Connecticut’s Nathaniel Lyon wasn’t good for much besides fighting, but in 1861 the Union Army needed fighting men. Lyon was ready for the job.
On April 12, 1861, the first shots fired on Fort Sumter transformed the idea of secession into a reality. The war to preserve the Union had started.
Captain Lyon, a West Point graduate and fierce slavery opponent, wangled a posting in St. Louis.
But in Missouri, Gen. William Harney had command of Union forces. As the state’s political leaders began edging toward secession, he delayed taking decisive action. A Tennessean by birth, Harney’s loyalty lay with the Union, but he desperately wanted peace. He belonged to the Democratic Party cloth that waited and watched while the South gradually moved toward independence. And Harney just couldn’t change.
Missouri Gov. Claiborne Jackson, in planning for secession, started to build up the state’s militia. Harney worked out a truce with the state’s militia men that allowed them certain territory while federal troops would hold other territory.
Nathaniel Lyon, just a captain in the Union Army, determined that the Union would not lose Missouri regardless of Harney’s truce.
Calling on his friendship with Missouri Republican Senator Frank Blair, Lyon was put in charge of the St. Louis Armory. When Missouri’s governor refused to supply troops for the Union forces, Lyon began recruiting his own military units. He drew from the Wide Awakes, a Republican paramilitary organization that had spent months preparing for war.
German immigrants, who vehemently opposed slavery, belonged to Lyons’ units.
The makeup of the units offended Southern-leaning Missourians, but Lyon did not worry about the tactics he used to win. He armed his own units, 10,000-strong, and began shifting the militia’s supplies to Illinois. He did it for fear the secessionists in Missouri would seize them.
Camp Jackson Affair
On May 10, as the governor maneuvered to build up his own troops, Lyon set out to spy on Camp Jackson, a Confederate camp growing in the St. Louis outskirts. Disguising himself as a woman, he had himself driven around the camp and confirmed what his spies told him. Guns from the Confederates had arrived and the encampment increased in size.
Lyon surrounded the camp the next day with 6,000 troops. Outnumbered eight to one, the Confederate-leaning militia surrendered. In marching the men through the city, an angry crowd began to grow, shouting at the Union forces. The details of how violence erupted are sketchy, but Lyon’s forces eventually fired into the civilian crowd, causing a panic. Twenty-eight civilians died.
The violence was not out of character for Lyon. He had a long resume. Raised on a farm in Ashford, Conn. (now Eastford), Lyon had no use for farming. After graduating from West Point. he went west to fight in the Indian wars. He was sloppy in his attire, short and ugly. He did not like women and never married. And he was a tyrant to the men who served under him.
In 1842 he had been court martialed for hog-tying and gagging an insubordinate soldier. In 1849, he led a massacre of some 400 Native Americans in California, urging on his troops to bayonet as many as they could, including women and children. He bragged of this attack, and won praise from the U.S. Senate for his actions. Ideologically, Lyon saw things in black and white, and he saw no need for restraint in defending a position he believed in. And that is how he saw the defense of the Union.
The Northerners Rise
With the South taking up arms, the days of the conciliatory general like Harney were numbered. The new breed of officers, like Lyon, would rise up.
Despite the civilian deaths in the Camp Jackson Affair (or perhaps because of them), Lyon won promotion to brigadier general and Harney got recalled to Washington. Lyon moved quickly to declare war on the Missouri State Guard and to oust the governor. He then established a pro-Union government in the state.
With Jefferson City secured, Lyon took 6,000 men south to Springfield in pursuit of the guard and fleeing governor. A few miles away, the Missouri guard, meanwhile, had met up with Confederate forces. With an army twice the size of Lyon’s, the stage was set for Lyon’s final action on August 11, 1861: The Battle of Wilson’s Creek.
Lyon was shot twice, once in the head and once in the leg, and his horse was killed. But he returned for one last dramatic counter charge, during which he was shot in the heart. He died at 43. Though the Union troops lost the battle, historians have credited Lyon with securing Missouri for the Union.
Nathaniel Lyon would go down in history as a hero. The first general to die in the Civil War, a crowd of 15,000 attended his funeral when his remains returned to Eastford, Conn.
This story was updated in 2021. Image of Nathaniel Lyon chimney By Morrowlong – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14892883.