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Firebrand in a Powder Keg: Nathaniel Lyon in St. Louis

Originally published by Civil War Times magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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Blood boiled along the border spanning Kansas and Missouri. Clashes had occurred between antislavery Free-Soilers and pro-slavery Missourians ever since the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act let voters decide slavery's future in Kansas Territory. By early 1861, Kansas had finally joined the Union as a Free State. But Kansas 'Jayhawkers' and Missouri 'Bushwhackers' continued to kill each other, while Missouri increasingly felt the pull of the Confederacy.

For six years Nathaniel Lyon had felt the region's rising tensions. A Union man to the core, Lyon had grown increasingly sympathetic to the Free-Soil cause. As the violence in Kansas increased, so did his hatred of the pro-slavery faction. By late January 1861, when the slightly built, 42-year-old U.S. Army captain was ordered to St. Louis to buttress the defenses of the city's federal arsenal, Lyon was determined to smash Missouri's pro-secessionist forces.

Born in Ashford, Conn., on July 14, 1818, Lyon entered West Point on July 1, 1837. He hardly looked the part of a soldier: William T. Sherman, who was a year ahead of him, described Lyon as a 'lymphatic boy, who didn't seem to have energy enough to make a man.' But his four years at the academy hardened Lyon into a driven soldier. Lyon thrived as a cadet, and in 1841 he graduated from West Point ranked 11th in a class of 52. His vicious temper and singularity of view would torment those around him for years to come.

In September 1841, Lyon embarked upon a career destined for controversy. After chasing Seminole Indians in Florida with Company I of the 2nd U.S. Infantry, he was transferred north to Sacketts Harbor, N.Y. A harsh disciplinarian, Lyon was court-martialed for knocking a drunken private silly with the flat of his sword, then hogtying him and throwing him in jail. Suspended for five months, Lyon returned to service, only to be arrested twice more by 1846.

After five years the volatile lieutenant had had enough of the Army. But as he mulled over resigning his commission, the Mexican War erupted and saved his career. Lyon saw action in several battles as a company commander, suffering a slight leg wound during the fight for Mexico City. Bumped up to first lieutenant, he was then promoted to brevet captain 'for gallant and meritorious conduct in the Battles of Contreras and Churubusco.'

Following the war, Lyon supervised construction of new Army barracks in California, then in 1850 led an expedition that slaughtered up to 500 innocent Pomo Indians at Clear Lake, Calif. This appalling incident showcased Lyon's ability to lead a combat force, as well as his extraordinary zeal for punishing an enemy. For his efficient brutality, Lyon received the highest praise from his superiors and a promotion to full captain.

Early in 1854 Lyon left California's sunshine for the unpredictable elements of Kansas. Upheaval characterized the social landscape he entered. While the Compromise of 1850 had temporarily halted the nation's slide toward war, a new crisis erupted with the Kansas-Nebraska Act's provision that slavery would be decided by voters in the territory. Even worse to Free State partisans, the bill repealed the Missouri Compromise — the 1820 act that had prohibited slavery north of latitude 36 degrees 30 minutes and was by that time considered sacred by many.

Lyon was still settling into his quarters at Fort Riley when news of the Kansas-Nebraska Act shocked and angered him. The door to slavery in the Western territories now stood wide open. But economics rather than compassion drove Lyon's abhorrence of slavery. 'We oppose slavery in the territories,' he wrote before the war, 'not for a love of the Negro but the white man, whom we would save from the condition, either as an arrogant slaveholder, or as degraded by him, in which we find him in the slave states.'

Soon land-hungry settlers from the Ohio Valley, antislavery New Englanders and pro-slavery Missourians began to fill Kansas by the wagonload. Tempers heated up until May 1856, when three events set the territory ablaze for years. On May 21, angry 'Border Ruffians' raided the Free State stronghold at Lawrence, destroying presses and the Free State Hotel. The following day on the floor of the U.S. Senate, South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks pummeled Massachusetts' abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner senseless with his cane. A 56-year-old antislavery Kansas settler named John Brown, driven to near-hysterics by these pro-slavery outrages, vowed retaliation. During the night of May 24-25, Brown and a handful of his sons dragged five pro-slavery men from their Kansas homes and hacked them to death. Guerrilla warfare swept the Kansas plains.

Rotated between federal outposts, Lyon remained in Kansas as the territory slowly turned into a battleground, and his views on slavery and the Union hardened. As the secessionist movement gathered steam, the obscure Army captain made a name for himself. In a series of political essays he wrote during the summer of 1860 for the Western Kansas Express, Lyon made his support for Abraham Lincoln and the Free State cause clear. By then Kansas had been'saved' and would join the Union as a Free State on January 29, 1861. Two days after that, the Army ordered Lyon to protect the U.S. arsenal in St. Louis.

Nowhere in the Union were the questions of secession and slavery more hotly debated. St. Louis was a Republican oasis in a Democratic state, a hotbed of political and social unrest. The city did contain a vocal pro-secession bloc, whose disciples displayed their Southern leanings unabashedly. These Confederate sympathizers took heart that their governor, Claiborne Fox Jackson, was an avowed secessionist. But half of the city's population was composed of immigrants, mostly Germans, who had little patience for anyone who threatened their adopted home. One of several German publications in the city, Anzieger des Westens, declared the Germans to be 'an opponent of slavery, and the German is always unfailingly there when free labor is being defended through law and Constitution against the pressure and dominance of slavery and the despotic principles of government it brings with it.' German support of the Republican Party was all but absolute.

The elections of 1860 had boosted two prominent St. Louis Republicans into the Washington, D.C., inner circle. President-elect Abraham Lincoln picked former St. Louis mayor Montgomery Blair to be his postmaster general. Blair's 39-year-old brother, Francis Preston ('Frank') Blair Jr., was elected to Congress and later became one of Lincoln's few competent 'political generals,' serving as a major general under Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman.

Frank Blair found a strident ally against Missouri's secessionists in Lyon, who rode into St. Louis on February 7, 1861, accompanied by 80 blue-coated infantrymen. The high-strung veteran's shabby and dusty uniform contrasted with fiery red hair that suited his persona. From the moment of his arrival in St. Louis, Lyon was fighting a political war on two fronts — one against Missouri's secessionist leaders, and a second against U.S. Department of the West commander Brig. Gen. William Harney, whose headquarters was located in the city. Lyon believed Governor Jackson might threaten to lead the state into the newly formed Confederacy, and therefore authorize an assault on the arsenal. Lyon and Blair favored taking aggressive action to prevent either scenario, while the older Harney opposed forcing Jackson's hand in any way.

Lyon, who had few friends outside his immediate circle of colleagues, formed a natural partnership with Frank Blair, based on their shared vow to repel any threat to the arsenal and keep Missouri in the Union. Blair had already organized the city's Committee of Safety and begun mobilizing German volunteers, for whom Lyon promised to try to procure arms. Blair, meanwhile, urged his Washington connections to rid Lyon of the interfering Harney and Major Peter Hagner, who claimed authority at the arsenal over Lyon by virtue of his own brevet rank.

Missouri continued to remain neutral during this period. A secession convention got underway in early March but ended with a resolution declaring that 'at present there was no adequate cause to impel Missouri to dissolve her connection with the Federal Union.' The decree meant little to Confederate sympathizers roaming the streets of St. Louis. Certainly Lyon and Blair put no stock in it. After all, in his inaugural speech just two months earlier, Governor Jackson had made it clear that Missouri's 'honor, her interests, and her sympathies point alike in one direction, and determine her to stand by the South.' Moving ahead with his duties, Lyon set to work improving the arsenal's defenses. Soon the refurbished post was bristling with mines, new artillery emplacements and sandbagged walls.

On April 13, Confederate gunners in Charleston Harbor hammered Fort Sumter into surrender. With war now on, Lyon warily prepared his men for a Confederate attack, authorizing them to put Hagner in irons if he interfered with their work. 'And if he interferes with me,' he roared, 'I'll shoot him in his tracks!' No attack came.

Two days later President Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 three-month volunteers to help crush the rebellion. In Missouri, Governor Jackson responded to Lincoln's decree with bitter defiance. 'Your requisition, in my judgment,' he wrote, 'is illegal, unconstitutional, and revolutionary in its object, inhuman and diabolical and cannot be complied with. Not one man will the State of Missouri furnish to carry on any unholy crusade.' It was the kind of talk that disgusted hard-core Unionists. Convinced that full-scale war was on the horizon, Lyon wrote: 'But let them come. I would rather see the country lighted up with the flames of war…than that the great rights and hopes of the human race expire before the arrogance of secessionists.'

On April 17, Blair returned from Washington, D.C., with an order from the War Department authorizing Lyon to issue 5,000 muskets to any Union Home Guards willing to enter Federal service. The good news forced him into another faceoff with Harney, who — not having received those specific orders himself — refused to follow them. Trying to slow what he considered Lyon's rush toward war, Harney ordered an end to all Home Guard patrols outside the arsenal and decreed that no one was to issue arms without his explicit approval. Meanwhile, he requested that Lyon be replaced.

Lyon, though, received some good news from Secretary of War Simon Cameron, who approved Lyon's request for two or three Illinois regiments to beef up the arsenal's manpower. Lyon was also authorized to ship 10,000 of the arsenal's muskets to Illinois in order to make the stronghold less attractive to secessionists. This last directive was particularly timely, because that same day pro-Confederate forces had captured and looted the small Federal arsenal at Liberty, Mo.

On the night of April 21, as rumors of a move against the St. Louis arsenal filled the city's streets, Lyon and Blair began swearing volunteers into Federal service. If Governor Jackson would not meet the four-regiment state quota called for by the president, they would. That afternoon Blair had worked the telegraph lines, calling on friends to convince Cameron to make their efforts legal. At midnight, as Lyon worked to enlist and equip the long lines of Germans, the telegraph not only carried news of Washington's approval but that Harney had been relieved. A few hours later, Hagner was relieved as well, and Lyon found himself in command of the entire Department of the West. He and Blair were ecstatic.

Within a few days hundreds of enthusiastic Missouri volunteers had filled the state's four federally sanctioned regiments. The 1st Missouri named Blair its first colonel. The Germans picked former German army officer and St. Louis school superintendent Franz Sigel to lead the 3rd Regiment, and Lyon as their brigadier general. This last choice — backed by Blair after William T. Sherman turned it down — gave Lyon authority to have his way in St. Louis.

Lyon's cause received a further boost on April 25. When an Illinois officer arrived to arrange the agreed-upon transfer of arms to Illinois, Lyon spread word that his men would be moving a large load of guns through town that evening. That night, while tipped-off secessionists swarmed over empty streetcars searching for the loot, Union troops quickly loaded a steamer with thousands of arms, leaving only enough guns within the fort's walls for its defenders. Lyon's successful ruse drew hundreds more German volunteers to his support, and also resulted in consent from Washington to create a Reserve Corps of up to 10,000 men. In authorizing Lyon to declare martial law if necessary, President Lincoln noted, 'It is revolutionary times, and therefore I do not object to the irregularity of this.'

As preparations for war continued in the East, a showdown in Missouri was nearing. Fearful of Lyon's consolidation of power, Jackson petitioned the General Assembly to pass his own military bill, which he expected to bring out volunteers in droves to defend the state. Meanwhile, members of the state militia were instructed to temporarily assemble in their respective camps in expectation of mobilization. Daniel Frost, a West Pointer and district commander in St. Louis, assembled 900 men at Lindell Grove on the western outskirts of the city. The outfit dubbed its training ground Camp Jackson, in honor of the pro-Southern governor.

Lyon eyed the camp with deep suspicion. The militia made no attempt to hide its secessionist leanings. The camp's bumpy'streets' were named for Jefferson Davis and P.G.T. Beauregard. Meanwhile Arkansas and Tennessee left the Union, and to clear-thinking Unionists it looked like Missouri might be next. When Frost sent an aide to request permission for his artillerists to get in some practice on the heights south of the arsenal, Lyon exploded. Any militia unit that moved into such a position, the seething general warned, would be welcomed by Union shells.

As tensions increased in the city, Lyon's network of spies informed him that a steamer, said to be carrying stolen Federal cannons hidden in crates labeled 'Marble,' was due in St. Louis shortly. Rumor had it that the cannons were a donation from Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Verifying the destination and contents of the steamer's cargo would require creativity and personal risk — but would also supply a touch of comedy to the otherwise grim proceedings.

Under cover of darkness on the night of May 8, shadowy figures quietly unloaded the mysterious cargo of the steamer J.C. Swan. With Lyon's agents watching the whole way, the group loaded the crates onto wagons and rolled across the city — directly into pro-Confederate Camp Jackson.

The next day, as Camp Jackson hosted friends and family from the city, a familiar carriage rumbled through the camp at a leisurely pace. Militiamen recognized its passenger as Frank Blair's blind mother-in-law, and let it roll by unfettered. Well known throughout the city, Mrs. Mira Alexander wore a black dress and heavy black veil on her daily trips around town. Bellowing above the sound of trodding horses, her driver described the sights all around them. Thirty minutes later the carriage wheeled out of camp, crossed the city, and rolled into the Federal arsenal. The slight figure in black stepped out of the carriage and removed the veil to reveal the thick red whiskers and matted hair of General Lyon. Without anyone suspecting, the disguised Lyon had surveyed the entire secessionist camp.

Lyon had seen enough of Daniel Frost's supposedly benign militia to confirm his fears, including smuggled weapons, and he called a meeting of the Committee of Public Safety for that evening, May 9. The time to strike, he argued, was now. The secessionists were becoming stronger every day and bolder in their daily attacks on Union men. (Blair had already been forced to move his family out of town.) More unsettling was fresh news that Harney had somehow regained his position, and was due back in town any day.

With Blair and Major John Schofield, Lyon worked long into the night, drawing up a plan to surround Frost's camp. Early the next afternoon, Lyon emerged from the arsenal, 'his hair in the wind, his pockets full of papers, wild and irregular.' The general led a Federal column west through the city. Taking specifically planned routes, five other columns also began the six-mile march to Camp Jackson. Lyon hoped the six columns — totaling about 5,500 men — would arrive simultaneously.Almost as soon as Lyon's force began turning out around noon, Frost knew something was brewing. He sent an aide to Lyon with a note asking if the swirling rumors of an imminent move against his camp were true.

Lyon saw no point in responding. Somehow his columns all reached Camp Jackson at the same time, and discovered that Frost had not organized a defense. The Union men planted a six-gun battery above the field and quickly surrounded the badly outnumbered militia. When all was in place, Lyon dispatched Schofield with an ultimatum for Frost. 'Your command is regarded as evidently hostile towards the government of the United States,' Lyon's missive began. He went on to note Frost's continuing communication with Confederate President Jefferson Davis, the presence in Camp Jackson of avowed secessionists, and his possession of weapons stolen from United Sates facilities. Lyon demanded Frost's surrender within 30 minutes, and Schofield returned shortly with Frost's indignant response. Outgunned 8-to-1, Frost stated he had no options but surrender to Lyon's 'illegal and unconstitutional demands…made by an officer of the United States Army.'

Capturing Frost's men was one thing; marching them back to the arsenal would prove quite another. A growing crowd of anti-Union spectators, fueled by liquor and resentment, had gathered around the site and was growing increasingly agitated. As two columns of Regulars guided Lyon's 669 prisoners (about 160 of Frost's men had escaped) through town, spectators began raining insults, garbage and even bricks onto the hated German volunteers. Suddenly a shot rang out, fatally wounding Captain Constantine Blandowski, a popular German company commander. When more shots followed near the rear of the column, the frightened and inexperienced troops opened fire on their tormentors. In no time, 28 civilians, two soldiers and three prisoners lay dead in the streets.

The balance of the long march back to the arsenal seemed like an eternity to the wary Union troops, who cast their eyes right and left while keeping order in their lines. Finally the strains of German music signaled their arrival on safe ground, and the soldiers passed through the arsenal's gates with great relief. By coincidence, both William T. Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant — future architects of Union victory in the war now beginning — happened to be in St. Louis that day. Sherman, who had spoken with Blair just that morning, barely evaded the flying lead on the city's streets that afternoon. Grant, who like Sherman was still awaiting a Federal commission, offered Blair and Lyon his congratulations upon their return to the arsenal.

Lyon's raid sent shockwaves across the state. It also put a quick end to the secessionist threat in St. Louis, cementing the Union hold on the city. In addition to nearly 700 pro-Confederate fighters, Lyon's booty included the weapons smuggled into St. Louis aboard J.C. Swan — two 24-pounder howitzers, one 8-inch siege mortar, six coehorn mortars, 500 muskets and considerable ammunition. To Lyon this evidence alone justified his move against the camp and damned Frost and his cohorts as traitors.

But there were serious side effects to Lyon's audacious move. Outraged secessionists challenged the legality of his offensive and dubbed the subsequent riot the 'Camp Jackson Massacre.' Fearful St. Louis residents fled the city in droves. Others stayed behind closed doors and spewed venomous oaths against Lyon, Blair and the dreaded 'Dutch' — a derisive term reserved for the city's German population.

Still more bad news arrived. An outraged Missouri legislature suddenly passed Jackson's long-stalled military bill. Meanwhile, former Missouri Governor Sterling Price joined the secessionist cause. The graying Mexican War veteran remained, like his state, officially neutral. Now Jackson put him in charge of the rapidly expanding Missouri State Guard.Lyon paroled his prisoners the following day. As for the tragic postscript to his capture of the militia camp, he regretted the deaths of so many innocents. 'The troops manifested every forbearance,' he said in a statement, 'and discharged their guns simply obeying the impulse natural to us all in self defense. If innocent men, women, and children, whose curiosity placed them in a dangerous position, suffered with the guilty, it is no fault of the troops.'

Harney returned to St. Louis in the wake of the Camp Jackson affair, eager to broker peace between the secessionist and Federal factions. On May 21, Harney and Sterling Price signed an agreement intended to end any further military preparations by either side. But while Harney meant well, he failed to recognize Jackson's determination to arrange Missouri's secession and Lyon's unwillingness to compromise. The much-ballyhooed Price-Harney agreement was rendered pointless when Harney was removed from the department for good at the end of May. His departure left Lyon and Jackson careening toward a confrontation. If that meant war, Nathaniel Lyon was prepared to welcome it.



This article was written by Eric Ethier and originally published in the June 2005 issue of Civil War Times Magazine.

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