The 140 Year Debate Over the Number of Guns at the Arsenal
by G. E. Rule
See also: Solving the Mystery of the Arsenal Guns by Randy R. McGuire, Ph. D- groundbreaking original work answering the long-disputed, and vital, question of the number of guns at the St. Louis Arsenal in early 1861 and their importance to the outcome of the Civil War – new June 20, 2003
Without a doubt, the central facet of the struggle for St. Louis, and Missouri, in 1861 was the story of the maneuvering for control of the United States Arsenal. He who controlled the Arsenal controlled St. Louis. He who controlled St. Louis, because of its central location as transportation hub of both rivers and railroads, controlled Missouri. Some, like Minute Men leader Basil Duke, went even further and claimed that he who controlled Missouri would win the war. According to Duke, holding Missouri would have allowed the South to go on the offensive in the West. Imagine what a different world we might be living in if the title of the acerbic John McElroy’s 1909 book was The Struggle for Illinois.
Practically every work on the Civil War in Missouri at least mentions this showdown, some at great length. You would think that there would be something very close to unanimity on the central ascertainable fact of just how many arms were in the Arsenal that each side was willing to run the most daring risks to control. This isn’t a matter of opinion or political persuasion –it is a number that is immune to whether you are the most radical Abolitionist or the most fiery States-Rights man.
Yet the recent publication of St. Louis University archivist Randy R. McGuire’s St. Louis Arsenal: Armory of the West reminds us that history has given us two answers to this question. The older answer, but decidedly the minority report, is roughly 30,000 small arms (muskets, rifles and carbines). This answer starts with a Chicago Tribune article of April 29th, 1861, reporting the successful mission of Captain James H. Stokes to take all the guns not immediately needed by Union Captain Nathaniel Lyon’s troops to Illinois in order to keep them safe from the secessionists of St. Louis. Stokes was said to “empty the arsenal” of all the extra arms. This article is then printed in Frank Moore’s Rebellion Record in 1862, and from there “the 30,000 answer” shows up in Galusha Anderson’s The Story of a Border City in the Civil War (1908), Hans Christian Adamson’s Rebellion in Missouri, 1861: Nathaniel Lyon and His Army of the West (1961), and finally in McGuire’s book just last year.
The strongest argument against the 30,000 answer is the collection of participants and experts that have rejected using it. A single newspaper article in 1861 is a thin reed indeed against the likes of Peckham, Snead, Duke, Phillips, Parrish, et al.
The second answer, by far the more prevalent and backed by the more impressive list of participants and historians, is 60,000 small arms. This answer starts life with James Peckham’s General Nathaniel Lyon and Missouri in 1861 (1866), and continues with Thomas L. Snead’s The Fight for Missouri (1886), John Fiske’s The Mississippi Valley in the Civil War (1900), John McElroy’s The Struggle for Missouri (1909), Robert J. Rombauer’s The Union Cause in St. Louis in 1861 (1909), Basil Duke’s The Reminiscences of General Basil Duke (1911), Edward Conrad Smith’s The Borderland in the Civil War (1927), James W. Covington’s “The Camp Jackson Affair” (Missouri Historical Review, April 1961), Christopher Phillips’ Damned Yankee: The Life of General Nathaniel Lyon (1990), William C. Winter’s The Civil War in St. Louis: A Guided Tour (1994), William Parrish’s Frank Blair: Lincoln’s Conservative (1998), and Louis S. Gerteis’ Civil War St. Louis (2001).
Here the problem is stark –despite the illustrious list of adherents, the simple fact is that the math just does not work. You can not start with 60,000, subtract the 20,000 that Stokes transferred to Illinois, and end up anywhere near the 10,000 that Lyon actually needed for his five Missouri Volunteer and five U.S. Reserves (Home Guard) regiments.
Does it really matter which number is correct? As events actually turned out –with the Union maintaining control of the Arsenal and its armaments—perhaps not. But if you like playing with hypothetical questions, and you wonder if just maybe Basil Duke could have been right that the South lost the war right there in St. Louis in the first months of 1861, it becomes more important. 30,000 small arms would have been enough to arm the Missouri State Guard quite nicely, but not so many as to make Governor Claiborne Jackson willing to share more than a few thousand with the Confederate government. With 60,000 arms, Jackson could have easily given half of them to the CSA government at a time when each was worth its weight in gold. According to Thomas L. Snead, the entire South (including the Missouri secessionists) had only 150,000 muskets in the Spring of 1861, so an additional 60,000 would have been an increase of over one-third. While the North was much better off, it suffered from a relative shortage as well. Losing 30,000 small arms would have been a serious blow to the Union, but losing 60,000 might have been calamitous.
Is there any way to reconcile the two accounts? Assuming that Stokes took something close to 20,000 muskets (instead of, say, 50,000) to Illinois on the night of April 26th, then it is hard to see how the 60,000 number could be correct. That would leave 40,000 guns at the Arsenal, only 10,000 of which were immediately needed by Lyon for the troops he was authorized by Washington to raise. The other 30,000, if they existed, would still be a powerful magnet for the secessionists of St. Louis. None of the historians mention this other mystery 30,000 guns after Stokes’ mission, so unless new evidence is presented their presence must be considered speculative at best.
They would, however, nicely explain what has puzzled so many observers since 1861 –why did Governor Jackson and General Frost go ahead with their planned Militia “camp of instruction” at Camp Jackson on May 3rd, 1861, even after Stokes had supposedly cleaned out all the extra guns from the Arsenal? The meeting of the Militia had been planned as a smoke-screen for an assault on the Arsenal, using siege guns acquired from the CSA on Jefferson Davis’ personal orders and shipped secretly to St. Louis under the direction of Basil Duke. Theoretically, that plan had become moot if Stokes had left nothing worth having (the 30,000 answer). But half of a larger loaf (the 60,000 answer) would still be much better than none, more than enough to get the Missouri State Guard off to a fine start, and possibly change the course of the Civil War.
This is merely speculation, however. More than 140 years after the events in question the debate continues, with neither side having yet offered convincing evidence that their numbers are the correct ones.
The 30,000 Answer
The Story of a Border City During the Civil Warby Galusha Anderson available on the Missouri Civil War Reader Volume I
by Randy R. McGuire, Ph.D. available at Amazon.com
Source: Rebellion Record Vol. 1, Frank Moore, editor (1862)
What It Says: “When the 10,000 were safely on board, Capt. Stokes went to Capt. Lyon and Major Callender, and urged them, by the most pressing appeals, to let him empty the arsenal. They told him to go ahead and take whatever he wanted. Accordingly, he took 10,000 more muskets, 500 new rifle carbines, 500 revolvers, 110,000 musket cartridges, to say nothing of the cannon and a large quantity of miscellaneous accoutrements, leaving only 7,000 muskets in the arsenal to arm the St. Louis volunteers.”
Citation Given: Chicago Tribune, April 29, 1861
Source: The Story of a Border City During the Civil War, Galusha Anderson (1908)
What It Says: “It contained nearly thirty thousand percussion-cap muskets, about one thousand rifles, some cannon unfit for use, a few hundred flint-lock muskets, and a large quantity of ammunition. Snead in ‘The Fight for Missouri,’ p. 110, says there were in the Arsenal sixty thousand muskets. For this I find no authority.”
Citation Given: Rebellion Record Vol. 1, pg 147-148
Source: Rebellion in Missouri: 1861, Hans Christian Adamson (1961)
What It Says: “The largest of these housed about 30,000 rifles, carbines and muskets. Also in storage were 150,000 ball cartridges; scores of fieldpieces; dozens of siege guns; heavy supplies of cannon ammunition; about 50 tons of gunpowder; and machinery for making shot, shells, bombs, canister, and other ammunition.”
Citation Given: None
Source: St Louis Arsenal: Armory of the West, Randy R. McGuire (2001)
What It Says: “On April 24, 1861 Captain James Stokes of Chicago arrived at the arsenal with a requisition from Governor Yates for 10,000 muskets to arm Illinois volunteers. Captain Lyon more than complied with the order, issuing 20,000 muskets, 500 carbines, 500 revolvers, 110,000 cartridges, and a number of cannons, leaving only enough muskets for the new recruits at the arsenal.”
Citation Given: None
The 60,000 Answer
Source: General Nathaniel Lyon and Missouri in 1861, James Peckham (1866)
What It Says: “60,000 stand of arms (mostly Enfield and Springfield), 1,500,000 ball cartridges, several field pieces and siege guns, together with a large amount of machinery in the several shops, and munitions of war in abundance. In the main magazine there were 90,000 pounds of powder.”
Citation Given: None
The Fight for Missouri by Thomas L. Snead, 1886
The Struggle for Missouri by John McElroy, 1909
Basil Duke in Missouri by Gen. Basil Wilson Duke, 1911,
available on the Missouri Civil War Reader Volume I
Source: The Fight for Missouri, Thomas L. Snead (1886)
What It Says: “It contained about sixty thousand stand of arms and a large supply of other munitions of war, and the workshops were extensive and well equipped.”
Citation Given: None
Source: The Mississippi Valley in the Civil War, John Fiske (1900)
What It Says: “60,000 stand of arms with a great store of other munitions of war.”
Citation Given: Snead
Source: The Struggle for Missouri, John McElroy (1909)
What It Says: “In these were stored 60,000 stands of arms, mostly Enfield and Springfield rifles, 1,500,000 cartridges, 90,000 pounds of powder, a number of field pieces and siege guns, and a great quantity of munitions of various kinds.”
Citation Given: None
Source: The Union Cause in St. Louis in 1861, Robert J. Rombauer (1909)
What It Says: “60,000 stand of arms, great store of powder and war material.”*
Citation Given: None
Source: The Reminiscences of General Basil Duke, Basil W. Duke (1911)
What It Says: “That arsenal contained sixty thousand stand of small arms, thirty-five or forty pieces of artillery, and a vast store of ammunition and military equipments.”
Source: The Borderland in the Civil War, Edward Conrad Smith (1927)
What It Says: “Sixty thousand muskets, a million and half ball cartridges, ninety thousands pounds of powder, several field pieces and siege guns, and machinery for the manufacture of arms.”
Citation Given: Peckham
Source: “The Camp Jackson Affair” (Missouri Historical Review, April 1961), James Covington
What It Says: “The 60,000 Springfield and Enfield rifles, 1,500,000 cartridges, 90,000 pounds of powder, and other materials stored in the Federal arsenal at St. Louis seemed to be the key for the control of Missouri and nearby states.”
Citation Given: “The Old St. Louis Arsenal”, unpublished manuscript, Mathew Reasoner (Camp Jackson box, MHS, 1934)
Source: Damned Yankee: The Life of General Nathaniel Lyon, Christopher Phillips (1990)
What It Says: “Its sixty thousand muskets, ninety thousand pounds of powder, one-and-a-half million ball cartridges, forty field pieces, siege guns, and machinery for the manufacture of arms represented the largest federal arsenal in the South.”
Citation Given: Smith, Duke
Source: The Civil War in St. Louis: A Guided Tour, William C. Winter (1994)
What It Says: “In 1861 it housed sixty thousand muskets, ninety thousands pounds of powder, one-and-a-half million cartridges, forty cannon, and equipment for the manufacture of arms.”
Citation Given: Phillips
Source: Frank Blair: Lincoln’s Conservative, William E. Parrish (1998)
What It Says: “All agreed that control of St. Louis was critical to their cause, especially since the U.S. arsenal there contained some sixty thousand stand of arms, two hundred or more barrels of powder, and other implements of war.”
Citation Given: Peckham, Snead, Duke
Source: Civil War St. Louis, Louis S. Gerteis (2001)
What It Says: “60,000 muskets, 90,000 pounds of gunpowder, more than 1 million cartridges, 40 cannon, and machinery for the manufacture of weapons.”
Citation Given: Snead, Winter, Parrish
[*] Citation provided courtesy of Randy R. McGuire, PhD., St. Louis University