To Control the Frontier: Military Operations in Spring-Summer 1861 Missouri
by Caleb Greinke
"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," once spoke Governor
Claiborne Fox Jackson in response to Abraham Lincoln's call for 75,000 recruits
to quell the Rebellion. As if to cement his already treasonous position,
Jackson would add for good measure to all of Missouri, "Rise then, and drive
out ignominiously the invaders who have dared desecrate the soil which your
labors have made fruitful, and which is consecrated by your homes!" Clearly,
Jackson was rearing for a fight -- and surely enough, he would have it and
much, much more.
Following the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln to the office of the presidency,
the border slave-holding state of Missouri was among those states considering
secession from the United States Union. Missouri, who's only major political
controversy in the election was whether to vote for Douglass or Breckenridge,
for Lincoln was out of the question, began the long arduous build-up to that
eventual day of war. In mostly Pro-Union St. Louis, the citizenry had reacted
by forming military societies in the interests of preservation of the country,
headed by politicians and teachers alike. Among the most fervent Pro-Union men
in the city were the immigrant Germans who were the most active in the
formation of these military societies, and who, in some cases, were well-versed
in military theory thus giving the raw recruits of St. Louis much needed
training which would service them well in the coming skirmishes and battle of
1861 Missouri. Southern sympathizers, likewise formed their own local militias
throughout the state which would eventually answer the call for troops from the
State Governor later in the year. The only clear thing that all of Missouri was
preparing for War.
So enraged by the Federal Governments persistence against rebellion became the
state's pro-secession populace that Governor Jackson was compelled to call out
the state militia for the purposes of defense against Federal authorities who
now were active in St. Louis. Among these newly arrived Federal Authorities was
Captain Nathaniel Lyon of Ashford, Connecticut. Lyon, who commanded a company
of the 2nd United States Regular Infantry out of Fort Riley, Kansas, quickly
came calling in Missouri to lend his services to Abe Lincoln. Lyon had
graduated 11th out of 52 cadets in his West Point class of 1841, soon after
being stationed in Florida in the last days of the Seminole War. The flaming
red bearded Lyon quickly made a name for himself in the Mexican War as a
Lieutenant of Company D of the second infantry in which he was made a Brevet
Captain for gallant action at Contreras, Churubusco, and the assault on Mexico
City in which he was wounded. Following the War, Lyon was active in campaigns
against the Indians in California where he participated in the Indian massacre
at Clear Lake. Thereafter he was stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas where he
quickly became involved in the "Bleeding Kansas" affair of the 1850's during
which Lyon had turned from a Pierce-supporting Democrat to a staunch
Lyon, in conjunction with Missouri Congressman Francis P. Blair Jr., moved to
raise volunteer all-German regiments in and around St. Louis for the defense of
the local arsenal, which held thousands of small arms, hundreds of artillery
pieces, and over a million rounds of ammunition. Both knew that if the arsenal
were to fall into the hands of the State Militia (henceforth known as the
Missouri State Guard) the Federals in the state would have double the problem
they were already facing. The state legislature had not yet apportioned funds
to arm the Missouri State Guard. This dilemma obviously made the arsenal at St.
Louis a major target.
One of the several training camps that had sprung up across Missouri was just
outside of St. Louis. Aptly named Camp Jackson, it was positioned in such a
location that it could be a major threat to the safety of the arsenal making it
target number one for Lyon's plans. The first move was to transfer excess
weapons across the Mississippi River to safety in Illinois, thereby leaving
just enough arms to equip new volunteers who were quickly being mustered. On
May 8, 1861, as per tradition, Lyon disguised himself as a woman under a heavy
veil and drove by wagon into Camp Jackson to spy on State Guard preparations.
With a basket of eggs by his side for sale with a pistol conveniently hidden
underneath, he gained entrance very briefly and was able to gage the situation
quickly -- it was possible for the camp to be taken by force.
On the morning of May 10th, Lyon called his men to arms and proceeded to Camp
Jackson whereupon arrival he promptly surrounded the entire camp and Lyon
called for its immediate unconditional surrender. At once the message was sent
to the militia commander, Brigadier General Daniel Marsh Frost, who requested
time to consider the demand. Lyon's response was concise: surrender in ten
minutes or he shall fire upon Camp Jackson. Faced with superior government
troops and being outnumbered, Frost surrendered his men, who were thence
It was at this time that the crowds of onlookers turned violent. The
southern-sympathizing citizens of the city had turned out to yell insults at
the German regiments and while doing so, a large number threw rocks and bricks
at the troops. One drunken mob member tried to make it past the Federal troops
who were guarding the soon-to-be-released militiamen. He was refused passage
and pushed back. The man then pulled out a pistol and promptly shot a German
officer, though not fatally. The Federal troops were ordered to return fire. As
fate would have it, 28 onlookers would be killed that night.
Furious, Governor Jackson called the State Legislature into a Special Session
to pass military bills in defense of the state. 10,000 was set "to encourage
Indians in the territory to retaliate against Kansans," 1,000,000 to be
borrowed from banks and a final 1,000,000 to be "raised by bonds for a state
All across Missouri, old and young men alike came together to join the
gathering Missouri State Guard at the call of the governor. Local towns became
assembly points, each county raising their own special companies of recruits.
The men trained under deplorable conditions. The state, in all of its rush to
war, had not set appointed money for uniforms or equipment, and above all,
arms. By the time that Lyon was beginning his offensive, the men were serving
in their civilian articles of clothing, and carried a wide assortment of
weapons that they could scrounge from home. Among these items were shotguns,
squirrel guns, flintlocks, Kentucky Rifles, Mississippi Rifles, whatever
outdated smoothbore muskets that had been recently confiscated from the Liberty
Arsenal in Clay County, and even clubs and pitchforks.
It was at this moment of open Missouri Rebellion that Federal authorities
grasped the graveness of the situation. They would have to act, and act fast,
lest Missouri get its own star in the Stars and Bars.
Copyright © 2005 Caleb Greinke.
Written by Caleb Greinke. If you have questions or comments on this article,
please contact Caleb Greinke at:
About the author:
Caleb Greinke is a student with interest in Georgian Era and Early American military history. He writes from Kansas City, Missouri.
Published online: 08/21/2005.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.