The Battle of Boonville, Missouri June 17, 1861
At the nation headed towards Civil War, the border state of Missouri had divided loyalties. It was a slave state with many people sympathetic to the Confederate cause, while many others were loyal to the Union. In January of 1861, pro Confederate Governor Claiborne F. Jackson was sworn into office, and pushed for the state to secede. In February, a convention was called to take up the question, but secession was rejected.
Despite this setback, Jackson was still determined to put his state on the side of the Confederacy. After the war began following the firing on Fort Sumter, the Federal government began raising a volunteer force from the states, and Missouri was asked to supply 4000 men. Jackson refused, informing Washington that he would raise no troops for use against any of the seceded states. He did, however, form a military unit called the Missouri State Guard (under the command of General Sterling Price, a former Missouri Governor) whose purpose was to resist Federal military action within the state. A leading Unionist from St. Louis, Frank Blair, who was later a Union general, received authorization to raise and arm troops for U.S. service. The situation grew worse in May when Captain Nathaniel Lyon used volunteers and U.S. regulars to capture the camp of a Jackson backed militia that was planning a takeover of the U.S. arsenal in St. Louis. Lyon marched the prisoners through the streets of St. Louis, which sparked a riot leading to bloodshed on both sides.
To defuse tensions, the commander of the U.S. Department of the West, Major General William Harney, made a truce with Price that limited the movements of Federal forces in the state to the St.
Louis area, while allowing Missouri state troops to control the rest of the state. Missouri would also remain neutral. Missouri Unionists, as well as the War Department and Lincoln Administration, found this Price-Harney Truce as it was called, to be unacceptably pro secessionist. Blair convinced Washington to relieve Harney; he was replaced by Lyon, who was promoted to Brigadier General.
Lyon was a staunch Unionist who was prepared to use any and all means at his disposal to keep Missouri in the Union. Nonetheless, he and Blair met with Price and Jackson at the Planter’s House Hotel in St. Louis on June 11th to try and renegotiate the Price-Harney Truce. Predictably, the negotiations ended in failure. Thomas Snead, an aide of Price who was present remembered that after four or five hours of talks, Lyon brought the negotiations to an abrupt end, and in no uncertain terms.
Rather than concede to the State of Missouri the right to demand that my Government shall not enlist troops within her limits, or bring troops into the state whenever it pleases, or move its troops at its own will into, out of or through the state; 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 (rising as he said this, and pointing in turn to every one in the room) see you, and you, and you, and you, and you, and every man, woman, and child in the state, dead and buried.” Then turning to the Governor, he said: “This means war. In an hour one of my officers will call for you and conduct you out of my lines.
Jackson and Price immediately returned to the capital at Jefferson City, and the next day Jackson issued a proclamation declaring that the Federal government had committed “outrages and indignities” against Missouri, and called for 50,000 volunteers to repel the “invaders”:
To the PEOPLE OF MISSOURI:
A series of unprovoked and unparalleled outrages have been inflicted upon the peace and dignity of this Commonwealth and upon the rights and liberties of its people by wicked and unprincipled men, professing to act under the authority of the United States Government. The solemn enactments of your Legislature have been nullified, your volunteer soldiers have been taken prisoners, your commerce with your sister States has been suspended, your trade with your own fellow-citizens has been and is subjected to the harassing control of an armed soldiery, peaceful citizens have been imprisoned without warrant of law, unoffending and defenseless men, women, and children have been ruthlessly shot down and murdered, and other unbearable indignities have been heaped upon your State and yourselves.
To all these outrages and indignities you have submitted with a patriotic forbearance which has only encouraged the perpetrators of these grievous wrongs to attempt still bolder and more daring usurpations. It has been my earnest endeavor under all these embarrassing circumstances to maintain the peace of the State and to avert, if possible, from our borders the desolating effects of a civil war. With that object in view I authorized Major-General Price several weeks ago to arrange with General Harney, commanding the Federal forces in this State, the terms of an agreement by which the peace of the State might be preserved. They came, on the 21st of May, to an understanding, which was made public. The State authorities have faithfully labored to carry out the terms of that agreement. The Federal Government, on the other hand, not only manifested its strong disapprobation of it by the instant dismissal of the distinguished officer who on its part entered into it, but it at once began and has unintermittingly carried out a system of hostile operations in utter contempt of that agreement and in reckless disregard of its own plighted faith. These acts have latterly portended revolution and civil war so unmistakably that I resolved to make one further effort to avert these dangers from you. I therefore solicited an interview with Brigadier-General Lyon, commanding the Federal army in Missouri. It was granted, and on the 10th instant, waiving all questions of personal and official dignity, l went to Saint Louis, accompanied by Major-General Price.
We had an interview on the 11th instant with General Lyon and Col. F. P. Blair, jr., at which I submitted to them this proposition: That I would disband the State Guard and break up its organization; that I would disarm all the companies which have been armed by the State; that I would pledge myself not to attempt to organize the militia under the military bill; that no arms or munitions of war should be brought into the State; that I would protect all citizens equally in all their rights, regardless of their political opinions; that I would repress all insurrectionary movements within the State; that I would repel all attempts to invade it, from whatever quarter and by whomsoever made, and that I would thus maintain a strict neutrality in the present unhappy contest, and preserve the peace of the State. And I further proposed that I would, if necessary, invoke the assistance of the U.S. troops to carry out these pledges. All this I proposed to do upon condition that the Federal Government would undertake to disarm the home guards which it has illegally organized and armed throughout the State, and pledge itself not to occupy with its troops any localities in the State not occupied by them at this time.Nothing but the most earnest desire to avert the horrors of civil war from our beloved State could have tempted me to propose these humiliating terms. They were rejected by the Federal officers. They demanded not only the disorganization and disarming of the State militia and the nullification of the military bill, but they refused to disarm their own home guards, and insisted that the Federal Government should enjoy an unrestricted right to move and station its troops throughout the State whenever and wherever that might, in the opinion of its officers, be necessary, either for the protection of the “loyal subjects” of the Federal Government or for the repelling of invasion, and they plainly announced that it was the intention of the Administration to take military occupation under these pretexts of the whole State, and to reduce it, as avowed by General Lyon himself, to the “exact condition of Maryland.”
The acceptance by me of these degrading terms would not only have sullied the honor of Missouri, but would have aroused the indignation of every brave citizen, and precipitated the very conflict which it has been my aim to prevent. We refused to accede to them, and the conference was broken up. Fellow-citizens, all our efforts toward conciliation have failed. We can hope nothing from the justice or moderation of the agents of the Federal Government in this State. They are energetically hastening the execution of their bloody and revolutionary schemes for the inauguration of a civil war in your midst; for the military occupation of your State by armed bands of lawless invaders; for the overthrow of your State government, and for the subversion of those liberties which that government has always sought to protect, and they intend to exert their whole power to subjugate you, if possible, to the military despotism which has usurped the powers of the Federal Government.
Now, therefore, I, C. F. Jackson, Governor of the State of Missouri, do, in view of the foregoing facts and by virtue of the powers vested in me by the constitution and laws of this Commonwealth, issue this my proclamation, calling the militia of the State, to the number of 50,000, into the active service of the State, for the purpose of repelling said invasion, and for the protection of the lives, liberty, and property of the citizens of this State; and I earnestly exhort all good citizens of Missouri to rally under the flag of their State for the protection of their endangered homes and firesides, and for the defense of their most sacred rights and dearest liberties.
In Issuing this proclamation, I hold it to be my solemn duty to remind you that Missouri is still one of the United States; that the executive department of the State government does not arrogate to itself the power to disturb that relation; that that power has been wisely vested in a convention, which will at the proper time express your sovereign will, and that meanwhile it is your duty to obey all the constitutional requirements of the Federal Government; but it is equally my duty to advise you that your first allegiance is due to your own State, and that you are under no obligation whatever to obey the unconstitutional edicts of the military despotism which has enthroned itself at Washington, nor to submit to the infamous and degrading sway of its wicked minions in this State. No brave and true-hearted Missourian will obey the one or submit to the other. Rise, then, and drive out ignominiously the invaders who have dared to desecrate the soil which your labors have made fruitful and which is consecrated by your homes!
Given under my hand as Governor and under the great seal of the State of Missouri at Jefferson City this 12th day of June, 1861.
CLAIBORNE F. JACKSON.
By the Governor:
B. F. MASSEY,
Secretary of State.
Jackson and Price agreed that Lyon would be in quick pursuit to neutralize the Missouri State Guard, and they agreed that Jefferson City would be difficult to defend with the available forces. It was decided to move operations about 50 miles up the Missouri River to the northwest to the town of Boonville, where the terrain was more suitable for a defense. Jefferson City’s armory had already been moved there. Jackson arrived at Boonville on June 13th, and took command of the Missouri Guard himself, as Price had fallen ill and returned to his home to recover. Jackson’s nephew, Colonel John S. Marmaduke, would take over in the field itself while Jackson would retain overall command. Marmaduke was a West Point graduate who would later become a Confederate general.
Lyon did indeed move with urgency. He was aware that more Confederate volunteers were assembling in various parts of Missouri and Arkansas, and wanted to break up the Missouri Guard before it could be reinforced. He also dispatched Union forces to Southwest Missouri to intercept reinforcements headed north. Lyon set out for Jefferson City by riverboat with about 2000 volunteers and regulars, plus a battery of artillery under Captain James Totten, arriving there on June 15th. Leaving behind three companies to occupy Jefferson City, Lyon and 1700 men steamed up the Missouri towards Boonville the next day, stopping for the night about 15 miles south of the town.
Lyon continued upriver on the 17th, and put his men ashore about eight miles below Boonville, and proceeded toward the town with two companies of the 2nd Missouri Volunteer Infantry under Major Peter Osterhaus in the lead as skirmishers. Jackson had ordered Marmaduke to take about 500 men and deploy east of Boonville and confront Lyon. Jackson hoped a delaying action would buy time for reinforcements . Marmaduke, the professional soldier, protested the order, believing that a confrontation at this point using untrained troops against Lyon’s larger and better trained force would result in defeat, but carried it out anyway.
Lyon’s skirmishers engaged Marmaduke’s pickets, who withdrew about a mile to the rebel main defensive line. Closing in, Lyon brought his full infantry force into line of battle and advanced, Totten’s artillery fired on the defenses, and a general engagement began about 11 a.m.
Lyon kept up a steady advance, the artillery shelling was on target, and the Missouri State Guard’s position quickly became precarious. Observing the action at a distance, Jackson ordered Marmaduke to withdraw. The withdrawal turned into a rout as the Union line closed in and the untrained guardsmen bolted for the rear.
The fight had only taken about 20 minutes. The Federal advance continued through the rebel camps and on into Boonville itself. By 11 a.m. the town’s mayor approached Lyon under a flag of truce and surrendered the town. While the town was surrendering, Jackson and some of his guardsmen who hadn’t been dispersed in other directions in the fighting fled Boonville and headed to southwest Missouri, to join forces with Confederates in that part of the state.
Casualties on both sides were light; estimates vary slightly but each side had only about a dozen killed and wounded . But the Union victory was significant, securing Federal control of the Missouri River and helping to keep northern Missouri from falling under Confederate control, although fighting in the form of generally smaller engagements and guerrilla actions, continued until the end, as it did throughout the rest of the state.
Lyon filed this after action report on the Battle of Boonville:
BOONEVILLE, Mo., June 30, 1861.
SIR: I have been too much absorbed in unavoidable business to make a report of the recent operations of the troops under my command. The proclamation of Governor Jackson, of this State, on the 12th instant, calling for 50,000 men to war upon the United States, made it necessary for me to move up the river, in order to anticipate the collection of his forces where it appeared likely such collection would be made. I accordingly proceeded on the 13th instant from Saint Louis with the light battery, under Captain Totten, Second Artillery; Company B, Second Infantry (my company); two companies of recruits for the regular service, under Lieut. W. L. Lothrop, Fourth Artillery; First Regiment Missouri Volunteers, under Col. F. P. Blair, jr.; nine companies Second Regiment Missouri Volunteers, under Col. Henry Boernstein, and advanced by boats to Jefferson City, where I arrived on the 15th about 2 o’clock p.m., and found the governor had fled and taken his forces to Booneville, where, so far as I could then learn, a large force was gathering. Leaving Colonel Boernstein at Jefferson City, with three companies of his regiment, I proceeded on the following day (16th) towards this place, and reached a distance of about fifteen miles below here that night; and starting again early next morning, I came to within about eight miles, and then landed nearly all my forces, leaving one 8-inch howitzer, with an artillery party and Captain Richardson’s company, First Missouri Volunteers, as guard to the three boats, and this party had instructions to advance within range for the siege howitzer of what was understood to be the position of the rebel camp, and to fire upon it. This was done with good effect. In the morning two companies of the Second Regiment Missouri Volunteers, under Major Osterhaus, Companies A and B, Captains Schadt and Kohr, were thrown forward as skirmishers with excellent effect. Company B, Second Infantry, under Sergt. Win. Griffin; Captain Totten’s battery, two companies of recruits, regular service, under Lieutenant Lothrop; Colonel Blair’s First Regiment, and four companies of the Second Missouri Volunteers, under Lieutenant-Colonel Schaeffer, formed the order of column in march.
After about two miles’ march we met an advanced party of the rebel forces, which opened fire upon us, but soon fell back. To meet this resistance, the skirmishers already forward were collected to the right of our read. Company B, Second Infantry, was thrown out to the left, and opened fire. Two pieces of Captain Totten’s battery were brought into play, and several shots fired. In advancing from this point, Lieutenant Lothrop, with a company of artillery recruits, Captain Yates’ Company H, Missouri Volunteers, and one additional company from the Third Missouri Volunteers, were thrown forward to the right of the road, and in line with our advance.
After proceeding about one mile, the enemy was discovered in force. Company B, Second Infantry, on the left, was now supported by Company B, First Missouri Volunteers, Captain
Maurice. The enemy, having shelter of a house (owned by Win. M. Adams) and a thicket of wood behind it, held their position for a while, during which time our approach brought us on to high and open ground, and here most of our casualties occurred. Captain Totten’s battery here did effective service, and our troops on both flanks steadily advanced. Captain Burke’s company, K, First Regiment Missouri Volunteers, now came forward on the left, and engaged the enemy. In falling back the enemy took advantage of sundry points to deliver a fire and continue retreating. This continued till we arrived above their camp, which was situated to our right, near the river, and which about this time was taken possession of by Captain Cole, with his company, E, First Regiment Missouri Volunteers, who had been sent to the right to extend our front. Companies C, Captain Stone; A, Captain Fuchs; F, Captain Gratz; G, Captain Cavender, took part in skirmishing and relieving those first engaged. Two pieces of artillery were taken (iron 6-pounders). Considerable camp equipage and about 500 stand of arms of all sorts were taken. About 60 prisoners taken were released upon oath to obey the laws of the General Government and not oppose it during the present civil troubles.
On approaching this city I was met by a deputation of citizens, asking security from plunder from my troops, to which I gave an affirmative response, on condition of no opposition to my entrance and occupying of it. This was promised, so far as in their power, and on reaching the town I required the mayor and city council to accompany my entrance. A part of my command was now quartered in the city, and the remainder returned to the boats, now located opposite the fair grounds, at the lower side of the town. This fair ground had been taken by the State for an arsenal, and a considerable number of old rusty arms and cartridges were found. Our loss consisted of 2 killed, 1 missing, and 9 wounded, two of whom have since died. The loss of the rebel force is not known. The troops of Governor Jackson dispersed, but for the purpose of assembling at Lexington. This assembly, however, did not continue, and was broken up soon after, many persons, I am informed, returning to their homes, and a considerable portion going south, in expectation of meeting re-enforcements from Arkansas. It is certain that Governor Jackson, with an escort, has gone from here in that direction, and most of his military leaders with him: I had intended pursuit soon after the breaking up of the Lexington camp, but have been Unavoidably delayed by the trouble of getting up a train here and by continued and heavy rains. I hope to start soon with about 2,400 troops and some artillery, and proceed to Springfield, and there conform to emergencies-as they Shall be found to exist. In the mean time I have given orders to have this river occupied, with a view to keep hostile forces from getting it under Control.
Surg. F. M. Cornyn, First Regiment Missouri Volunteers, and Maj. H. A. Conant acted as staff officers for me during the day with the utmost zeal and intelligence.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Brigadier-General of Volunteers, Commanding.
Gen. GEORGE B. McCLELLAN,
Commanding Division of Volunteers, Cincinnati, Ohio.
Lyon was killed in action at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek less than two months later.
The Civil War in Missouri: A Military History by Louis S. Gerteis
The Fight for Missouri From the Election of Lincoln to then Death of Lyon by Thomas L. Snead
The First Year of the War in Missouri by Thomas L. Snead. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Volume I, edited by Robert U. Johnson and Clarence C. Buel
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volumes III and LIII.
The Significant Skirmish: The Battle of Boonville, June 17, 1861 by Paul Rorvig. Missouri Historical Review, Volume LXXXVI, Number 2, January 1992.