Lyon, Nathaniel

Encyclopedia entry by ,
University of Cincinnati

Lithograph of Nathaniel Lyon, by Joseph Edward Baker. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

Biographical Information:

  • Date of birth: July 14, 1818
  • Place of birth: Ashford, Connecticut
  • Claim to fame: Brigadier general in the Union Army, 1841-1861; saved the "Camp Jackson" St. Louis arsenal but precipitated violence and civilian deaths in the "Camp Jackson Affair," 1861; fought in the Battle of Boonville and the Battle of Wilson's Creek, 1861
  • Political affiliations: Democratic Party, Republican Party
  • Date of death: August 10, 1861
  • Place of death: Springfield, Missouri
  • Cause of death: Killed in the Battle of Wilson's Creek
  • Final resting place: General Lyon Cemetery, Eastford, Connecticut

Nathaniel Lyon, federal general, was born on July 14, 1818, in rural Eastford, Connecticut. He received a common school education and then attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. In 1841, he graduated 11th in his class of 52. With the 2nd U.S. Infantry, Lyon served in territorial Florida, California, and Kansas, and in the Mexican War.

Throughout his career, Lyon exhibited a violent, hair-trigger temper and proved a contentious and nearly unpromotable subordinate, challenging authority at all levels. In 1842, while stationed at Sackets Harbor, New York, he was court-martialed for unduly harsh punishment of an insubordinate enlisted man. In late 1848, after serving with distinction in the Regular Army during the Mexican War (enough to be promoted two ranks to captain) Lyon was transferred to northern California with his regiment to preserve order during the Gold Rush. In May 1850, as a response to separate killings by Indians of two white settlers and an Army topographical engineer, Lyon was ordered to conduct an expedition to locate and capture the perpetrators. In two encounters near Clear Lake, Lyon’s men exterminated nearly two entire tribes, totaling more than four hundred individuals. Together they stand today as the bloodiest massacres of Indian life in California history.

Listen to historian Terry Beckenbaugh discuss the Battle of Wilson's Creek at the Kansas City Public Library.

In 1854, immediately after it became a territory, Lyon was transferred to Kansas. His experience interceding in conflicts there between proslavery and antislavery factions caused him to condemn slave state politicians for inciting internecine warfare and for attempting to usurp the democratic process. By 1860, Lyon had aligned with the Republican Party, although he never embraced its abolitionist faction. He publicly supported Abraham Lincoln for president and condemned the Democratic Party for pandering to the slaveocracy.

In late January 1861, Lyon and two companies of infantry were transferred to St. Louis to protect the U.S. government arsenal there, which had been dubbed "Camp Jackson." Although Missouri would vote to maintain neutrality, the state boasted an active secessionist minority, including the governor, several legislators, and St. Louis residents. Fearing an attack upon the arsenal, Lyon allied himself with Republican U.S. congressman Frank P. Blair, leader of St. Louis’s radical unionists and well connected in the Lincoln administration. Blair twice convinced the new president to remove from command the federal department commander, William S. Harney, and each time Lyon assumed his place. The two men recruited, enlisted, and armed thousands of mostly German home guard, and on May 10, with Harney in Washington arguing for his restoration, Lyon led these men to capture an encampment of state militia, mostly secessionists, located at Lindell’s Grove on the city’s outskirts. 

An illustration of General Lyon falling off his horse after getting shot in the Battle of Wilson's Creek. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Lyon then returned his prisoners under guard through the city streets to the arsenal. When angry throngs of civilians began rioting, Lyon’s untrained troops fired into the crowd, precipitating two days of violence in the city and driving thousands of hitherto unaligned Missourians to the Confederate cause. The entire episode became known as the Camp Jackson Affair. A meeting was called at the Planter's House Hotel with Missouri’s governor, Claiborne Fox Jackson, to effect peace with the federal leaders on June 11 in St. Louis. Lyon, by now appointed a brigadier general of volunteers, ended the meeting by declaring war on the state forces and the elected state government.

After conducting a successful campaign up the Missouri River, capturing Jefferson City and driving the governor and many secessionist state legislators into exile, Lyon easily scattered a concentration of state militia forces at the Battle of Boonville. Lyon pressed southward after them as far as Springfield. On August 10, 1861, at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, he rashly attacked the encamped force of Missouri State Guard (led by Sterling Price) and Confederates and Arkansas state troops under Ben McCulloch – who Price had convinced to enter Missouri to stop Lyon’s advance. During the pitched battle, Lyon was killed, and his troops withdrew. In defeat and death, he became the North's first war hero. But his rashness went far to plunge this contested border state into a war most residents wished to avoid.

Suggested Reading: 

Adamson, Hans C. Rebellion in Missouri: 1861—Nathaniel Lyon and His Army of the West. Philadelphia: Chilton Co., 1961.

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

Piston, William Garrett and Richard W. Hatcher III. Wilson's Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Cite this page: 
Phillips, Christopher. "Lyon, Nathaniel" Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. The Kansas City Public Library. Accessed Nov, 18, 2017 at http://civilwaronthewesternborder.org/encyclopedia/lyon-nathaniel

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