The 1850’s were a turbulent period of political and social struggle in our nation’s history, but along the Missouri-Kansas border a bloody struggle ensued over the question of slavery in Kansas. Between 1854 and 1859 pro and antislavery forces ambushed and raided each other in an attempt to control the future of Kansas. This fighting prepared Missourians for the type of Civil War they would witness in the country’s great struggle.
By 1860 Missouri was a state in change. In the ten years before the war the original Southern settlers of the state discovered themselves sharing the land with a large contingent of German immigrants. These newcomers were staunchly antislavery. As the country lurched toward war in 1861, newly elected Governor Claiborne F. Jackson led the pro-slavery forces in Missouri. Leading the antislavery group were Congressman Francis P. Blair and General Nathaniel Lyon.
Early in the war the struggle concerned the Federal arsenal located at the southern edge of St. Louis. Lyon moved aggressively to control the facility and distributed the weapons to German immigrants who rallied to the antislavery cause. In response the Governor called out the local militia, but they were surprised and captured by Lyon in a raid on Camp Jackson on May 10, 1861. A riot followed the capture of the pro-Southern militia and several civilians were killed.
Missourians were not ready for the state to slip into total chaos. Both sides backed away from more violence while attempting to broker a peaceful settlement. This proved to be unattainable. A meeting designed to reach a nonviolent agreement at the Planters House Hotel in St. Louis disintegrated when General Lyon declared a deal impossible. The Federal commander lost his temper, and declared war on the Governor and his followers. Governor Jackson and the commander of the state militia, General Sterling Price, raced to the state capitol at Jefferson City to prepare for war. The state of Missouri was about to become embroiled in a Civil War within the national Civil War.
Quickly General Lyon initiated a two prong lightning raid on the Southerners. One portion of his force steamed up the Missouri River and forced Governor Jackson from his capitol. The Federals pursued the state militia, now named The Missouri State Guard, to Boonville. Ever the aggressor, General Lyon launched an attack on the Southerners on June 17. The fighting was brief and a total Union victory. While retreating from the area the Southerners ambushed a German pro-Union Home Guard unit at Cole Camp on June 18 routing the entire lot of them.
While Lyon steamed upriver to Boonville the second part of his plan was in motion. Regular Army Captain Thomas W. Sweeny was placed in command of a movement to southwest Missouri to block the suspected retreat of Jackson’s Missouri State Guard into Arkansas. Sweeny sent a vanguard of 1,100 men led by Colonel Franz Sigel to Springfield, Missouri. On July 5, 1861, while searching for the enemy eight miles north of Carthage, the two armies collided. During the day-long struggle Sigel’s Federals were forced from the field, and withdrew back to Springfield. The victorious Southerners went into camp deep in the southwest corner of the state for complete reorganization and training of inexperienced troops.
While both armies regrouped Captain Sweeny and the remainder of his troops arrived in Springfield from Rolla. General Lyon’s army, slowed by a lack of transportation arrived in Springfield. Both sides planned for their next tactical maneuver. General Price’s Missouri State Guard joined the Confederate troops gathered in Arkansas under General Ben McCulloch, and assumed the offensive against Lyon.
However, as the combined armies of General Price and General Ben McCulloch approached the town General Lyon went on the offensive, striking a blow against the Southerners at Dug’s Spring on July 25 and McCaulla’s Store on July 27 after which Lyon retreated back to Springfield. The combined Southern army advanced and camped at Wilsons Creek twelve miles southeast of Springfield.
On August 10 General Lyon’s Federals once again surprised his adversary and launched a surprise attack on the Southern camps. Initially routed by assaults at both ends of their encampments, the Southerners rallied and blunted General Lyon’s main column, and then defeated Colonel Sigel’s flanking column. Late in the morning General Lyon was killed, and the remaining Federal leadership decided to retreat. The Southerners were too disorganized and lacking in material to follow the beleaguered Federals to Rolla.
Both sides retrofitted after the fighting. Missouri State Guard General Price decided to raid the central portion of the state in September. The Missouri State Guard was victorious in an action at Drywood Creek (Sept. 2). During his raid Price surrounded a group of Federals at Lexington and launched a series of attacks called the Battle of the Hemp Bales (Sept. 20). Lacking water and reinforcements the Union soldiers surrendered to General Price. A Union force led by General John C. Fremont forced General Price to withdraw from the region. General Fremont’s expedition carried the war back into southwest Missouri, and ended with a successful attack by Major Charles Zagoyni’s cavalry charge into Springfield on October 25. Major Zagoyni liberated the town from the Southerners, but the Federals were unwilling to extend their supply line and fell back to Rolla and Sedalia. On the same day seventy miles southwest in Neosho a pro-Southern political meeting voted Missouri out of the Union and made it a star on the Confederate flag.
On November 7, a different cast of characters became involved in Missouri’s fighting. General Ulysses S. Grant crossed the Mississippi River and attacked Confederate troops stationed at Belmont in southeast Missouri. After initial success General Grant was forced to retreat to Cairo, Illinois. Winter weather ended campaigning in the state for the year.