May 10, 1861
In 1861 the border state of Missouri was an intergral part of the violent tug-of-war over the secession issue. The thriving port city of St. Louis, although divided on the issue of secession, had a large population of German immigrants who were opposed to slavery and to secession. In spite of the state’s official decision for neutrality, strong secessionist sentiments still existed. Governor Claiborne Jackson, a vehement supporter of secession, personally corresponded with Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and both awaited a turn of events in Missouri that would prove more favorable to the Confederacy.
In May 1861, Postmaster Montgomery Blair learned of a secessionist plot to seize the Union depot at the St. Louis Armory, where large numbers of weapons and ammunition were allegedly stored. On May 10, 3,000 Union soldiers under the command of Capt. Nathaniel Lyon marched to the armory at the state militia barracks at Camp Jackson. Included were a large number of German immigrants serving in a unit known as the Home Guards. Missouri processionist militiamen, led by Gen. D.M. Frost, peacefully surrendered to Lyon, but trouble began when they refused to take a loyalty oath.
To humiliate the Missouri militiamen, Lyon paraded them through the streets between two columns of Home Guards. Bystanders, hostile toward the Germans, cursed and spat at them. Soon rocks were thrown, and someone in the crowd opened fire on the Home Guards. The soldiers were ordered to fire back into the crowd.
The mob retaliated by tearing up paving blocks and throwing them at the troops. Gunfire from both sides was so heavy that by nightfall 90 civilians had been hit, 28 of whom were dead or dying. Lyon dismissed the guardsmen in an effort to stop the fighting, but mobs roamed throughout the night, burning buildings. The next day, seven more citizens were killed by the Home Guards, who had been called out again to restore order. The idea of Missouri remaining neutral was now out of the question.
Fascinating Fact: On a spying mission to obtain information about the alleged plan to seize the armory, Lyon disguised himself in women’s clothing concealing his beard behind a veil.