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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.
Jackson could not have been more ill suited for military command. Col. John S. Marmaduke, Jackson’s nephew and a recent West Point graduate, did his best to rally and organize the State Guard, but one unit under Brig. Gen. Mosby M. Parsons had been dispatched to Tipton some 20 miles away. Parsons took with him the Rebel artillery.
When he received word that Lyon was advancing on Boonville, Governor Jackson elected to remain and fight. It was the wrong decision.
When Lyon arrived in Jefferson City and found the Rebels gone, he left a small force to hold the capital and steamed for Boonville with some 1700 men. At around 7 a.m. on the misty, rainy morning of June 17, they disembarked eight miles below the city and marched upriver along the bottom road. There is no accurate record of the number of State Guards- men in and around Boonville, but Lyon had been led to expect three or four thousand Rebels. Only Marmaduke’s command of 500 men would pose an actual threat. Parsons’ troops and six-pounders were still somewhere between Tipton and Boonville, and Governor Jackson, for reasons only he knew, held an entire infantry company back from the fight.
Lyon’s skirmishers made short work of the guards posted on the bluffs and soon came upon the Rebel line of defense. Marmaduke had positioned sharpshooters in a house, but Lyon’s cannon neutralized them.
Marmaduke ordered his line to withdraw and re-form as the Union advance pressed on. His soldiers were eager to fight, but they had no artillery to contest the Federal cannon. Lyon opened up on the defenders with Union Capt. James Totten’s battery, as well as a siege howitzer positioned on one of the steamboats. As one veteran recalled many years later in the June 13, 1924 issue of the Boonville Weekly Advertiser:
“Before taking our position we were fired on by the federal troops. In an incredulously short space of time, Captain Totten’s federal artillery came down. Our forces, having no protection in that wheat field, were ordered to fall back over the brow of the hill to escape the missiles, the attacking forces being out of reach of our shot guns and rifles. Colonel Marmaduke, riding along our line, gave the command to advance to the former position. The troops failed to obey the order, only three men responding.”
More than 60 years after the battle, another State Guard veteran still saw the day clearly, as recounted in the June 21, 1929, Kansas City Times:
“We formed in a wheat field and waited quietly. When we heard the clank of the cannon on the road below us, we were told to be ready. ‘When I raise my hand—fire!’ the captain said. As the enemy went by us on the road below us, we saw the signal and fired. The Federal column paid little attention and didn’t even break ranks. We fired a second volley, when someone yelled retreat. I don’t know whether it was the captain, but we retreated. I started for the camp at the old fairgrounds where we had left our knapsacks. I found our things taken by the enemy, and I ran and hid under the riverbank. Finally two other Howard County men and I found our way into Boonville and went to Mrs. Beck’s shop on Main Street to get some ginger cake and cider.”
In less than half an hour, the Rebels were put to flight; some made for home, while others ran as far as Southwest Missouri, along with fleeing Gov. Claiborne Jackson. As the federal cannon kept up their barrage, what began as an orderly Rebel retreat quickly deteriorated into a panicked rout inspiring newspapermen to dub the battle, “The Boonville Races.” Lyon occupied the city before noon, seizing a few hundred ancient muskets and a few tents, shoes, and rations.
The news machines on both sides made much of the little encounter. The South exaggerated the heroic resistance of the State Guard, while Northern papers announced a major triumph in what was touted as the first land battle of the war. There was even a play, The Battle of Boonville, with a limited run on Broadway. The July 13 Harper’s Weekly trumpeted:
“Several dead bodies of the rebels were found in the wheat field near the lane ... In fact, at the first volley from the right wing, several saddles were emptied of their riders, and two horses galloped over to our lines. ... The number of dead brought into Boonville or taken to friends in the country cannot fall much short of fifty, and the wounded ... are as many more. On the side of the Union troop, there were three killed, ten wounded, and one missing.”
In reality, the casualties were surprisingly few. There are no accurate figures, but the number of Rebel dead was almost certainly lower. Described by veterans and historians alike as a “skirmish,” it was a relatively bloodless engagement, but one with far-reaching consequences.
Lyon cleared the secessionist forces from central Missouri, secured the vital counties along the Missouri River, and established Federal control of the state. When Lyon was killed at Wilson’s Creek two months later, the Union mourned him as the man who had saved Missouri.