Volume V, No. 3, Spring 1978
In no place of the country was the war so devastating as in Missouri, particularly for the southern half. Though major histories of the Civil War make Missouri's part seem insignificant compared to the Battles of Bull Run, Vicksburg and Gettysburg and Sherman's march through Georgia, Missouri nevertheless played an important and unique part.
Like the border slave states of Kentucky and Maryland which did not secede, Missouri's loyalty to the Union was in question for its sympathies were divided. But unlike those slave states that were bordered only on the north by non-slave states, Missouri jutted up on three sides into Union, non-slave territory. Besides the psychological advantage to whichever side controlled it, there was a decided geographic advantage to dominating Missouri. Situated on the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, Missouri's control was important to the economic and military strategy. The union's eventual control of the entire Mississippi Valley was one factor which defeated the South. Missouri was thus an important key to union success.
The sympathies of the people were strongly mixed. The Missouri governor and legislature were pro-Confederate. The slaveholders on the western prairie, Missouri and Mississippi River Valleys and in the boot heel region were also pro-Confederate. Settlers in the Ozarks were predominantly from eastern slave states and remained loyal to their heritage. The pro-Union contingent was established in German settlements near St. Louis and in spots along the Mississippi River. Between the remainder, strong-willed, lukewarm and nonexistent feelings existed toward slavery and freedom.
Missouri was so truly divided in sentiments that it was the only state which required a battle to decide its stand. It was the only state with a government in exile during the war, and the only union state where the animosity continued in the form of guerrilla warfare activities for many years after the end of the Civil War. Though it had only a few battles of national significance, more small battles, encounters, clashes, skirmishes and incidents took place in Missouri than any other state except Virginia.
Though events long before the outbreak of the war influenced Missouri's action, it was the Battle of Wilson Creek which in the long run paved the way for Missouri remaining union. Though the immediate result at the time seemed to be a decided Southern victory, this was another of the anomalies of Missouri's part in the War Between the States. In Missouri it began as a war within the state.
THE BATTLE OF WILSON CREEK
Predawn, August 10, 1861, ten miles southwest of Springfield on the banks of Wilson Creek the second major battle of the civil War and the largest battle west of the Mississippi River was about to take place. 7,000 Union troops moved toward the three Confederate campsites, hoping for a surprise attack. Intercepting the northernmost of the three camps, Union General Nathaniel Lyon opened fire at five-thirty. Colonel Franz Sigel, with 900 men and six cannons, fired upon the southernmost Confederate camp after hearing the reports of Lyon's engagement. Both Confederate camps were thrown into confusion and retreated toward the middle camp. Here they quickly reformed and under the command of General Sterling Price, struck back against Lyon's main body. 10,000 troops were soon engaged in battle, neither side gaining ground.
After Sigel's initial attack he moved toward the back of the Confederate army. By seven o'clock his position covered the only road south. He hoped to capture any Confederate troops retreating from the battlefield. Near eight o'clock Confederate General Benjamin McCulloch led an assault against Sigel. The Confederates had uniforms which resembled Lyon's troops. Believing that they might be Union, Sigel allowed them to approach within twenty yards. The Confederates opened fire and crushed Sigel's forces.
On the main front neither side had moved yet. At nine-thirty Lyon, rallying his men, began a charge. Lyon was killed in a hail of fire. Major Samuel Sturgis took command and regrouped the Union line. The Confederates then launched an attack, lasting from ten to eleven o'clock. When the Confederates fell back, Sturgis ordered the retreat to Springfield. Beginning another charge, the Confederates discovered no resistance. The Battle of Wilson Creek was over.
With this battle the Confederates opened the way to sweep Missouri and ensure its place in the Confederacy. However, the Confederate Army also suffered heavy losses and decided against pursuit. This decision proved to be a fatal mistake, for never again would the Union Army be at a disadvantage in Missouri.
Several other actions occurred as a direct result of the battle. Each state militia had its own uniforms. Some of the union Army had gray and some Confederates had blue. The confusion caused by similar uniforms which led to Sigel's loss was repeated many times on the battlefield. After Wilson Creek, the Union Army established blue and the Confederate Army chose gray as their official uniform colors.
High-ranking American officers had always led their men into battle as they did at Wilson Creek. But after this battle and the deaths of so many officers, the Union Army forbade high-ranking officers from leading soldiers into battle. Lyon's death left a vacancy in the Union command west of the Mississippi which was filled by Ulysses S. Grant, then an obscure colonel in Illinois. Grant's success in the west and his eventual victory is well known.
Union control of Missouri meant an unobstructed control of the upper Mississippi and a route to drive through the south. Even though the battle was lost by the Union, the Confederates lost the chance of seizing Missouri. Later, at Pea Ridge, the Confederate Army would suffer the defeat which heralded Union domination of Missouri and northern Arkansas.
These two battles settled early in the war the question of Missouri's loyalty to the Union. But there were many other battles, compromises, political manipulations and strategy which preceded these battles, all part of the nationwide turmoil over the unsettled argument of slavery.
MISSOURI: A SOUTHERN STATE
The argument over slavery had its roots in the beginning of the nation. Missouri and Arkansas were drawn into the question in 1803 with the Louisiana Purchase, which was the sale to the United States by France of the midwest continent.
The territory of Missouri was created in 1804 and in 1820 Missouri petitioned to become a state. Then the trouble began.
The northern and southern states were each vying for as many free or slave states, respectively, as possible, since the U. S. Congress decided on statehood admission, neither side would allow the other to gain an advantage, and thus a single proposed state, either slave or free, would never receive approval. After several months of argument and debate on admitting Missouri, Congress agreed on the Missouri Compromise. By this agreement, Missouri became a slave state and Maine a free state. In addition, no further slave states could be organized above parallel 36 degrees 30 minutes--the southern border of Missouri. Arkansas was admitted as a slave state under this same plan in 1839, with Michigan as the free counterpart. Other states were also admitted to the Union by the Missori Compromise.
In 1854, Illinois senator Stephen A. Douglas proposed the Kansas-Nebraska act, which created two territories out of the Indian lands. In order to gain support of the southern senators, he planned both territories be open to slavery. But when petitioning for statehood, each state then could choose by popular vote either free or slave status. Ideally, Nebraska would follow its free-state neighbor Iowa and Kansas would become slave like its neighbor Missouri. This act ignored the Missouri Compromise.
Nebraska was settled by anti-slavery people without difficulty. However, both pro- and anti-slavery residents moved into Kansas, recruited by outside interests. In the first election in 1858, 5,000 armed Missourians raided Kansas and established a pro-slavery legislature. After a pro-slavery sheriff was killed in predominantly anti-slavery Lawrence, 800 Southerners attacked the town. During the next three months, a small war raged on the Kansas-Missouri border, earning Kansas the name of "Bloody Kansas." Violence continued in Kansas up to and through the Civil War. In 1861, Kansas became a free state.
Throughout Missouri and Arkansas the majority of sentiments ran high in favor of slavery. Even though the Ozarks was too poor for many slaves, the .feelings for the South and slavery were as fierce as those in the prime farming regions.
Of course, many exceptions existed on moral grounds, but those against slavery were generally the minority. The base of anti-slavery was seated in St. Louis, where long established money depended on the states in the North. And it was there in St. Louis the argument would explode.
On the national level, politics were approaching the breaking point. Angered by trade tariffs, incessant preaching from northern abolitionists and underground activities freeing slaves, the southern states threatened secession and the formation of a Confederate States of America. After Lincoln's election in November, 1860, they made good their threat. On December 20, South Carolina seceded, followed by ten other slave states between December 1860 and June 1861. Missouri and Kentucky were expected to follow. Officially, neither did.
THE STRUGGLE FOR CONTROL
In the 1860 Missouri state elections, Claiborne F. Jackson, a staunch proslavery supporter, was elected Governor. The senate and half the house were also pro-slavery. The remainder of the house contained committed anti-slavery and not-too-sure-either-way representatives.
After the inaugural of Jackson on January 3, 1861 the question of secession was tackled. Jackson pushed for secession, arguing that Missouri should follow the other slave states. The state Senate agreed, but the House was unable to agree. According to the Pro-Union side, Missouri would be committing suicide because three free states bordered the state. Finally, the legislature chose to call a state convention of elected citizens to decide the issue of secession.
Francis P. Blair, Jr. was the leader of the pro-Union side. Backed by northern interestsand the long-established Union supporters in St. Louis, he managed to prevent any avowed secessionists from being elected to the convention. On February 28, 1861, the convention met at Jefferson City with Sterling Price elected president. After preliminary work, the convention moved to St. Louis and began serious business March 4. After several days' work, the convention voted against secession.
Two political factions now existed in Missouri. Those for secession, which included the state government offices (except half of the house) led by Governor Jackson. The other was pro-Union, led by Blair and supplied by other pro-Union interests, mainly St. Louis, Kansas and Illinois. Since Blair realized that a fight was eminent, he began organizing his own private army, consisting of about 750 men, called the Home Guard. Arms were supplied by the governor of Illinois and money through pro-Union supporters in St. Louis. At this same time, a private pro-secession army was organized in St. Louis numbering some 300 men. They joined with General Daniel M. Frost of the Missouri State Militia, commanding 280 men who had been earlier assigned in southwest Missouri controlling border ruffians.
During all the time after Jackson's inaugural, the Missouri legislature had been unable to pass a bill for the formation of any state militia besides General Frost's small brigade. Indeed, the legislature had been unable to do hardly anything but debate. With the formation and continual growth of Blair's army, action was crucially needed.
In Missouri two Federal arsenals existed--at Liberty and St. Louis. The arsenal at Liberty had about 500 arms, while St. Louis contained 60,000 firearms, many cannons and other necessary munitions of war. Blair badly needed the St. Louis arsenal, at first guarded by a small garrison of Federal troops. Through political influence (his brother was on Lincoln's cabinet) he managed to have the arsenal placed under the command of Captain Nathaniel Lyon who was agreeable to Blair's pro-Union aims and Purposes. Lyon immediately placed the arsenal and his at this time 500 Federal guards in a state of defense, expecting the pro-Confederate state militia to attempt to gain control. Lyon received authority from the War Department to distribute 5,000 rifles to Blair's Home Guard. He also began recruiting more men, soon commanding over 7,000 Union troops--the Home Guard and army regulars.
While Lyon was gaining strength, so were the secessionists. Another private group of pro-slavery men seized the Liberty arsenal. General Frost was preparing to take the St. Louis arsenal, but had not received the authority from the Missouri legislature to do so. Frost organized Camp Jackson outside St. Louis with 700 men. Governor Jackson received from the Confederate command two 12-pound howitzers and two 32-pound seige guns which were set up to defend Camp Jackson against Lyon. On May 10 Lyon surrounded the camp and ordered its surrender. Frost, hopelessly outnumbered, complied. As the prisoners were led to St. Louis, a crowd of pro-secession citizens made fun of the Home Guard soldiers. The soldiers fired on the crowd, killing twenty-eight.
A third party of conservative citizens existed, wishing for peace at any cost. They arranged a meeting between General William S. Harney, Union commander of St. Louis and the now General Sterling Price. On May 21 they met in St. Louis. Harney promised if the State Guard would disband, Union soldiers would take no military action. Consequently, when Price returned to Jefferson City, he ordered all troops to return home and form into regiments. With this action the State Guard was disbanded.
This agreement ruined the plans of Blair and Lyon. They attempted---and succeeded--in having Harney removed as commander and made Lyon brigadier general. On May 31 Lyon took command. Blair and Lyon outlined their battle plan made earlier after the capture of Camp Jackson to rid the state of Confederate forces. They planned to strike and hold Jefferson city, Lexington, St. Joseph, Hannibal, Macon, Springfield and other points if advisable. By this time LYon had 10,000 well-armed men in Missouri, with 2,000 in Kansas, five regiments in Iowa, and other troops in Illinois all ready to join him. The pro-Confederate State Guard, now recalled, numbered less than 1,000 troops, poorly armed and without supplies. Outnumbered, the State Guard nevertheless prepared to clash for what they believed was right.
But not just yet. Once again, peaceful conservatives arranged a meeting between Home Guard and State Guard. In St. Louis, Governor Jackson and General Price met General Lyon and (the now) Colonel Blair. After five hours of fruitless talk, Lyon declared war on the State Guard. Lyon then allowed the Governor and Price to leave the conference.
MILITARY ACTION IN MISSOURI
When Governor Jackson returned to Jefferson City he called the militia to arms. He then gathered all state documents and left for Boonville where General Price believed he could hold the Home Guard until reinforcements arrived. His plan was to make a stand at Lexington. On the way to Boonville he burned bridges, destroyed railways and cut telegraph lines to impede the Home Guard advance.
In the midst of fighting during the Battle of Wilson Creek. Taken from FRANK LESLIE'S ILLUSTRATED NEWSPAPER, August 24, 1861. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.
Lyon meanwhile reached Jefferson City on June 15, meeting no resistance. Leaving a force to hold the city, he proceeded to Boonville with 17,000 men. But Price, fearing an attack from Kansas, had gone on to Lexington leaving Colonel John S. Marmaduke in command of about 400 Home Guard soldiers at Boonville. On June 17 Marmaduke met Lyon outside of Boonville and stopped Lyon's advance. However, when Lyon learned that Marmaduke was without artillery he withdrew and shelled Marmaduke's forces. Marmaduke retreated to Boonville after two hours of fighting. Though just a skirmish with only twenty-five casualties on each side, Lyon regarded it as a great victory. The defeat was most depressing to the State Guard.
General Price at Lexington, threatened by Lyon from Boonville and 3,000 other troops from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, left with a small party for Arkansas to seek aid. He left General Rains in command at Lexington with orders to march toward Lamar.
Meanwhile Governor Jackson was in Warsaw. He learned that a party of 300 Home Guards, under orders to capture the Governor's party, were struck by a force of 350 State Guards twenty miles away.
The State Guards, raised locally, killed 200 and captured the remainder. With this victory came 400 new muskets and ammunition, at a loss of only 30 State Guard soldiers. The defeat also scared off a patrol sent from Boonville under Lyon's orders.
Governor Jackson left Warsaw toward Lamar. Enroute he joined with other State Guard regiments. Heading south toward Carthage he learned that under Lyon's orders Union General Sigel had left
St. Louis for Springfield with 4,000 men. Originally intending to strike against Price (now in Arkansas recruiting help), Sigel decided to strike Jackson instead. Five miles south of Lamar, Jackson, with 3,000 men, encountered Sigel on July 5. After several hours of fighting, Sigel, defeated, retreated to Springfield.
As Price was journeying toward Arkansas, he was joined by men in squads and companies. He stopped in the southwest corner of Missouri, where he learned that Confederate Generals Benjamin McCulloch and N. Bart Pearce were marching toward him. On July 4 McCulloch and Pearce agreed to help Price. Pearce loaned Price 650 muskets to help arm the soldiers now accompanying him. Price, McCulloch and Pearce each of the three leading a separate command headed toward Springfield on July 31.
On July 22, 1861, the state convention met and declared the state offices of governor, lieutenant governor and secretary of state vacated. Thomas Reynolds, a pro-Union man, replaced Jackson as governor.
Lyon meanwhile had reached Springfield around July 27 after delaying two weeks in Lexington. Learning of the approaching army, he asked for reinforcements but never received any. Rather than retreating to Rolla he decided to make a stand. Rolla lay 125 miles northeast over a poor road. Pulling out would probably mean an attack by Confederate cavalry on his rear and would also mean giving up all of southern Missouri. Under his command now were 7,000 to 8,000 men, well equipped and ready for battle. The possibility of defeat seemed better than turning back. He hoped to weaken the Confederate forces enough to keep Missouri in the Union.
The Confederate forces under Price, McCulloch and Pearce had arrived in the vicinity of Springfield and each army was maneuvering into the best position for battle. Price and McCulloch were arguing over command of the Confederate Army of 10,000. Price wanted to attack but McCulloch wished to wait. However, McCulloch agreed to attack if he received command of the army. Price agreed, reserving command of the Missourians if he chose. The Confederates advanced to Wilson Creek and camped three days. On the night of August 9 McCulloch made preparation to advance to Springfield at nine o'clock. However a sudden rain thwarted this plan. McCulloch feared the rain would dampen the gunpowder and leave his army defenseless.
The next day was the Battle of Wilson Creek already described. The Union army left Springfield on the afternoon of the ninth. Lyon had about 6,500 men for the main attack, while Sigel had 900 for an attack on their back. Well before dawn of the tenth the Union Army was in position north and south of the Confederate Army camped at Wilson Creek.
First winning by surprise, the greater numbers of the Confederates took a heavy toll of Union soldiers. After Sigel's defeat and Lyon's death, the Union Army left the field to the Confederates. General McCulloch was satisfied With the day's victory and refused to pursue the Union Army. Price, wanting to push the Union Army back to St. Louis, lacked the manpower to do so. McCulloch, Pearce and Price returned to Arkansas where Price began rebuilding his army for another assault.
In St. Louis the Union command declared Missouri under martial law. In less than a month Price marched north into Missouri with 4,500 men. At Drywood, west of Nevada and fifteen miles east of Fort Scott, Kansas, Price met several thousand Kansas troops under the co, and of General James H. Lane. Defeating the Kansas battalion at the Battle of Drywood, he moved toward Lexington where the Union forces were barricaded, well protected for a long seige. The battle for Lexington began. From the 12th through the 20th of September scattered fighting and sniping took place with neither side gaining an advantage. On the morning of the 20th Price took several bales of hemp from the wharf and had them soaked in the river to prevent their burning. Next, the bales were rolled toward the Union position with Confederate riflemen hiding behind. With the Confederates now in position for a massive offense, the Union army surrendered at two o'clock that afternoon.
The surrender at Lexington supplied Price with badly needed arms, but even these were not enough. Price had the only large Confederate army in central Missouri and was outnumbered by Union forces.
Price left Lexington on September 27 for Neosho. At Neosho the exiled Governor and legislature had met and on October 28 passed an act of secession. Price left for Osceola and arrived the first of December. There he ordered the State Guard to become part of the Confederate Army and also began recruiting for the confederacy. For over a month Price stayed in Osceola, unable to make any offensive for lack of men. After asking but not receiving aid from McCulloch in Arkansas, Price moved to Springfield.
On February 1, 1862 Price learned of a three-pronged attack aimed at him from Sedalia, Rolla and Fort Scott, Kansas. Ill equipped for a major battle, Price went to Arkansas reaching General McCulloch's winter encampment February 17. The army of both totaled 17,000 men.
Union Generals Sigel and Curtis now occupied Arkansas with a total of 18,000 men. Sigel had several hundred at Fayetteville with the remainder under Curtis near Bentonville (north of Fayetteville). While Sigel was enroute to Bentonville to join Curtis, Van Dorn's Confederate forces left early March 4 hoping to cut off Sigel before he reached Bentonville. They were too late. As the Confederates approached Bentonville that afternoon Sigel was already occupying the town. He repulsed two Confederate cavalry charges before moving on and joining Curtis.
During the night of March 4 and the early morning of March 5 Confederate commandeer Van Dorn ordered Price to move his command to the rear (north) of the Union position. From ten o'clock on the Battle of Pea Ridge raged. About three o'clock Price ordered an advance pushing the Union forces back nearly two miles.
McCulloch commanded the attack from the southern side. When he first heard the report of Price's guns, he charged driving the Union forces from their first position. His second charge was also successful. On the third charge, McCulloch and another senior officer were killed. The next ranking officer failed to rally and charge again because the ammunition supply had been moved fifteen miles south for safekeeping. On the morning of the 6th Sigel prepared to attack Price. Van Dorn decided to retreat because of the condition of affairs. Price checked Sigel's attack for two hours, then swung south to join Van Dorn. The Confederate forces then retreated to Van Buren, Arkansas. Sigel and Curtis had sustained heavy losses (as did the Confederates) and departed Pea Ridge for Missouri, fearing to pursue the Confederates deeper into Arkansas. In April, the pro-Confederate Missouri troops under Price left with Van Dorn for Mississippi.
MISSOURI UNDER UNION CONTROL
After the Battle of Pea Ridge the Union army had control of Missouri and northern Arkansas. Missouri never seceded and Governor Jackson and his followers set up a government in exile in Texas. During the remaining three years, a few large battles and numerous skirmishes occurred, without affecting the overall scope. Confederate soldiers were constantly recruited throughout Missouri and Arkansas and engaged Union troops all over the two states. Federal garrisons were stationed in most towns to maintain control. Raids by Confederate armies cut off communications and supplies between garrisons, but the raids rarely resulted in a maintained control. The Confederacy lacked supplies and men to take and keep Missouri. After the Battle of Pea Ridge, the Confederacy never achieved rule over Missouri and northern Arkansas.
Regardless, the war continued. And while the men fought and died on the battlefields in Missouri and elsewhere, the women and children remained home, existing as best they could. Every male between sixteen and sixty had to fight--by choice or conscription. This left the women, young children and older people alone to make a living. Staying alive on farms was difficult and made worse by military confiscation of horses, food and clothing. A poor fate was made worse by the constant fear of seizure.
No one could remain neutral, for both sides considered neutrals as enemies. However, aiding one side meant possible death if the occupying army changed. For men who decided against joining the army, few options were left open. To remain home meant hiding whenever an army was nearby. Capture resulted in forced joining or being shot as a spy. Some decided to make war on their own, or as a private army with other cohorts. Still others realized the war was a perfect opportunity to embark on crime, in the guise of one army or another, but preying upon everyone.
Bill Wilson was one example of a bushwhacker who embarked on his own. His father was killed by Union troops moving through the area near Waynesville, Missouri. After this, Wilson roamed the wilds, cheerfully gunning down small Union patrols in revenge. The Union command at Rolla placed a price on his head, but he was never captured and lived in freedom long after the war.
William Clarke Quantrill's band of Missouri-Kansas border raiders is perhaps best known. Quantrill was leader of a band of Southern sympathizers who were not beyond helping themselves to whatever was available. Union held Lawrence, Kansas, was the site of their prey in August 1863. Lawrence was a base for sporadic raids into the border counties of Missouri, where the sympathy lay with the South.
On August 21, Quantrill with 450 raiders attacked Lawrence, killing every male in sight and burning the town. The Federal command immediately branded Quantrill an outlaw and not a soldier at war. Four days later, the district Union commander at Kansas City, General Thomas Ewing, issued Order Number Eleven. This order forced all citizens in the Missouri counties of Cass, Bates, Jackson and Vernon to move to the interior of the state unless they proved Union loyalty, which few could do. The order was aimed at preventing Southern sympathizers from aiding the border raiders. The order was not successful in stopping the raiders, and only resulted in hatred towards the already despised Union control forces. When the citizens returned after the war, they found only the burnt remains of their homes and towns.
Many other robber bands roamed the region, stealing and killing when possible, running when necessary. The Confederate and Union units attacked these bands when possible, but the majority survived. These bands thrived because the war left little or no honest men available in defense of homes and towns. Even after the war they continued to exist until law could be re-established.
After four years of warfare the Confederate Army surrendered in April 1865. News of the surrender was expected and welcome to most soldiers and citizens. Those soldiers that survived returned home if home still existed. For some, life continued almost as before the war. Others, having lost friends and family, had to rebuild their shattered lives or move westward for a fresh start.
For those that stayed in Missouri the war had generally upset everything. Lawlessness was rampant in many places of the Ozarks. Robber bands continued, joined by soldiers without a future or those who refused to accept the defeat of the South. As late as the 1880's bushwhackers were still prevalent in many southern counties. Forsyth, Missouri, in Taney County, was one place where crime was unchecked and sorely hurting the residents. To combat crime, in 1885 an ex-Union officer named Nat. N. Kinney sought out his trusted friends and formed a vigilante group called the Baldknobbers. They proceeded to hang criminals and suspected criminals in the county. Several other groups, similar to the Baldknobbers, sprang up in nearby counties. Because the group was secretive and not always too choosy with its victims, county residents became fearful of the Baldknobbers. Eventually, the Baldknobbers were considered criminals themselves. No doubt several groups were organized with crime, rather than justice, in mind and used the Bald-knobbers' name as a disguise. As populations increased and towns grew, the hunting grounds of robber bands decreased and as elected officials increased in power and scope, the last of the bands died away.
For nearly a century the causes and effects of the Civil War had wrought their imprints upon Missouri. The absolute finality of war through death and irreversible changes of those living became part of what was and is. An era had ended and another began.
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