Vol. IV, No. 4, Spring 1991 / Vol. V, No. 1, Summer 1991

Yankee Avenger

Gen. Nathaniel Lyon, Union Commander at the Battle of Wilson's Creek

by Hugh Crumpler

Brig. Gen. Nathaniel Lyon, commander of the Union Army at the Battle of Wilson's Creek, Missouri, in 1861, was a fiery, red-bearded West Pointer with a social predilection for lecturing both friend and foe and a battlefield reputation for equating victory with revenge.

The little New Englander was a cock-of-the-walk soldier, and a curious combination of glory-hunting Indian fighter and money-seeking land speculator. He was also self-appointed philosopher and proselyter to a weirdly curious pseudo-religion that he called "mesmerism" or "animal magnetism."

But it was not his personal eccentricities, numerous as they were, that carried Lyon into the archives of Civil War history. It was his leadership at the Battle of Wilson's Creek. Even though he was outnumbered four-to-one, Lyon fought the Confederate forces to a standstill for much of that bloody day of August 10, 1861. Four times Lyon's Union army forced the Southerners to retreat. After eight hours of continuous fighting, however, the Union army withdrew under command of Lyon's battlefield successor, Major Samuel Sturgis. The new commander had reluctantly decided that his army, short of ammunition and exhausted by the battle, could not withstand another Confederate charge.

Northern newspapers, taking an optimistic attitude toward Lyon's Missouri campaign that had culminated in the Battle of Wilson's Creek, called him "the Savior of Missouri." It was a Missouri embittered by partisan rancor and bloodied by guerrilla warfare. Missourians who remembered an earlier Lyon threat to shed the blood of every Missourian if necessary, found it hard to accept him as their savior. It was a long and controversial career that ended with Lyon's death at Wilson's Creek.

He was born on July 14, 1819, at Ashton, in the rocky hills of Connecticut. Following his graduation from West Point in 1841, Lyon was appointed lieutenant of infantry, and served in Florida in the closing days of the Seminole War. During the Mexican War, Lyon was wounded by a spent musket ball as he led his men into Mexico City. He was rewarded for valor with the rank of brevet captain.

Lyon was posted to California in 1848 with 2nd U.S. Infantry. In San Diego, he bought a lot in New Town and erected a house there. His total investment was $500. After he was transferred from California, he rented the house to other army officers. Lyon's real estate sideline was so successful that at the time of his death he owned a thousand acres of land in six states and Mexico.

His San Diego venture into housing was based on more than mere covetousness. He liked the country and the climate so much that he planned to retire in San Diego, even though his opinions of the people were ambivalent.

For example, he described Mexicans as "debased savages," but said he "might be susceptible to the delicate affections of the heart" which struck him when in the society of San Diego ladies "of Castillian origin." Those susceptibilities were never put to the full test, apparently, for Lyon--described by a Missouri belle as "very ugly"--died a bachelor.

He had earned the reputation of being a brave and fearless officer, but his fellow officers remembered him best for his hard-headed opinions, his monopoly of conversations, his snap decisions, and his harsh treatment of enlisted men.

His favorite punishment for offending soldiers was "buck and gag," in which a soldier was spread-eagled, tied against a wagon or caisson wheel, and gagged with a neckerchief. It was a common disciplinary practice on the frontiers.

Lyon refined the "buck and gag" discipline to suit his own idea of punishment. Soldiers who sufficiently aroused his wrath were gagged with a stick --replacement for neckerchief---used like the bit in a bridle. He once slapped a soldier across the face with the flat of his saber. Lyon's disciplinary methods caused him to be brought up on charges at least twice. He escaped severe punishment, although he was once suspended without pay for a few months.

Despite his reputation as a cruel disciplinarian, Captain Lyon was known as an officer who got things done. It was this reputation that led Gen. Ben-net Riley, territorial governor of California, to send Lyon to San Diego with a detachment of D Company,2nd U.S. Infantry. Lyon was designated as construction quartermaster to build the army's new San Diego Barracks.


Waiting for construction materials to arrive, Lyon used the slack time to reconnoiter the San Diego back country. His explorations led to discovery of the 3,738-foot peak that now bears his name, Lyons Peak, and to the discovery of one of Southern California's treasury of small, watered valleys. It is called Lyons Valley. The Lyons Peak/Valley region today is bisected by roads and streets.

In San Diego, delays continued in arrival of building material. Lyon was called to Benicia Barracks, the army post on San Pablo Bay near San Francisco. Always on the lookout for a good land buy, Lyon purchased 10 Benicia lots at $150 each.

At Benicia, General Bennet Riley named Lyon to command a mission that fit in well with Lyon's perception of himself. He was named in 1849 to command an army detachment to pursue and punish the Pit River Indians for ambushing and killing Capt. William H. Warner of the Topographical Engineers, and the Clearwater Lake Indians for murdering two white settlers. Lyon considered to be "God's instrument'' when it came to punishment.

Which God? was a question worth asking, for Lyon was fiercely prejudiced against Catholicism and argumentatively opposed to Protestantism and the Jewish faith. He followed, or invented, a philosophy he called "mesmerism" or "animal magnetism," a set of beliefs that only he understood--but not well enough to explain. It was clear to him, though, that his gift of "mesmerism" gave him the power and authority to inflict punishment and revenge on others.

Lyon marched his dragoons first to Clear Lake. The punishment delivered on the Indians was bloody enough, perhaps, to satisfy even his lust for revenge. Lyon's men used musket, saber and bayonet to massacre between 200 and 400 Indians. The blood of warriors, old men, women, and children turned the lake into a scarlet stain around the tule beds where the Indians had fled in a futile attempt to escape the merciless wrath of Brevet Captain Lyon.

Lyon next marched his men to the Russian River, where about a hundred Pit River Indians were hiding. His men pursued the Indians and cornered and surrounded them on an island. Lyon ordered the punishment to begin. When the day's work ended, only a handful of the Indians had escaped the revenge of Captain Lyon. In the two campaigns, Lyon's casualties totaled two wounded dragoons. Lyon had commanded the killing of between 300 and 500 Indians. (Once outlawed, Indians were not considered of enough consequence as persons to deserve an exact count.)

Back in San Diego after the Indian campaigns, Lyon directed his energy into construction of the army's ambitious San Diego Barracks. Shortly after completion of the San Diego project, Lyon received orders that took him to the Western Frontier. Beginning in 1855, Lyon served at the harsh army posts of Nebraska and Kansas territories. It was a time of bitter guerrilla war along the Missouri-Kansas border.

Civilian bands, carrying the banners of Free-state or Slave-state politics, fought an undeclared civil war. Lawrence and other Kansas towns were burned and looted. Kansas, cockpit of the war and the nation's conscience, was turned into "bleeding Kansas." Partisan bands ruled the countryside. Old John Brown led his band of abolitionists. William Quantrill, figuratively carrying a pro-slavery banner, appeared to be more a heartless freebooter than a partisan warrior. Other, lesser-known, bands terrified the countryside with pillage and burning.

Captain Lyon sided fervently with free-state men. Fellow officers at Fort Riley, Kansas, in 1856, reported that when Lyon was launched into one of his anti-slavery tirades, he would "foam at the mouth like a mad dog." Soldiers have always been given to hyperbole. But the word "fanatic" was commonly used to characterize Lyon.

When he was transferred from Kansas in 1861, Lyon' s harsh discipline, his soaring ego, his blasphemous remarks on religions, and his incendiary antislavery tirades, were a legacy of their own. Lyon left behind in the Missouri-Kansas border country a trail of embittered soldiers, alienated fellow officers, apoplectic chaplains, and enraged slave-staters.

In February, 1861, Lyon received orders to move his infantry company to St. Louis. In St. Louis, center of a seething, potentially explosive quarrel between the free state and slave state factions, Lyon found his great opportunity. Almost at once, Lyon struck up a partnership with Francis Preston (Frank) Blair Jr., Chairman of the St. Louis Committee of Safety, leader of Missouri Republicans and an uncompromising free-state politician.

With Blair behind him, Lyon became the retributive voice of the Missouri free-staters. He accused Gen. William S. Hamey, commander of the Department of the West and Lyon's superior, of being a closet secessionist. Even Gen. Winfield Scott, comanding general of the army, did not escape Lyon's vituperation. When a Scott decision went against Lyon's wishes, he said the commander's "sordid" orders always favored "personal associates and toadies.'' Finally, he occupied the St. Louis arsenal and forced Camp Jackson, home base of the secessionist-minded militia, to surrender to him.

In those tumultuous days in St. Louis, Lyon showed Missourians that he was both tough and versatile. During a showdown with the secessionists, Lyon was kicked in the stomach by an aide's horse. The blow sent him reeling. He fell, doubled up, to the ground. In spite of excruciating pain, he got to his feet and continued to command his troops.

On another occasion, unhappy with the incomplete reports his spies brought from the secessionist camp, Lyon put on the dress and makeup of an old woman and toured the rebel camp in a buggy driven by a black servant.


With the arrival of civil war, Lyon and Blair acted fast. Blair saw to it that Lyon was named brigadier general of the Missouri Volunteers after Capt. William T. Sherman had declined the commission.

Missouri's Gov. Claiborne Jackson, a Southern sympathizer, agreed to meet Blair in St. Louis to discuss the direction of Missouri in the war. The secessionist-minded governor and his party traveled from the state capitol at Jefferson City under a Lyon safe-conduct pass. Actually, Jackson was stalling for time to arrange Missouri's secession. Jackson arrived at the meeting with Maj. Gen. Sterling Price, who had been appointed by Governor Jackson to command all Missouri forces, and who was one of Missouri's great heroes in the Mexican War.

By virtue of his rank, Lyon was leader of the federal delegation. He opened the meeting by announcing that Col. Frank Blair, would conduct the negotiations with Jackson and Price. (Blair was second in command of the Missouri Volunteers.)

Blair had uttered no more than a mouthful of introductory words when Lyon interrupted and took over the conference. When Claiborne Jackson perceived an opening in Lyon's harangue, he said Price's army would prevent Southern forces from entering Missouri provided Lyon agreed to certain conditions. The conditions included a pledge from Lyon that the Union would not recruit in Missouri, that Lyon would disarm home guard units, and that Lyon would freeze movement of federal troops where they stood.

Lyon exploded. He lectured the governor and Price on their constitutional, civic, and military responsibilities. He jumped from his seat and slammed on his hat to signify the meeting was about to end--as soon as he had had the last word.

"This means war," Lyon said. His red beard trembled in rage. "Rather than concede to the state of Missouri the right to demand that my government shall not enlist troops within her limits or bring troops of its own into Missouri...Rather than concede to Missouri 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."

Lyon's "last word" was enough to convince the governor and the general that they were dealing with a man angry enough to break his safe-conduct pledge. Lyon stood by his word, however, and his guard escorted the governor's party to their waiting special train, which took them back to Jefferson City under a full head of steam. Assuming the volcanic Lyon was in hot pursuit, they slowed down only to burn behind them the bridges over the Gasconade and Osage Rivers.

Once in Jefferson City, General Price convinced Governor Jackson that he did not have enough troops to hold the capitol city. Price and Jackson marched the state militia across the country toward the southwest corner of the state, where they expected to find help from Confederate forces across the state line in Arkansas. Price recruited Missourians into his little army as he marched.

Just as Price had expected, Lyon was almost immediately on the war path against the two "traitors" Jackson and Price. He commandeered four steamboats and sailed up the Missouri River, taking the river towns as he went. Jefferson City and Lexington fell to Lyon. It was a great strategic victory, for Lyon had secured the vital Missouri River, from Kansas City to St. Louis, for the Union. At that point, Lyon probably should have garrisoned the captured towns, sailed back to St. Louis and prepared for whatever campaigns were ahead.

Not Lyon. His mission was to punish the treacherous rebels who had insulted the Union at the St. Louis meeting. Even though he was almost out of supplies, short of men, and short of wagons, Lyon gave the order to pursue and punish the Missourians.

Meanwhile in St. Louis, two units left to join up with Lyon at Springfield, Missouri. One was commanded by Brig. Gen. Thomas L. "One-Arm" Sweeny, a redoubtable warrior and Indian fighter. The other was Capt. Franz Sigel, who led a unit of St. Louis German guardsmen. Sweeny and Sigel traveled on the Pacific Railroad to the end of the line at Rolla. From Rolla they marched 110 miles down the Old Wire Road to Springfield. (It was called the "Old Wire Road" because the telegraph lines between Rolla and the southwest ran beside the road.)

Nathaniel Lyon.
Photo courtesy Dr. Tom Sweeney.

After local engagements, in which Sigel lost one of his units at Neosho, Lyon's forces converged at Springfield. Price had convinced Confederate Gen. Ben McCulloch, an old Texas Ranger, to bring up a part of his army from Arkansas to join Price's recruit force. After some maneuvering, the two armies were in position for the Battle of Wilson's Creek, near Springfield.

In St. Louis, General Harney had been succeeded by Gen. John Charles Fremont, "the Pathfinder." On the day before the battle, Lyon received a message from Fremont to retreat to Rolla if he felt he was unable to hold Springfield. Lyon's intelligence told him that he was badly outnumbered. But Lyon was after revenge, not retreat.

One of the Union spies who advised Lyon of the Confederate strength at Wilson's Creek was a flamboyant agent named James Butler Hickock, a personal friend of John Phelps, the Springfield politician and Union supporter. Hickock had been employed as an Army scout and had been involved in the Missouri-Kansas border wars.

Until he rode into Missouri, Hickock had been known simply as "Bill" Hickock. Missourians tagged him with the name "Wild Bill" after he single-handedly faced down a gang of some fifteen drunken toughs who were bent on lynching an unfriendly bartender in Independence, Missouri.

Lyon listened to reports of his spies. They warned that he faced overwhelming, four-to-one odds. He called his ranking officers to a "council of war." They listened to intelligence reports and voted to retire to Rolla. Only Sweeny, the fighting Irishman who had lost an arm in the Mexican War, urged Lyon to attack the Confederate force.

Lyon's officers thought that they had won the debate and that Lyon was ready to order the retreat.

Lyon's quartermaster approached the general, saluted, and asked, "When do we start the march back to Rolla, General?"

Lyon replied, "When we are whipped back! Not until then!"

The Union army fought valiantly at Wilson's Creek, but was defeated by the Confederate forces of Gen. Ben McCulloch and Gen. Sterling "Pap" Price. It was a costly defeat for both sides. The Union lost 1,317 men, the Confederates 1,230, in the battle fought on August 10, 1861.

Lyon died at age 43 on the battlefield. A rifle ball fired at close range by a Missouri sharpshooter tore through his heart, leaving gaping entry and exit wounds. He was a single-minded soldier who chose to fight a losing battle rather than give up his crusade of punishment of revenge. The decision to do battle had been his alone.

The Union force retreated to Rolla. McCulloch's Confederates did not follow up on its victory. McCulloch had not wanted to cross into Missouri from the beginning, but he had been convinced to do so by Price. The two generals led their army back into Arkansas, which was safely in the Confederate column.

Lyon's body was iced down and returned on a private railway car to his home in Connecticut. Along the railway route, admiring throngs paid tribute to the "first hero of the Union" and "the man who saved Missouri for the Union."

Lyon, a bachelor whose "delicate affections of the heart" never led him into the arms of a lifetime companion, left all his property and all of his other worldly possessions to the United States of America.

Lyons Peak is a boulder-covered mountain in the rugged California country along the Mexican border. Its boulders and ledges stand strong and unyielding against the elements. It is a fitting monument to Gen. Nathaniel Lyon, a single-minded soldier who ordered a battle of revenge against great odds rather than call retreat before his enemies.

At Wilson's Creek, Lyon had been warned of the danger from Ozarks sharpshooters hiding behind the rugged boulders of the countryside.

"I do not fear them," he said. "I was born among the rocks."

Post Script

--Sweeny, a brevet major in the regular army, was elected brigadier general by the men he commanded. He was seriously wounded at Wilson's Creek, spend a year in convalescence, and then rejoined the Army. He was retired as a brigadier general after the war. He joined the Irish-American branch of the Fenian movement in 1866 and led an ill-fated military expedition against the government of Canada, a symbol of British oppression to the Fenians. He was the kind of Irishmen who--when faced with a world without wars--decided to start one up himself.

--When S weeny' s men reached Rolla, they were greeted by the sight of a Confederate flag flying in the breeze. Sweeny ran it down and ran up the stars and stripes.

--The book is yet to be written that will document the importance of Rolla in the Civil War. During the 1930s and early 1940s, the powder magazine at Fort Wyman in Rolla was still in use. It was built with stone-block walls that were five feet thick. The magazine was used as the winter home of the performing elephants of Russell Brothers Three-Ring Circus.

--At the time of the Civil War, the new, brick courthouse at Rolla was the architectural wonder of the Missouri Ozarks. Today, nearly 150 years later, Phelps County officials have precipitated howls of outrage from Rolla citizens by proposing to put the wrecking ball to the old courthouse and replace it with something modem.


--The country around Rolla, as in much of Southwest Missouri, was alive with Southern sympathizers. Many of them became members of small guerrilla gangs that harassed the Union supply line along the Old Wire Road.

--In the march to Wilson's Creek, Sweeny was forced to put down a rebellion by one company of the Third Regiment Reserve Corps (Missouri Home Guards). The mutiny took place at Lebanon. Sweeny disarmed and disbanded the company, and marched the rest of his men on to Springfield.


Christopher Phillip, Damned Yankee: A Life of General Nathaniel Lyon. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1990. Careful research and talented writing make this book a pleasure to read. It is the authoritative biography of Lyon. The book is a publication of the "Missouri Biography Series."

James Peckham, Gen. Nathaniel Lyon and Missouri in 1861. A Monograph of the Great Rebellion. New York: American News Company, 1866. Peckham was an officer of the 8th Infantry, Missouri Volunteers. He presents Lyon as a military saint.

Peckham's book is chiefly useful for its many texts of communiques, proclamations, letters, orders, and other written records. Included is the official Union Report of the Battle of Wilson's Creek, written at Rolla on August 20, 1861, by Major S.D. Sturgis. Peckham unabashedly takes sides in the many quarrels among the military and politicians. For example, his titles for Gen. John Charles Fremont include "His greatness" who "held forth in his marble palace in St. Louis." Claiborne Jackson is "The Traitor Governor.

Jay Monaghan, Civil War on the Western Border 1854-1865. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1955. An excellent study of the border wars and the western engagements of the Civil War that followed them.

Eugene Morrow Violette, History of Missouri. Cape Girardeau: Ramfre Press, reprint edition, 1951. One of several excellent Missouri histories that place the Battle of Wilson's Creek and the events leading to it in perspective to other events in the state.

"The 'Plaza' at Springfield."Sketch by Alex Simplot, Harper's Weekly artist. Greene County Courthouse, right center, burned before the war. Federal Courthouse, right rear, Simplot accurately identifies as "Federal Hospital." Courtesy Dr. Tom Sweeney.
Hugh Crumpler is a writer whose work has appeared before in OzarksWatch. A native Ozarker and retired journalist, he now makes his home in San Diego.

Copyright -- OzarksWatch

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