How the St. Louis Wide Awakes Helped to Keep Missouri in the Union

Some of the original Connecticut Wide Awakes, wearing their standard black capes and carrying torches

In its April/May issue, Smithsonian magazine features a story about the Wide Awakes, in which the opening line calls this group “the most consequential political organization in American history.” In the article, titled “Taking Up the Torch: The Untold Story of the Youth Movement that Helped Elect Lincoln – and Spurred the Nation to Civil War,” author Jon Grinspan explains how the group originated, developed its unique uniform, inspired thousands of similar clubs to pop up across the nation, and helped elect Abraham Lincoln president. The article is certainly worth a read – and I’ve already ordered the book from which it is adapted: Wide Awake: The Forgotten Force that Elected Lincoln and Spurred the Civil War, published last month.

One place that such a club sprung up was in St. Louis, Missouri – and in my recent book, A State Divided: The Civil War Letters of James Calaway Hale and Benjamin Petree of Andrew County, Missouri, I discuss the key role the Wide Awakes played in helping to keep Missouri in the Union. The Smithsonian article also briefly mentions this Missouri group, acknowledging that “the first real bloodshed [of the Civil War] came from two clashes involving the Wide Awakes. On April 19, 1861, the National Volunteers, a pro-Southern Democratic militia organized in Baltimore and Washington in response to the Wide Awakes, attacked Massachusetts troops marching through Baltimore, killing several. Not long afterward, armed Wide Awakes in St. Louis captured all 800 members of a Democratic militia who were accused of Confederate leanings, and fired on the crowd around them, killing 30 people” (1). 

Two earlier ECW posts provide interesting insights and background information on the Wide Awakes: “Marching Societies Transform 1860 Election,” by Leon Reed, and “Being Wide Awake Today is Woke,” by Meg Groeling. I encourage you to check them out. Here, I want to explain more about their role in Missouri, including some new information I dug up after reading the Smithsonian article, as well as to share photos and descriptions of the “Wide Awake” exhibits I saw during a visit in January to the Lincoln Memorial Shrine in Redlands, California.

In the following excerpt from A State Divided, I expand upon the incident mentioned in the Smithsonian article:

In April 1861, Missouri’s succession-supporting governor, Claiborne Fox Jackson, ordered the Missouri State Militia to meet at Camp Jackson, where he began planning how to take control of the federal arsenal in St. Louis. He hoped to use the troops still loyal to him to drive out the Union army. Additionally, in a letter addressed to David Walker of the Arkansas Convention dated April 19, Jackson reached out to the Confederacy in hopes of securing arms and ammunition, stating his belief that Missouri would be ready to secede in less than 30 days (2).

A response dated April 23 from Confederacy President Jefferson Davis soon arrived, stating: “I have directed that Capts. Greene and Duke should be furnished with two 12-pounder howitzers and two 32-pounder guns, with the proper ammunition for each. These, from the commanding hills, will be effective, both against the garrison and to breach the enclosing walls of the place. I concur with you as to the great importance of capturing the Arsenal and securing its supplies, rendered doubly important by the means taken to obstruct your commerce and render you unarmed victims of a hostile invasion. We look anxiously and hopefully for the day when the star of Missouri shall be added to the constellation of the Confederate States of America” (3).

Jackson’s efforts hit a big snag when the Union sent in Captain Nathaniel Lyon to safeguard the arsenal. Worried about what Jackson might be planning, Lyon smuggled most of the 60,000 muskets out of the arsenal, with some being carried across the Mississippi River to Illinois and others being used to help arm a loyal home guard unit, known as “The Wide Awakes” and mostly made up of German immigrants, in St. Louis (4). Soon after, when Jackson ordered his troops to march on the arsenal, Lyon’s troops surrounded Camp Jackson and forced a surrender.

If it had stopped there, things might not have escalated as they did. However, Missouri shed some of the first blood in the war when Lyon, on May 10, insisted on marching the losing troops through the streets of St. Louis. Crowds gathered to watch, many of whom were sympathetic to Jackson’s militiamen, and some hostile onlookers began throwing rocks and shouting ethnic slurs at Lyon’s troops. When someone fired a shot, fatally injuring a Union captain, Union soldiers fired into the crowd, killing 28 people, including women and children, in what later became known as the Camp Jackson Massacre. Tempers flared, divisions heightened, and several days of riots followed.

A later meeting on June 11 at Planter’s House Hotel in St. Louis between the leaders of the two sides – Gov. Jackson and Gen. Sterling Price on the one side, newly-promoted Brig. Gen. Lyon and Republican U.S. Congressman Frank P. Blair on the other – failed to reach an agreement on Missouri’s role in the war. Instead, after hearing Jackson’s demand that Federal troops remain isolated in St. Louis and that pro-Unionist Home Guard companies be disbanded, Lyon declared that rather than allow Jackson to dictate to the federal Government, he would “see you, and you, and you, and you, and every man, woman, and child in the state dead and buried.” Lyon concluded by turning to the Governor and stating, “This means war. In an hour one of my officers will call for you and conduct you out of my lines” (5).

Jackson and Price then fled toward the capital of Jefferson City, ordering the bridges on the main railways burned. They soon determined Jefferson City could not be held and departed the next day for Boonville. Lyon’s troops reached and secured Jefferson City on June 15, then continued their pursuit of Jackson and Price toward Boonville. There, they easily defeated the ill-prepared and poorly armed Missouri State Guard troops, who retreated to the southwestern corner of Missouri, demoralizing secessionist troops.

While the First Battle of Boonville on June 17 was brief, perhaps as short as twenty minutes, and many historians have called it a “skirmish” rather than a battle, Lyon’s victory effectively secured Missouri for the Union: “The battle … left control of the Missouri River in Northern hands for the remainder of the Civil War, thus denying to the Confederacy the wealth and manpower of the northern part of Missouri, especially the wealthy ‘Little Dixie’ counties along the river where pro-South sentiment was strong. It also resulted in Governor Jackson’s cabinet becoming a government in exile, forced to flee the state of Missouri to the relative safety of Arkansas, which had seceded from the Union on the preceding May 6” (6).

In my book, I give much of the credit for keeping Missouri in the Union to Lyon. However, after reading the Smithsonian article, I was curious to learn more about the Wide Awakes in St. Louis – and I quickly discovered that Blair played a pivotal role in their establishment. As explained on the Civil War in Missouri website: “In St. Louis, the organization formed under the guidance of Frank Blair Jr…. Blair organized the Wide Awakes in reaction to the heated political opposition faced by the Republican Party. The Wide Awakes served as a counterforce to hecklers who disrupted Republican meetings and rallies … [and] were composed primarily of the German American population. Southern supporters and conditional Unionists with nativist views resented their presence. These forces in St. Louis helped to organize the Minute Men in order to combat the influence of the much larger Wide Awakes…. Eventually, the Wide Awakes organized into armed Home Guard units dedicated to keeping Missouri in the Union. They were central in the taking of Camp Jackson and eventually were mustered into Federal service” (7).  

Curious to see how this event was reported in newspapers of the time, I found an article in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, published May 22, 1861, that clearly gives Blair a lot of the credit. The article begins: “The recent startling events in St. Louis, which have excited the wonder and admiration of loyal people throughout the country, are the necessary results of a well-digested policy, which several months since was planned by Frank Blair, and inaugurated a few weeks prior to the election of delegates to the Convention in Missouri.” (8).

According to the article, Blair feared “that the same unscrupulous means were to be adopted in Missouri, which had accomplished the secession of the Gulf States: that the police of St. Louis were to be placed under the control of a rebel Governor, and the State subjected to the tyrannical provisions of a military law, which would make that traitor the commander of a formidable force, to be directed in furthering the secession of the State from the Union.” To prevent this from happening, he came up with a plan to convert the old Wide Awake associations into Union Clubs. 

At scheduled meetings, the Wide Awakes gathered, disbanded, then “laid down their torches and took up their muskets…. They went into meetings, pacific, political associations; they came out of them formidable military bodies, already well drilled and fitted by the long practice of the Presidential campaign to act as an efficient organization against the armed treason that was just budding at Jefferson City. For weeks they met and exercised under the supervision of capable military officers…. This is the nucleus of the military force of 6,000 volunteers, who, under the command of the gallant Captain [Nathaniel] Lyon, surrounded the armed traitors under General Frost, and crushed out effectually the only secession organization from which any real danger was to be apprehended in Missouri. Frank Blair is Colonel of one regiment of those volunteers, and has doubtless been the ruling spirit in their last admirable coup de grace, as he was in directing their original organization.” (9)

The article also spurred me to look back at photos I took in January when I visited the Lincoln Memorial Shrine in Redlands, California. The museum features several exhibits related to the Wide Awakes. One includes a wooden axe carried by John E. Edmunds of the Rail Splitters’ Brigade during one of the group’s campaigns. 

The wooden axe seen in this Lincoln Memorial Shrine display was carried by John E. Edmunds of the Rail Splitters’ Brigade during one of the group’s campaigns. Photo by Tonya McQuade.

The exhibit display explains: “As the Wide Awake movement swept across the Northeast, clubs formed within communities. With names such as the Rail Maulers, Lincoln Rangers, and Rail Splitters, Wide Awake clubs played on Lincoln’s upbringing on the American frontier and called on his reputation as ‘Honest Abe’ to attract disaffected Americans of voting age, particularly farmers and wage laborers…. Wooden axes, like this one, were symbolic of the ‘Rail Splitter’ persona associated with Abraham Lincoln throughout the campaign.” (10).

Another item displayed at the museum is an eagle-shaped filial made of gold-plated metal. Decorative ornaments like this could often be seen atop the torches the Wide Awakes carried during their demonstrations. As the object’s label explains, “The finial has two wicks protruding diagonally from the crest of the wings. Wide Awakes’ proclivity for oil-dripping torches led to a need for coats and cloaks made from enameled cloth to protect the wearer from oil burns.” (11).

This decorative eagle-shaped filial, also on display at the Lincoln Memorial Shrine, sat atop a Wide Awake torch. Photo by Tonya McQuade.

Grinspan’s Smithsonian article goes on to describe the Wide Awakes’ legacy: “For a half-century after the 1860 election, uniformed and torch-bearing marching companies became the dominant form of campaigning for all political parties. The club’s style remade American democracy as participatory and performative, an accessible spectacle anchored in mass partisanship. And it all grew from a handful of symbols: capes to unify diverse coalitions, torches to light the dark corners against conspiracies and marching orders sending masses off against a common enemy.” (12).

But he goes on to point out that few people today remember 19-year-old Eddie Yergason, the textile clerk from Hartford, Connecticut, who – on February 25, 1860 – helped launch the Wide Awake movement. That was the day young Yergason, not yet old enough to vote, first stole an oil-filled metal torch, sewed himself a black waterproof cape, and convinced four of his fellow textile clerks to do the same so they could march in a parade following a political speech by abolitionist Cassius Marcellus Clay. According to Grinspan, “Recalling the Civil War in purely military terms has helped Americans distance themselves from the hardest questions it posed: how citizens could go to war with each other, how racism poisoned our republic, how the political system we herald led to such carnage.” (13).

Those are questions, sadly, we still wrestle with today.



  1. Grinspan, Jon. “Taking Up the Torch: The Untold Story of the Youth Movement that Helped Elect Lincoln – and spurred the Nation to Civil War.” Smithsonian, Apr/May 2024, pp. 79-87, 120.
  2. Burt, Thomas Gregory, Ph.D., Ed. “Missouri and the Civil War.” The Park Review, Volume 5, 1903-1904. Park Review Publishing Company, Parkville, MO, 1904.
  3. McElroy, John. The Struggle for Missouri. The National Tribune Co., 1909,, Ebook.
  4. Montgomery’s, James. The Civil War in Missouri 1861-1865 Centennial Book. Missouri State Parks,
  5. Snead, Thomas Lowndes. The Fight for Missouri. New York, New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1888. 
  6. Scott, Douglass; Thiessen, Thomas; and Dasovich, Steve. The “First” Battle of Boonville, Cooper County, Missouri, June 17, 1861: Archaeological and Historical Investigations. Missouri’s Civil War Heritage Foundation, Dec. 2009,
  7. “Wide Awakes.” The Civil War in Missouri,
  8. “Col. Blair and Capt. Lyon” (from the Washington Republican). St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 22 May 1861,]
  9. Ibid.
  10. Object Label, Lincoln Memorial Shrine, Redlands, CA.


1 Response to How the St. Louis Wide Awakes Helped to Keep Missouri in the Union

  1. Excellent article!
    If I may add an observation: it requires determination and dedication to tackle antebellum Missouri politics; and the Wide Awakes- cum- Home Guard present as an active mobilisation of that 3-way political contest, competing against MVM, Minute Men and State Guard. Thanks for providing a bit of clarity to the convoluted mess that was Missouri politics.
    Mike Maxwell

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