Crossroad of Destiny: Union or Disunion
The year of 1861 was one of crisis and decision making for Missouri. Throughout her history, Missouri had stood at many crossroads, for virtually all of the major routes leading from East to West intersected one another in this state. But in 1861, Missouri stood at a different kind of crossroad. As the nation was splitting apart and drifting rapidly towards Civil War, no state struggled more than Missouri with the epic question of Union or Secession. The Battle of Carthage was but one of a series of events of that fateful year in which Missourians confronted one another, first in the halls of politics and then on the field of battle. These men were struggling with nothing less than the momentous question of whether Missouri would opt for Union or Secession.
Governor Jackson: Missouri Should Stand by the South
On the side of Secession was Missouri's newly elected governor, Clairborne Fox Jackson. Governor Jackson, who, at the Battle of Carthage, would be the only sitting governor of any state to take active command of an army in the field during the Civil War, had been inaugurated only four months before. In his inaugural address, he spoke for many Missourians when he proclaimed: "The destiny of the slave-holding states of this union is one and the same. So long as a state maintains slavery within her limits, it is impossible to separate her fate from that of her sister states?Missouri will not be found to shrink from the duty which her position on the border imposes her honor, her interests, and her sympathies point alike in one direction, and determine her to stand by the South?" Jackson believed that disunion was inevitable and that Missouri should leave the Union and join the Confederacy at the first opportunity.
While most Missourians were of Southern origin, and sympathized to some degree with the South's desire to be free of Northern domination, only a small minority shared Governor Jackson's Secessionist outlook. Only one Missouri family in eight actually owned slaves, and during the decade of the 1850s slavery was declining in proportion to the total population. Still, slavery was important to Missouri's agricultural economy, particularly in the hemp and tobacco growing regions, and many of the state's political leaders were, like Governor Jackson, slave holders.
The Case for Unionism: Border State Ties to the North
While strong ties of sentiment to the South did exist, Missouri was a border state, surrounded on three sides by free states, with many links to the North. Railroads built during the 1850s tied Missouri's agricultural economy to Northern markets, while Yankee capital was financing the expanding number of industries concentrated in St. Louis. This rapidly growing industrial and trading hub had one of [illegible text in photo].
Conditional Unionism: The Politics of Ambivalence
Torn in two directions, most Missourians held a political position known as Conditional Unionism. They desired to remain in the Union, but could not join in a war to prevent Southern states from seceding. This conditional Unionist position prevailed in the convention that met from February 28 to March 22 to decide how Missouri would stand on the question of secession. The convention, chaired by ex-governor and Mexican War hero, Sterling Price, met and voted overwhelmingly to remain in the Union but at the same time expressed the state's determination to remain neutral and not enter any war against her sister states of the South.
St. Louis: Missouri's Union Stronghold
The outcome of the state convention provided a setback to the plans of Governor Jackson and his supporters to bring Missouri into the Confederacy. He also had to contend with the opposition of a small but politically powerful group centered in St. Louis, that was firmly behind Lincoln and determined to keep Missouri in the Union at all costs. The leader of this contingent was Congressman Frank P. Blair, Jr., assisted by Captain Nathaniel Lyon, a fiery Connecticut-born West Pointer. The backbone, in terms of manpower, of the Unionist cause was provided by the large German-American community that existed in St. Louis at that time. These new citizens were firmly committed to the principles of republicanism and emancipation. Organized by Blair into a militant Unionist watchdog organization, known as the Wide Awakes, many of these ardent Unionists had been drilling since the beginning of the year. By the beginning of May, ten volunteer regiments, totaling 10,000 men, 80% of them German-Americans, had been enlisted in the U.S. Army. This was the core of the force used by Lyon and Blair to prevent St. Louis and the state government from falling under the Secessionist sway.
The St. Louis Arsenal: Key to Control of Missouri
In the meantime, a secessionist organization called the "Minute Men" was also being formed in St. Louis. These men were soon sworn into service as members of the First Brigade of Volunteer Militia, under the command of General David M. Frost.
The target of both the Unionist and Southern Rights groups was the St. Louis arsenal, its 60,000 stand of arms and abundant supplies of munitions could equip an army capable of controlling Missouri's destiny.
Collision Course: Camp Jackson
A collision between the federal volunteers and the state pro-Southern militia was not long in coming. On May 10, Nathaniel Lyon, with the aid of Franz Sigel and 6,000 German-American troops, surrounded Camp Jackson where the 897 men of the First Brigade of Volunteer Militia had gone into encampment for what Lyon and Blair strongly suspected was the purpose of seizing the arsenal. After the hopelessly outnumbered militia had surrendered and were being marched away as prisoners, a mob gathered and shots were exchanged that left one Union soldier and 20 civilians dead at the end of what became known as the "Camp Jackson Affair." This event had an electrifying effect on the state. Many former conditional Unionists came over to the secessionist cause. The state legislature immediately authorized the raising of a state guard to resist Federal invasion. At this time, Sterling Price abandoned his own conditional Unionist position and accepted command of the state guard forces as a major general.
The Planters' House Meeting: End of Missouri Neutrality
An uneasy truce extended for months before matters came to a head in a meeting at the Planters House in St. Louis. Here, after a [illegible] meeting involving Blair, Lyon, Price and Jackson, Lyon ended the meeting by announcing "[illegible]." Then turning to Governor Jackson, he declared: "This means war," Jackson and Price hurriedly departed St. Louis, burning the railroad bridges over the Gasconade and Osage Rivers behind them to delay the Union pursuit. At Jefferson City, Governor Jackson issued a call for 50,000 militia and then prepared to evacuate the capital.
The ?Great Steeplechase' - Lyon Pursues Jackson
Lyon, meanwhile, was making plans to pursue Jackson. He sent Sigel to southwest Missouri to prevent any link up between Arkansas Confederates and Missouri Secessionists while he prepared to advance on the state capitol at Jefferson City. On June 15, he took control of the state capitol, which had already been evacuated by Governor Jackson and many members of the General Assembly. They had fled to Boonville where on June 17, a hastily assembled state guard force was scattered by Lyon's army. These actions came to be known as the "great steeplechase."
The next rendezvous for Jackson and his 6000 recruits came on July 5, when he faced Franz Sigel and his German-Americans on the plains northwest of Carthage.
Two Governments - One Functional, the Other Exiled
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Who Fought Here and Why
The Battle of Carthage pitted the Missouri State Guard, a pro-southern force, against Union volunteer regiments. The hastily assembled state guard army of 4,000 armed and 2,000 unarmed volunteers had been called to duty three weeks before the battle by Clairborne Fox Jackson, Missouri's secessionist governor. At Carthage, this army faced the forces of Colonel Franz Sigel, which consisted of 1,100 well drilled, fully armed St. Louis German-Americans.
Their meeting on the morning of what would be a hot July day was occasioned by the desperate need of Governor Jackson and his company of volunteers to reach the safe haven to be found at Cowskin Prairie in the southwestern corner of the state. There, bolstered by the proximity of Confederate troops in nearby Arkansas, he could turn his volunteers over to General Sterling Price, who had preceded him to southwest Missouri, to be forged into an army with which to return to the Missouri River valley and redeem Missouri for the Stars and Bars.
But first, Colonel Franz Sigel had to be reckoned with. He had been dispatched to southwest Missouri by General Nathaniel Lyon to make sure that Jackson and Price did not link up with the Arkansas Confederates whose forces, if joined with those of Price and Jackson, would create and [sic] army of over ten thousand men capable of invading and possibly reconquering Missouri. Sigel missed Price, who had passed through a days earlier, but he arrived in time to attempt to halt Jackson's movement.
Had events gone as planned, Lyon should have fallen on Jackson's army from the rear with 3900 men while Sigel attacked from the front. Lyon, however, had been delayed by rain swollen rivers and supply problems. Sigel's force alone would have to reckon with Jackson's army at odds of four to one. Sigel's gamble in attacking was made more desperate by the fact that General Ben McCullough and his Arkansas force might come up and crush Sigel's small column between his army and Jackson's. In fact, the combined armies of McCullough and Price were moving to Jackson's aid and were only a day's march away.
The Opening of the Battle
The Battle of Carthage commenced between 8:00 and 9:00 a.m., when the armies of Sigel and Jackson confronted one another on a plain nine miles northwest of town, and ended at nightfall one and a half miles southwest of this location when Sigel's rear-guard fired a final volley at the southern pursuers and then escaped into the darkness. The battle opened with an artillery duel as each side cannonaded the other from a distance of 760 yards. Neither side was able to inflict significant damage. After about an hour of this cannonading Jackson decided to send his cavalry around the flanks of Sigel in order to capture his supply train and cut off his escape route. Seeing this, Sigel abandoned his own plans to attack and ordered a retreat.
Confrontation at Dry Fork Creek: Fighting in Deadly Earnest
As Sigel's forces recrossed Dry Fork Creek, an artillery battery and five companies of infantry were left concealed behind the trees on the elevated ground of the creek's south side. Jackson's infantry advanced to within 400 yards of this position before receiving the fire of Sigel's rear guard. Sigel's artillerists and riflemen stalled the attack of Jackson's infantry for two hours and inflicted the heaviest casualties of the entire battle. Finally, the rear guard gave ground under the pressure of the superior numbers of the State Guard infantry.
The Bayonet Attack at Buck Branch
In the meantime, two State Guard cavalry regiments managed to circle around Sigel's column and form a blockade at Buck Branch Creek. They were positioned between Sigel's column and his baggage train which still lagged to the rear. The tables were now turned and Sigel became the attacker. His infantry scattered the enemy horsemen with a bayonet charge, crossed Buck Branch, and regained his baggage train. Sigel then skillfully positioned his troops and artillery on all sides of the baggage train and continued the retreat towards Carthage, all the while successfully fending off attempts by the State Guard forces to attack his flanks.
The Battle Shifts to Carthage
At the Spring River crossing he again used his artillery to discourage Jackson's forces who were close on his heel's. As Sigel's exhausted column marched into Carthage, the State Guard infantry launched an aggressive attack and the two forces fought one another house to house. While this fighting was taking place, Sigel positioned his artillery on the bluffs at this site in order to cover his retreat towards Sarcoxie in the gathering dusk. One final stand in near complete darkness two and a half miles further on ended the day's conflict.
The Final Tally
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The Significance of the Battle of Carthage:
Southern Fortunes Rise Then Wane
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A Guide to the Scenes of Action
The Battle of Carthage was a mobile engagement spread out over a distance of some ten miles. To help you understand the battle, four interpretive markers have been placed at the actual locations where the fighting took place. This map indicates the locations of these markers. Directional signs have also been placed on the highways leading to these markers.
Where You Now Stand
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Early Morning March to Battle
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The Battle of Carthage began with an artillery demonstration and then the Southern cavalry moved to encircle Sigel and block his escape route. Sigel, realizing his danger, began a skillfully conducted retreat that lasted the rest of the day. His column broke through a southern line at Buck Branch Creek and crossed Spring River before the southern cavalry could again engage them.
Sigel Prepares a Route of Escape
By the time Sigel's weary men gained the outskirts of Carthage the moving battle had been in progress for some ten hours. As he neared Carthage, Sigel decided to insure that his avenue of escape towards Sarcoxie and Springfield remained open by sending two artillery pieces and two companies of infantry around Carthage to occupy the bluffs on this site and protect the Sarcoxie Road along which he would have to retreat.
No Rest For Weary Union Troops in Carthage
By the time the footsore federal troops reached Carthage, they were badly in need of rest. As Sigel reported, "Our rear guard took possession of the town to give the remainder of the troops time to rest, as they had, after a march of 22 miles on the 4th and 18 miles on the 5th, been in action the whole day since 9 o'clock in the morning, exposed to an intense heat, and almost without eating or drinking. The enemy, taking advantage of his cavalry, forded Spring River on different points, spread through the woods, and, partly dismounted, harassed our troops from all sides."
[Illegible] Fighting in Carthage
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[Illegible] The Final Union Stand in Carthage
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[Illegible] Southerners at This Site
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Long Day of Battle and Retreat At Last Ends For Weary Union Troops
Sigel's bone weary column still had an eighteen mile march ahead of them before their long day would be over. At three a.m. they drug into Sarcoxie, having marched 34 miles in 24 hours, engaged in a moving battle for much of that time, and without opportunity to eat or sleep. For these men, too, the Battle of Carthage was at long last over.