Shotgun's Home of the American Civil War

Vol. 9, Chapter III
Confederate Military History


       THE State convention met at Jefferson City on the last day of February. Ex-Gov. Sterling Price, a Conditional Union man, was elected president. He received 75 votes, and Nathaniel Watkins, a half-brother of Henry Clay, received 15. As soon as the convention was organized it adjourned to St. Louis, the stronghold of Unionism in the State, and put itself under the protection of Blair's Wide-awakes. In some respects the convention looked fair enough for the Southern Rights cause. If the people had not elected Secessionists they had elected Southern men to represent them, and men whom they thought they could trust. It consisted of 99 members. Of these 53 were natives of either Virginia or Kentucky, and all but 17 of the whole number were Southern born. Of the remainder, 13 were natives of Northern States, three were Germans, and one was an Irishman.
       On re-assembling in St. Louis on the 4th of March, the convention went to work in earnest. On the 9th the committee on Federal relations made a long report through its chairman, Judge Hamilton R. Gamble. "The position of Missouri," it said, "in relation to the adjacent States which would continue in the Union, would necessarily expose her, if she became a member of a new confederacy, to utter destruction whenever any rupture might take place between the different republics. In a military aspect, secession and connection with a Southern confederacy is annihilation for Missouri. The true position for her to assume is that of a State whose interests are bound up in the maintenance of the Union, and whose kind feelings and strong sympathies are with the people of the Southern States with whom they are connected by ties of friendship and blood."
       At the same time the committee submitted a series of resolutions in conformity with the report. George Y. Bast moved to add to the resolutions a declaration that if the Northern States refused to accept the .Crittenden compromise, and the other border slaveholding States should thereupon secede, Missouri would not hesitate to go with them. For this motion only 23 members of the convention voted. One after another the convention voted down all amendments or modifications of the report of the committee, and, after a short discussion, adopted it as a whole. It then adjourned subject to the call of a committee which was appointed for that purpose. The real sentiment of the convention was expressed by William A. Hall when he said: "Our feelings and sympathies may incline us to go with the South, in the event of a separation. But feeling is temporary--interest is permanent." In the proceedings of the convention the ordinary courtesies of life were observed, but the intent of what it did was radically anti-Southern. The leaders talked very much as they talked in the campaign that preceded their election as delegates, but what they did was what Frank Blair wanted them to do. Their action marked the absorption, in great part, of the Conditional Union party, which had gained control of the convention by fraud and false pretenses, by the Unconditional Union party.
       While the convention was in session at St. Louis the Southern members of the legislature, spurred to action by the imminence of the crisis, and the more timid among them encouraged by the resolute attitude of the governor and the appeals of their leaders, made another effort to pass a bill to arm the State. The debate was prolonged and bitter. Some Conditional Union men came to the assistance of the more pronounced Southern men and urged its passage as a matter of duty and necessity--not to aid the South, but to protect the State--but their appeals were in vain. The bill was voted down. But in another matter the submissionists overreached themselves. The term of James S. Green as United States senator expired on the 4th of March. An attempt had been made before the expiration of his term to elect his successor. Mr. Green was nominated for re-election by the Southern Rights men, but the submissionists refused to vote for him on the ground that he was a pronounced Secessionist. Finally, on the 12th of March, Judge Waldo P. Johnson was elected, in part by the votes of the sub-missionists. But when war became inevitable Judge Johnson resigned his seat in the Senate, entered the Southern army and fought for the Confederacy until the close of the war, while Mr. Green retired to private life and never spoke a word or struck a blow in behalf of Missouri or the South.
       But if the submissionists in the legislature could not be brought to antagonize the Federal government they had no hesitation in opposing the Republican party, particularly when it was constituted, as it was in St. Louis, mostly of Germans. Consequently the bill to create a board of police commissioners in St. Louis, thereby taking the control of the police force of that city out of the hands of a Republican mayor, which the senate had passed on the 2d of March, was taken up and passed by the house on the 23d. It authorized the governor, with the consent of the senate, to appoint four commissioners who, with the mayor, should have absolute control of the police force of the city, the sheriff's officers in the county, and of all other conservators of the peace in the city and county. It was aimed at Blair's Wide-awakes, who had become, since the refusal of the legislature to authorize the governor to call out the militia to hold them in check, more arrogant and overbearing than ever, and were a constant menace to the peace, property and lives of the citizens. Under the law the governor appointed Basil W. Duke, James H. Carlyle, Charles McLaren and John A. Brownlee commissioners. The first three were Southern men, and the last, though a Northern man, was opposed to the coercion of the Southern States. But before the commissioners entered upon the performance of their duties, the election for municipal officers was held in the city, and to the surprise of everybody Daniel G. Taylor, a Democrat, was elected mayor by 2,500 majority.
       Blair foresaw the passage of the St. Louis police bill some time before it passed the house, and adopted measures to counteract its effect. He began re-organiz-ing his Wide-awakes, nominally a political formation, into Home Guards, openly a military organization, and arming and equipping them for active service. In doing this he was plainly violating and defying the laws of the State. He was organizing a military force within the limits of the State, over which the State authorities had no control, and which was intended to be used to overthrow the government of the State and make war on its people. The State had not seceded, and there was no evidence it would secede. The evidence, in fact, was strongly the other way. Blair deliberately put himself in the position of a revolutionist. He was backed by a self-constituted committee of safety, of which Oliver D. Filley, mayor of the city, was chairman. The first Home Guard company organized was composed mostly of Germans, but had a few Americans in it. Blair never shrank from responsibility, and he became captain of the company. In a short time eleven companies, composed almost entirely of Germans, aggregating about 750 officers and men, were organized. This was before the inauguration of Lincoln, and they were armed in part by the governor of Illinois and equipped by private contributions.
       Governor Jackson was powerless to do anything to offset these preparations on the part of Blair and the Union men, owing to the refusal of the legislature to pass the military bill. The State government was effectually blocked by the inaction of the lower house. But in the Southern element in St. Louis were a number of young men, active and enthusiastic in the cause of the South, who had previously been held in check by their elders, but now determined to act on their own account. Chief among them was Basil W. Duke, a young lawyer from Kentucky and a born soldier, who understood the situation intuitively and chafed at the delay and lack of preparation of the authorities. Besides Duke there were Colton Greene, Overton W. Barrett, James R. Shaler and Rock Champion, all as brave and eager as he was.
       These young men organized themselves, strictly in accordance with law, as Minute Men. They did it openly, beginning their organization the day Blair began to organize his Home Guards. They formed five companies which, commanded respectively by Duke, Greene, Barrett, Shaler and Hubbard, were formed into a battalion, of which Shaler was elected major, and it was assigned to Frost's brigade, which had seen some service on the southwestern border. The brigade aggregated 580 officers and men.
       The Minute Men established their headquarters in the heart of the city, but formed and drilled companies in other parts. They were not more than 300 strong, but were so active and enthusiastic, and apparently ubiquitous, that there were supposed to be ten times that many of them. In their zeal to do something--to force a fight --they hoisted the Confederate flag over their headquarters and defied the Home Guards to take it down. But the Home Guards, or rather the Union leaders, did not accept the challenge. They were not ready, nor for that matter were the Minute Men, for they were unarmed, and there were no arms in sight except those in the arsenal.
       In the arsenal, as has been stated, there were 60,000 stand of good arms, with an abundance of the munitions of war. The Minute Men would have seized it or died in the attempt if they had not been restrained by their commanding officer. His policy was delay. He and those in authority at Jefferson City were waiting for the legislature to act and the people to rise en masse, when they proposed to demand the surrender of the arsenal, and, if the demand were not complied with, to take it by force. But the governor, busy trying to control the legislature, some time before had turned the matter over to General Frost, and authorized him to take it whenever in his judgment it was expedient to do so. Frost accepted the trust and had an interview with Maj. Wm. H. Bell, the commandant of the arsenal, and on the 24th of January reported the result to the governor.
       "I have just returned from the arsenal," he said. "I found the Major everything you or I could desire. He assured me that he considered Missouri had, whenever the time came, a right to claim it as being on her soil. He asserted his determination to defend it against any and all irresponsible mobs, come from whence they might, but at the same time gave me to understand that he would not attempt any defense against the proper State authorities. He promised me, upon the honor of an officer and a gentleman, that he would not suffer any arms to be removed from the place without first giving me timely information; and I promised him, in return, that I would use all the force at my command to prevent him being annoyed by irresponsible persons. I, at the same time, gave him notice that if affairs assumed so threatening a character as to render it unsafe to leave the place in its comparatively unprotected condition, I might come down and quarter a proper force there to protect it from the assaults of any persons whatsoever, to which he assented."
       It is not to be supposed that as sagacious a man as Frank Blair did not understand the importance of the arsenal, and that as bold a man intended to allow the enemies of the Federal government to get possession of it without a desperate struggle. But Mr. Buchanan was President, and was not readily influenced by a man of Blair's revolutionary temper and methods. Nevertheless Blair worked might and main, determined if he could not get control of the arsenal and arm his Home Guards from its abundant material, to have Major Bell removed and some one appointed in his place with whom he would have more influence. He, therefore, prevailed on Isaac H. Sturgeon, assistant treasurer at St. Louis, an appointee of the President, to write to him, assuring him of the danger of the capture of the arsenal and urging that a force sufficient for its defense be quartered in it at once. Sturgeon was a Southern born man who was playing a double game. He was in the confidence of the Southern Rights men and was regarded by them as one of their number. At the same time he was working secretly under instructions of Blair. He wrote to General Scott to the same effect. The result was that a short time afterward Major Bell was relieved of the command at the arsenal by Maj. Peter V. Hagner, and a detachment of forty soldiers was ordered there to guard it. Major Bell was a North Carolinian and Southern man in his principles and associations. Major Hagner was born in Washington and his associations were generally with Southern people. Though he was not as compliant as his predecessor had been, he was not disposed to be controlled by Blair.
       In this crisis fortune favored Blair. Capt. Nathaniel Lyon, of the regular army, was ordered to St. Louis with his company. Lyon was a coarse man, without even the external polish that usually characterized old army officers. He was a bitter fanatic, and longed, as he said, to get at the throats of the Southern traitors. He was contentious, aggressive and dictatorial--greedy of power and reckless in the use of it--but withal a trained soldier and a man of great energy of character. His arbitrary temper, his sectional fanaticism and his disregard of the forms of law when they stood in his way, made him just the man Blair needed in carrying out his plans for subverting the government of the State and making Missouri a Federal province, while Lyon needed the finesse and political influence of Blair to put him in a position to execute his ruthless purposes. The two men seemed to have instinctively recognized their affinity and to have formed an alliance offensive and defensive. Blair did the fine work--the planning and political management, while Lyon undertook the work of completing what Blair had begun in organizing, drilling and arming troops in violation of the laws of the State. A short time before Lyon reached St. Louis, he wrote a letter to a friend in that city full of wrath and radical sentiments. It is probable Blair saw the letter and knew in advance the kind of man he had to deal with. Lyon could have had no better introduction to him.
       But the removal of Major Bell and the appointment of Major Hagner to the command of the arsenal did not enable Blair and Lyon to accomplish what they wanted, which was to get the arms in it to outfit the regiments they were raising, and to garrison it with a force that would end the question of its possession. Major Hagner was a conservative man, and refused to permit them to have anything to do with the arsenal or the arms in it. Lyon made a bold claim to the command as Hagner's ranking officer. But first General Harney, commander of the district, and later the President, decided against him, and Hagner became more fixed than ever in his determination not to distribute arms to the Home Guards. Blair and Lyon appealed again to the President but could not move him. Then Blair got Sturgeon to write General Scott, begging him to reinforce the garrison with the troops at Jefferson Barracks, in all 203 officers and men. This Scott did, and a few days later further increased the force, making it about 500 strong. Still Blair and Lyon were not satisfied, and Blair went to Washington and besought the President to assign Lyon to the command of the arsenal. But the President refused to make a change, as he had only a few days to serve. Lyon lost all patience, and said in a letter to Blair that Hagner's course was the result "either of imbecility or damned villainy," and declared if it became necessary he would "pitch him into the river." But directly after Lincoln's inauguration and the appointment of Montgomery Blair a member of his cabinet, Lyon was assigned to the coveted command. He at once began to put the arsenal in a state of defense by occupying, without warrant of law, the surrounding heights, and planting artillery upon them to command the city and the approaches to it.
       During these events, General Frost was getting ready to take the arsenal, but never quite succeeded in completing his preparations. He did not think it expedient to accept Major Bell's offer to permit him to quarter troops in it to protect it from the assaults of irresponsible parties, nor did he think it prudent to act while the con. test was going on between Major Hagner and Captain Lyon in regard to their respective rights to the command. But after Lyon had obtained the command, and had occupied the surrounding heights and fortified them, he began to think it might be well to do something, particularly as the authorities of the Confederate government had urged upon the authorities of Missouri the importance of getting possession of the arsenal and the arms in it. He, therefore, prepared a memorial to the governor to the effect that he should send an agent to the South to procure mortars and siege guns; that he should prevent the garrisoning of the little arsenal at Liberty; that he should order him to form a military camp of instruction at or near St. Louis, with authority to muster military companies into the service of the State, erect batteries and do other warlike things for the protection of the State; that he should issue a proclamation informing the people of Missouri that President Lincoln had acted illegally in calling out troops, and that he should convene the general assembly in extra session at once.
       These things the governor did. To Mr. Lincoln's call for troops he replied that "not a man would the State of Missouri furnish to carry on such an unholy crusade." He sent Captains Duke and Greene to Montgomery with a letter to the President of the Confederacy, requesting him to furnish the siege guns and mortars required to reduce the arsenal. He called the legislature together in extra session, and he ordered the commanding officers of the several military districts of the State to assemble their commands on the 3d of May and go with them into encampment for six days. The arsenal at Liberty had already been taken by the Southern men in the western part of the State, who had got tired of waiting for orders or permission to take it, and had acted on their own responsibility. They got with it about a thousand muskets, four brass field-pieces and a small amount of ammunition. General Frost went into encampment on the western outskirts of St. Louis, and his command was strengthened by Lieut.-Col. John S. Bowen's battalion, which had been on duty in the southwest. Besides, a good many young men from different parts of the State joined different commands temporarily to get an idea of the duties of a soldier. Blair and Lyon knew what the Southern men were doing about as well as they knew themselves, and at once made preparations to anticipate them at all points. Lyon got authority from the war department to take 5,000 stand of arms from the arsenal to arm loyal citizens--that is to say, the Home Guards--and he pushed with great vigor the recruiting of new regiments.
       Gen. William S. Harney, who was in command of the district, was Southern born and Southern in all his associations, and entirely too conservative to suit Blair and Lyon, and they had been unceasing in their efforts to get him removed. They had not succeeded, but Lyon got his authority to act directly from the war department. He had now five regiments. Blair was colonel of the first regiment, and John M. Schofield was major. Lyon was given command of the brigade and made brigadier-general. He had under his command more than 7,000 men, while near him lay encamped the only organized military force of the State--less than 700 men. He and Blair were now ready to strike--to commit the overt act for which the Southern leaders had been so long waiting.

 This Page last updated 02/10/02



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