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Morton: State of Missouri faced its own civil war

Published: Monday, Aug. 12, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

On this day (Aug. 12) in 1861, Confederate Gen. Ben McCulloch (1811-1862) proclaimed to the people of Missouri that his victory over the Federals at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek opened the way for their state to secede from the Union and join the Confederacy.

McCulloch further declared that Missouri “must be allowed to choose her own destiny.” He claimed that Missouri Unionists would be protected, but “you can no longer procrastinate. Missouri must now take her position, be it North or South.”

President Abraham Lincoln had appointed on July 21, 1861, Gen. John Charles Fremont (1813-1890) to command the new military Department of the West. Upon learning of field commander Gen. Nathaniel Lyon’s inglorious defeat at Wilson’s Creek, Fremont declared martial law in St. Louis, issued a startling proclamation that announced the death penalty for all Confederate guerrillas caught behind Union lines, confiscated the property of Confederate sympathizers, and freed the slaves of all Confederate activists.

He then dashed off to Lincoln an insulting and even insubordinate “demand” for more troops for his seemingly beaten Unionist, largely militia, army. Lincoln, upon receipt of Fremont’s “demand’ for immediate support, wired back to the panicking Fremont that the Union debacle at Wilson’s Creek was not, in fact, a disastrous defeat but rather a relatively minor setback.

For this obvious and irritating insubordination, and especially for his infamous proclamation, Lincoln, on Nov. 2, 1861, relieved Fremont as commander of the Department of the West. 

Also on this Aug. 12, Lincoln issued a presidential proclamation that he hoped would boost northern morale after the disastrous Union defeat at the July 21, 1861, First Battle of Bull Run (called Manassas by the Confederates), and the Aug. 10, 1861, setback at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek (called Oak Hills by the Confederates). The proclamation designated the last Thursday in September “as a day of humiliation, prayer, fasting for all the people of the nation.”

Missouri, of course, was one of the four slave states (the others being Delaware, Maryland and Kentucky) that did not join the 11 Southern states that seceded and established the Confederate States of America. However, as a border slave state, Missouri was deeply divided on whether to stay in or out of the Union.

Of interest, Missouri Gov. Claiborne Fox Jackson favored secession and steadfastly refused Lincoln’s call for Missouri to provide troops for the Union Army. Instead, he mobilized the Missouri militia for Confederate use.

During the entire ensuing Civil War (1861-1865), there was what could be considered civil war in Missouri. After Gov. Jackson’s failed March 22, 1861, attempt to lead the state out of the Union, Missouri divided into two opposing armed groups: 1. Unionist faction led by Gen. Lyon (1818-1861), and 2. Secessionist faction led by Gov. Jackson (1806-1862).

For more than three years, there was almost constant guerrilla warfare between these two largely militia groups in Missouri, during which thousands of people, mostly civilians, were killed or wounded. 

In addition to constant guerrilla fighting, there were two relatively major battles fought in Missouri and in nearby northern Arkansas: 1. the Battle of Wilson’s Creek (Aug. 10, 1861), which in reality was a minor Union defeat; and 2. the Union victory at the Battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas (March 6-8, 1861).

The Union victory at Pea Ridge led to complete Union control of Missouri and ensured that Missouri would remain in the Union. Interestingly, despite strong secessionist sentiment in Missouri, more Missourians joined the Union army (about 109,000) while only some 30,000 fought for the Confederacy.

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University. Email him at demjcm@comcast.net.

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