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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

The Battle of Wilson's Creek



Activities in St. Louis soon threw the state into further frenzy. Frank Blair returned to St. Louis on the day of Jackson's rejection of Lincoln's call, armed with a War Department authorization of five thousand stand of arms to those Home Guard units who would enlist in the federal army. With an enlistment agent in the city (Lieutenant John M. Schofield, a West Pointer on leave in the city with orders to act as mustering officer in Missouri and whose presence Jackson had ignored), Blair and Lyon by week's end had mustered and armed more than twenty-five hundred recruits, most of them Germans, at the St. Louis Arsenal, with authorization for as many as ten thousand. The action was unconstitutional; Congress alone had authority to create federal volunteers, who were neither state militia nor members of the U.S. Army. As many Missourians saw the matter, such enlistment only implicated government officials from Lyon and Blair to Lincoln in a vast conspiracy against the states. Moreover, the St. Louis military leaders had managed to secrete virtually the entire cache of arms and munitions from the arsenal across the river to Illinois, thus thwarting any repeat of the Liberty Arsenal predation and eliminating any threat of attack in St. Louis.


As if scripted, Missouri's world turned upside down within four days of the militia's encamping. On May 10, during the temporary absence of the federal commander in St. Louis, William S. Harney, Lyon and Blair marched some 6,500 troops from the St. Louis Arsenal to Camp Jackson, a militia encampment on the western edge of St Louis, forcing the surrender of those 669 militia (of 891 in camp) who had not managed to escape the converging federal columns. Reports reached Lyon that the Confederate cannon from Baton Rouge, poorly disguised in boxes marked as marble, had arrived at night by steamer and that they, along with those cannon held by the state and shipped "for repairs" to the encampment's commander, Daniel M. Frost, were secreted to the camp. The federal commander also had learned that Jefferson City was awash in troops, powder, and arms—including the cannon taken from the Liberty Arsenal—and he ordered a preemptive strike, reasoning dubiously that the camp was a threat to the arsenal. Many of the militia were clearly secessionist, naming their company streets "Beauregard" and "Davis" for the Confederate general and president and displaying secession flags; one even wrote the night before the incident to his brother in Natchez, Mississippi, on Confederate stationery, a letter that was never delivered for federal troops captured it the next day, that "we shall conquer for the Southern Confederacy and Jef Davis Dam Lincoln and the Stars and Stripes, we are for the south." After capturing the militia, in a grandiose display of might Lyon marched the prisoners under guard, through hostile throngs that now packed the city streets, for nearly the entire six miles from the camp to the arsenal. The humiliating procession soon erupted in violence; in response to a small fracas near the center of the column, the barely trained Home Guard units opened fire on the crowd, resulting in twenty-eight deaths and as many as seventy-five injuries. For the next two days rioting tore through St. Louis's normally quiet brick streets; thousands fled the "Black Dutch" government troops who many frightened residents believed were "shooting women and children in cold blood."



The "coup de tat at St. Louis," as one Missourian referred to the Camp Jackson affair, was perhaps the single most catalytic event in the state's history. Termed by one contemporary "the greatest military blunder of the Civil War"—phraseology that historians have echoed since—the action galvanized Missouri's countryside, turning thousands of residents who had recently given support to the federal government into strong southern rights advocates. By representing that government as a coercive power, the military junto in St. Louis now caused shoestring Unionists to regard them—and not the Confederates—as warmongers. "Frank Blair is dictator," moaned one resident, "and if the slightest show of resistance is made we will be crushed out," while another predicted that "the rain of perfect teror [sic] has commenced." Even Unconditional Unionists now found their allegiance tested, if not ended, in the aftermath of Camp Jackson. Uriel Wright, a member of the convention that had voted so decisively against secession, declared emphatically: "If Unionism means such atrocious deeds as I have witnessed in St. Louis, I am no longer a Union man."

Within hours of the incident, news of the federal coup reached the state capital. The legislature was in special session, debating a military bill that Jackson had requested that would have given him unprecedented power to mobilize the state for war. Late in the afternoon, the governor himself rushed into the chamber, fresh from St. Louis, where he likely had witnessed the repercussions of the Camp Jackson fracas, and relayed the news to several confidants. Within fifteen minutes the legislature had passed Jackson's long-debated military bill and soon adjourned. Just after midnight, summoned by the alarming peals of church bells that Jackson had ordered rung, legislators met again in emergency session amid rumors that three regiments of federal troops were heading for Jefferson City. In wild haste, the armed and anxious state legislature passed another act declaring that "the City of St. Louis has been invaded by citizens of other states, and a part of the people of said city are in a state of rebellion against the laws of the state," and granting the governor sweeping military powers "to take such measures as in his judgment he may deem necessary or proper to repel such invasion or put down such rebellion." Anxious legislators—including the governor—sent their families from the state capital in anticipation of a federal advance. Within a week, the legislature had given Jackson authorization to take possession of the state's railroads and telegraph lines "whenever in his opinion the security and welfare of the State may require it" and requested that Jackson mobilize the state militia. Missouri careened toward another type of conflict: a war within a war.


Governor Jackson's gambit had worked, at least for the moment, for virtually all of the state's newspapers condemned the Camp Jackson capture. The governor quickly sought to capitalize on the emotion surrounding Missouri's apparent atavism. Within minutes of passage of the legislature's late-night defense act, Jackson dispatched squads from the newly reorganized state militia (now called, fittingly, the Missouri State Guard, and soon to number as many as two thousand, though poorly if at all armed) in Jefferson City to guard and if necessary to burn the railroad bridges spanning the Gasconade and Osage Rivers. He ordered the state's powder stores dispersed around the countryside to militia commanders throughout the state, removed the state's treasury funds, and appointed Sterling Price—a former Mexican War general and governor who had recently chaired the secession convention but who now, in the aftershock of Camp Jackson, had cast his lot with the governor—as commander of the State Guard. Called "Old Pap" by the militia, Price was enormously popular in the state, and his appointment offered legitimacy—both from his martial experience and his moderate politics—to both the Guard and the governor's effort to mobilize the state.



As extremists inflamed the state, moderates attempted to bring order to the onrushing chaos. State Guard commander Sterling Price traveled to St. Louis to meet with the conservative commander of the federal Department of the West, General William S. Harney, who had returned to the city in the aftermath of Camp Jackson and was horrified at the results of Lyon's rash act. A Tennessean, Harney was well-regarded in the army as a Plains Indian fighter whose long career and unquestioned loyalty could effect peace in the volatile state. On May 21, Price worked out an agreement with Harney that maintained the fragile balance between state and federal authorities in the state. So long as the state government kept order in Missouri, federal troops would not intervene militarily in its affairs and then only in cooperation with the state troops. "The united forces of both governments," read the proclamation, "are pledged to the maintenance of the peace of the State, and the defense of the rights and the property of all persons without distinction of party." Harney in effect, had pledged the federal government's own neutrality in Missouri.


The Missouri State Guard, victorious at Wilson's Creek, was the militia guaranteed to Missourians under the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Created by the Missouri legislature on May 11, 1861, the Guardsmen swore allegiance to their state and were authorized to carry only the Missouri flag. Their commander, Major General Sterling Price, initially pledged to defend the state against all incursions, whether from the North or the South. Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson hoped to use the State Guard as the nucleus of a Confederate army in Missouri, and most of the State Guard's officers and many of its men favored secession. Historian E. B. Long expressed it best: "Nothing was clear cut — it was simply Missouri." The Missouri State Guard was born amid controversy. It existed as a separate entity of significant size for only a brief time, as almost all of its members voluntarily transferred to the Confederate army during the fall of 1861, after the Confederate Congress voted to admit Missouri to the southern nation. Thousands refused Confederate service, however, either from a desire to end their military careers or because they had never considered themselves as fighting for anything but their home state. During the first months of the war the State Guard was a major strategic factor in the Trans-Mississippi theater. From its ranks came several soldiers who rose to prominence, such as Sterling Price, Jo Shelby, and John S. Marmaduke.

An appreciation of the Missouri State Guard must begin with the complex events that brought it into being. When the Civil War broke out following the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861, Governor Jackson rejected President Abraham Lincoln's call for state militia to put down the "rebellion." Instead, early in May 1861, he called units of the pro-secessionist Volunteer Militia of Missouri into camp at St. Louis, thereby potentially threatening the St. Louis Arsenal, the largest repository of weapons west of the Mississippi River. The commander of the arsenal, Captain Nathaniel Lyon, took no chances. On May 10 he marched out with a small party of U.S. Army Regulars and a large number of volunteers. They captured the Volunteer Militia without a fight, but while the prisoners were being marched back through the streets of St. Louis a riot erupted in which more than two dozen civilians were killed. The Volunteer Militia were eventually paroled.


Lyon's actions brought the Missouri State Guard into being. Despite its prosecessionist leanings, the Missouri Volunteer Militia had violated neither state nor federal law, while Lyon's volunteers had been raised and armed illegally. The federal commander seemed bent on making war against a state that had not left the Union. In response, the Missouri legislature passed laws reorganizing the county-based militia guaranteed to the state by the Bill of Rights, giving it the name Missouri State Guard.

The structure and organization of the new State Guard itself was for the most part quite ordinary. The governor was its commander in chief. He was assisted by a personal staff and a Military Board, which was to draw up rules and regulations for the Guard and oversee its administration. In times of "insurrection, invasion, or war," the governor could appoint a major general to command all forces in the field. The state was divided by counties into nine districts, and the troops therein were assigned to a correspondingly numbered division. Thus "First Division, Missouri State Guard," was a geographic, organizational term and did not denote the number of soldiers in the command. Each division was commanded by a brigadier general, initially appointed by the governor. These officers were charged with enrolling the local citizens and organizing them into military units. After a minimum of twenty-four companies were organized, the soldiers therein were to elect a brigadier general, who would replace the governor's appointee and serve for good behavior. Each division was to maintain infantry, cavalry, and artillery, raised at the company level and organized first into battalions and then into regiments. While the types of arms were to be separate on paper, the regulations allowed them to be combined for expediency under the most senior officer present. Thus while on actual service a single battalion of the State Guard might contain not only foot soldiers but also mounted men and attached artillery. It was a highly flexible, community-based structure, following the American militia tradition, which dated to colonial times.

All physically fit free white male residents between the ages of eighteen and forty-five were subject to duty in the State Guard. Enlistees served for seven years, during which time they could be called up for both annual training and emergency service. If field service exceeded six months, the commander in chief was to apportion troops so all nine divisions contributed. Volunteers were desired, but division commanders had the power to institute a draft. Persons drafted could escape service by paying a commutation of $150. Interestingly, volunteers under the age of twenty-one needed written permission from a parent or guardian to enlist but could be drafted without their consent.

With peak strength of about twenty-five thousand men scattered across the state, the Missouri State Guard forced the Federals to concentrate more than sixty thousand men in Missouri from May through November.

Following the Battie of Wilson's Creek and the siege of Lexington, Missouri, the Confederate Congress voted to admit Missouri and Sterling Price began transferring his men to Confederate service. This marked the end of the most important phase of the State Guard's existence. For a period of over twenty-nine weeks these American citizens in Missouri had opposed the power of the federal government. With peak strength of about twenty-five thousand men scattered across the state, the Missouri State Guard forced the Federals to concentrate more than sixty thousand men in Missouri from May through November. Had those Union soldiers been available for service elsewhere, the first year of the war might have gone differently for the North.

Thousands of Missourians who had been members of the State Guard took part as Confederate soldiers in the various campaigns in Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama between 1862 and 1865. Price commanded Missouri Confederates at the Battle of Pea Ridge in March 1862 and the unsuccessful campaign to defend Little Rock in the summer of 1863. In September and October 1864 he led a raid across Missouri designed to disrupt federal operations and gain recruits. Only partially successful, it was the longest cavalry raid in American military history. Former State Guardsmen were also caught up in the guerrilla fighting that plagued much of the Trans-Mississippi region.

The Missouri State Guard contributed significantly to the leadership of the Confederate cause. Generals Daniel Frost, Martin Green, Mosby Parsons, Sterling Price, and William Slack obtained equal rank in the Confederate army. Other Guardsmen who eventually wore a general's star were John B. Clark, Jr., Francis Cockrell, Basil Duke, Henry Little, John S. Marmaduke, James Major, and Joseph O. Shelby.

by William Garrett Piston and Thomas P. Sweeney

The action cost the veteran general his command. Just a week after the Harney-Price agreement, Frank Blair managed to obtain orders from the War Department relieving Harney of command of the western department, which Lyon would assume in the interim. Radicals would now move federal authority in Missouri. The effects would be both immediate and catastrophic. Seeking to buy time with Lyon in charge, Jackson solicited a meeting with the federal commander, now a brigadier general of volunteers. On June 11, Lyon and Blair, accompanied by an aide, met with the state leaders in the governor's suite at the Planters' House, a sumptuous hotel in St. Louis, Unlike Price's interview with Harney, this meeting was anything but cordial. For the first half hour, Jackson and Price spoke conciliatively, proposing strict neutrality and offering such concessions as the disbanding of the State Guard and discontinuance of further militia musters in return for the same for the Home Guard now under federal arms. Quickly, Lyon came to dominate the meeting, refusing to concede any point on federal authority, rejecting the state leaders' calumet. After four heated hours, Lyon declared bluntly, "Better, sir, far better that the blood of every man woman and child within the limits of the State should flow, than that she should defy the federal government. This means war." Turning on his heels, Lyon strode briskly out of the room, leaving the remaining five men in stunned silence. The governor and militia commander hastened back to Jefferson City.


Neither Claib Jackson nor Sterling Price could have predicted Lyon's peremptory declaration of war. Yet clearly they understood its implications in the fullest sense. Hastening back to Jefferson City and ordering the destruction of the Gasconade River bridge and the cutting of the telegraph wires in the event Lyon would send troops, the governor prepared a proclamation for public release the following day. Now presented with the opportunity to bring to fruition his passive-aggressive strategy for Missouri's secession, Jackson used the proclamation to reiterate the theme that he was confident would sound most clearly among the state's residents: that the federal government was the aggressor bent on coercing peaceable Missouri. The governor called for fifty thousand militia volunteers "for the protection of the lives, liberty, and property of the citizens of this State. . . . Rise, then, and drive out ignominiously the invaders who have dared to desecrate the soil which your labors have made fruitful, and which is consecrated by your homes."

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