About General Nathaniel Lyon
Nathaniel Lyon (July 14, 1818 – August 10, 1861) was the first Union general to be killed in the American Civil War and is noted for his actions in the state of Missouri at the beginning of the conflict.
Lyon is a controversial figure in American history. Some credit his quick action and hard line Unionism for stopping the Missouri secession movement. Others question his influence peddling and his role in events such as the Camp Jackson Affair, which inflamed many Missourians on the secession issue (See Missouri secession.)
Early life and career
Lyon was born on a farm in Ashford, Connecticut, son of Amasa and Kezia Knowlton Lyon. As a boy he hated farming. His relatives had fought in the American Revolutionary War and he was determined to follow in their footsteps. In 1837 he applied to the United States Military Academy and graduated eleventh in his class of 52 cadets in 1841.
He was assigned to the 2nd U.S. Infantry regiment after graduation and served with them in the Seminole Wars and the Mexican-American War. Despite denouncing American involvement in the Mexican War, he was promoted to first lieutenant for "conspicuous bravery in capturing enemy artillery" at the Battle for Mexico City and received a brevet promotion to captain for Contreras and Churubusco. He was then posted to the frontier, where he participated in the massacre of Pomo Native Americans at Clear Lake, California, the 1850 "Bloody Island Massacre. After being reassigned to Fort Riley, Kansas, Lyon became a staunch abolitionist and Republican (with ties to prominent Radical Republicans) while serving in the border wars known as "Bleeding Kansas." In January 1861, he wrote about the secession crisis, "It is no longer useful to appeal to reason, but to the sword."
St. Louis Arsenal
In March 1861, Lyon arrived in St. Louis in command of Company D of the 2nd U.S. Infantry. At the time the population and state of Missouri were relatively neutral in the dispute between North and South, but Governor Claiborne F. Jackson was a strong Southern sympathizer, as were many of the state legislators. Lyon was accurately concerned that Jackson meant to seize the federal arsenal in St. Louis if the state seceded and that the Union had insufficient defensive forces to prevent the seizure. He attempted to strengthen the defenses, but came into opposition from his superiors, including Brig. Gen. William S. Harney of the Department of the West. Lyon employed his friendship with Francis P. Blair, Jr., to have himself named commander of the arsenal. When the Civil War broke out and President Abraham Lincoln called for troops to put down the Confederacy, Missouri was asked to supply four regiments. Governor Jackson refused the request and ordered the Missouri State Guard to muster outside St. Louis under the stated purpose of training for home defense.
Lyon himself had been extensively involved in the St. Louis Wide Awakes, a pro-union paramilitary organization that he intended to arm from the arsenal and muster into the ranks of the federal army. Upon obtaining command of the arsenal, Lyon armed the Wide Awake units under guise of night. Lyon had most of the excess weapons in the arsenal secretly moved to Illinois. Lyon was aware of a clandestine operation whereby the Confederacy had shipped captured artillery from the U.S. arsenal in Baton Rouge to the Missouri State Militia camp in St. Louis. Lyon allegedly disguised himself as a farm woman to spy on the State Guard's camp and then claimed that he had uncovered a plan by Jackson to seize the arsenal for Missouri troops. On May 10 he directed the Missouri volunteer regiments and the 2nd U.S. Infantry to the camp, forcing its surrender. Riots broke out in St. Louis as Lyon marched his prisoners through the city to the St. Louis Arsenal. The event provoked the Camp Jackson Affair of May 10, 1861, in which Lyons' troops opened fire on a crowd of civilians injuring at least 75 and killing 28. Two federals and three militia were also killed and others were wounded. The source of the first shot is disputed, some witnesses claiming it was a drunken rioter, others claiming it was unprovoked. Lyon was nonetheless promoted to brigadier general and given command over the Union troops in Missouri. He assumed command of the Army of the West on July 2.
Pursuit of Jackson
In June, after meeting personally with Jackson in St. Louis in a futile attempt to renew the Harney agreement, Lyon declared war against Jackson and the Missouri State Guard. The governor fled first to the capitol at Jefferson City, and then retreated with the state government to Boonville. Lyon moved up the Missouri River and captured Jefferson City on June 13. He continued the pursuit and on June 17 he defeated a portion of the Missouri State Guard at the Battle of Boonville. The governor, Missouri State Government, and the Missouri State Guard retreated to the southwest. Lyon installed a pro-Union state government in its place and removed the state's attorney general, J. Proctor Knott, a Unionist who had stayed behind. Lyon reinforced his army before moving southwest as well.
Battle of Wilson's Creek
By July 13, Lyon was encamped at Springfield, Missouri, with about 6,000 Union soldiers. The Missouri State Guard, about 75 miles southwest of Lyon and under the command of Price, met with troops under Brig. Gen. Benjamin McCulloch near the end of July. The combined Confederate forces numbered about 12,000, formed plans to attack Springfield, and marched northeast on July 31.
The armies met at dawn a few miles south of Springfield on the morning of August 10 in the Battle of Wilson's Creek. Lyon, who had already been wounded twice in the fighting, was shot in the head, leg, and chest and killed while dramatically rallying his badly outnumbered men. Although the Union Army was defeated at Wilson's Creek, Lyon's quick action neutralized the effectiveness of pro-Southern forces in Missouri, allowing Union forces to secure the state.
Fate of Lyon's remains
In the confused aftermath of the Union retreat from Wilson's Creek, Lyon's body was mistakenly left behind on the battlefield and discovered by Confederate forces. It was briefly buried on a Union soldier's farm outside Springfield until it could be returned to Lyon's relatives. Eventually the remains were interred at the family plot in Eastford, Connecticut, where an estimated crowd of 15,000 attended the funeral. A cenotaph stands in memory of Lyon in the Springfield National Cemetery, Missouri.
Lyon was slight of figure with a shabby appearance; his boots were often unpolished, his uniform was often faded, and his insignia were often tarnished. Nonetheless, the men under his command were said to have respected him. Lyon was known for his love of mustard, and was often seen by his troops to be slathering it on thick slices of bread, even in the midst of battle. He never married; it is often written that he bequeathed all his property to the federal government of the United States, but this is disputed.
On December 24, 1861, the United States Congress passed a resolution of thanks for the "eminent and patriotic services of the late Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon. The country to whose service he devoted his life will guard and preserve his fame as a part of its own glory. That the Thanks of Congress are hereby given to the brave officers who, under the command of the late general Lyon sustained the honor of the flag and achieved victory against overwhelming numbers at the battle of Springfield, Missouri."
Namesakes and honors
Lyon County, Iowa, Lyon County, Kansas, Lyon County, Minnesota, Lyons Valley, Jamul, California and Lyon County, Nevada, are named in Nathaniel Lyon's honor. Two forts were also named in his honor: Fort Lyon in Colorado and Fort Lyon (Virginia), which defended Washington, D.C., during the American Civil War in Virginia. Lyon Street in San Francisco is named for him.