As the first Federal general officer to be killed-in-action in the American Civil War, Nathaniel Lyon was a man who devoted his life to country, duty, and discipline. To some, he was a crazed Unionist, sadist, and a radical. To others, he was the bravest man of the war and loved country over self. Lyon was killed, not at a headquarters in the rear of his army, but while leading his boys at the epicenter of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. His actions at the start of the war spiraled Missouri down into armed conflict and set the tumultuous stage in the West. Today, marking both the 160th anniversary of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek and the 200th anniversary of the State of Missouri, is undoubtedly the most appropriate to remember the complex legacy of Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon.
In 1818, Lyon was “born and bred among rocks,” a reference to the rocky terrain of his birthplace in Ashford, Connecticut. In a way, it could also describe his childhood – rocky. Though he had an affectionate and loving relationship with his mother, Lyon had a difficult one with his father, marked by discipline, seriousness, religious skepticism, and hot tempers. His strict upbringing no doubt shaped his character, personality, and leadership style. It juxtaposed a natural love of country, patriotism, and service above self. Lyon’s grandfather served in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, who Lyon deeply revered. Service, discipline, duty, and patriotism steered Lyon into a West Point education and military service.
An 1841 graduate of the United States Military Academy, Nathaniel Lyon was commissioned a second lieutenant and assigned to the 2nd United States Infantry Regiment. Prior to the Civil War, Lyon was deployed to posts across the country, including Florida, New York, California, and Kansas. As a company commander, he was, as quoted by one of his soldiers, “of a most peculiar temperament. While he preserved a fatherly attitude toward his company and saw to their comfort, he was very exacting. The least infringement of rules, which other officers would not notice, he would punish.” Lyon was highly political, anti-slavery, and a radical Unionist, particularly in the decade prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. A sense of duty, country, and service outweighed everything for Lyon, even popularity, likeability, and at times morality. This was seen in the way Lyon punished his soldiers who were out of line and in the infamous Bloody Island Massacre of 1850.
On January 31, 1861, Captain Nathaniel Lyon received orders to proceed to St. Louis, where he would command Regular Army troops in defense of the St. Louis Arsenal. He was clearly aware of the seriousness of the task before him, writing that “the place is in imminent danger of attack, and the Governor of Missouri will no doubt demand its surrender . . . The prospect is gloomy and forebodes an unnecessary sacrifice of life in case of hostile demonstrations.” Soon after arriving at the Arsenal, Lyon wrote to Congressman from Missouri Francis P. Blair, Jr., who was the de facto leader of the unconditional Unionists of St. Louis, requesting he be made commander of the entire defense of the Federal Arsenal. Just days after President Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration, Lyon officially assumed command of “the troops and defenses” of the St. Louis Arsenal. In addition to his role of defending the largest arsenal west of the Mississippi River, Lyon was also heavily involved in pro-Union circles, who had “the most perfect confidence and trust in Lyon.” On May 2, 1861, Lyon received a letter from the War Department authorizing him to “enroll in the military service of the United States the loyal citizens of Saint Louis and vicinity.” His role in defending the St. Louis Arsenal was immensely fulfilling to Lyon’s personal mission of preserving the Union and punishing slaveholders and secessionists.
On May 10, 1861, Lyon ordered his 6,000 volunteers from across the St. Louis area to rendezvous at the St. Louis Arsenal. Just days prior, Missouri’s pro-secessionist governor Claiborne Jackson had ordered the Missouri Volunteer Militia to gather at Lindell’s Grove to the west of the city – known as Camp Jackson. After gathering intelligence on the militia in the days before, specifically after witnessing a delivery of weaponry and cannon to the camp, Lyon was certain Jackson intended to have the state militia capture the St. Louis Arsenal by force. By 3:15pm that day, Lyon’s seven columns of troops had surrounded Camp Jackson and forced its surrender without firing a shot.
In a note to Camp Jackson’s commander, Daniel Marsh Frost, Lyon wrote, “Your command is regarded as evidently hostile to the Government of the United States … It is my duty to demand, and I do hereby demand of you, an immediate surrender of your command.” In his typical fashion, Lyon ordered Frost to surrender within ten minutes or he would have his troops open fire. A few minutes later, Lyon received Frost’s surrender. He declared to Capt. Thomas Sweeny, “Sweeny, they surrender.” After the militia’s government weapons were confiscated, Lyon ordered the approximately 670 prisoners back to the St. Louis Arsenal. Instead of marching the prisoners to the arsenal with minimal confrontation with angry civilians, Lyon wanted to make a show of it by parading them through the streets of St. Louis. However, it all spiraled out of control. While on the march along Olive Street, a crowd of onlookers grew, shouting insults at the ethnically German Union volunteers. The scene quickly escalated from ethnic slurs to pelting of rocks and bricks at Lyon’s troops. Finally, someone in the crowd fired a shot. In response, some of Lyon’s volunteers opened fire upon the crowd of civilians. The chaos erupted all along Olive Street. By the end, 28 were killed along with 75 wounded. Unable to see the political and military consequences of this violent episode, Lyon still believed it was his duty as commander of the St. Louis Arsenal to protect it no matter what – even if it meant casualties.
The Camp Jackson Affair as it was notoriously called, forever changed the landscape of the Civil War in Missouri. Within days of the affair, the Missouri General Assembly passed legislation creating a state defense force, the Missouri State Guard, and unprecedented military authority to Governor Jackson. On June 11, Brigadier General Lyon, Blair, and Major Horace Conant met with Jackson, Major General Sterling Price, and Thomas Snead at the Planters’ House Hotel in St. Louis over the military situation in the state. It was here that Lyon’s hot temper against secessionists was shown in its full glory, as he officially declared war against Missouri’s secessionists. Years of built up anger and frustration against his enemies finally burst through, as he shouted “I would see you, and you, and you, and you, and every man, woman, and child in the State dead and buried. This means war.”
To Be Continued …
 Christopher Phillips, Damned Yankee: The Life of General Nathaniel Lyon (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996), 4.
 Augustus Meyers, Ten Years in the Ranks (New York: The Stirling Press, 1914), 116.
 In 1850, Lyon was in command of a contingent of U.S. Dragoons in California. After two white settlers were found murdered, Lyon led his troopers to Clear Lake, where they massacred 100-200 Pomo Native Americans, including women and children. According to the historical marker at Bo-No-Po-Ti (now, Bloody) Island, the murders were “in reprisal for the killing of Andrew Kelsey and Charles Stone who had long enslaved, brutalized, and starved indigenous people in the area.”
 Phillips, Damned Yankee, 127.
 Ashbel Woodward, Life of General Nathaniel Lyon (Hartford, CT: Case, Lockwood, & Co., 1862), 237.
 James Peckham, Gen. Nathaniel Lyon and Missouri in 1861 (New York: American News Company, 1866), 69.
 Peckham, Gen. Nathaniel Lyon, 80.
 Lorenzo Thomas to Nathaniel Lyon, April 30, 1861, in The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Vol. 1, No. 1, 675.
 Peckham, Gen. Nathaniel Lyon, 150-151.
 Phillips, Damned Yankee, 189.
 Thomas Snead, The Fight for Missouri: From the Election of Lincoln to the Death of Lyon (New York: Scribner’s, 1886), 199-200.