 
  • This left Price with a much smaller force, but with control over the southwestern part of the state.
  • Gen. Price continued to control southwest Missouri until the Confederate defeat at Pea Ridge, Arkansas, in March 1862.

In-Depth

Following Wilson’s Creek, Gen. Price wanted to pursue the Union forces. Gen. McCulloch chose instead to head back to Arkansas. He was concerned about his supply train and had a deteriorating relationship with Price. This left Price with a much smaller force, but with control over the southwestern part of the state. 

In October 1861, General Frémont would attempt to drive Price from the state, but after a defeat at Lexington and his refusal to rescind an order he had sent emancipating the slaves of rebellious Missourians, Frémont was removed from office by Lincoln. The Union wouldn’t succeed in fully gaining control of southwest Missouri until after the Confederate defeat at Pea Ridge, Arkansas, in March 1862.

Vocabulary 

Secessionist – being in support of the withdrawal from the Union of 11 Southern states in the period 1860–1861, which brought on the Civil War.

Primary Sources

Battle at Wilson’s Creek, Missouri; Death of General Lyon
(Download 1.9 MB PDF)
"Battle of Booneville, or the Great Missouri Lion Hunt"
(Download 1.6 MB PDF)