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Posted June 20, 2003
Solving the Mystery
by Randy R. McGuire, PhD
Events of Early 1861 Affect the St. Louis Arsenal
Sources and Methodology
Background of the Arsenal
The St. Louis Arsenal in the Years Leading up to the Civil War
Events of Early 1861 Affect the St. Louis Arsenal
©2003 Randy R. McGuire, PhD.
No reproduction or distribution without the consent of the author
Events of Early 1861 Affect the St. Louis Arsenal
In January of 1861, when this latest inventory of arsenal guns was conducted, the installation lay most vulnerable to the designs of Confederate sympathizers in the state of Missouri. James Peckham, author of the earliest volume on the war in Missouri (1866), noted that the arsenal was so vulnerable that it could have been taken with the slightest effort: “In early January, 1861, the only protection afforded this invaluable property was a force consisting of a few staff officers, three or four men detailed from Jefferson Barracks to serve them, and the mechanics (unarmed) in the workshops. There were no precautions adopted to prevent mischievous persons from entering the place, and a half dozen John Brown’s could have taken the arsenal” (Peckham 43—see App C.5.a).
Claiborne Fox Jackson was elected Governor of Missouri shortly before the outbreak of war. He was a firm secessionist, but his attempts at securing the arsenal for Missouri’s pro-Confederacy militia were too late and ineffective.
Retrospectively, it is now evident that this was the optimum moment for such an action to take place, but the pro-Confederate state forces did not make the necessary move at that time. Claiborne Jackson would only act with the appearance of legality; he argued that the state had no right to seize the arsenal property until it had seceded from the Union. When that failed to occur, Jackson and his fellow secessionists lost both the momentum and the opportunity to take over the facility. This fatal flaw in their strategy, coupled with the decisive, if legally questionable actions of federal authorities during the next three-and-a-half months, would seal the fate of the arsenal, ensuring its place as a key player in the Union struggle for the West.
Brigadier General Daniel Frost, Commander of the First Brigade of Missouri Volunteer Militia. General Frost was involved in attempts to secure the arsenal for Missouri, but fell short when his intentions were discovered by General Lyon. Frost commanded the encampment of Missouri Militia which was captured by Lyon at Camp Jackson.
Peckham tells the story of Thornton Grimsley, one of the leaders of the pro-secessionist Minute Men, who wrote to Jackson and offered the services of “over one thousand men, drilled, armed, and ready for any work,” to take over the arsenal at a moment’s notice. He claimed to have the support of General Daniel Frost, commander of the St. Louis District of the Missouri Militia. Peckham says, “Frost knew the value of prompt and decisive action, and had Jackson been as bold St. Louis streets would have run with blood as early as January” (Peckham 41-42) . Jackson turned down Grimsley’s offer and Frost later wrote to Jackson: “Grimsley, as you doubtless know, is an unconscionable jackass, and only desires to make himself notorious” (Peckham 45—see App C.5.b). So the cautious attitudes of both Jackson and Frost resisted a premature resort to arms in order to capture the arsenal. What these secessionist leaders did not recognize at the time was that their extreme caution would ultimately cost them the arsenal.
On January 8, General Frost issued an order to his subordinate commanders that the Missouri militia of the St. Louis District was to assemble at its armories upon hearing a designated pattern in the pealing of the Catholic church bells. Frost managed to arrange this with Archbishop Kenrick’s assistant during Kenrick’s absence from St. Louis (Peckham 45-46). A copy of the order got into the hands of a Union spy, however, who handed it over to Frank Blair. Blair sent it on to General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, as proof that St. Louis secessionists were planning to take over the arsenal. Scott finally responded with an order for additional troops to protect the U. S. Government property in St. Louis (the Treasury building and Custom House) and to reinforce the arsenal garrison. The next day forty U. S. Infantry troops under Lieutenant Robinson arrived at Jefferson Barracks from Newport Barracks, Kentucky. Early on January 11 they were assigned to guard the Custom House on Olive Boulevard, while a large amount of U. S. gold was removed from the sub-treasury. St. Louis secessionists were outraged at the effrontery of the federal government for sending troops to intimidate the citizens of St. Louis. They angrily denounced the efforts of “Black Republicans” to take away their liberties. After the gold was safely transferred, the troops reported to the arsenal where they were billeted and took up guard duties (Peckham 47). Although not a large force, this unit of forty regular soldiers provided more protection for the arsenal than it had employed in many years. From this point on, secessionists would have an increasingly difficult time planning an effective means of capturing the fortification.
Frank Blair, radical Republican from St. Louis, was probably the most influential voice for Union control of St. Louis and the arsenal. He resigned his position in Congress to accept a commission as Colonel of a regiment of Missouri Volunteers. He served under Nathaniel Lyon in the Camp Jackson Affair and went on to ultimately become a Major General of Union Volunteers.
Political maneuvering was rife during January as opposing sides struggled to position themselves to control the state and the city of St. Louis. Whoever controlled the arsenal, controlled the city, and control of the city was essential to controlling the state. So groups organized on both sides of the struggle to make the most of their strength in the city. On January 8, Democrats held a meeting at Washington Hall for the purpose of organizing an opposition to the “Black Republicans.” The active members of the meeting were outspoken secessionists who put pressure on the more timid democrats to submit to their plans. The Republicans were blamed for every evil befalling their state (Peckham 51). The next day, the Missouri Legislature debated the Convention Bill, with the intention of taking the state out of the Union. But due to the timidity of some in the secessionist party, legislators decided that the Convention’s decision, which would determine Missouri’s relationship to the Union, should be submitted to the citizens for a final vote. This would strengthen the hand of state authorities who expected the Convention to firmly support secession. For safe measure, the Missouri legislature passed “An Act to Amend an Act for the Suppression of Riot in St. Louis City and County,” which took away the authority of the Mayor and Sheriff of St. Louis to suppress mobs, and gave the authority to the governor and his appointed agents. The governor immediately appointed his own Police Board in St. Louis, all of whom supported the secession of Missouri and kept a close eye on Union activities (Peckham 25).
Meanwhile, a large group of Unionists met at Washington Hall on January 11 to organize significant opposition to secession. They disbanded the Wide Awakes and formed a Union Club composed of every variety of Republican, but which contained a majority of Germans. Frank Blair was their avowed leader, and a “Union Safety Committee” planned their activities (Peckham 31). The Union Clubs began drilling in pro-Union facilities all over the city while the Safety Committee earnestly sought muskets and rifles with which to arm them.
The governor and St. Louis secessionist leaders also sought arms and ammunition with which to equip the state’s militia and the St. Louis Minute Men. The governor ordered 4,500 kegs of gunpowder for the state forces soon after taking office, but he faced a setback on January 15 when he heard that Louisiana secessionists at New Orleans had intercepted the gunpowder en route to Missouri. Governor Jackson quickly sent two messengers to New Orleans to see if the powder could be recovered. This was a devastating blow for the Missouri Militia, and ironically, the powder was stolen by fellow secessionists (Peckham 52).
Many events were transpiring on the national scene at this time. On January 18 the new U. S. Secretary of War, Joseph Holt, provided the Committee on Military Affairs of the House of Representatives with a list of forts and arsenals in the U. S. and the status of their garrisons. With the beginning of secession, several forts and arsenals had been occupied by secession forces and the U. S. Government needed a clear picture of the status of its remaining installations. Among those listed, the St. Louis Arsenal was reported to have thirty-three personnel assigned to its garrison. These were typically unarmed ordnance troops, however, and the forty infantrymen who had just moved to the facility were not yet counted in this report. The Liberty Arsenal in northwestern Missouri was reported to have no troops. In fact, it had only one civilian storekeeper. Jefferson Barracks did not appear on the list, so it is unclear how many troops were stationed there at the time (OR Ser 3, Vol 1, pp 47-48—see App A.15b). On January 19 Lieutenant John W. Todd arrived at the St. Louis Arsenal with sixteen ordnance troops, after having been driven out of the Baton Rouge Arsenal by Louisiana state forces. Lieutenant Todd’s small contingent increased the ordnance component of the St. Louis Arsenal to forty-nine, along with forty infantry and four officers: Major Bell and Lieutenants Wright, Robinson and Todd.
The Committee on Military Affairs had been informed of the deteriorating situation in St. Louis, and its chairman, Benjamin Stanton, asked Secretary Holt on January 22 to speak to President Buchanan about the need for more troops to secure the city from dissension (OR Ser 3, Vol 1, pp 46-47—see App A.16). Two days later, Holt replied that the President did not believe the situation severe enough to increase the number of troops. He was confident that the force under the command of the Department of the West was sufficient to handle any emergency (OR Ser 3, Vol 1, p 55—see App A.17).
On the same day Secretary Holt assured the Committee on Military Affairs that the situation in St. Louis was secure, Brigadier General Daniel Frost, commander of the St. Louis District of the Missouri militia, made a discreet visit to the arsenal to meet with Major Bell. After a very frank conversation, Frost came away elated to discover that Major Bell was completely in sympathy with the state authorities. Frost wrote a triumphant letter to Governor Jackson on 24 January saying: “I found the Major everything that you or I could desire. He assured me that he considered that Missouri had, whenever the time came, a right to claim [the arsenal] as being on her soil. . . . The Major informed me that he had arms for forty thousand men, with all the appliances to manufacture munitions of almost every kind. This arsenal, if properly looked after, will be everything to our State, and I intend to look after it; very quietly, however.” Frost’s caution is evident at several places in the letter. He excoriates secessionist leader Thornton Grimsley, who apparently induced a couple of his compatriots to telegraph the governor for permission to take the arsenal by force of arms. “The telegrams you received were the sheerest ‘canards’ of persons who, without discretion, are extremely anxious to show their zeal. I shall be thoroughly prepared with the proper force to act as emergency may require. The use of force will only be resorted to when nothing else will avail to prevent the shipment or removal of the arms.” This may suggest that Frost was not confident that his forces were yet ready to face an armed action against the strength of the U. S. command, but he was convinced that, given enough time, he would be ready to act as the emergency required (Peckham 43-45—see App C.5.b).
As fate would have it, the very day Frost was meeting with Bell, General Scott received a pilfered copy of Frost’s order for his militia forces to muster at the pealing of the church bells of St. Louis. Frank Blair insisted that this proved a plan was afoot by state forces to take over the arsenal and he used it to convince General Scott to reinforce its garrison. Scott ordered Brevet Major Peter V. Hagner, at that time commanding the arsenal at Fort Leavenworth, to report to St. Louis where he would assume command. Major Bell was ordered to report to the Eastern Department, but he resigned his commission on January 31 to retire to his farm and large landholdings in St. Charles County. General Scott ordered Lieutenant Thomas W. Sweeny of the 2nd Infantry to report to Jefferson Barracks, from which he was sent to the arsenal to relieve Lieutenant Robinson, taking command of his forty infantry troops. The Safety Committee spoke with Archbishop Kenrick, who had since returned to the city, to gain assurances that any plan to use the Catholic church bells to assemble troops in opposition to the Government would be abolished. The Archbishop assured them that he had already taken care of the matter and that any such use of the bells was strictly prohibited (Peckham 45-47). So, within a week of the fateful meeting between General Frost and Major Bell, the entire plan of the state government to quietly take over the arsenal was upended. It appeared that the emergency measures to which Frost had alluded were upon them all too soon.
Captain Thomas Sweeny of the 2nd U.S. Infantry, was one of the few regular army officers stationed at the arsenal during the crucial days of struggle for Union control. He and his regular troops from Jefferson Barracks led the assault on Camp Jackson and were put in charge of the arms captured from the Missouri Militia. (Courtesy of General Sweeny’s Museum)
The removal of Bell was a blow to secessionist interests in Missouri. Many of the “secesh” leaders in St. Louis felt it was high time to seize the arsenal before the Federal government paid it much more attention, and they resented Governor Jackson’s hesitancy in doing so. Major Bell’s replacement, Major Hagner, was of little concern to them. He was thought to have southern sympathies and would pose little threat to their plans. But Captain Sweeny was quite another case. He was a devoted Unionist, in command of forty troops, and he might, indeed, present a serious threat to anyone attempting to take over the arsenal. In order to get an idea of where Sweeny stood in the present state of affairs, the leadership of the Minute Men sent an old army friend of his, named Croghan, on a visit to the arsenal during the first week of February. When, in the course of their conversation, Croghan revealed that he was a Confederate field officer and warned Sweeny that he “had better find it convenient to get out of there, and very soon, too,” because they intended to take the place, Sweeny responded angrily, “Never! As sure as my name is Sweeny, the property in this place shall never fall into your hands. I’ll blow it to hell first, and you know I am the man to do it.” Croghan’s report to the secessionists, coupled with the comments of others who knew Sweeny, brought them no comfort, and they considered their plans with a great deal more caution. Most of them believed they must act soon, or the opportunity would be forever lost (Peckham 52-54).
As it became increasingly evident that the pro-Southern Minute Men were preparing to take the city by force, the Union Safety Committee reorganized itself on February 1 to more effectively prepare St. Louis’s Union clubs for the armed confrontation they believed was inevitable. The new Committee of Public Safety was inspired by Frank Blair, Jr., who expected to leave soon for Washington to take up his legislative duties, so the committee was formed to look after Union interests in his absence. It consisted of members O. D. Filley, President, James O. Broadhead, Secretary, John How, Samuel T. Glover, and J. J. Witzig. These men worked tirelessly to advance Union interests in St. Louis by organizing, arming and drilling new units of Union patriots to resist “the secessionist scourge” which they saw threatening their city. Everything was done in secrecy for fear that the secesh would make a reckless attempt to take the arsenal if they learned of the existence of this armed force. The Safety Committee formed sixteen companies across the city, composed mostly of Germans, with a lesser number of Irishmen and native-born Americans, nearly 1450 men in all, who drilled at specially secured halls, with covered windows and sawdust bedecked floors (Peckham 30-36).
Captain Nathaniel Lyon, commander of a company of regular infantry from Fort Riley, Kansas, came to the arsenal in February of 1861 to head the defense of the arsenal. He was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers after leading the capture of Camp Jackson. He died three months later at Wilson’s Creek, the first general from either side to die in the Civil War.
Then, on February 6, the balance of power began to shift significantly in favor of the Union. For, on this day, Captain Nathaniel Lyon, commander of Company B, 2nd U. S. Infantry, arrived in St. Louis from Fort Riley, Kansas, with 80 hardened veterans of Western service. Lyon’s reputation as an ardent Unionist and blatant abolitionist had preceded him, to the joy of the city’s Unionists and the eternal dismay of its secessionists. Up to this moment, the possibility had existed that a well-executed, pro-Southern element could have waged a successful takeover of the scantily-defended arsenal. But now, with the addition of 8o seasoned regulars and their fanatical commander to the arsenal garrison, that hope was beginning to dwindle. To make matters worse from the Southern point of view, another 250 regular troops arrived by railroad at mid-day, from Newport Barracks, Kentucky, and took up residence at the arsenal. This increased its garrison to 419 officers and men, a force certainly sufficient to bring into doubt the success of an attack by all the available Minute Men in the City of St. Louis. Lyon and Blair soon became fast friends and confidants. They shared the same political agenda, and Blair had great respect for Lyon’s seasoned military authority. Lyon was invited to inspect the several armories where the Union Guards were drilling, and he even supervised the drill at times to help establish a proper discipline. He drew close to the members of the Safety Committee and was welcomed into their secret meetings (Peckham 58-59; Phillips App D.8.c).
Civilian versions of Sharps’ rifles which might have been similar to those provided by Giles Filley to the Union recruits who drilled at his foundry.
A week after Lyon’s arrival, the Safety Committee managed to acquire some of the first guns for the Union Guards. Frank Blair and the Filley Brothers contributed $325 of their own money toward a $407.90 bill to pay for seventy muskets with caps and ammunition. Blair managed to convince Governor Yates of Illinois to send 200 muskets which were quickly distributed to the Union Guards. Giles Filley purchased sixty Sharps Rifles for the use of a company that drilled at his foundry. A Mr. Woodward handed over another fifty guns and many other Union citizens contributed firearms to the Guard, until Blair had enough to arm an entire regiment. The Safety Committee did not dare to requisition the arsenal for any arms, for fear that its plans would be discovered, but committee members hoped, through Lyon’s influence, to soon be in a position to acquire all the arms that were needed (Peckham 36-38).
William Selby Harney commanded the Army of the West and was considered by Blair, Lyon and others to be sympathetic toward the South. Lyon was appointed to his position when Harney was relieved of command, setting the stage for the Camp Jackson Affair. (picture from a Harney biography, courtesy Brian Wiegand--link:Harney Biography)
Back in Washington, General Scott received continual entreaties from Frank Blair and others, drawing a bleak picture of arsenal security and requesting that more troops be assigned to St. Louis. On February 13 Scott wrote to General William Selby Harney, Commander of the Department of the West, inquiring about the defense of the St. Louis Arsenal. “Ought you not to send up all the men from Jefferson Barracks? . . . It is best to move in advance of excitement; . . . it is possible, when an emergency arises, re-enforcements may be cut off, and . . . all the force may now be usefully employed at work in adding to the defenses of the arsenal” (OR Ser 1, Vol1, p 653—see App. A.26).
On February 19, nearly a week after receiving Scott’s letter, Harney replied, intimating that the information received by Scott was inaccurate:
. . . the apprehensions which have been entertained of a demonstration against the Saint Louis Arsenal have not been well founded, and that such an attempt has not been at any time seriously contemplated, it has not appeared to me that the safety of the arsenal required that I should call up any considerable portion of the troops from Jefferson Barracks. Moreover, the secession party is in a decided minority in Saint Louis, and there is every reason to suppose that in the event of a movement from any quarter upon the arsenal its garrison would be promptly succored by an overwhelming force from the city. At any rate such is the prevailing opinion in the community, and in the existence of the sentiment may, it is thought, be found a sufficient warrant for the belief that the arsenal is not at this time in danger.
Harney expressed the utmost confidence in Major Hagner, saying that Hagner considered the installation secure even before the arrival of Captain Lyon’s company. Furthermore, Hagner “has recently, in obedience to the orders of the General-in-Chief, been re-enforced by some three hundred recruits from Jefferson Barracks, and his command now numbers nine officers and four hundred and eighty-four men” (OR Ser 1, Vol 1, p 654—see App A.27).
About this time, Captain James Totten and Company F of the 2nd Artillery arrived in St. Louis from Little Rock, Arkansas, where they had been driven from the Little Rock Arsenal on the demand of Governor Henry Rector. Although Arkansas had not yet withdrawn from the Union, the state militia was anxious to get its hands on the armaments of that arsenal, and this they were able to do by forcing the surrender of the arsenal garrison. Totten and his troops were permitted to leave the Little Rock with their personal effects and a small amount of ordnance which they had brought to the arsenal when they reported for duty, but they were not allowed to take anything else. Totten particularly regretted having to leave behind some fine artillery (which would, unfortunately, turn up six months later on the battlefield of Wilson’s Creek to wreak havoc on Lyon’s troops, including Totten’s new battery). Totten reported to the Department of the West and was temporarily stationed with his battery at Jefferson Barracks. He and his troops would later assist in the fortification of the arsenal and in guarding its powder magazines at Jefferson Barracks (OR Ser 1, Vol 1, pp 639-46—see App A.18-24).
A bird’s-eye-view of the arsenal in 1859, just two years prior to the outbreak of hostilities. Notice the upper (west) end of the installation, devoid of buildings prior to the war. It would fill rapidly with temporary structures once the war broke out. Notice also the sally port leading to the river on the east side. This would prove to be a crucial access point during the tumult of strife in the spring of 1861. (Courtesy of NIMA)
Major Hagner, on February 21, reported to his superior in the Ordnance Corps, Colonel Craig, on the status of the arsenal. He said that, since his last report on February 7, an additional four officers and 301 men had reported for duty and his fortification efforts had continued: “I have thrown up field works on all sides of our main cluster of buildings, and provided them with guns commanding the interior faces of our inclosing wall and all approaches to the main square. We are perfectly secure, therefore, against any infantry attack and watchful against surprise.” He reported an outbreak of smallpox, but said it was under control at the post hospital. Finally, “Notwithstanding the large force and the few conveniences for them upon their arrival, I think they are well cared for, and all essentials for health and comfort provided. The arrangements made still permit all the arsenal duties to proceed regularly without inconvenience to the shop work in hand” (OR Ser 1, Vol 1, p 655—see App A.28).
At the end of February, the Secession Convention met in Jefferson City for three days, but then reconvened to St. Louis on March 3 because of the strong secessionist atmosphere of the state capital. Although the secessionists had been confident that the citizens of Missouri would vote the state out of the Union, the election of representatives to the Convention in the middle of February had favored the moderates, and when the Convention vote was taken, it was resoundingly in favor of remaining within the Union. The secessionists were dumbfounded, since they had manipulated the legislature to put the full force of law in the outcome of the Convention vote, expecting the decision to be solidly for secession. When the results went against them, they bitterly denounced the outcome, but were legally prevented from moving forward with secession. That did not stop their attempts to bring it about, but they had to proceed with caution.
With the heightened antagonism among secessionists, Captain Lyon worked around the clock to ensure that the arsenal attained the highest level of defense:
The proceedings at Jefferson City, and the conduct of secessionists everywhere in the State, were fully communicated to Captain Lyon, and awakened within him the most serious apprehensions. He conversed freely with his friends [the Committee of Safety] as to the best policy to pursue. Of one thing he expressed himself as fully determined—the arsenal property shall never be surrendered or taken while he remained in a position to prevent it. The force at the arsenal had been further increased by the arrival of more recruits from Newport Barracks, and other troops, under Capt. Saxton and Lieut. Lothrop. Lyon, Sweeney, Saxton and Lothrop were assiduous in their duties of drilling and disciplining their commands, and in their efforts to counteract threatened dangers. The arsenal was put in a state of complete defense. Around the inside of the wall banquettes were arranged, and at proper places field and siege guns placed in position, and protected by earthworks and sandbags. The building known as the main arsenal was undermined, and powder enough placed under it to effectually destroy building and contents when necessary to ignite it. Lyon determined the arsenal and himself should be a ruin before the secessionists should have it. (Peckham 90-91—see App C.5.h)
On March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as the sixteenth President of the United States. Immediately Frank Blair began importuning Lincoln’s administration, particularly through his brother, Montgomery Blair, who was Postmaster General on Lincoln’s cabinet, to order a change of command in St. Louis. On March 11, Blair telegraphed the Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, to request that Lyon be put in charge of the troops at the arsenal while Hagner retained responsibility only for the ordnance. Cameron granted the request that same day (OR Ser 1, Vol 1, p 656; OR Ser 2, Vol 1, p 106—see App A.29-30). Hagner was not notified of the change in command authority until March 19. He was shocked at the order and appealed to the Adjutant General, saying that he had been put in command of the “mixed troops” on February 11, after the arrival of Lyon, and that he had fortified the arsenal as ordered. There was, therefore, no reason why he should be relieved of this command, particularly since it was done without a hearing, in spite of his excellent record of service. He appealed to the General-in-Chief to be permitted to exercise his rights under the law and Army regulations (OR Ser 1, Vol 1, pp 657-58—see App A.31). On March 20 General Harney issued orders clarifying the authority of Lyon and Hagner. Lyon would only be in charge of the defense of the arsenal and in command of the line troops; Hagner would continue to command his ordnance troops and would maintain control of all ordnance stores. (OR Ser 1, Vol 1, pp 658-59—see App A.32a-32c)
In early April, a municipal election for Mayor was held in St. Louis and Daniel G. Taylor was elected. Although not a secessionist, he was opposed to the Republicans, so he was enthusiastically supported by secessionist voters. A celebratory parade was held in his honor and the crew from a Confederate steamer made a float from which they flew a rebel flag. This caused an altercation with respected Unionist J. N. Pritchard, whose actions caused the float to leave the parade. Pritchard also happened to be an officer in the Missouri militia, but he soon tendered his resignation when it became apparent that the militia leadership was leaning toward the Confederacy (Peckham 93-94). A few days after the mayoral election, Claiborne Jackson appointed a new Police Board, in keeping with the recently passed law in that regard. The Police Commissioners were predominantly secessionists, who were chosen to stand in opposition to the city’s Union loyalists. But the Commission appointed James McDonough as Chief of Police, of whom Peckham says, “Certainly did he perform the duties of his office in maintaining the peace with great success, regardless of consequences to personal friend or foe” (Peckham 95-96). So in one sense, the intentions of the governor and the Police Commission were blunted by having an objective and competent chief in charge of the municipal police force. Still, many of the police officers themselves were southern sympathizers and did their best to report on Unionist activities and to thwart Northern plans in their city.
This civilian structure located just across the street from the main West Gate was occupied by Union volunteers to prevent Missouri Militia from holding a position of imminent threat to the arsenal.
About the time of the takeover of the police department by the state government, Captain Lyon complained to General Harney that Major Hagner was not cooperating with him in establishing the defense of the arsenal. Lyon managed to persuade Harney to issue an order to Hagner, requiring him to make the appropriate transfer of equipment. The orders were explicit:
The department commander directs that you transfer to Capt. N. Lyon, Second Infantry, commanding the troops at the Saint Louis Arsenal, all the mounted artillery at that place available for service, and understood to consist of two 8-inch howitzers, six 12-pounder howitzers, and four 6-pounder guns; also, the implements required to render the same effective for service, together with fifty rounds of fixed ammunition for each piece. Captain Lyon is also authorized by the department commander to throw up such defenses of earth at the arsenal, and to occupy such of the out-buildings with a night force, as in his judgment security of the place may call for. (OR Ser 1, Vol 1, p 661—see App A.33)
From this order it is evident that, as of April 6, 1861, there were only a dozen pieces of mounted artillery available for the defense of the arsenal. The number of artillery pieces would not increase until some months later when the arsenal would resume its function of distributing arms to the armies of the West.
By April 9, General Harney was beginning to be concerned about the safety of the gunpowder and ordnance supplies stored in the arsenal magazines at Jefferson Barracks. His first inclination was to order that the powder and supplies be moved to the arsenal where they could be better protected, and to send Captain Totten’s troops from Jefferson Barracks to the arsenal to bolster the defense. It is unclear how many men or how much equipment that would entail. The next day, however, Harney changed his mind about the transfers, apparently because of information he had received from Lieutenant Wright. Wright had probably informed the General that there was little room left at the arsenal for the storage of a hundred barrels of powder, nor could the large amount of ordnance supplies be accommodated there. So Harney rescinded his earlier orders and commanded Totten and his troops to remain at Jefferson Barracks guarding the ordnance supplies and gunpowder at the two magazines. They would live in the nearby quarters and pitch tents if necessary. He further directed that only the fixed ammunition should be transferred from the Jefferson Barracks magazines to the arsenal (OR Ser 1, Vol 1, pp 662-64—see App A.34-37).
Then, two days later, on April 12, 1861, the unspeakable happened. Confederate shore batteries under General P. G. T. Beauregard opened fire on the Federal garrison of Fort Sumter, near Charleston, South Carolina. The Union garrison, under Major Robert Anderson, surrendered after ten hours of steady bombardment. The troops were evacuated the next day, April 13, and South Carolina troops occupied the fort. With these opening shots of war, the nation was plunged into a four-year blood bath, from which Missouri would not escape, in spite of its location on the western frontier.
On April 15, President Lincoln issued a public proclamation that the laws of the United States were being “opposed and obstructed” by the Southern Confederacy and that it was necessary for the Federal Government to call upon the loyal states for 75,000 ninety-day volunteers to assist the Federal forces in putting down the rebellion. In pursuance of this proclamation, the Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, sent the governors of most of the non-seceded states a call for volunteers. Twenty-four states were designated to provide these 75,000 troops, between the ages of 18 and 45. Missouri received a quota for four regiments to be raised, consisting of 151 officers and 3,123 men, and the state was entitled to one Brigadier General of Volunteers. The response to Lincoln’s call for volunteers was overwhelming from most of the Northern states, but the official governments of Missouri and five other states (Arkansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia) formally refused to send any troops at all to fight against their fellow Southern states (OR Ser 3, Vol 1, pp 67-68, 76—see App A.38-40).
On the same day, General Frost, Commander of the St. Louis District of the Missouri Militia, wrote to Governor Jackson offering him suggestions as to how he might proceed in his efforts against the Union forces in the state. Frost carefully laid out actions for the state militia, the legislature and the governor. This letter reveals once again the deliberate plans made by Frost to subvert the Union authorities in Missouri and, in particular, to gain military control of the City of St. Louis, for which, control of the arsenal would be absolutely essential. Jackson soon put into effect virtually every suggestion made by Frost. One of his most significant acts was to write to Jefferson Davis, requesting artillery and ammunition for the Missouri militia to bring the arsenal under siege, forcing the surrender of its Union garrison. The letter was dispatched on April 17 in the hands of Basil Duke and Colton Greene, leaders of the pro-Southern Minute Men (Peckham 147-49—see App C.5.i).
With the outbreak of war, General Harney finally faced the fact that the arsenal was indeed in a precarious position and its protection required prompt action. On April 16 he wrote to the command in Washington, DC, urgently requesting instructions for his guidance. He said he had heard that the Governor of Missouri intended to put artillery on the hills overlooking the arsenal to force its surrender. In the event the state secedes from the Union, he said, they intend to take the arsenal with them. Harney enumerated the arsenal command at that time as consisting of nine officers and about 430 enlisted men, including the unarmed ordnance troops, Totten’s 2nd Artillery battery, Lyon’s 2nd Infantry company, the 4th Artillery, and general service troops. Although he felt this force could defend a direct assault on the installation, he did not believe it would survive an artillery attack from the surrounding hills (OR Ser 1, Vol 1, pp666-67—see App A.41).
On the same day that Harney wrote for instructions from Washington, Captain Lyon wrote, of his own initiative, to Governor Richard Yates of Illinois, via a messenger on his way to Springfield. The message was passed on to President Lincoln on April 17. Lyon asked Yates, in view of the threat toward the arsenal and Governor Jackson’s refusal to provide troops in response to Lincoln’s call, to contact the authorities in Washington to have some of the six regiments designated to Illinois sent to defend the U. S. Government sites in St. Louis: the arsenal, customs house, post office and treasury. Lyon stated that, since the arsenal arms were the main object of a potential attack in St. Louis, it would be advisable for Yates to request that the Federal Government order a large supply of arsenal arms to be sent to Illinois in order to secure them from the enemy (OR Ser 1, Vol 1, p 667—see App A.42a-42b).
Governor Yates, endorsed by several state officials, sent an official response to President Lincoln on April 17, in answer to his call for volunteers. Yates reported an overwhelming response to the call, with ten companies already volunteering and more pouring in each day. He also reminded the President that St. Louis was threatened by secessionists and that the Union men there were unable to arm themselves for defense of the city. He asked Lincoln to order the commander of the St. Louis Arsenal to issue 10,000 stand of arms and ammunition to Illinois. Once Illinois received the guns, he said, some of them could be issued back to Missouri Union volunteers. Governor Yates also recommended that an Army of the West be stationed with 20,000 men at St. Louis and that more troops be sent south to defend Cairo, Illinois. Yates had already telegraphed Washington requesting arms for his state troops and had said the guns could be most conveniently supplied from St. Louis (OR Ser 3, Vol 1, pp 80-81—see App A.43).
On the very same day, Governor Claiborne Jackson sent a curt reply to President Lincoln, refusing to send a single Missouri soldier to fight against the seceding states. The short, acerbic note was memorable for its moral judgment of Lincoln’s action:
Your dispatch of the 15th instant, making a call on Missouri for four regiments of men for immediate service, has been received. There can be, I apprehend, no doubt but the men are intended to form a part of the President’s army to make war upon the people of the seceded States. Your requisition, in my judgment, is illegal, unconstitutional, and revolutionary in its object, inhuman and diabolical, and cannot be complied with. Not one man will the State of Missouri furnish to carry on any such unholy crusade. (OR Ser 3, Vol 1, pp 82-83—see App A.44)
Frank Blair returned to St. Louis from Washington, DC, about this time, assuring loyal Unionists that the new administration would “use the last man and the last dollar” to crush the rebellion. Blair reported on the surge of Union sentiment that he had encountered on his return trip. When he learned of Governor Jackson’s letter to Washington, which was published in the State Journal the very day he returned, Blair immediately telegraphed Washington offering to raise the four regiments of Missouri Volunteers himself, and asked for the appointment of an officer to muster them into service. Blair also advised loyal men who were in the State Guard to resign from the militia at once. Several did so over the next few days (Peckham 102-04).
After hearing complaints from the Police Board about Captain Lyon’s illegal patrols throughout the city, particularly in the neighborhood of the arsenal, General Harney had his Assistant Adjutant General write to Captain Lyon on April 18, informing him of the restraints to be placed upon his use of troops in the City of St. Louis and the bar to issuing small arms to new recruits. There would be no more military patrols outside of the arsenal grounds, and the 5,000 arms recently put under Lyon’s control were not to be issued without General Harney’s explicit permission. Lyon knew there was very little chance of that happening (OR Ser 1, Vol 1, p 668—see App A.45).
A sample of the various types of ordnance equipment found at an arsenal. This stack of arms and accoutrements is overseen by an ordnance sergeant in the uniform of a regular ordnance soldier at the dawn of the Civil War.
The next day, Frank Blair fired off an urgent telegram from East St. Louis to Secretary of War Cameron, imploring him to issue orders for Captain Lyon to muster in Union men in St. Louis. Blair claimed he could fill the Government’s requisition for four Missouri regiments within two days. He ended the telegram with a stark demand, “Relieve Hagner. Answer immediately” (OR Ser 1, Vol 1, pp 668-69—see App A.46). On April 20, Secretary Cameron dutifully carried out Blair’s request by first telegraphing Governor Yates of Illinois, directing him to send two or three Illinois regiments to support the garrison at the St. Louis Arsenal and to receive their arms and accoutrements there. Yates was also to appoint an agent to receive 10,000 more arms that would be removed to the state of Illinois, at which point Yates would be responsible for them to the U. S. Government. Then, Cameron sent a telegram to Lyon at the arsenal, informing him that the Illinois troops would be arriving to bolster the defense of the place and to receive their arms there (as Lyon had suggested to Governor Yates on April 16). Cameron confirmed that Lyon was also to release 10,000 additional stand of arms to an agent that Governor Yates would soon dispatch to the arsenal (OR Ser 1, Vol 1, p 669—see App A.47-48).
A sketch of the Liberty Arsenal in western Missouri. The seizure of the armaments of this facility by secessionists from Clay County caused the St. Louis Arsenal command to redouble its efforts at fortifying the St. Louis facility. (Courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society)
Before Governor Yates could send a single soldier to St. Louis, alarming news reached the city from western Missouri. Early on Saturday morning, April 20, Clay County secessionists had broken through the light defenses and seized the contents of the U. S. arsenal at Liberty. According to reports, some 1,500 small arms and “a few cannon” were captured by the malefactors (OR Ser 1, Vol 1, pp 649-50—see App A.51-52). To make matters worse, Captain Lyon’s spies informed him that St. Louis secessionists, heartened by the actions of their western compatriots, were planning to take over the St. Louis Arsenal that very night. Members of the Safety Committee and their supporters sprang to action, feverishly reinforcing the arsenal defenses. At one point during the day, O. D. Filley met General Harney at the arsenal gate and told him of the seizure of Liberty Arsenal, but Harney affected not to believe it. Lyon sent mounted patrols throughout the city to report suspicious activities. Companies of Union Guards were ordered to assemble in their armories with the few weapons they had, prepared to move to the arsenal at a moment’s notice. Captain Sweeny was put in charge of the guard post at the west gate, facing Carondelet Avenue, at which he commanded two artillery pieces. During the night, two of his guards deserted, taking with them certain accessories which were needed to fire the guns. These men were undoubtedly agents of the secessionists, doing their best to weaken the arsenal’s defenses prior to the anticipated attack. Sweeny, in ill humor, replaced the missing equipment from arsenal stocks, putting it in the charge of a private whose very life depended upon its continued security (Peckham 104-06).
Drawing of the West (main) Gate to the St. Louis Arsenal, which fronted on Carondelet Avenue (later Broadway). Secessionist spies were known to keep this gateway under 24-hour surveillance.
There was much activity at the Berthold Mansion, Headquarters of the Minute Men, that night. Peckham says there was “a large crowd of men thoroughly armed, and engaged in plotting an attack upon the arsenal.” The recently-elected Mayor of St. Louis, Daniel G. Taylor, was anxious to preserve the peace of the city. He had won an enthusiastic vote from St. Louis secessionists because he was known to be a strong opponent of the Republicans. But like the police chief, Taylor was a man of integrity who sought to do what was right for the peace and prosperity of the city, with little regard for political in-fighting. When informed near midnight that a group of Minute Men were preparing to make an attempt on the U. S. Arsenal, Mayor Taylor hurried to their headquarters, and with some difficulty, was admitted to the Berthold Mansion. He begged the leaders not to attempt an assault on the arsenal, for it was “a foolish undertaking, which could only result in their capture or death.” The leaders boasted that they had two spies on duty at the arsenal gate that very night (perhaps the ones who had given Captain Sweeny such grief), and their men could take it whenever they wished. Nevertheless, the Mayor’s entreaties must have worked, for the Minute Men decided not to do it this night. Mayor Taylor saved the day, and very possibly changed the course of history (Peckham 106-07).
John Schofield was a Regular Army Lieutenant, temporarily on leave of absence to teach physics at Washington University, when the war broke out. He became General Lyon’s Chief of Staff and later served as a brigadier general under General Sherman toward the end of the war and later rose to the highest levels of the U.S. Army.
Early Sunday morning, April 21, the frazzled Lyon sent a note to Frank Blair, expressing his frustration at having no authority to muster troops. He raised the issue of the captured arms at Liberty Arsenal and intimated that the same was about to happen in St. Louis. He resented the double standard by which Captain Steele at Fort Leavenworth was permitted to raise volunteers to defend that post, while in St. Louis, because of the interference of General Harney, Lyon was forbidden to do the same. In a second note to Blair a short time later, Lyon said that he had heard Lieutenant Schofield was in town on furlough and that he had been authorized by Washington to muster volunteers. Lyon urged Blair to send some men to find Schofield and see if anything could be done that day. Blair’s men found him at church and brought him quickly to Blair’s house. After a brief discussion with Blair, Schofield proceeded to the arsenal, but discovered that Harney’s order restricted him from mustering the troops. He returned to Blair with a note from Lyon, saying that Schofield could not do his job because of Harney’s restrictions. So Blair and Schofield called upon General Harney to get permission to muster the volunteers, but Harney refused to countermand his order. In a huff, Blair telegraphed Governor Curtin of Pennsylvania, urging him to communicate to the Secretary of War what was going on in St. Louis and to request that Harney be relieved of his command. In a telegram to Governor Curtin, Blair exaggerated the holdings of the arsenal, stating that it contained 75,000 stand of arms, probably to emphasize the great loss to the Union if this facility were seized by secessionists (Peckham 107-10).
Then, as if by a miracle in the midst of this tense and aggravating Sunday afternoon, a telegram, addressed to General Harney, arrived from the Adjutant General’s office in Washington:
GENERAL: I am directed by the Secretary of War to say that you are hereby relieved from the command of the Department of the West, which will devolve upon the senior officer in the department, and you will repair to this city and report to the General-in-Chief. (OR Ser 1, Vol 1, p 669—see App A.49)
By “senior officer in the department,” one would normally conclude that Major Hagner should assume this position. But Captain Lyon had waged a relentless dispute with his superiors over the fact that Hagner was a brevet Major, and that in actual rank of the line, Lyon should be considered the senior officer since he had received his captain’s commission a month prior to Hagner (Phillips, Damned Yankee, 142—see App D.8.b.).
Since Hagner’s loyalty was as much in doubt as Harney’s, the Army command in Washington appointed Lyon Acting Commander of the Department of the West, until an appropriate higher ranking officer, whose loyalty was not in question, could assume the command. As soon as the telegram relieving General Harney was sent, the Adjutant General’s office notified Captain Lyon of the change in command:
General Harney has this day been relieved from his command. The Secretary of War directs that you immediately execute the order previously given to arm the loyal citizens, to protect the public property, and execute the laws. Muster four regiments into the service. (OR Ser 1, Vol 1, p 670; OR Ser 2, Vol 1, p 106—see App A.50)
These were the golden words that Blair, Lyon and their comrades had been waiting for. With nothing now standing in the way of accomplishing their plans, they immediately set to work arming the troops and devising a scheme to bring their opponents to justice. General Harney relinquished his command on Tuesday, April 23, and left for Washington the same day (OR Ser 1, Vol 1, pp 670-71—see App A.55).
In the meantime (April 22), Governor Jackson issued a proclamation summoning the Missouri Legislature into extraordinary session at Jefferson City on May 2. He ordered the state militia to assemble for training in its respective military districts on May 3, and to remain in the encampments for six days. Jackson petitioned several St. Louis banks to lend him $50,000 to arm the state militia, which they reluctantly agreed to do (Peckham 114-15).
On April 23, Jefferson Davis responded to Governor Jackson’s letter of the 17th requesting the much-needed artillery and ammunition for the expected assault on the arsenal. Davis’s flowery reply assured Jackson of his support, anticipating the state’s imminent entry into the Confederacy:
MONTGOMERY, ALA., April 23, 1861.
His Excellency C. F. JACKSON,
Governor of Missouri:
SIR: I have the honor to acknowledge yours of the 17th instant, borne by Captains Green and Duke, and have most cordially welcomed the fraternal assurances it brings.
Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy. Davis knew the St. Louis Arsenal well, having served at Jefferson Barracks as a young officer and later as Secretary of War, when a great controversy arose over building the railroad tracks through the arsenal grounds. Davis provided guns and ammunition to the Missouri Militia in April 1861 in an attempt to help them take the arsenal. (Courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society)
A misplaced but generous confidence has, for years past, prevented the Southern States from making the preparation required by the present emergency, and our power to supply you with ordnance is far short of the will to serve you. After learning as well as I could from the gentlemen accredited to me what was most needful for the attack on the arsenal, I have directed that Captains Green 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 inclosing 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.
With best wishes, I am, very respectfully, yours,
JEFFERSON DAVIS. (OR Ser 1, Vol 1, p 688—see App B.34)
The steamboat City of Alton was employed by Union forces to clandestinely transport from the arsenal 21,000 small arms, along with artillery, gunpowder and ammunition, to Alton, Illinois, on April 25, 1861. From there the arms were distributed to volunteer units in three or four Northern states. (Courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society)
While all of these clandestine preparations were taking place between the state government and the Confederacy, the newly-empowered Union authorities were working around the clock to arm five new regiments of Union volunteers from the arsenal stockpiles and were hatching their own plot to dispose of the excess arsenal arms. Captain Lyon had originally suggested the idea to Governor Yates of Illinois on April 16. It was Yates’s intention, on April 25, to send two or three regiments to St. Louis, in response to Lyon’s request, to have them equipped at the arsenal and to station them in its vicinity to provide protection against a secessionist attack (OR Ser 3, Vol 1, p 113—see App A.56). But General John E. Wool, Commander of the Department of the East, who had oversight of military affairs in Illinois, advised Yates not to send his regiments to St. Louis, so they were held back at the last moment. It is unclear what caused General Wool’s hesitation (OR Ser 3, Vol 1, p 116). Nevertheless, Governor Yates sent his representative, Captain James H. Stokes, to the arsenal with a requisition from the Secretary of War for 10,000 muskets. Stokes arrived in St. Louis on Wednesday night, April 24, made his way to the arsenal and worked out a plan with the arsenal command to load the arms on a steamboat during the night and carry them away to Illinois. The plan was approved and about 11:00 p.m. the next night, the City of Alton moved quietly to the arsenal landing, where 700 men proceeded to load the heavy gun cases and boxes of ammunition onto the steamer.
As a ruse to keep the secessionist spies occupied while the steamer was being loaded, Captain Lyon had a shipment of 500 unserviceable flintlock muskets transported openly to the St. Louis waterfront, as if preparing to have them shipped on a steamer. The Minute Men took the bait, seized the muskets and made away with them amid much jubilation. The few spies who remained to watch the arsenal were arrested by Lyon and detained in the arsenal guard-house.
A sample packet of ten rounds of .58 caliber rifle ammunition prepared by the St. Louis Arsenal late in the war. Dozens of these packets were shipped in wooden ammunition crates such as that illustrated below. (Courtesy of the General Sweeny Museum)
Numerous accounts of the events of this night have passed down through history. They differ in some detail, so it is not entirely clear who suggested what to whom, or precisely how these things were carried out. But we may surmise that, once the 10,000 arms were loaded on the boat, Captain Stokes suggested that all the weapons not needed for the defense of the arsenal be shipped to Illinois to prevent their capture by the secessionists. Captain Lyon agreed, and may have even urged it upon Stokes, so another 10,000 muskets were loaded, along with 500 rifle carbines and 500 revolvers, 110,000 musket cartridges, two artillery pieces (probably 12-pounders) and their equipment, and various accoutrements. This left the arsenal with 8,000 stand of arms according to Governor Yates’s report to the Secretary of War (OR Ser 3, Vol 1, pp 116-17—see App A.58), or 7,000 according to a news item in the Chicago Tribune (App C.3). At any rate, the 21,000 muskets, carbines and revolvers cleared out most of the small arms from the arsenal. Captain Lyon retained enough weapons to equip his 5,000 volunteers and 5,000 Home Guards. Some of the muskets had already been issued before the boat transfer took place (Peckham 118-19). This number corroborates the view that the total amount of small arms in the arsenal at the outbreak of war was in the thirty thousands, nowhere close to the sixty thousand suggested by several sources.
110,000 musket cartridges were transported in crates such as this from the St. Louis Arsenal to Alton, Illinois. The arsenal not only manufactured and packed the cartridges; it also constructed the cases in which they were shipped. (Courtesy of the General Sweeny Museum)
Once the ordnance was loaded on the steamer, its pilot, Captain Mitchell, attempted to back into the river, but the boat would not move. It was discovered that the load on the front end was so heavy that the bow had been driven into the mud and it could not budge. So the troops were hastily reassembled to shift the load toward the stern and finally the City of Alton was dislodged and made its way north to the city of its namesake. On board the steamer was Captain Stokes and Captain George H. Stone, who had been detailed with his C Company of the First Regiment of Volunteers to provide protection for the trip to Alton. Once arrived, Stokes sounded the local alarm and town folk poured out of their homes to the waterfront where men, women and children helped to unload the priceless treasure of arms and ammunition and reload it on a train that sped the ordnance to a distribution center in Springfield the same day. Three days later, General Wool ordered Governor Yates to turn over 5,000 muskets and accoutrements to the Governor of Ohio, leaving Illinois with 16,000 of the St. Louis arms. Yates pleaded with General Wool not to take any more of the arms, since the needs of Illinois and Missouri were still pressing, but Wool ordered Yates to send another 3,000 arms to Wisconsin, which had seven regiments enrolled, “but no arms, even for drill” (OR Ser 3, Vol 1, p 145—see App A.62). Governor Randall of Wisconsin wrote to President Lincoln, complaining that Illinois should not have great precedence over Wisconsin in the distribution of arms. He was miffed that Illinois had been tasked for six regiments of volunteers while Wisconsin had been assigned only one regiment, so he had gone ahead and enrolled seven regiments on his own authority (OR Ser 3, Vol 1, pp 169-70—see App A.69).
Governor Samuel Kirkwood of Iowa was also desperate. He relentlessly entreated the War Department for aid. The state was virtually without arms, attempting to raise volunteer regiments for the war effort, yet fearing an Indian uprising on its northwest frontier. A thousand arms expected from the St. Louis Arsenal were not forthcoming. Although the Secretary of War attempted to alleviate the situation in Iowa on May 6, there was no immediate relief (OR Ser 3, Vol 1, p 162—see App A.67). A letter from Governor Kirkwood to General Wool on that same date provides a telling example of the anxiety experienced by the western states in the early days of the rebellion, and of the absolute desperation felt in the elusive search for firearms to equip their troops (OR Ser 3, Vol 1, p 163—see App A.68).
Back in St. Louis, Frank Blair’s intercessions finally paid off. On April 30, the long-awaited word came from Washington that Captain Lyon, who now commanded the Department of the West, had the authority to enlist the full contingent of volunteers necessary to defend the arsenal and St. Louis. He could enroll up to 10,000 volunteers, and if the Committee for Public Safety deemed it necessary, it could declare martial law in St. Louis. The volunteers were to remain in service until the threat to St. Louis was over and they were to be guided by the usual Rules and Articles of War and such other regulations as Lyon saw fit to prescribe. As an afterthought, the ordnance officer of the arsenal was directed to remove all the arms in the arsenal that were not needed for the newly enlisted regiments in St. Louis “to Springfield, or some other safe place of deposit in the State of Illinois, as speedily as practicable.” This was likely done to cover the action that had already been taken by the arsenal command on April 26. The order was signed by General Winfield Scott and President Lincoln, with a note appended—“these are ‘revolutionary times,’ ” so the unusual nature of this order could be excused (OR Ser 1, Vol 1, p 675—see App A.60).
Immediately upon receiving these orders from Washington, Captain Lyon wrote to the Adjutant General, Colonel Thomas, reporting on the status of the arsenal and its needs. He said that, as of April 30, some 3,300 volunteers had offered their services, and he had armed 3,082 of them. He expected to continue enlisting volunteers up to the full quota of 10,000, which he was certain could be raised. But he required better housing for the volunteers, many of whom had to live outside with scant shelter. He requested that the artillery be put in condition for defense, and that the necessary horses be provided to pull the guns and equipment, because he expected an impending attack by the State Militia. He had occupied buildings and locations outside the arsenal to deprive the enemy of positions from which to shell the arsenal. He also requested an armed steamer to ply the Mississippi between Alton and Cairo, Illinois (OR Ser 1, Vol 1, pp 675-76—see App A.61).
Layout of Camp Jackson, May 6, 1861. Edward B. Sayers, an engineer for the state of Missouri, surveyed the bivouac site of the Missouri Volunteer Militia and rendered this plan of the site on the eve of the Camp Jackson Affair. (Courtesy of the Mercantile Library)
On Monday, May 6, the several state militia organizations in the St. Louis district began gathering at Lindell Grove, on the western outskirts of the city, for the recently ordered training encampment. A similar encampment had been held the previous year at Camp Lewis, and Governor Jackson used this as his justification for holding an “annual encampment” for the militia training. The atmosphere was upbeat, with tents pitched in neat rows along boulevards that bustled with visitors from town and country. Those experienced at drill performed for the entertainment of visitors, and basic military skills were taught to new recruits. The American flag fluttered over Lindell Grove, just southeast of the intersection of Grand Avenue and Olive Boulevard. But the tenor of the men in training was decidedly Southern in sympathy. The streets of the camp were named for well-known Confederate leaders. The First Brigade of Missouri Militia was the best organized unit in the state. It consisted of two regiments, the First commanded by Lieutenant Colonel John Knapp and the Second by Colonel John S. Bowen, both of whom had long and distinguished civilian and militia careers. The encampment, named Camp Jackson for the Governor, was commanded by his trusted advisor, Brigadier General Daniel Frost. Some 700 men were in camp at the high point and more would have joined had it lasted longer.
St. Louis waterfront, where the J. C. Swon unloaded armaments from New Orleans destined for the Missouri Volunteer Militia at Camp Jackson.
On Wednesday evening, May 8, a significant event occurred which sealed the fate of Camp Jackson. The J. C. Swon, a steamer from New Orleans, pulled into port with a massive load of field guns, muskets and ammunition bound for Camp Jackson and the interior of the state. The shipment was accompanied by Colton Greene and Basil Duke and contained the ordnance appropriated from the U. S. Arsenal at Baton Rouge by Confederate forces and given to the state of Missouri by Jefferson Davis. This was, in the eyes of Captain Lyon, stolen U. S. property, and as soon as he was informed of its arrival, this provided the justification he was seeking to put into effect his plan to capture the militia encampment. Peckham reports that it took between fifty and one hundred dray-loads to transport all of the ordnance from the Swon to Camp Jackson. Greene superintended the transfer and saw it safely stored at the encampment. Then, on Friday morning, May 10, Greene accompanied an infantry company with a large portion of the stolen ordnance on a train to Jefferson City.
This idealized sketch of fighting in the streets of St. Louis appeared in the New York Illustrated News several days after the Camp Jackson Affair. (Courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society)
In the meantime, Lyon and the members of the Safety Committee were meeting at the arsenal to decide their plan of action. A couple members urged the use of legal means to challenge the leaders of the encampment, but Lyon and Blair favored a direct military confrontation and this is what they put into effect on Friday afternoon. By the tenth of May, Lyon had enlisted over 7000 Volunteers and Home Guards. In late afternoon the Volunteers, led by a contingent of U. S. Regulars, marched out of the arsenal, perhaps six thousand strong, and converged on Camp Jackson from four directions. Although General Frost, who had heard of Lyon’s impending action, sent a note to Lyon, feigning innocence at the charge of preparing to attack the arsenal (OR Ser 1, Vol 3, pp 5-6—see App A.74), Lyon refused to accept the communication (OR Ser 1, Vol 3, pp 6-7—see App A.75) and presently arrived at Camp Jackson to arrest Frost and all of the militia members who refused to take an oath of allegiance to the Union. No one was willing to take an oath that day, so Lyon ordered them to stack arms and had them line up in formation on Olive Boulevard, with lines of U. S. Volunteers on both sides of them, in preparation to march back to the arsenal. There were some delays at the encampment when Lyon was temporarily knocked senseless by an aid’s horse kicking him in the stomach, but he was gradually revived. Captain Sweeny and his regular troops were detailed to inventory the large supply of militia ordnance and transport it to the arsenal.
Finally, as the formation belatedly moved out, an altercation arose between civilians who were taunting the troops and some of the German Volunteers who could not understand what was being said and were resentful of the angry crowd. A drunken civilian is reported to have fired into the formation, striking a Union officer, while several civilians hurled rocks and brickbats at the Volunteers. Suddenly, at a point near the front of the formation, German troops under Colonel Sigel began firing into the crowd. By the time order was restored at least twenty-five civilians and three soldiers were dead or mortally wounded, while many more lay wounded in the formerly festive setting. Once the crowds were dispersed and the ranks restored, the column moved out about 6:00 p.m., leaving a scene of carnage in its wake. The prisoners were marched to the arsenal where they were locked up overnight, and then released the next day upon taking an oath of allegiance to the Union. General Lyon sent a detailed report of the event to Washington on May 11, defending his actions (OR Ser 1, Vol 3, pp 4-5—see App A.76). For many days thereafter the events of May 10 were played out in the local newspapers and an investigation was conducted by law enforcement into the cause and outcome of the tragedy. The Civil War had come to St. Louis in all its fratricidal fury.
Geo Rule posed a simple question in his recent website article, “The 140 Year Debate Over the Number of Guns at the Arsenal.” In essence it was, “How many small arms were held by the St. Louis Arsenal in the opening days of the Civil War?” On its face, this appears to be a straightforward question that should yield a simple answer. But the answers that historians have provided in the 140 years since that conflict took place have been anything but simple. The two most frequent responses to this inquiry are in the neighborhood of 30,000 or 60,000 weapons, the latter being more commonly found in the literature. How can there be such a wide divergence of opinions by competent scholars on an issue that should be so cut-and-dried?
As with so many issues in American history, the answers are not so simple. For this reason, I have attempted in the above discussion to lay out the political, military and logistical issues of the period, to sort wheat from chaff and rumor from fact, to get to a clear understanding of the significance of the St. Louis Arsenal to the wider struggle. We have seen that, historically, the arsenal never held more than 40,000 small arms at any period prior to the Civil War. As late as December of 1859, the inventories did not exceed 34,000. On January 21, 1861, just four months before the onset of hostilities in St. Louis, the U. S. inventory indicates that the state of Missouri had 38,141 small arms, about 1,500 of which were located at Liberty, Missouri. That reveals holdings of about 36,600 in St. Louis. There is no extant record that indicates another 24,000 arms being received by the arsenal in the four months following the January inventory. Furthermore, the affair of the transfer of 21,000 arms to Illinois in April, 1861, indicates that there were only 7,000 or 8,000 arms left in the arsenal after the transfer. Since Captain Lyon’s troops had already been issued a few thousand weapons by that time, it is consistent with the inventory of the preceding January. So on the basis of this evidence, we must conclude that the 30,000 figure is closer to the truth, and there is no basis in fact regarding an inventory of 60,000 small arms.
Regardless of the size of the arsenal stockpile, every single weapon was important to the war effort in the opening days of the conflict. It became painfully clear, soon after the commencement of hostilities, that there were not enough arms in the entire United States to properly outfit the armies of either side. This has been amply illustrated by the disputes among the states of the upper Midwest (Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa and Missouri) for the few guns that were transferred from the arsenal to Illinois in late April. By the end of the first year of fighting, ordnance operations had become well established on both sides, weapons production had increased in North and South, and large numbers of small arms were being purchased abroad. The British Enfield, which had been in U. S. inventories in moderate numbers, soon flooded the stocks of both sides, but was found in particularly large numbers in the Confederacy. Once the St. Louis Arsenal was secured by the Union, it again became the repository of enormous amounts of small arms, ammunition, and even field guns, and continued to supply the needs of the Western armies to the end of the war.
Site plan of the St. Louis Arsenal in May 1865, appearing much as it looked at the highpoint of the Civil War. (Courtesy of the National Archives)
So the question arises, where did the 60,000 figure come from that has enjoyed so much popularity in the majority of histories written since the war? The very first mention of 60,000 small arms was in James Peckham’s 1866 history, Gen. Nathaniel Lyon and Missouri in 1861 (Peckham 42-43—see App C.5.a). He did not indicate where he got the figure. It could be that he recalled an amount from later in the war when large numbers of weapons were sent to the arsenal once it was secure for the Union. But wherever the number came from, Peckham simply stated it, with a certain ring of authority. When nobody disputed the figure for several decades, it was accepted by most historians as authentic, and repeated time and again. Clearly, historians cannot verify every single detail of what they write or they might never finish their histories. There are certain bits of information that make it into the mainstream and are quoted repeatedly by excellent historians, and later writers are often willing to take them at their word. Unfortunately, if a particular “fact” happens to be incorrect when it is first mentioned, and nobody catches it right away, then there is a danger of it being carried on as authentic history and repeated so often that no modern scholar bothers to check it out. That is, until a specialist on the period comes along who knows its story in detail and finally dares to raise a question about this “well known fact.”
The person in this case who dared to raise a question about this well established fact was Geo Rule. I wish to thank him for inviting me to address the question of the number of guns at the St. Louis Arsenal. It has been a fascinating study for me and may lead to further studies concerning the arming of both sides during the first year of the war. I would invite the comments of any readers who would like to contribute to this discussion, in hopes that the efforts of many would move us closer to understanding this mystery of the arsenal guns.
Randy R. McGuire, Ph.D.
Saint Louis University
Totten’s command at this time consisted of Company F of the 2nd Artillery, along with the ordnance detachment that had accompanied him from Little Rock.
The location of this encampment was on the present day site of Saint Louis University, east of Grand Avenue. The area where Lindell Boulevard now intersects Grand (across the street from Saint Francis Xavier College Church) is approximately where the militia tents were pitched.
©2003 D. H. Rule, G. E. Rule
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