Blair and Lyon Save the Union

illustration from “Struggle for Missouri” by John McElroy, 1909 “Rather than concede to the State of Missouri for one single instant the right to dictate to my Government in any matter however unimportant, I would  see you, you, you and every man, woman, and child in the state dead and buried.

“This means war.”Brigadier-General Nathaniel Lyon

to Claiborne Jackson, Sterling Price, and Francis P. Blair, Jr. at the Planters House in St. Louis, Missouri, June 1861

by G. E. Rule

Further Reading: Damned Yankee: The Life of General Nathaniel Lyon
by Christopher Phillips

Frank Blair: Lincoln’s Conservative by William Earl Parrish

In January of 1861, Frank Blair’s Unionist cause in Missouri was sorely beset by a host of problems.  The incoming governor of the state, Claiborne Jackson, was a known secessionist. So was a majority of the state legislature.  “Unconditional Union” men made up a small minority of the population of the state, and an even smaller minority of the ruling class.  The Union commander of the tiny force guarding the vitally important St. Louis arsenal was politically unreliable and prepared to hand over the arsenal to the commander of the Missouri State Guard should the latter demand it on authority of the state government.  It appeared highly unlikely that Missouri, and vital St. Louis, could be kept in the Union.

Yet by June, a mere five months later, St. Louis was secure, and the 60,000 muskets in the arsenal were denied to the Confederacy by the fiery new Union commander, Nathaniel Lyon. Commanding regiments largely raised by Blair, Lyon put Governor Jackson and the secessionist members of the state legislature to flight from the state capitol never to return, and Union control—though shaky at times and tenuous in some sections of the state—was never again seriously threatened in Missouri.

It is hard to overestimate the importance this victory had on the course of the war.  The 60,000 muskets in the arsenal would have increased the number available in the entire Confederacy by over one-third at a time when each one was practically worth its weight in gold.  Control of St. Louis for the CSA would have meant control of the Missouri River and a connecting of the heavily pro-confederate population north of that river with the rest of the south.  The industry of St. Louis would have been a huge addition to the lightly industrialized Confederacy, and the further choking of the Mississippi river very possibly may have given critical mass to the idea of a CSA-friendly “Northwest Confederacy” of the states of what we today would call the Midwest.  Such a movement, had it come to fruition, would clearly have made it impossible for the rest of the northern states to prosecute the war with any hope of success.

While Grant and Sherman are often given enormous credit for winning the war for the Union in 1863-1865, it is perhaps not unfair to say that Frank Blair and his champion Nathaniel Lyon saved the Union in the early months of 1861.

For an opposing viewpoint see “Securing Missouri for the Union” (off-site)

Governor of Missouri, Claiborne Fox Jackson

When asked by Lincoln to supply four regiments to the Union Army, Governor Jackson said, “Your requisition, in my judgment, is illegal, unconstitutional, and revolutionary in its objects, inhuman and diabolical, and cannot be complied with.”

Frank Blair raised seven regiments for the Union in St. Louis when the governor refused the Federal call for troops from Missouri to put down the rebellion

After the war, Major-General Frank Blair –who had done more than all of Missouri’s Radical Republicans combined to keep her in the Union when the issue was in doubt in early 1861– declined to take the Oath of Loyalty in 1866 and was refused the right to vote.  When asked why he would not take the Oath, Blair cheerfully explained that while he would gladly take an Oath professing his loyalty to the Union and Missouri going forward, the fact of the matter was that he had taken up arms against the government of Missouri in May and June of 1861 and hence could not meet the draconian terms of the current Oath.