I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky.
Setting aside the question of what George McClellan would or would not accomplish at the head of the Army of the Potomac, one thing is clear: in the mountains of western Virginia he had done something vitally important to the Union cause. For in driving the Confederates out, he had secured the line of the Ohio River where it bordered Virginia, thereby securing two crucial border states, Kentucky and Missouri, that would be vital to the Union if it hoped to suppress the rebellion.
The Confederate battle flag serves as a revealing symbol of what the Lincoln administration eventually accomplished along the border in the first summer of the war. At the Battle of Bull Run a good deal of confusion occurred as a result of the similarity between the national flags each side carried into the fight. Confederates flew the “stars and bars,” a circle of eleven stars on a blue field in one corner with one white and two red horizontal bars. Through the haze of powder smoke, it was easy to mistake it for the stars and stripes of the old Union. After the battle, General Beauregard designed a new battle flag: eleven white stars in a blue St. Andrew’s Cross upon a red field. This flag would be most widely recognized as the symbol of the Confederacy. Late in 1861 the Confederate Congress officially admitted Kentucky and Missouri into the Confederacy and added two stars to the flag, but these additions represented only wishful thinking on the part of the Richmond government. While Rebel armies would carry the new thirteen-star flag all the way to Appomattox, the events of the summer of ’61 would take those states out of the Southern camp for the duration.
Meanwhile, Kentucky, the state that had produced both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis as well as the Great Compromiser, Henry Clay, remained deeply divided. Not only were the people deeply divided, but the political situation could hardly have been more confusing. The state had a pro-South governor in Beriah Magoffin, but a staunchly Unionist legislature. Although Magoffin had flatly refused calls for troops from both Richmond and Washington, the state militia, well-armed and well-drilled, was under the command of Southern sympathizer Simon Bolivar Buckner. Its ten thousand men were likewise distinctly Southern in their sympathies and determined to confront Northern aggression on Kentucky soil. To his dismay, however, Buckner soon discovered that Kentucky soil was also home to an equal number of potential aggressors. Under the command of gigantic William Nelson, a six-foot, five-inch, three-hundred-pound lieutenant in the U. S. Navy, ten thousand Unionist Home Guards were raised, prepared to defend Kentucky against aggression foreign or domestic.
In fact, Kentucky was trying to grope its way through a revolutionary conflict of its own, its citizens, like those of the United States, uncertain whether they were in the midst of an insurrection or a foreign war. As a further sign of its political confusion, Governor Magoffin with both houses of the legislature declared Kentucky officially neutral and announced that it would defend its borders from invasion from both North and South. (As the state bordered three slave and three free states, this presented a considerable challenge.) As historian Shelby Foote writes, the people of Kentucky were “so violently in favor of peace that they were willing to fight for it.” In a special congressional election in late June the people affirmed their neutrality, but at the same time sent nine pro-Union men and a solitary secession-minded representative to Washington. As far as Washington was concerned, of course, neutrality was no more valid constitutionally than secession. But as a practical matter, Kentucky was neither quite out of nor altogether in the Union.
Into this turmoil, Lincoln sent Major Robert Anderson, defender of the flag at Fort Sumter. Anderson at fifty-six was older than his years and in failing health. A Kentuckian by birth, he was reluctant to carry fighting to his native state. (If Kentucky left the Union, he said, he would leave the country.) But with Kentucky at least not forthrightly out of the Union, he went to organize the Union effort in the Department of Kentucky. With a show of respect for the state’s neutrality, he made his headquarters across the Ohio River in Cincinnati. It was a sign of an astute sense of political calculation, an astuteness shared by President Lincoln himself, who, apart from assuring the state’s slave-owners that their property was secure, refrained from disturbing the status quo. Recognizing how delicately the balance hung in Kentucky, and essentially unable to hold the state by force of arms, he was willing to await events for the time being. “I hope to have God on my side,” he said, “but I must have Kentucky.”
In Richmond, Jefferson Davis was at least as anxious as Lincoln about the fate of Kentucky, and perhaps more so as he sensed a steadily rising Union sentiment. Kentucky had after all elected a Unionist legislature, and by mid-summer Buckner’s pro-South militia had disbanded. At this point, Davis turned to Leonidas Polk, lately a bishop in the Episcopal Church, now a major general in the Confederate States Army. Polk at fifty-five was a West Pointer from the top of his class who had left the army early to pursue a clerical career. His analysis of the situation in Kentucky was quite sound. First, he recognized how volatile Kentucky’s contentious neutrality was and how steadily Unionist sympathy was growing. Like Anderson, he tactfully gathered his forces just beyond Kentucky’s border, at Union City in northwest Tennessee. Second, Polk saw that the strategic key to holding the upper Mississippi Valley and hence Kentucky was the high ground at Columbus, from which the Mobile and Ohio railroad ran due south. But–also like Anderson–Polk dared not appear to be the first aggressor on Kentucky’s soil.
Fifty miles north of Polk at Cairo, Illinois, where the Ohio River empties into the Mississippi, Union forces were gathered also with a design on Columbus. They were commanded by an obscure 39-year-old brigadier from Illinois, Ulysses S. Grant. In a time when soldiers were expected to affect a military demeanor, Grant moved with a slight-shouldered slouch like the hardscrabble farmer he had been not so long ago. He had taken a military education reluctantly (chiefly to escape his father’s foul-smelling tannery in Galena, west of Chicago), and at West Point he was an indifferent student who excelled only in horsemanship. He had served capably enough in Mexico, but the boredom and loneliness of later posts in the West drove him to the bottle, which ended his military career in disgrace in 1854. Although the highest reach of his ambition was simply to teach mathematics at a small college, his career in civil life was distinguished only by a series of failures. When the war came, he was a clerk in his brother’s store.
Grant was about to take his first step out of a lifetime of obscurity, however. On August 28, 1861, the recommissioned general received an order to occupy Columbus, Kentucky. Meanwhile, Leonidas Polk, believing that Northern aggression was on the march in Kentucky, stole a march on his rival general, arriving in Columbus on September 4. Though the feat represented a modest tactical victory, it would prove a momentous political defeat for Polk. Although both Northern and Southern aggressors were now on Southern soil, most Kentuckians held the Confederates immediately responsible for the violation of their neutrality. Rightly or wrongly, Polk’s act had finally and decisively tipped the political balance. Although throughout the war Kentucky would maintain a secessionist government-in-exile and thousands of her sons would fight for the South, Kentucky would remain in the Union for the duration of the war. Grant, meanwhile, moved to Paducah at the confluence of the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers to confront a possible advance by Polk. When Anderson finally crossed the Ohio and addressed the state legislature at Frankfort, the members of that body moved to expel the Confederate “invaders.” Lincoln at last had Kentucky on his side.
The Struggle for Missouri
In the spring of 1861 Missouri was not so evenly divided on secession as Kentucky. Three out of every four Missouri men who ultimately fought did so for the Union cause. But the state was perhaps more violently divided, and in the end it would take hard blows as well as political maneuvering to keep it in the Union. Like Kentucky, Missouri had a pro-slavery, secession-minded governor in Claiborne Fox Jackson. Not so long before, Jackson had led Border Ruffians in the fight over popular sovereignty. Unlike Kentucky, however, the predominantly Democratic state legislature wanted to go out of the Union with their governor. Opposing them were two forces: one in the form of a strongly Unionist state convention which voted down the secession ordinance, and one in the person of Congressman Francis P. Blair, Jr. Blair was not only an able and energetic Union man, he had potent political influence in Washington where his brother Montgomery served as Postmaster General and his father, Francis P. Blair, Sr., sat in the inner circle of Lincoln’s advisors. One consequence of Blair’s influence was that it brought to Missouri a twenty-year, regular army captain eager to strike some blows against treason, Nathaniel Lyon.
Lyon was slightly built but his burning blue eyes and red beard gave him the look of a warrior; and twenty years of command had given him the character. When Governor Jackson called out the pro-South state militia and seized a small Federal arsenal at Liberty, Lyon went to work with a will. Learning that a body of militia with some artillery was in camp outside St. Louis with a design to seize the huge Federal arsenal there, Lyon organized four regiments of German Americans. On May 10, stiffened by two companies of regulars, Lyon’s force surrounded “Camp Jackson’s” 700 militiamen and took the lot of them prisoner without a shot on either side. Only later, when Lyon was marching his prisoners through the streets of St. Louis, would blood be shed. A mob of Southern partisans lined the streets, shouting insults (“Up with Jeff Davis!”) as well as anti-German invective (“Damn the Dutch!”), then throwing rocks. Finally, someone in the mob shot one of Lyon’s captains, and the soldiers shot back. In the confusion, two soldiers and twenty-eight civilians were killed. One of the civilians was a baby in its mother’s arms. The incident was a vivid prelude to the vicious guerilla fighting that would be part of Missouri’s agony over the next four years. It may be worth noting here that Jesse and Frank James and Bob and Cole Younger, later infamous as outlaws, began their careers in violence in Missouri’s partisan wars.
Blood shed in the streets of St. Louis by “Lincoln’s hirelings” incited pro-South passions. Though some held out remote hopes that a truce might be arranged in June, Governor Jackson was preparing for Missouri’s own civil war. His first war measure was to appoint Sterling Price, a general in the Mexican War and former governor, to command the state’s militia. As far as anyone could tell by the beginning of June, Jackson’s government was still the legally constituted representative of the people of Missouri. But Lyon was not one to try legal cases in revolutionary times. He marched his force west to the state capital at Jefferson City and simply drove the government and Price’s militia out of town before him. By the time Lyon had stopped driving, Jackson was governor of a government-in-exile and Price had been backed nearly into Arkansas. The only legally elected political body in control of the state was the convention that had rejected secession back in March. In July they called themselves to order as the “Long Convention” (after the “Long Parliament” of the English Civil War) and governed the state until a new free-state constitution was framed in 1865. Lyon’s bold action may have helped create a strange sort of federalism, but, politically and practically, it had kept Missouri in the Union.
Lyon thus became the hero of the hour–especially in light of Northern dismay over the Bull Run disaster that July. But tragically for Lyon, he had but another hour to act, this on the banks of Wilson’s Creek. By the first part of August Lyon’s own success had put his little army in a perilous spot. He had driven Price to within 50 miles of the Arkansas border, but that also meant that he was now 120 miles from his own base of supply back through Springfield to the northeast. More critically, his 5,500 men confronted a force at least 10,000 strong. The character and composition of these armies say much about the nature of the struggle in that first confused and chaotic battle summer. The smallest but perhaps most significant element of Lyon’s army was the core of old army regulars, both infantry and artillery. The largest element, fairly well-armed thanks to the arsenal at St. Louis but virtually untrained, was the German American regiments. Their brigadier, Franz Sigel, was a professional soldier who had fled Germany after the failed revolution of 1848. The remainder of Lyon’s force was an odd mix of Missouri and Kansas regiments–including one ninety-day Iowa regiment. Price’s army was, if anything, an even odder mix. It included Price’s own Missouri Home Guards, one genuine Confederate brigade commanded by Ben McCulloch, a veteran of the Mexican War and a former Texas Ranger, and four Arkansas regiments with some artillery. The rest were an odd lot of frontier units known by the names of the men who had raised them or been elected by them: Wingo’s Infantry, Kelly’s Infantry, Foster’s Infantry. There were even units composed of both full-blooded and mixed-blooded American Indians.
As for arms and equipment, there may have been no more motley army ever gathered on the continent. General Price himself was described by one of his troopers as “a large fine looking old bald fellow dressed in common citizen clothes: an oald linen coat and yarn pants.” Many wore whatever they were wearing when they had hiked away from the farm or the mill; officers were distinguished from enlisted men by a swatch of flannel on their shoulders. Although three thousand of Price’s men had no weapons at all, those who were armed carried everything from modern rifled muskets to flintlocks that had seen service in 1812, to fowling pieces. Lacking cartridge boxes, they carried what ammunition they had in their haversacks. For the most part, they were virtually untrained, undrilled, unorganized, and utterly unprepared for the battle they were about to fight at Wilson’s Creek.
By the first week of August Lyon was acutely aware of his predicament; his army was short on supplies, without expectation of reinforcement, facing two-to-one odds, and more than a hundred miles from the nearest place of safety. If he retreated, Price and McCulloch had every opportunity to out-march him, get in his rear, and overwhelm him. As Lyon himself put it tartly: “I find my situation extremely embarrassing.” He could neither remain where he was in Springfield nor safely retreat northeast to Rolla. He therefore made a bold decision to attack the Rebels in their camp on Wilson’s Creek, ten miles south of Springfield. In the face of a superior enemy, he would divide his force and strike the Rebels front and rear. Two summers later, Robert E. Lee would employ a similar tactic to win his most brilliant triumph at Chancellorsville. But Lee that day would rely on his inspired subordinate, Stonewall Jackson; Lyon would have to rely on the inexpert Franz Sigel. Lyon’s plan called for Sigel’s German brigade to make a night march, get south of the Confederate camp, and strike it at sunrise. At the same time, Lyon would strike the camp from the north. On the evening of August 11, Sigel’s column of 1200 marched off in the drizzly darkness. The next morning it was in line of battle south of the camp. North of the camp, Lyon with 4200 men waited to hear the first shots of Sigel’s attack.
Meanwhile, in the Confederate camp a change of command had taken place, a measure of the political confusion and general military disorganization of the day. Sterling Price was a major general, but his commission came from Claiborne Jackson, then refugee governor of a shadow government. Ben McCulloch was a brigadier general, but his commission came from President Jefferson Davis (who would be a refugee himself before the long fighting was done). Price and McCulloch exchanged some angry words, but in the end Price agreed to fight under McCulloch. In fact, at Price’s urging McCulloch ordered an attack of his own on August 9, but it rained that night. Considering all those paper cartridges in cloth haversacks, he canceled the attack. The next morning the Confederate plan was a moot point.
Sigel’s attack got off capably at daylight. Supported by artillery, he pitched into a camp of Confederate cavalry and drove them. Pressing forward slowly onto open ground, Sigel was struck head-on and sharply by McCulloch’s counterattack. The watchword of the German regiments was “Ve fights mit Sigel,” but they had done all the fighting they were going to do that day: the brigade broke into fragments flying in every direction, Sigel himself riding hard for Springfield. North of the creek, Lyon struck Price along a little ridge and the two battle lines hammered at each other on a narrow front–just a half-mile wide. Because so many were armed with short-range smoothbores, the lines had to come to close quarters to do any damage. All morning they fired in each other’s faces, and the little ridge came to be known as Bloody Hill, the first such homely country place to earn that adjective in the Civil War. In the midst of this vicious fight, however, there was an odd moment of old-fashioned gallantry. In front of the 1st Iowa regiment, a Texan rode chivalrously to retrieve a lost flag in the face of nearly certain death. The Iowans, chivalrous themselves, held their fire. Elsewhere, Price and Lyon both rode up and down their lines, but the fire apparently was hotter on Lyon’s side: he was wounded twice and his horse shot from under him. Finally, while trying to press his attack forward once more, Lyon was tumbled from his horse with a bullet through his heart.
After Lyon’s death, the Federal line slowly and stubbornly gave way, beaten but not routed by the weight of Confederate numbers. The battle was over and there was no pursuit. Having first fallen back upon Springfield, the next day the Federals retreated still further, to Rolla. Tactically, the battle was hardly decisive, but one thing was clear: untrained and poorly organized armies had fought with a terrible tenacity. Here in the West people were also learning what Bull Run had taught the people back East: the human price of this conflict was going to be steep. In killed, wounded, and missing, each side lost about 1300 men. Wilson’s Creek had been, as one Confederate remembered, “a mighty mean-fowt fight.” Although Confederate forces would threaten Missouri several times in the next year (Price would even seize and hold Lexington for a time), they would never control the state. Lyon had lost a battle, but he had won Missouri. Now the Union command would return to its first objective in the West: to control the upper Mississippi River and its tributaries and to open the avenues of invasion of the upper South.