Did you know… Nathaniel Lyon?

Nathaniel Lyon(July 14, 1818 – August 10, 1861) was a Federal general who gave his life in the service of his country, the first general on the Union side to die in the Civil War.

Early Military Years

Nathaniel Lyon

Nathaniel seemed to have been born a soldier. From the beginning on the little farm in Ashford, Connecticut he hated agrarian life. His ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War, and Nathaniel was determined to serve his country. He graduated eleventh in a class of fifty-five from West Point in 1841.

Nathaniel was assigned initially to the Seminole Wars, and then the war with Mexico – the training ground for most Civil War generals. Commended for conspicuous bravery in the Battle of Mexico City, he rose to brevet captain before the war’s end. Unlike many of his fellows, Nathaniel chose to stay with the Army. He ended up out west, and participated in the massacre of Native Americans at Clear Lake, California, on May 15, 1850.

Fifteen or so of the Pomo tribe had been enslaved by two settlers, Andrew Kelsey and Charles Stone, and confined to one village, where they were starved and abused until they rebelled and murdered their captors. In response, the U.S. Cavalry, including Lyon, slaughtered at least sixty of the local Pomo.

After a few years in California, Nathaniel was transferred to Fort Riley, Kansas, and helped suppress the Bleeding Kansas wars that took place along the Kansas / Missouri border. It was during this period that Nathaniel became staunchly abolitionist, and believed the issue of slavery could only be solved by military means.

Camp Jackson and the St. Louis Riot

Nathaniel was given command of the St. Louis Federal Arsenal, and was there when the Civil War began. Missouri was a slave state, and on the knife edge between Union and Confederate. The state guard refused to send troops to fight for the Union. Nathaniel deployed his troops and artillery on May 10, 1861, surrounding the pro-Confederate militia, and forced their surrender. The Army rewarded him with command of all Union forces in Missouri.

Camp Jackson fight

Nathaniel marched the captured prisoners to St. Louis, but en route, learned of a plot to attack the arsenal in St. Louis, following the capture of the Liberty Arsenal by Confederate forces. The Camp Jackson group of militia was supposedly neutral, but secretly inclined to the gray. Nathaniel Lyons men were largely German-American volunteers, anti-slavery, and Republican. To prevent the St. Louis arsenal from falling into Confederate hands, early in the morning of April 26, nearly 21,000 rifles were loaded on the steamer City of Alton, which carried them across the Mississippi to Illinois. The remainder were held for issue to Lyon’s Missouri Volunteers.

As Lyon marched the prisoners, a riot broke out, with cries of “Damn the Dutch!” from pro-Confederate onlookers. They began throwing rocks and bottles at the Federals – Lyon ordered his men to fire on the crowd. One theory is that a drunk stumbled into the crowd, firing a pistol, which made the Federals believe they were under fire. Some 28 civilians were killed, including women and children; more than 75 were wounded – including women and children.

Lyon’s methods were extreme, but he is credited with preventing Missouri from joining the Confederacy.

Bull Run of the West – Wilson’s Creek

Command issues plagued both sides. Price and McCullough, the Confederate commanders, were at odds, neither acknowledging the other’s authority, and with different plans and goals.The Union side had its own problems – Fremont was in charge of Missouri now, and little concerned with his charge, focusing instead on the Mississippi River valley, leaving Lyon short handed and poorly supplied.

Confederate generals Sterling Price and Ben McCullough gathered a force of nearly ten thousand men. They were poorly trained and equipped but outnumbered Lyon’s troops two to one. Lyon decided not to wait until the Confederates were better supplied. In a daring move, Lyon split his already outnumbered forces, sending General Franz Sigel around the Confederate rear, while he attacked at dawn August 10, 1861, from the front with his remaining troops at Wilson’s Creek. The Southerners might have struck first had it not been for light rain on August 9 that threatened unprotected ammunition in the soldiers’ pockets and led to an overnight bivouac along a stream called Wilson Creek. The next morning as the men were getting breakfast, Lyon’s main force of 4,200 federals attacked from the north, setting wagons and tents afire with artillery shells and throwing Price’s men into chaos.

Nevertheless, Lyon’s strategy was sound, and the initial results of the surprise attack were favorable. Lyon’s force overran the enemy camps and took the high ground at the crest of a ridge, which would become known as “Bloody Hill”. Early Union hopes for a rout were dashed, however, when the artillery of the Pulaski Arkansas Battery unlimbered and checked the advance, which gave Price’s infantry time and cover to organize lines on the south slope of the hill. In the rear, results were also initially successful, but Sigel’s men mistook the 3rd Louisiana for the 1st Iowa Infantry (which also wore gray uniforms) and withheld their fire until the Confederates were nearly upon them. Sigel’s flank collapsed – he and his men ran from the field, abandoning four cannons. Sigel and Lyon had no way to communicate, and Lyon was left on his own.

Price’s men rallied whenever an officer led enough men to charge uphill into the brush and the muzzles of enemy rifles. It wasn’t quite hand-to-hand fighting, but the combat was within shotgun range (a common Missouri weapon at the time), which was close and deadly enough. The divided Confederate forces re-united, and converged on Lyon and his vastly outnumbered troops.

Lyon led with desperate bravery, but was shot during one of the Confederate assaults. Price and Lyon even spotted one another, and Lyon may have rashly considered personal combat before committing his last reserve, a Kansas infantry regiment. Masked in blood from earlier wounds, Lyon led the Kansans in a countercharge until a bullet through the heart killed him. It was not yet noon; combat had been in progress for nearly five hours in brutal heat. Lyon was forty-three years old.

The battle was counted a Confederate victory, but Missouri remained in the Union like other border states, Kentucky and Maryland, through the remainder of the war. Losses were heavy, with the Union suffering approximately 1,200 casualties and the Confederates suffering some 1,100 casualties. The Yankees soon retreated to Springfield and then back to the railhead at Rolla, Missouri, 100 miles to the northeast.