Ulysses S. Grant's Experiences During the Camp Jackson Affair

Group of soldiers standing in formation with a large tree and buildings in the background. Text reads "Camp Jackson MO."
Lithograph of Camp Jackson, located on the western side of St. Louis city.

Missouri Historical Society

The first instance of bloodshed in Missouri during the Civil War occurred in St Louis on May 10, 1861, less than a month after the war’s first shots were fired at Fort Sumter. The event in St. Louis came to be known in history as the Camp Jackson affair. Among the many onlookers of this event happened to be the man in charge of mustering Illinois regiments into service, former Army Captain Ulysses S. Grant.

Missouri was very divided in these early days of the war. Through slavery and commerce down the Mississippi River, the state had ties to states that would become a part of the Confederacy. Through industrialization, railroad trade, and immigration (especially Irish and anti-slavery Germans) the state also had ties to the North. Newly elected Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson was sympathetic to the Confederacy and called for a state constitutional convention to debate the merits of secession in February. Although the convention voted overwhelmingly against secession (98 to 1), Governor Jackson and his allies still maneuvered for Missouri’s secession by using questionable methods. Jackson refused President Abraham Lincoln’s call for troops after the firing of Fort Sumter. With approval from the state legislature, he began raising and equipping the Missouri State Guard, a state militia whose members were mostly secessionist. The State Guard began threatening the federal arsenal in St. Louis, which housed many weapons and gunpowder. Other federal arsenals in the South had been overtaken by Confederate forces, so the threat to the St. Louis federal arsenal was credible. Moreover, Jackson supported a bill that placed the St. Louis City Police under state control, weakening protection of the arsenal. Soon the Missouri State Guard established an encampment just west of downtown St. Louis which they named after their governor, Camp Jackson.

General William Harney was a conservative commander in charge of federal troops in St. Louis. Underneath him was Captain Nathaniel Lyon, who was tasked with defending the arsenal alongside Frank Blair, an influential U.S. Congressman from St. Louis. They began raising their own pro Union militia, which through Blair’s influence became sanctioned by the Lincoln administration. In St. Louis to help with mustering troops in nearby Belleville, Illinois, Ulysses S. Grant wrote to his wife Julia about this development. “There are two armies now occupying the city, hostile to each other, and I fear there is great danger of a conflict which, if commenced must terminate in great blood shed and destruction of property without advancing the cause of either party.” To safeguard surplus weapons at the arsenal, Lyon shipped them across to Illinois for safe keeping.
group of men firing guns and bayonets at each other with smoke in the background.
A lithograph of the Camp Jackson Affair published in the aftermath of the event.
Grant was correct about the inevitable clash. To prevent the pro-secessionist militia from storming the arsenal, and after hearing that Camp Jackson had received four cannons captured by Confederates at the Federal Arsenal at Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Lyon and Blair led a preemptive march on May 10 with 6,500 troops to force Camp Jackson’s 700-man garrison to surrender. Before the march started, Grant had gone to the arsenal and personally chatted with Lyon and Blair, “expressing sympathy with [their] purpose.” The march was successful and the garrison at Camp Jackson surrendered. But as Grant predicted, violence occurred when Lyon marched his prisoners through the streets of St. Louis. Many people from St. Louis came out to witness this procession. Among the spectators were a mob of secessionists with nativist attitudes. Incensed that a great number of the unionist militia was German, they heckled the unionists and later turned violent by brandishing knives and guns and throwing objects at the unionist troops. In response, soldiers fired into the crowd. The violent, chaotic scene ended with the deaths of 28 civilians and two soldiers. Scores more were injured. Afterward sporadic violence continued for another day with six more deaths. During this time, Grant, intending to go back to the arsenal to congratulate Lyon and Blair, witnessed the commotion. He later reflected in his memoirs that he encountered and had a conversation with a St. Louis secessionist. When the secessionist bluntly told him, “where I come from, if a man dares to say a word in favor of the Union, we hang him to a limb of the first tree we come to.” Grant retorted, “after all we are not so intolerant in St. Louis as we might be; I had not seen a single rebel hung yet, nor heard of one, there were plenty of them who ought to be however.”

Following the Camp Jackson Affair, General Harney struggled to keep the peace between secessionist and unionist elements Missouri. On May 21, Harney met with Sterling Price, a former governor of Missouri. They worked out an agreement in which Price’s state forces kept order in Missouri and the federal government would not interfere in state affairs, but the federal army would regulate affairs in St. Louis. By this agreement, General Harney conceded to the heavily pro secessionist state authorities the right to run state affairs. Naturally, Frank Blair, Nathaniel Lyon and their allies were incensed by this and they successfully maneuvered for Harney’s removal and for Lyon to replace him. Soon after, Lyon was promoted to Brigadier General. He bluntly stated his uncompromising unionist stance in a meeting with Claiborne Fox Jackson, Sterling Price and Frank Blair at the Planters House in St. Louis. When Price sought to continue the agreement that he worked out with Harney, Lyon would hear none of it. Irritated and uncompromising, Lyon allegedly stood up during the middle of the meeting and stated angrily, “rather than 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 every man, woman and child in the State, dead and buried.” As he finished, he turned to Governor Jackson with the grand finale of his speech, “this means war.” From that moment the Civil War was officially underway in Missouri.

Lyon would not see the fruition of his uncompromising unionist stance, dying at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek on August 10, 1861. Ulysses S. Grant remembered the Camp Jackson Affair and praised Lyon and Blair in his Personal Memoirs. “I have little doubt that St. Louis would have gone into rebel hands, and with it the arsenal with all its arms and ammunition” had Lyon and Blair allowed Camp Jackson to stand. “As soon as the news of the capture of Camp Jackson reached the city the condition of affairs was changed. Union men became rampant, aggressive, and, if you will, intolerant. They proclaimed their sentiments boldly, and were impatient at anything like disrespect for the Union.”
John Y. Simon, ed., The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Volume 2: April-September 1861. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969. pp. 26, 30-31.

Louis S. Gerteis, Civil War St. Louis. University Press of Kansas, 2001.

Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. New York: Charles Webster Publishing, 1885.

Ulysses S Grant National Historic Site

Last updated: April 29, 2021