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The Battle of Wilson's Creek

   

THE BATTLE OF BOONVILLE

Jackson's public words triggered his banishment from public office, this time by force. Within hours of the publication of Jackson's proclamation, Lyon embarked two thousand men on a military expedition toward Jefferson City, traveling up the Missouri River by steamboat rather than by rail, as Jackson had expected. Simultaneously, another two-thousand-man force under Captain Thomas Sweeny was to move from St. Louis by rail toward Rolla, a pincer campaign intent on catching the governor and any State Guard that might serve him between the two forces. Because of supply difficulties, only a thousand of these troops left as scheduled, largely Germans under Colonel Franz Sigel, an exiled former insurrectionary who had great political influence with the German residents of St. Louis. The remainder, under Sweeny, stayed in St. Louis an additional week.

Jackson learned of the expedition's departure on June 13 and had little time to prepare. Having had the state powder and stores removed to the more defensible town of Boonville (the largely German, Unionist populace in Jefferson City now rendered it unattractive in light of the approach of federals) when he had learned of Harney's removal, Jackson hastily wired supporters and militia commanders around the state of the latest events, ordering them to move with all haste to Boonville, where General John B. Clark commanded a contingent of the State Guard. Price ordered State Guard units and recruits in the area to assemble at Boonville as soon as possible. Jackson and his staff then prepared to evacuate the capital, frantically gathering the state papers, appropriating much of the currency and treasury records and the state seal (one resident later recalled incorrectly that the governor pitched it down a well), and ordering the destruction of three railroad bridges west of Jefferson City so as to impede pursuit. With other state officials, the governor embarked on the steamer White Cloud, leaving the capital late on the same evening. The legally elected state government was now fugitive.

TWO MEMBERS OF THE MISSOURI STATE GUARD PHOTOGRAPHED IN MAY 1861. (GS)

STEAMBOATS LIKE THE IATAN WERE USED TO TRANSPORT U.S. VOLUNTEERS UNDER GENERAL LYON. (STATE HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF MISSOURI)

Aboard four commandeered steamers, Lyon's wing of the campaign moved carefully upriver, disembarking often because of sandbars but meeting no armed resistance. On June 15, Lyon's troops occupied the state capital, raising the U.S. flag over the deserted capitol building. Moreover, his troops captured two secessionist state officials, along with a large amount of currency and treasury records. Resting overnight, the force pushed on toward Boonville, where several hundred untrained militia (armed primarily with shotguns and squirrel rifles, if they had weapons at all) were feverishly erecting defenses on the high river bluffs east of town. Once he and Jackson had arrived at Camp Bacon, as the militia encampment was named, Sterling Price recognized that with the troops at hand, and without artillery, he could effect at best a delay of Lyon's advancing troops, three companies of whom were army regulars along with a battery of U.S. Artillery Regulars under the command of Captain James Totten, a capable Mexican War veteran, just arrived from Arkansas. Price surmised that the largest number of State Guard recruits were forming west of Boonville, and, suffering a debilitating bout of diarrhea, he left the camp in the hands of the governor and returned to his home near Keytesville, some sixty miles upriver. He urged Jackson to hold Boonville as long as possible, then withdraw to the southwest, where he would attempt to join them with the militia troops to the west.

THIS PERIOD CARTOON IS TITLED "THE BATTLE OF BOONVILLE, OR THE GREAT MISSOURI 'LYON' HUNT." (NPS)

None was ready for the swiftness of Lyon's advance. Leaving Jefferson City on June 16, Lyon learned the next morning of the bluff defenses before Boonville, and he disembarked his troops eight miles below town, marched across on the south bottom, and advanced up the bluffs on the river road toward the camp. Lyon put his men into line once they had reached the crest of a low ridge. The federals encountered the main militia line occupying a farm and stretched along a farm road on the brow of a subsequent ridge with a steep valley between the two. Using his artillery effectively, Lyon quickly moved his men forward and within twenty minutes had the entire State Guard force running pell-mell toward Boonville, five miles distant. Casualties were light, but Lyon captured sixty of the militia before pressing on and occupying the town. By that time, Jackson (who had watched the entire debacle from a nearby hill) and the remnants of his shattered force had begun a headlong flight toward the southwestern corner of the state.

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