Fallen Leaders: Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon, Part I

Nathaniel Lyon in his captain’s uniform. Courtesy of Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield.

Part one of two

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.[1] 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.”[2] 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.[3]

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.[4] 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.”[5] 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.[6] 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.”[7] 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.”[8] 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.”[9] In his typical fashion, Lyon ordered Frost to surrender within ten minutes or he would have his troops open fire.[10] 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.”[11]

To Be Continued 


[1] Christopher Phillips, Damned Yankee: The Life of General Nathaniel Lyon (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996), 4.

[2] Augustus Meyers, Ten Years in the Ranks (New York: The Stirling Press, 1914), 116.

[3] 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.”

[4] Phillips, Damned Yankee, 127.

[5] Ashbel Woodward, Life of General Nathaniel Lyon (Hartford, CT: Case, Lockwood, & Co., 1862), 237.

[6] James Peckham, Gen. Nathaniel Lyon and Missouri in 1861 (New York: American News Company, 1866), 69.

[7] Peckham, Gen. Nathaniel Lyon, 80.

[8] 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.

[9] Peckham, Gen. Nathaniel Lyon, 150-151.

[10] Phillips, Damned Yankee, 189.

[11] Thomas Snead, The Fight for Missouri: From the Election of Lincoln to the Death of Lyon (New York: Scribner’s, 1886), 199-200.

7 Responses to Fallen Leaders: Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon, Part I

  1. In 1861, St. Louis was key to control of Missouri: the railroads extended northwest, west and southwest from that center of manufacturing like spokes on a wheel. And telegraph lines ran adjacent to every railroad. Nathaniel Lyon understood this, and took active measures to secure St. Louis… and dashed more than a few pro-secession hopes in the process. (The “securing of the base” at St. Louis continued under Fremont; and was completed by Henry Halleck.)

    1. Thanks for commenting, Mike. You hit the nail on the head with Lyon’s actions. Part II of my post will touch a bit more on Lyon’s death and legacy – specifically, what it meant for the war strategically. This post was more for setting the stage of what Lyon did in the early stages of the war prior to the 1861 Missouri Campaign and the Battle of Wilson’s Creek.

  2. As a younger amateur historian, I used to personally hold Lyon as a model of the tough, take-charge fighting hero; but as my knowledge about him deepened, so my admiration faded. He certainly was motivated and his defense of the arsenal a key component to maintaining a Union presence, but his uncompromising personality, overzealous views and reckless temper strongly strikes me as John Brown like. His bullying for promotion, his threats of murdering entire Missouri families, his reckless public parading of prisoners knowing the State situation was volatile, his lack of diplomatic skills, all suggests to my mind that Lyon was performing under a personal and obsessive vendetta and using his duty to uniform as a justification–which in his mind was likely one in the same. I have never agreed with the idea that the ends justify all means. I feel that he made the situation in Missouri worse and possibly–certainly unintentionally–complicated the process of keeping Missouri in the Union. I have often wondered what Lyon’s Civil War career would have been like had he not been killed at Wilson’s Creek. He certainly would have captured the imagination of the Country and Lincoln and given higher command–and while it is impossible to know, would further battlefield successes out West eventually led him to the command of The Army of the Potomac? Equal speculation would have me ask, at what point would his puritanical zealousness have wreaked his career with Lincoln and the senior Officer Corps?

  3. This is an excellent, well-researched article by Kristen Pawlak that set the stage for the Battle of Wilson’s Creek and other events in wartime Missouri. My comment expands on her account. To understand the seemingly unconnected or disparate events and influences of the Civil War period in Missouri, it is necessary to know the broader scope of the political and military conditions existing in the anguished nation at the time, particularly in the State of Missouri. As the nation passed from the 1850’s, growing polarization over the slavery issue hastened a political metamorphosis that threatened a brittle union. Old party loyalties disintegrated and created a turbulent political arena for the election of 1860. His election facilitated by the splintered electorate, Lincoln received only ten percent of the Missouri vote, most of that in St. Louis. Missouri voters had given over seventy percent of their votes to the moderate candidates, Northern Democrat Stephen Douglas of Illinois and Constitutional Union nominee John Bell of Tennessee. The state convention in early 1861, called by the legislature “to consider the relations of the State of Missouri to the United States” did not include a single secessionist among the 99 elected delegates from the 33 state senatorial districts. Resolutions voted by the convention clearly reflected the political middle ground. (cf. JOURNAL AND PROCEEDINGS OF THE MISSOURI STATE CONVENTION HELD AT JEFFERSON CITY AND ST. LOUIS, March, 1861, George Knapp & Co., Printers and Binders, 1861)

    Although a substantial majority of Missourians were moderates on the issues of slavery and secession, factions at each end of the political spectrum in St. Louis began to organize and arm. Activities of the secessionist Minute Men and the Union Guard private militias heightened local tensions. Following the April 12, 1861 attack on Ft. Sumter by South Carolina forces, through the efforts of Frank Blair whose brother Montgomery was a member of President Lincoln’s cabinet, enlistment of the extra-legal Union Guards into federal service as regiments of Missouri Volunteers was begun. These regiments were applied to the state quota called for by Lincoln that pro-Southern Governor Claiborne Jackson had refused to provide. Jackson, a perennial candidate for high state office, his election inn 1860 made possible by the splintered parties, was out of step with his Northern Democrat party. Captain Lyon was tendered command of the for new volunteer regiments which enhanced his authority as the elected brigadier general of volunteers.

    Governor Jackson favored secession, but the state convention position of unequivocal neutrality greatly restrained him politically. Needing their visible presence, particularly at St. Louis, the governor called out the State Militia for their authorized annual week of drill in early May. Rebel talk and rebel street names notwithstanding, the U.S. flag was being flown over the camp named in honor of the governor.

    After the Camp Jackson capture and the tragic shooting deaths when Lyon marched the prisoners through the streets of St. Louis, influential political moderates persuaded Governor Jackson and former governor Sterling Price, now the commander of the newly-formed Missouri State Guard, to request a meeting with General Lyon and Frank Blair. At this June 11 Planters’ House hotel meeting in St. Louis, Blair was to be spokesman for the national government, but the vituperative Lyon soon dominated the discussion. In an appalling consummation of bad judgment and disregard for the neutral position on secession held by the majority of Missourians, Nathaniel Lyon declared war on the State of Missouri, a still-loyal state. Even Frank Blair was stunned but did nothing to mitigate Lyon’s highly egregious declaration.

  4. To me, Lyon is the closest Union military official to approach John Brown in his monomania. With him, it was all or nothing, as he defined the terms. The incredible bitterness engendered by the Missouri Civil War lingered well beyond the actual war years. Ironic, that I lived in Connecticut for 40 years, but my Arkansas ancestor fought against him at Wilson’s Creek.

  5. Good stuff, Kristen. Lyon is certainly at the top of my “what if” list since he died so earl yon.
    nead’s version of what Lyon said at the Planter’s House meeting isn’t the only one. James Peckham in 1866 quoted Lyon as saying “Better, sir, far better, that the blood of every man, woman, and child of the State should flow than that she should successfully defy the Federal Government.” Less dramatic than Snead’s version, but still pretty direct! Both Snead and Peckham provide a ton of information regarding St. Louis in 1861, but both are biased; Peckham for the Union and Snead, of course, for the Confederacy. Gotta love Missouri in 1861…….

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!