Battle of Boonville

Encyclopedia entry by ,
U. S. Air Force Command and Staff College

This sketch from an 1863 issue of Harper's Weekly depicts Nathaniel Lyon leading his troops to victory in the Battle of Boonville.

Event Summary:

  • Date: June 17, 1861
  • Location: Boonville, Cooper County, Missouri
  • Adversaries: Union Army vs. pro-Confederate Missouri State Guard
  • Size of Forces: Approx. 1,700 Union troops vs. approx. 1,500 Missouri State Guard troops
  • Casualties: Five U.S. troops killed and 7 wounded; 3 Missouri State Guard troops killed and 5-9 wounded
  • Result: Union victory

The Battle of Boonville on June 17, 1861, was one of the earliest battles of the Civil War. With the federal victory, the Union gained control of the Missouri River Valley and forced the pro-Confederate Missouri State Guard (MSG) into the southwestern corner of the state, cutting the latter off from recruits north of the Missouri River. The Battle of Boonville persuaded Confederate forces in northwest Arkansas to come to the aid of the MSG at the subsequent Battle of Wilson’s Creek and drove Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson and his government closer to secession.

The fighting at Boonville was a direct result of failed negotiations at the Planter House Hotel in St. Louis on June 11, 1861, between the federal government and Missouri. The U.S. was represented by Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon, Colonel (and former Republican U.S. Congressman representing Missouri) Frank P. Blair Jr. and Blair’s aide, Major Horace Conant. The state of Missouri was represented by Governor Jackson, Major General Sterling Price of the MSG, and Jackson’s secretary, Thomas Snead. The meeting failed to come to a compromise, and it ended abruptly when Lyon stood up and addressed Jackson, saying, “This means war.” Jackson’s party immediately took a train for Missouri’s capital, Jefferson City. The following day Jackson issued a proclamation calling for 50,000 Missouri militia to eject U.S. forces from the state.

Jackson picked Boonville, nearly halfway between Kansas City and St. Louis in Missouri's "Little Dixie" region, as a rallying point.

Jackson picked Boonville, nearly halfway between Kansas City and St. Louis in Missouri’s “Little Dixie” region, as a rallying point for the MSG. His choice meant abandoning the capital, but it made sense. The bluffs that Boonville sat atop proved to be a commanding position to interdict river traffic on the Missouri. With Boonville in the MSG’s hands, federal power could not be pushed into the western portion of the state. Boonville also allowed the MSG to collect the elements of the MSG from north of the Missouri River. Furthermore, the population of Boonville was much more sympathetic to Jackson’s cause than Jefferson City’s. Price wanted to fall back to Lexington, to the northwest, but he became ill on the way to Boonville and was not present at the battle. That left Jackson in charge, and he decided to take a stand at Boonville. Lyon would make him pay for that decision.

Lyon began an aggressive pursuit of Jackson and the MSG. Lyon had the bulk of two federal volunteer regiments (the 1st and 2nd Missouri Volunteers, mainly comprised of German immigrants), one company of U.S. Army Regulars and a battery of artillery totaling approximately 2,000 men. Lyon’s goals were simple: seize the capital, Jefferson City, and disperse the MSG.  To avoid sabotage on the railroads, Lyon embarked his force on four steamboats, the Iatan, J. C. Swon, McDowell and the City of Louisiana, which departed St. Louis on June 12. The federal force faced no opposition as it moved up the Missouri River.  Lyon’s force captured Jefferson City without a fight on June 15.

Cartoon depicting Confederate General Sterling Price “taken with a Violent Diarrhea” at the beginning of the Battle of Boonville. Courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections.

Lyon continued upstream to Boonville on June 17, landing eight miles away on the south bank of the Missouri after receiving intelligence of the MSG’s whereabouts in and around Boonville. Leaving one company of the 1st Missouri on the boats along with a howitzer battery, Lyon landed the rest of the force and moved west along the Rocheford Road until his skirmishers made contact with lead elements of the MSG two miles after landing.

The Battle of Boonville was sharp and quick. The federals attempted to flank the MSG line, which initially stood firm. Captain James Totten’s U.S. artillery then began bombarding the Guard, and that in combination with Lyon’s flanking movement forced the MSG into headlong retreat. The lack of training and discipline proved fatal to the MSG as Lyon and his force pursued vigorously to complete the rout. Lyon and the federals took control of Boonville shortly thereafter.

Although not a large battle, Boonville had significant consequences. First and foremost, the MSG troops were dispersed and cut off from recruiting grounds on the north bank of the Missouri River. Second, the federal victory and subsequent withdrawal of the MSG to Cowskin Prairie in the southwest corner of the state gave the U.S. control of the Missouri River Valley, even though pro-Confederate guerrilla activity would continue throughout the war. Although casualties were small (U.S. losses were five killed and seven wounded, while the MSG’s losses were three killed and between five and nine wounded), it clearly demonstrated that the Guard needed better weaponry, artillery, training, and discipline if it wanted to become a viable fighting force. After Boonville, Price worked hard at Cowskin Prairie to turn the MSG into a potent military entity, Governor Jackson advocated Missouri’s secession, and Lyon’s continued pursuit of Price eventually led to his defeat and death at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek on August 10, 1861.

Suggested Reading: 

Castel, Albert E. General Sterling Price and the Civil War in the West. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1968.

Gerteis, Louis. The Civil War in Missouri: A Military History. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2012.

Phillips, Christopher. Damned Yankee: The Life of General Nathaniel Lyon. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1996.

Rorvig, Paul. "The Significant Skirmish: The Battle of Boonville, June 17, 1861" Missouri Historical Review, volume 86, number 2 (January 1992), 127-148.

Cite this page: 
Beckenbaugh, Terry. "Battle of Boonville" Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. The Kansas City Public Library. Accessed Oct, 16, 2017 at http://civilwaronthewesternborder.org/encyclopedia/battle-boonville

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