I have no doubt that Clailborne Fox Jackson (above) believed he had been chosen by God to be rich and powerful. A natural born gambler, after marrying into a patent medicine fortune (“Dr. Sappington's Anti-Fever Pills”), the son-in-law helped turn the doctor's little sassafras flavored lozenges into antebellum America's most popular pharmaceutical. And when the Lord twice took Claiborne's wife, and then his second wife – both Doctor Sappington's daughters, to heaven, Claiborne simply married the next lucky Sappington girl in line. Claiborne's assurance in God's favoritism explains why he felt justified in lying to win election as Missouri Governor in 1860.
With war clouds gathering, Claiborne assured voters he favored neutrality between union and rebels, but in his January 4, 1861 inaugural address he “came out”, insisting Missouri must “stand by the South.” He then called a state convention to authorize secession. But on March 4th that convention voted 89-1 to remain in the union, at least for the time being. A week later seven states met in Montgomery, Alabama to form the Confederate States of America. Frustrated he could not lead Missouri to join them, Governor Claiborne wrote to the provisional President of the new Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, asking for artillery to knock down the stout walls of the St. Louis federal arsenal.
Occupying 22 buildings on bluffs along the Mississippi River (above), The St. Louis Arsenal was the fourth largest arsenal in the United States, and the largest in a slave holding state. It was a tempting target, containing 60,000 muskets, 9,000 pounds of gunpowder, 1 ½ million cartridges and dozens of cannon, guarded by just 40 personnel. Davis immediately ordered artillery seized earlier from the federal arsenal in Baton Rouge, shipped to St. Louis, to knock down those walls (above, right edge). The rush was vital, because at 4:30 on the morning of Friday, April 12, 1861, Confederate gunners in Charleston, South Carolina opened fire on Fort Sumter. The civil war had started, but many in Missouri, on both sides, thought they had more time.
Then on Sunday April 14th , Governor Claiborne did what he really did best – something arrogant and stupid. He ordered the St. Louis Police to selectively enforce the “blue laws” against drinking alcohol on the sabbath. Dozens of beer gardens were shut down, the patrons, emigrant German Catholics, enjoying a Sunday afternoon family tradition, were humiliated and roughed up. The male only taverns frequented by Protestants were not harassed. The next day, Monday April 15th, the governor announced an “English Only” policy for state government. Wrote one St. Lewis German language newspaper, “Every question, every doubt has been swept away. The Fatherland calls us—we stand at its disposal.”
By Friday, 4,200 German volunteers (many veterans of the 1848 revolution) and Republican Wide Awake members, were camped in the arsenal's grounds, now well armed and eager, wrote one member, “to teach the German-haters a never-to-be-forgotten lesson.” On the evening of Friday, April 26th, 25,000 muskets and several cannon not required by the volunteers were shipped to safety, across the Mississippi to Alton, Illinois, then loaded on a train for Springfield.
This was the work of a five foot five inch tall, sugar addicted, mustard sandwich loving 42 year old red headed, hot head from Connecticut named Nathaniel Lyon (above). A West Point graduate, Lyon was smart and ruthless. He had served with distinction in the Mexican War and then spent a few years slaughtering innocent Indian women and children in California. In the spring of 1860 President Lincoln gave him command of the St. Louis arsenal, with a battalion of U.S. Army regulars. And when German longshoremen reported to Lyon on May 8th of the arrival of the steamship “J.C. Swon”, flying the Confederate flag and carrying a cargo of heavy crates labeled “Tamaroa Marble”, Colonel Lyon knew the time to act had arrived.
Despite civilian authorities urging caution, on Friday, May 10th, Lyon lead his 6,000 men and artillery against the pro-slavery Missouri militia gathered at “Camp Jackson”, 4 miles away. Future architect of the union victory, Ulysses Simpson Grant, watched the regulars and German Home Guard from in front of the Anheuser-Busch brewery. And future burner of Atlanta, William Tecumseh Sherman, saw the columns from his office at the St. Louis Railroad street car company, and headed for home to make certain his young son was not following the drums.
Methodically Lyon surrounded the Missouri militia, and outnumbered four to one, they surrendered without a shot being fired. But as the prisoners were being marched back to the armory between columns of regulars, angry crowds formed, taunting the “Damn Dutch men”. Sherman saw a drunk try to cross the street through a company of the “Home Guard”. Constantin Blandowski, an exiled Polish nobleman serving as a pro-union officer, pushed him to ground. The drunk pulled a pistol and fired, giving Consantin a mortal wound in the leg. The German volunteers opened fire. The random death toll was 28, “ a middle-aged street vendor, a teenage girl, a young German laborer...and several soldiers...A wounded woman sat keening on the ground, the body of her dead child clasped in her arms”. Fifty more were wounded.
Like everything Lyon did, the bloody riot forced moderates to choose sides, and it gave Lincoln second thoughts. A few days later, Federal Brigadier General William Shelby Harney, a southern sympathizer whom Lyon had replaced, was ordered back to St. Louis. Harney was a Tennessean by birth, and on May 12th he signed an agreement that federal troops would remain in St. Louis, and the Missouri Militia would maintain order in the rest of the state. It was “secession in all but name.” But Colonel Lyon had not been relieved, merely outranked, and Missouri Republican Congressman Frank Blair was given secrete orders to relieve Harney again, if need be. At the end of May, Blair did just that. Lyon was promoted to Brigadier General of Volunteers, making him the ranking military officer west of the Appalachians. . At a meeting in the Plantation Hotel, intended to seek a compromise, Jackson offered up his usual mixture of half truths and threats. Lyon responded that rather than surrender federal authority to the Governor, he would “see you...and every man, woman, and child in the state dead and buried."
Governor Jackson retreated to the state capital of Jefferson City (above), 144 miles up the Missouri River. It was in the center of the state's “Little Dixie” region.
“On average Missouri’s slave population was only 10 percent, but in Little Dixie (Red, above)...slave populations ranged from 20 to 50 percent” Jackson felt safe here, with the apparatus of political power in his hands – tax and voter rolls, official seals and keys to the treasury. He was certain he could slow or even prevent Lyon from marching on the capital.
Putting the reforming state militia under the command of his cousin, army veteran Meredith Miles Marmaduke, Jackson ordered him to assemble the new army fifty miles further up the river, at Boonville - “ where the Ozark uplands meet the western prairies”. This was the western edge “Little Dixie”, and had to be held.
But Lyon had no intention of giving Jackson time to regain his balance. Rather than marching overland, and being forced to protect the railroad behind him, on Sunday, June 12th, the general loaded 1,400 men onto steam boats and headed up the Missouri.
Again Lyon's audacity had caught Jackson off guard. The Governor barely had time to get out of the capital before Lyon landed his men, on Wednesday, June 15th. He captured the machinery of state government without firing a shot. Lyon did not pause to celebrate. Leaving just 300 men to hold the capital, he headed further up the river with 1,200 men, intent on crushing the rebellion.
At Boonville, Marmaducke commanded just 600 men, most armed with flintlock muskets or shotguns. They had no training, and the little army had not yet even learned how to feed or clothe itself. The rational choice was to retreat. But Jackson was convinced that if he abandoned “Little Dixie” he would never be able to return. So he ordered Marmaduke to defend Boonville. The reluctant commander had no time to prepare. Late in the day of June 16th, Lyon's troops landed eight miles south of Boonville.
At 7 a.m. Lyon put his men on the Rocheport Road. He had landed so far south out of concern about rebel artillery on a ridge just south of Boonville. But at about 8 a.m.,as his regulars unlimbered their own cannon to drive away rebel skirmishers, there were no answering blasts from the Missouri State Guard's lines. Jackson had dispatched his few artillery guns a few miles south, and Lyon's rapid advance had not given him time to bring them back. And as the German volunteers and Federal regulars advanced up the ridge at the rebels, Jackson was observing from a mile away, protected by the most reliable company in the rebel force.
Private J. C. Walden, of the Missouri Guards described the battle, such as it was. “As the enemy went by us on the road below us, we...fired. The Federal column paid little attention and didn't even break ranks. We fired a second volley, when someone yelled retreat. I don't know whether it was the captain -- but we retreated. I started for the camp... where we had left our knapsacks. I found our things taken by the enemy.” In fact, they had probably been stolen by their own men, who had started running first.
The federal troops called it “The Boonville Races”, and "The Great Missouri Lion Hunt". By 11 a.m. General Lyon had accepted the surrender of the village from the mayor of Boonville. The fight cost the federals five dead and five wounded. Best estimates are that the Missouri State Guard lost five dead, ten wounded and 70 prisoners. A month later most of the same politicians who had voted against secession in March, met again in Jefferson City as a “rump” state legislature, and declared the Governor's office vacant. Missouri would now stay in the union, and Lyon would forever be known as the savior of union.
He did not live to enjoy it. In August, in the far southern edge of Missouri, at the bloody battle of Wilson's Creek, General Nathaniel Lyon would be shot through the heart, and his army defeated. The rebels would advance back into Missouri, but they would never have as good a chance at dragging the state into the Confederacy, as they did that spring and summer of 1861, when Governor Claiborne Jackson's arrogance threw victory away.
The great writer and historian Bruce Catton described the battle at Boonville as “the slightest of skirmishes by later standards”. But he added that after it, “the chance that Missouri could be carried bodily into the Southern Confederacy had gone glimmering. Jackson’s administration was now, in effect, a government-in-exile, fleeing down the roads toward the Arkansas border, a disorganized body that would need a great deal of help from Jefferson Davis’s government before it could give any substantial help in return.” In truth it never did.
Claiborne Jackson never saw his Little Dixie tobacco plantation again, and would die of stomach cancer on December 6, 1862, still in exile, in a Little Rock, Arkansas rooming house. He was just 56 years old. In the end, it seemed that God had not favored the man who lived off the slavery of others, or profited by lies to those who trusted him.