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The Struggle for the Frontier States: Missouri


Far from the East Coast and what was then the heart of the country, bordering the Far West, the Missouri It was no less affected primarily by the emerging civil war. In fact, it found itself in a situation very similar to that of Kentucky: that of a state of just under 1.2 million people, including a relatively small proportion of slaves, both attached to the southern culture and its presence within the Union.

A complex situation

Missouri had already been at the heart of the debate on slavery even before it took on a separatist dimension, since its integration into the Union had given rise to the "Compromise of 1820", which established the northern limit of the practice of slavery on parallel 36 ° 30 ’. The particular institution of the South had therefore been given time to develop there, mainly in the rural areas on the south bank of the Missouri River, around the state capital, Jefferson City.

Slavery was far from affecting all Missourians, but those who were were firmly attached to it. Thus, militant slavers played a central role in the troubles of "bloody Kansas" from 1854. It was they who carried out the massive electoral frauds which illustrated the first years of Kansas' existence, crossing the border to get elected, illegally, slave delegates to the Kansas Constituent Assembly. Not disdaining intimidation, they occasionally fired at the abolitionists, pursuing a tradition of violence (inaugurated vis-à-vis the Indians, then later the Mormons in the years 1830-40) that the civil war would only amplify.

But the 1850s were also an era of change major for Missouri demography and society. The wave of European immigration of previous years saw a massive influx of farmers of German and Irish descent, preferring to try their luck west of the Mississippi rather than vegetate in the poverty of the big cities of the East Coast. These migrants had little attachment to Southern culture and its servile corollary, preferring far - and with good reason - abolitionism and the ideology of the "free land". Urbanization continued to grow, especially for St. Louis, the large metropolis located at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, with a population of 160,000 in 1860.

These transformations divided the state, ending up in the result of the 1860 presidential election. Missouri was narrowly removed by Northern Democrat Stephen Douglas, who edged John Bell by just a few hundred votes - a duel showing just how split Missouri voters were between their attachment towards the South and the Union. Secessionists were well represented, with Breckinridge receiving the support of one in five voters. As for Lincoln, while largely defeated, he still got 10% of the vote, by far his best score in the border states.

As in Kentucky, the Missourian political class struggled to find a compromise acceptable to the majority of their constituents vis-à-vis the winter crisis of 1860-61. Its Unionist governor, Robert Stewart, very early advocated a policy of armed neutrality, taken over by his successor, the secessionist Claiborne Jackson, from January 1861. After rejecting secession twice, the state legislature mobilized its militia and placed it under the orders of a former supporter of John Bell, Sterling Price. At the same time, Governor Jackson strongly rejected Lincoln's call for volunteers.

Map of Missouri in 1861, annotated by the author.

Camp Jackson and the St. Louis massacre

The state of Missouri was home to two military installations at the time: a small arsenal in Liberty, near its border with Kansas, and a larger one in St. Louis, where was also the headquarters of the Western Military Department, commanded by Brigadier-General William Harney. The latter, who was then the youngest (61 years old anyway) general of the regular army, was loyal to the Union but faced with mistrust of the Lincoln government. He was a violent man with a sulphurous reputation, who had once been sued for having beaten to death one of his slaves because she had lost her keys, and whom the Republican administration was especially anxious to get rid of without repercussions. you might as well risk having him change sides.

On April 20, 1861, Missourian militiamen occupied the Liberty arsenal and seized 1,000 rifles and four cannons. Faced with this success, Jackson set up a similar operation to seize that of St. Louis. He secretly asked for help from the Confederation, which delivered arms to him, and ordered several hundred militiamen to set up a training camp a few kilometers from St. Louis, which its occupants quickly named " camp Jackson ". The latter was to serve as the basis for the capture of the arsenal.

The federal government is also responding. He took advantage of Harney's momentary absence to place the acting head of the Western Department as the commander of the St. Louis Arsenal. This junior officer, the captain Nathaniel Lyon, had for him to be firmly abolitionist and to have contacts in the most radical Republican circles. Ambitious and forceful, he acted swiftly, clandestinely arming militiamen loyal to the Union with part of the arsenal, then quietly transporting the rest to safety in Illinois, across the Mississippi.

The Unionists of St. Louis soon informed Lyon of what was going on at Camp Jackson. On May 10, he regrouped his forces and had them surround it. Taken by surprise, the militiamen surrendered without fighting, and 669 of them were taken to the arsenal to be released on parole. Seeing in this long column of prisoners marching through the streets of the city a humiliation imposed on supporters of the Southern cause, secessionist civilians quickly assembled on its route, demanding the unconditional release of the captives.

The majority of the Unionist volunteers who escorted them were recent German immigrants. To political antagonisms was soon added xenophobia, and the soldiers were taken to task by the crowd. As in Baltimore three weeks earlier, the situation worsened. Shots fired and, believing themselves to be under attack, the Northerners soon returned fire. By the end of the day, 28 people had been killed and several dozen others injured, not counting the violence against citizens of German descent in the following days.

Missouri is on fire

The Camp Jackson affair and the St. Louis massacre (or riot, depending on your point of view) had serious consequences. She pushed many Missourians to choose their side, starting with Price who, previously attached to the Union, became a secessionist. He and Jackson reorganized the militia into a "state guard" (Missouri State Guard), formed on a permanent foot. Missouri stood like this ready to face the northern troops.

For his part, Harney had returned to St-Louis and had resumed command in Lyon. Anxious to quell the violence, he contacted Price and signed a truce May 21. This document confirmed the northern control of St. Louis without calling into question the formation of the state guard. He infuriated the Unionists in Missouri, and they fired Harney, with the approval of a Lincoln administration too happy to be able to get rid of the bulky general in this way. On May 30, the latter was replaced as head of the Western Military Department by John Frémont, while Lyon was promoted to brigadier-general of the volunteers and in charge of effective command of the troops in the field.

The new northern commander had his troops prepared to march towards the center of the state. Governor Jackson met with him on June 11 to try to negotiate a new truce, but Lyon remained adamant and the meeting came to nothing. He occupied Jefferson City on June 15 while Jackson, Price and some 20 secessionist Missourian deputies took up the cause of Confederation and left the capital. In their absence, the Missouri Unionists, led by Francis Blair Jr., replaced them with an administration loyal to the federal government, and Missouri remained in the Union.

The Missouri state guard, which was sorely understaffed, outnumbered the Northerners but was hardly able to cope with the soldiers from Lyon. The latter immediately launched in pursuit of the fugitives to prevent them from join the confederate forces who were gathering in northwest Arkansas to come to their aid. A first skirmish, in Boonville on June 17, confirmed the northern superiority. However, another clash at Cole Camp two days later enabled the Missourians to defeat an isolated Unionist detachment, opening them a safe retreat.

The advanced elements of Lyon, a little more than 1,000 men commanded by a former officer of the army of the Grand Duchy of Baden (German immigrant, therefore), Colonel Franz Sigel, pursued Jackson to the southwestern borders of Missouri. On July 5, Governor Jackson, who personally commanded the state guard in the absence of a sick Price, faced him in Carthage. The Northerner attack was cut short when Sigel saw that the enemy forces, four times as numerous as his, were trying to flank him. He withdrew in good order, despite the fact that only half of the Missourians were armed.

The Battle of Wilson’s Creek

This engagement put a temporary end to the northerly advance in the region. Lyon gathered its forces, about 6,000 men, in the city of Springfield, the main agglomeration of this sector. Price, recovered, camped his troops 120 kilometers away in the southwestern tip of Missouri. It was soon reinforced there by a detachment of the Arkansas militia, under Bart Pearce, and by a brigade of Confederate volunteers under Benjamin McCulloch. This force numbered 12,000 men, but arms and ammunition were lacking, and the small army, now led by McCulloch, lacked cohesion.

Lyon did not intend to leave the initiative to their opponents and took the offensive on 1er August. However, the first skirmishes told him the next day that he was now outnumbered by two to one. Canceling his advance, he fell back to Springfield, which he prepared to evacuate to settle in Rolla, closer to his supply base in St. Louis. Before doing so, he wished to slow down the inevitable southerner pursuit by an unexpected about-face. He and Sigel hatched a surprising plan, in which Lyon would lead a frontal attack while Sigel flanked the enemy with his brigade. This was a violation of a basic military principle, which was to avoid dividing one's forces in the face of an adversary superior in numbers.

In the southern camp, the command was divided. Price wanted to attack the Federal Army as soon as possible to wipe it out by taking advantage of its numerical inferiority, but McCulloch had little faith in the Missourians, and he feared the lack of ammunition : he estimated to have no more than 20 cartridges per man. McCulloch eventually rallied around Price's advice and ordered an attack, but it began to rain almost immediately. As the southerners were for the most part not equipped with waterproof cartridges, they risked seeing their ammunition soggy and unusable; McCulloch therefore rescinded his order.

This saved the two forces from tripping over each other in the darkness and storm, as Lyon had already set in motion. Considering the low level of training of his troops, the maneuver was brilliantly executed, for he and Sigel simultaneously struck the Confederate camps around 5.30 am on August 10, 1861. The first outposts were easily removed and Lyon quickly occupied a position. hill overlooking the Wilson’s Creek, the little river on the banks of which the Southerners were camping. Sigel, for his part, broke through the opposing Arkansas militia regiment and, continuing on his march, threatened the southern rear.

Lyon then pushed on its right wing, against Price's Missourians who soon recovered. The northern advance found itself the victim of its own position, for once past the ridge line the Federal infantry found themselves exposed to southern artillery fire: each advance was blocked by deadly bursts of grape-boxes. The ensuing Missourian counterattacks were in turn stopped on the slopes of the hill, which earned in these bloody clashes its nickname Bloody Hill. Lyon tried to turn the tide by placing himself at the head of a new charge, which almost reached the foot of the "bloody hill". But the Missourians' position was solid, its right flank firmly anchored on Wilson’s Creek, and Lyon was shot in the chest. He only had time to dismount before exhaling.

Battle of Wilson's creek, annotated map by the author from an 1865 map. Northern positions and movements in blue, southerners in red.

On the other side, two regiments - one of the Home Guard Missourian Unionist, and the other from the regular army - covered the left flank of Lyon's forces. McCulloch managed to stop them, then drive them back with a regiment from Louisiana and another from Arkansas. Using the greatest mobility of his forces (half of his men were on horseback), he then turned these two regiments around and threw them against Sigel. The latter, noting that the fighting seemed to have diminished in intensity on Bloody Hill, believed that Lyon had broken through the enemy lines and was coming to meet him. He only realized his mistake when the Confederates opened fire on his troops and charged his artillery. His soldiers panicked and fled, leaving on the ground nearly 300 dead, wounded and prisoners out of just over 1,000 men, and 5 of their 6 guns.

From then on, the outcome of the battle was decided. In Lyon succeeded Thomas Sweeny, who in turn was shot in the leg and ceded command to Major Samuel Sturgis. He held on, repelling three Southern assaults on Bloody Hill, but in doing so he almost exhausted his ammunition. He had no choice but to fall back on Springfield, and by 1:30 p.m. the bloody battle of Wilson’s Creek was over. The total losses exceeded 2,500 men (including 535 killed) out of a number of engaged 17,500 combatants, a percentage rarely reached afterwards.

An uncertain struggle

The defeat forced the Northerners to abandon Springfield to the Confederate troops, and to fall back on Rolla. While McCulloch, on whom the army depended for supplies from remote bases served only by poor roads, remained cautiously on the defensive, Price attempted to regain control of western Missouri. After a series of skirmishes, it was blocked by the fortified positions established by a small northern force in Lexington, west of Jefferson City. After a week's siege, he seized it on September 20, thanks to the cunning of one of his subordinates, whose soldiers mounted the assault sheltering behind hemp balls.

Lexington’s victory left 3,500 prisoners in the hands of the Missourians, and allowed them both to control the western Missouri Valley and to recruit new troops from the surrounding areas. This success also had important political repercussions. The deposed governor, Claiborne Jackson, and his companions pro-confederates took the opportunity to meet in Neosho, in the southwest of the state, and proclaim the secession of Missouri. On October 31, the Confederation admitted the latter to its midst.

The pro-Confederate government of Missouri, however, was not going to enjoy extensive control for long. After Lyon's death, his supervisor assumed direct command of the small "army of the West". John Fremont was none other than the first Republican presidential candidate (in 1856), famous explorer of the Rocky Mountains, major architect of the conquest of California during the war against Mexico, and notorious abolitionist. He spent two months strengthening his army before marching it southwest on October 7. He retook Springfield on the 26th, without having had to fight a major battle.

Faced with the loss of their main Missouri base, the Confederates withdrew to Arkansas, as various skirmishes gradually gave the Northerners nominal control of the state during the fall of 1861 and the following winter. Frémont, however, made a political error which prevented him from capitalizing on his success: having published at the end of August a proclamation emancipating the Missourian slaves who would belong to the partisans of the rebellion, he refused to cancel it despite the repeated demands of Abraham Lincoln. , who feared that such an order would tip the Missourian public opinion into the southern camp. Frémont was finally dismissed November 2, 1861 and sent to West Virginia.

A Southern attempt to regain the initiative in Missouri was to come to an end after the Feds' victory in Pea ridge (March 7-8, 1862), leaving the state for good in Northerner hands once the last Confederate positions in the southeast along the Mississippi were taken. Sterling Price would attempt to regain "his" state again in 1864, but his raid, daring as it was, was nonetheless unsuccessful and ended in disaster.

However, the rapid Northerner victory for control of Missouri was not going to mean the end of the fighting for that state, quite the contrary. Nowhere other than Missouri have the sordid aspects of the civil war. From the end of 1861, a merciless guerrilla, often exacerbated by conflicts between neighbors or families, opposed the pro-southerner supporters (Bushwhackers) Union troops and loyalist Missourians, the Jayhawkers. Encrusted with summary executions and abuses against the civilian population, this struggle did not stop with the end of the Civil War, many Bushwhackers simply turning into highwaymen, like brothers Frank and Jesse James, to name only the most famous.

The United States in 1863. In blue, the Union; in red, Confederation. In yellow, States which have officially remained in the Union but also have a minority confederate government.

Legend of the states: MD - Maryland; VA - Virginia; WV - West Virginia; KY - Kentucky; MO - Missouri.


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