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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

The Battle of Wilson's Creek



For Missouri, the years immediately preceding the Civil War personified its status as a border state. As the national debate over the institution of slavery drew the new West into its scope in the wake of the war with Mexico, Missourians saw the debate over their own statehood rekindled and thrust into the national forum. The very boundary that was their state's southern border—the 36°30" parallel—became alternately the seed of harmony and discord between slavery's restrictionists and extensionists. As Congress debated afar the future of the vast territories taken from Mexico and as the nation's politicians contorted over it in the subsequent electioneering mayhem, the sacred parallel became a regular topic as a practical compromise line upon which to organize the entire region.

Just as the debate lay the state's name yet again on the lips of the nation's leaders, so did it isolate Missouri as potentially the only slave state situated above the parallel. The Compromise of 1850 essentially sidestepped the issue by avoiding the Louisiana Purchase entirely, allowing all the remaining portion of the Mexican Cession save California to organize on the murky principle of popular sovereignty, whereby the residents of the territories—rather than Congress—would decide whether slavery would exist there upon statehood. Missouri was thus segregated even further, the only state allowed to have slavery in a northwestern region that, by permanent decree, forbade the institution. More confusing, Missouri was now situated alongside the remaining northern expanse of the Louisiana territory, whose future was barred from slaveholding by the very act that had breathed life into Missouri. As Missourians did all in their power to maintain their allegiance to the democratic Middle West, the nation's newest paroxysm over slavery forced them glaringly into the role of outsiders.



Similarly, Missouri's white population set the state at odds with others of the Middle West. In 1860, nearly 75 percent of its 1.2 million people were of southern heritage, and many of the remainder (especially outside St. Louis) had come from regions in Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio that had been settled originally by emigrants from the southern states. Of the 431,397 Missourians born outside the state, 273,500 came from slaveholding states, especially from the upper South states such as Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina. While its economy was increasingly linked by rail with the industrial cities of the North (rather than the traditional river connections with New Orleans), its white populace had deep cultural ties with the slaveholding states.

Missourians—as westerners—considered chattel bondage the marrow of freedom itself and Missouri, as one observer hailed, was "the strongest pillar in the temple of Democracy on the Western Continent."

More than culture tied Missouri with the states of the South. Between 1830 and 1850, Missouri's slave population more than tripled to 87,422; by 1860, that number had increased by another third to 114,931, an all-time high. More than thirty-five thousand of these slaves labored in the central Missouri River counties, with the rest spread largely along the Mississippi and in western Missouri. Rather than signaling any death knell in the state, raw slave numbers in Missouri actually increased during the same period, and they did so far more dramatically than their proportion in the state's overall population declined. Inflated prices of slaves (prime field hands fetched routinely as much as $1,500) offered no indication that chattel bondage was waning in Missouri. Nor should they have; in the last antebellum decade, slavery in the state was thriving.

Unlike the states of the Deep South, where plantation agriculture made slavery indispensable, Missourians held tightly to the "peculiar institution" for more abstract reasoning. In their quest for personal freedom, these uplanders legitimized slavery as embodying not just western but American progress. Early national Americans whether northern or southern, looked to the West as the region that would legitimate the triumphant republic, that would assure its march toward world power. Many moved there precisely because of its promise, as well as to escape the restrictions of the more-settled East, to find liberty. Slavery, viewed as one of those liberties, was thus no privilege in the West. Farmers on the western border saw the peculiar institution not so much as a constitutional right, the dais from which some of its leaders would later deliver their dissevering sermons, but as a natural, democratic right. While planting, weeding, and harvesting crops, felling trees, processing hemp or tobacco, hauling water, and other forms of labor that needed to be performed on farms and in manufacturing establishments might have been the traditional services for which middle Missourians sought slaves, labor needs did not prove the sole reasons for their ardent support of the institution. Slaves were a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves, and that end was true democratic ascendance as much as any antislavery ideologue in the North claimed the opposite. Far from being insouciant about the institution of slavery, Missourians—as westerners—considered chattel bondage the marrow of freedom itself and Missouri, as one observer hailed, was "the strongest pillar in the temple of Democracy on the Western Continent."


With the election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860 as the nation's sixteenth (and first Republican) president, the country moved rapidly toward war. In rapid succession, seven southern slave states seceded from the union of states, creating the Confederate States of America and forcing Missouri to determine its own fate. The state's populace, less even than that of the Deep South states, could not be divided neatly into a contest pitting supporters of slavery against antislavery advocates; the break proved far less clean. Missourians had debated slavery since its very statehood; in fact, the compromise that bore the state's name had been the first sectional debate over the peculiar institution. What threatened Missouri was the question of union or disunion, whether Missouri should remain loyal to the Union or follow the course of her "sister states" in the South.

Precisely because they were so accustomed to the slavery debate, most Missourians were able to remove themselves sufficiently from the emotion of the slavery question to look at the secession crisis more objectively than their southern brethren. Though many of the state's largest and most powerful slave owners called for immediate secession, most slave-holders feared that, rather than save the institution, secession would prove its death knell. Thus most proslavery Missourians were conservative, "conditional Unionists" and looked upon secession as only a last resort. Yet they also feared the coercion of the government, demonstrated all too clearly to them by what they perceived to have been the government's intervention in the recent troubles over slavery's introduction into Kansas, the first territory to test the theory of popular sovereignty. Above all, distrustful Missourians wanted no government intrusion in their reckoning of the onrushing conflict. One resident perhaps put it best: "We ask nothing of the gov't at Washington but to be left alone. We need not its protection—such protection as the wolf offers the lamb."


By contrast, the state boasted perhaps the most sizable contingent of radical Unionists of any of the slave states. Concentrated in St. Louis, the state's largest city as well as the third most populous in the slave states, these "Unconditional Unionists" largely adhered to the Republican party, the nation's newest—and preeminent antislavery—party. Joining the Unconditional Unionists in their support for the Republican party was St. Louis's German contingent, sixty thousand strong, which represented the largest immigrant community west of the Appalachians. So devoted to the cause of the Union were these radicals in St. Louis that of the 27,000 votes Lincoln received in the 1860 presidential election in the entirety of the slave states, a full 17,028 came from St. Louis. The onset of the secession crisis caused Union clubs in the city to step up enrollments, anticipating trouble from the state's disunionists. As their name suggests, these Missourians, whether Anglo or German, would defend the federal Union and its government at all hazard.

Lincoln's inauguration on March 4, 1861, coincided with the meeting of a convention of Missouri delegates in St. Louis elected by its people to determine the future of their state within the Union. As the northernmost slave state once Kansas entered the Union, Missouri was a literal peninsula in the midst of free soil. With a scant 10 percent of its population being slaves—the smallest of any slave state save Delaware—and with only a marginal dependence on plantation crops, the factors influencing the state's choice differed greatly from those of the Deep South states. So would the voters' and convention's ultimate decision on secession. So sure were Missouri's voters of their desire to preserve their connection to the federal Union that not one avowed secessionist candidate received election to the convention among the ninety-nine delegates so elected, and the convention members calmly voted 98—1 in favor of a resolution declaring that "at present there was no adequate cause to impel Missouri to dissolve her connection with the Federal Union." Of the eleven slaveholding states that would eventually call secession conventions, Missouri alone voted to remain in the Union. Rather, the convention declared the state's neutrality, attempting to walk a political tightrope, similar to the border slave states of Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware.


Despite this clear rejection of disunion, Missouri's new governor, Claiborne Fox Jackson, inaugurated in January, was working assiduously to prepare the state for secession. His strategy was savvy; Jackson had no intention of foisting secession on his Missouri constituents. Indeed, he recognized implicitly that he had neither the mandate nor the need to do so. The convention's ringing repudiation of the issue of immediate secession echoed unmistakably over the state, but even more resonant was its stand against the federal government's coercion of the states. The people of Missouri, unlike those in the seceded states, had declared themselves neither above nor below the Union but equal in stature to it. Allegiance to their nation came only through its respect for their state, a distinction Missourians would now demand. Former governor Robert M. Stewart's appeal to Missourians to maintain their allegiance to the federal Union through "the high position of armed neutrality" now actually strengthened his successor's hand in preparing for secession. Jackson saw rightly that the actions that would prove most singular to Missouri's course would not be his; rather, they would be the federal government's.

Jackson now merely needed to maintain fealty to his home state in order to satisfy these conditions. Should the free states through the federal government make war on the slave states in an effort to bring them back into the Union, Missouri's geographical position—it was now surrounded on three sides by free states—as well as the river systems it controlled rendered the state a gateway through which troops would inevitably need to move to reach the Confederacy. In effect, coercion by military force was inevitable in Missouri. To this end, Jackson cultivated a public image as the state's indefatigable defender, Missouri's sentinel, proclaiming his paramount devotion to his state whenever possible in an effort to crystallize notions of Missouri's state sovereignty and its potential victimization. Privately, he began preparing the state for its defense, using "armed neutrality" as a vehicle for secession. Jackson communicated with disunionists throughout Missouri, ordered the state's militia commanders to organize camps of instruction, arranged for heavy artillery from the Confederate government to capture the arsenal, and assured its president, Jefferson Davis, that he "look[ed] anxiously and hopefully for the day when the star of Missouri shall be added to the constellation of the Confederate States of America." To the chairman of the Arkansas secession convention, he predicted that "Mo will be ready for secession in less than thirty days; and will secede, if Arkansas will only get out of the way and give her a free passage." As Missourians began to perceive federal plots at every turn, their commitment to the Union wavered with the passing days. Time clearly was working on the governor's side.

Missouri's fraying tightrope gave way on April 15, 1861, with news that the small federal garrison holding Fort Sumter, in Charleston's harbor, had surrendered to state troops after nearly thirty-three hours of bombardment. In response, Abraham Lincoln called for seventy-five thousand volunteers for ninety days of national service to put down the rebellion in the seceded states "too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings." Missouri's quota, reported Secretary of War Simon Cameron to the state's governor, would be 3,123 men. Claiborne Jackson's response to Cameron was immediate and icily uncompromising: "Sir: — Your requisition is illegal, unconstitutional and revolutionary; in its object inhuman & diabolical. Not one man will Missouri furnish to carry on any such unholy crusade against her Southern sisters." On the same day that Governor Jackson responded to Lincoln's call for volunteers, the state of Virginia seceded. Jackson called for the legislature to meet in special session on May 2 to take "measures to perfect the organization and equipment of the Militia and raise the money to place the State in a proper attitude for defense." Jackson had laid down Missouri's gauntlet, one that most of its residents as yet wished laid.


Immediately, the state exploded in a frenetic series of events. Buoyed by Jackson's stinging response, proslavery partisanship gave way in many parts to open secessionism. One observer recalled that in St. Louis "secession was rampant everywhere. . . . In all places the secesh were noisy and undisturbed. The enemies of the Government were rapidly providing themselves with arms and ammunition. . . . To those not in the secret, it seemed as if secession in Missouri was an accomplished fact." Meetings held throughout the state's interior called for the legislature to override the convention's ruling and pass an ordinance of secession, after erecting southern or secession flags. A miniature Confederate flag even protruded from a flowerpot that sat on the porch next to Governor Jackson's front door. Just days after Jackson's response, Missouri secessionists captured the three-man garrison of the government arsenal at Liberty, robbing it of a moderate number of muskets, rifles, pistols, and sabers, as well as ammunition and three six-pound cannon. Another Missourian proclaimed, "The Secession fever is raging and if Lincoln shall not stay his hand, the devil himself cant Keep Missouri in the Union."

(click on image for a PDF version)

Missouri's Unionists, too, quickly became active, perhaps more than the state's secessionists, and certainly with far greater magnitude. Nowhere was this more evident than in St. Louis. There, Frank Blair, Jr., led the effort toward preserving Missouri's adherence to the Union. Blair, a member of the most influential Republican families in the country, was a St. Louis congressman and ardent supporter of Lincoln; indeed, his brother Montgomery was a member of Lincoln's cabinet. With indefatigable energy, he sought to whip up enthusiasm in the city for the Union cause by appealing to all elements of Unionist support, whether radical or moderate. Realizing that to gain St. Louis's full Unionist support he must enlist more than simply Republican support (the state was overwhelmingly Democrat), Blair reorganized the former Republican ward clubs into a more generic Central Union Club, open to any man who believed in the primacy of the Union and "refusing only to accept proposals for compromise." Blair further enlisted Germans in large numbers into paramilitary "Home Guard" companies, drilling in secret in preparation for Blair's securing arms for them.



No abolitionist, Lyon saw his transfer to St. Louis in February 1861 as an opportunity to punish the state's secessionists, or, as he wrote, to "teach them a lesson in letters of fire and blood."

To obtain those arms, Blair turned to Captain Nathaniel Lyon, in command of the small garrison of federal troops defending the St. Louis Arsenal. Its sixty thousand stand of arms, powder, ammunition, field-pieces, and arms-manufacturing machinery made it the largest federal armory in the slave states. Blair found in Lyon an ally as extreme as himself. Born in Connecticut, Lyon graduated from West Point in 1841 and had spent his entire career in the army with the Second Infantry. A rock-ribbed Unionist whose fiery temper, disjointed religious views, and disrespect for authority had routinely brought on the enmity of those who served with him, Lyon had distinguished himself in the Mexican War and received promotion—the only such promotion of his career—to captain. Early in his career, Lyon proved himself a martinet whose excessive punishment of enlisted men forced superior officers to curb his "proclivity to severity." In 1850, while stationed in California during the hectic days of the gold rush, Lyon led an expedition that exterminated two entire tribes of peaceful Indians, totaling four hundred natives, in retaliation for the unrelated killings of two settlers and an army topographical engineer. Sent to territorial Kansas in 1854, Lyon saw first-hand the violence there and matured a hatred for slavery and especially for southern disunionists, on whom he placed sole blame for the disruption of the Union. While there, he actively championed the free-state cause, using army troops to gerrymander elections and assist fugitive slaves to escape, and on one occasion actually orchestrated the escape of the notorious Jayhawker James Montgomery, whom he had been sent to arrest. No abolitionist, Lyon saw his transfer to St. Louis in February 1861 as an opportunity to punish the state's secessionists, or, as he wrote, to "teach them a lesson in letters of fire and blood." As much a zealot as an army officer, Lyon prophesied immediately before leaving Kansas that "I shall not hesitate to rejoice at the triumph of my principles, though this triumph may involve an issue in which I certainly expect to expose and very likely lose my life. We shall rejoice, though in martyrdom, if need be."

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