The First Land Battle of the War Saved Missouri for the Union
After the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861, Missouri’s newly elected Gov. Claiborne F. Jackson tried to push Missouri into the Confederacy. A former senator and state bank commissioner, he had run—and won—an anti-secession gubernatorial campaign. But no sooner was he elected than he took his place at the head of Missouri’s secessionists. At a state convention in March 1861, delegates had voted decisively against secession. Jackson ignored this mandate, despite his outward protestations of “armed neutrality.”
President Lincoln, preparing for war and in no mood for political machinations, ordered Jackson to muster volunteers for the Union, The bombastic governor responded, labeling Lincoln’s demand for troops “illegal, unconstitutional, inhuman, and diabolical,” and refused to conscript a single man. Instead, he assembled and drilled the local Missouri State Guard unit outside St. Louis, with his eye on the well-stocked St. Louis Arsenal.
However, an aggressive Federal captain named Nathaniel Lyon had recently been put in charge of the arsenal. On April 26, he armed a local pro-Union paramilitary group known as the Wide-Awakes with muskets from the arsenal’s stores and secretly moved thousands more to Illinois, into the security of Union hands. At the time, Lyon was an aide to Brig. Gen. William S. Harney, commanding the Union forces in Missouri. A Connecticut Yankee, the 42-year-old Lyon was a career soldier. He had served in Florida’s Seminole War and was cited and promoted for gallantry in the Mexican War. The red-bearded, slightly built captain was not a man given to half measures. Less than a month after taking control of the arsenal, his troops surrounded and captured the St. Louis unit of the pro-Southern Missouri State Guard and paraded them through the streets of the city. Lyon was in direct violation of a truce his superior, General Harney, had made with Gen. Sterling Price, commander of the State Guard. His actions sparked a riot among secessionist locals, during which Lyon ordered his soldiers to open fire, killing several citizens. Shortly after, he replaced Harney as commander of the Army of the West.
Meanwhile, a furious Governor Jackson issued a proclamation calling the State Militia into active service “for the purpose of repelling [the] invasion.” As reported in the June 12, 1861, Boonville Observer Extra, “A series of unprovoked and unparalleled outrages have been inflicted upon the peace and dignity of this Commonwealth ... by wicked and unprincipled men. ... Unoffending and defenseless men, women, and children have been ruthlessly shot down and murdered.” A dissembling Jackson continued, “It has been my earnest endeavor ... to maintain the peace of the state, and to avert, if possible, from our borders the desolating effect of civil war.”
It was inevitable that General Lyon and Governor Jackson would clash. Once Lyon learned that Jackson’s State Guard had been activated under the command of General Price, Lyon set out to seize Jefferson City, the state capital. He transported his force of nearly 2,000 men, an artillery battery, two volunteer regiments, and a company of regulars, on steam- boats, heading northwest up the Missouri River.
Meanwhile, Jackson and Price, who had withdrawn to Jefferson City on June 12, determined that the capital could not be successfully de- fended and the next day fled to Boonville. At this point, Price was in command of a force of local Lexington and Boonville State Guard volunteers, who were poorly trained and disciplined, worse armed and supplied, and thoroughly ill equipped to face an aggressive enemy.
General Price knew this and opposed making a stand in Boonville against the approaching Federals. But Price fell ill and traveled to his Chariton County farm to recover, leaving Governor Jackson in charge.