Connecticut’s Nathaniel Lyon: The First Hero of the Civil War

Connecticut’s Nathaniel Lyon wasn’t good for much besides fighting, but in 1861 the Union Army needed fighting men, and Lyon was ready for the job.

On April 12, 1861, with the first shots fired on Fort Sumter, politics changed throughout the United States. Secession, a political idea to that point, had become a reality. The war to preserve the union was under way.

SIn Missouri, change was slow to take hold. General William Harney was in charge of Union forces, and as the state’s political leaders began edging toward secession, he was slow to act decisively. A Tennessean by birth, Harney was loyal to the Union, but he desperately wanted peace. He was cut from the Democratic Party cloth that waited and watched while the South gradually moved toward independence, and he wasn’t capable of changing.

Missouri Gov. Claiborne Jackson was planning for secession, and he was building up the state’s militia to back him. Harney worked out a truce with the state’s militia men that allowed them certain territory while federal troops would hold other territory.

Nathaniel Lyon, just a captain in the Union Army, was determined that, regardless of Harney’s truce, the Union would not lose Missouri.

Calling on his friendship with Missouri Republican Senator Frank Blair, Lyon was put in charge of the St. Louis Armory. When Missouri’s governor refused to supply troops for the Union forces, Lyon began recruiting his own military units. He drew from the Wide Awakes, a Republican paramilitary organization that had been preparing for war for months.

Among its members were recent German immigrants, who were vehemently opposed to slavery.

The makeup of the units offended Southern-leaning Missourians, but Lyon was not someone who worried about the tactics he used to win. He armed his own units, 10,000-strong, and began shifting the militia’s supplies to Illinois, for fear the secessionists in Missouri would seize them.

Camp Jackson Affair

On May 10, as the governor was maneuvering to build up his own troops, Lyon set out to spy on Camp Jackson, a confederate camp growing in the St. Louis outskirts. Disguising himself as a woman, he had himself driven around the camp and confirmed what his spies told him: Guns from the Confederates had arrived and that the encampment was growing.

Lyon surrounded the camp the next day with 6,000 troops. Outnumbered eight to one, the Confederate-leaning militia surrendered. In marching the men through the city, an angry crowd began to grow, shouting at the Union forces. The details of how violence erupted are sketchy, but Lyon’s forces eventually fired into the civilian crowd, causing a panic. Twenty-eight civilians died.

The violence was not out of character for Lyon. He had a long resume. Raised on a farm in Ashford, Conn., Lyon had no use for farming. He graduated from West Point and went west to fight in the Indian wars. He was sloppy in his attire, short and ugly. He was not fond of women and never married. And he was a tyrant to the men who served under him.

In 1842 he had been court martialed for hog-tying and gagging an insubordinate soldier. In 1849, he led a massacre of some 400 Native Americans in California, urging on his troops to bayonet as many as they could, including women and children. He bragged of this attack, and was praised by the U.S. Senate for his actions. Ideologically, Lyon saw things in black and white, and he saw no need for restraint in defending a position he believed was right. And that is how he saw the defense of the Union.

The Northerners Rise

With the South taking up arms, the days of the conciliatory general like Harney were numbered, and the new breed of officers, like Lyon, would rise up.

Despite the civilian deaths in the Camp Jackson Affair (or perhaps because of them), Lyon was promoted to brigadier general and Harney recalled to Washington. Lyon moved quickly to declare war on the Missouri State Guard and oust the governor. He established a pro-union government in the state.

With Jefferson City secured, Lyon took 6,000 men south to Springfield in pursuit of the guard and fleeing governor. A few miles away, the Missouri guard, meanwhile, had met up with Confederate forces, and with an army twice the size of Lyon’s, the stage was set for Lyon’s final action on August 11, 1861: The Battle of Wilson’s Creek.

Lyon was shot twice, once in the head and once in the leg, and his horse was killed. But he returned for one last dramatic counter charge, during which he was shot in the heart. He died at 43. Though the Union troops lost the battle, historians have credited Lyon with securing Missouri for the Union.

Lyon would go down and history as a hero. The first general to die in the Civil War, a crowd of 15,000 would attend his funeral when his remains were returned to Eastford, Conn.

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