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At this location there occurred on May 10, 1861 an incident that has
become known as the Camp Jackson Affair. On that day an encampment of the
First Brigade of the Missouri state militia was surrounded and captured by
volunteers in the service of the federal government. As the captured
militia members were being marched away a clash took place between the federal
volunteers and an angry mob that left a number of spectators either dead or
wounded. This incident greatly inflamed feelings in St. Louis and
throughout the state and galvanized many previously wavering Missourians to
choose one side or the other in the impending civil war.
The extraordinary set of circumstances that led troops in service of the
federal government to take the extreme measure of capturing a seemingly legal
encampment of the state militia can only be understood within the larger context
of Missouri's relation to the Union during the tension-filled early months of
1861. Most Missourians in 1861 adopted a stance of "conditional unionism."
Such men dominated the state convention that met in February and March and
decided against secession and in favor of a stance of neutrality.
The powerful secessionist minority was led by the newly elected governor,
Claiborne Jackson. Leading the opposition was the unconditional unionist,
Frank Blair, a Republican member of Congress from St. Louis.
During the early months of 1861, paramilitary organizations were created
in St. Louis by both sides; unionists were formed as Wide Awakes, while the
secessionists styled themselves Minute Men. Both groups kept their eyes on
the St. Louis Arsenal. This federal armory contained a store of 38,000
muskets, 45 tons of powder, and 11 cannon. In the arsenal were weapons
aplenty to equip a large army and seize control of the state.
In February, the Union cause was boosted by the arrival of Capt. Nathaniel
Lyon, a Connecticut-born West Pointer who vehemently hated secessionists.
During the next two months, Lyon energetically set about to strengthen the
defenses of the arsenal and organize and train the Wide Awakes, who were being
transformed into home guard companies. The Minute Men were not idle
either; Lyon and Blair constantly heard rumors of plots by the secessionists to
seize the arsenal.
In the tense weeks following the firing on Fort Sumter on April 12, after
Governor Jackson defiantly refused Lincoln's call for troops, Lyon and Blair
stepped forward to fill this void. Soon some 10,000 men, mostly German
Americans, were mustered into federal service. As a further precaution,
Lyons arranged in late April to transfer most of the arms in the arsenal
In the face of the aggressive actions by the St. Louis unionists, the
secessionists also stepped up their efforts. On April 20, they seized the
small arsenal at Liberty, Missouri. At the same time, Jackson secretly
wrote to Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, requesting siege guns
with which to reduce the stout walls that ringed the St. Louis arsenal. He
also issued orders for the pro-southern militia organizations in the state to
muster for their six-day annual encampments. The main objective of the muster
was to counter the buildup of union troops in St. Louis. It was with this
in mind that Camp Jackson came into being.
Camp Jackson was located in a large parklike area known as Lindell's
Grove, situated on what was then the western edge of the city. On May 6,
898 men of the first brigade, including 300 Minute Men, assembled for the
encampment. Two days later, the siege guns, which had been seized from the
federal arsenal at Baton Rouge, La., arrived in St. Louis aboard a steamboat and
were immediately hauled to Camp Jackson. Lyon's spies quickly informed him
of this clandestine delivery.
The following day, May 9, Lyon decided to scout the camp. Disguised
as Frank Blair's mother-in-law, he was driven around the camp where he observed
the crated guns and noted streets named in honor of the prominent Confederates
Davis and Beauregard. Armed with this evidence, Lyon was able to convince
the unionist Committee of Safety that it was essential to capture the camp and
eliminate the threat that an organized body of secessionist troops could pose to
On May 10, Lyon's force of 6,000 volunteers was assembled at the arsenal.
He divided this force into three detachments and ordered them to proceed by
different routes to Camp Jackson. By 3:30 p.m. the camp was completely
surrounded. Lyon immediately sent a note to the commanding officer of the
camp. Gen. Daniel M. Frost, demanding the surrender of his forces. As
General Frost was outnumbered eight to one, he had little choice but to accede
to Lyon's demand.
Some time was consumed organizing the captured militia for the march back
to the arsenal. During this delay, word of the capture of Camp Jackson
spread rapidly through the city and a large crowd began to gather at Lindell's
Grove. In the crowd were numerous southern sympathizers. As the
crowd magnified in size it became increasingly belligerent. They first
hurled epithets at the "damned dutch," then clods of dirt, stones, and
brickbats. Soon after the column of troops and their prisoners began to
march down Olive Street, shots rang out and Capt. Constantin Blandovski
fellmortally wounded. In response, the volunteers began to fire volleys
into the crowd, which stampeded in panic, leaving 28 mostly innocent spectators
dead and numerous others wounded.
Finally, at around 6 p.m., it was finally possible to resume marching back
to the arsenal; the next day most of them were paroled.
The news of Camp Jackson electrified the entire state. The state
legislature, amidst rumors of an imminent attack upon Jefferson City by Lyon and
Blair, met in an extraordinary all-night session; they gave Governor Jackson the
absolute powers he long sought to create and equip a state guard capable of
resisting federal invasion. Many wavering unionists now flocked to the
secessionist camp. Foremost among these was Sterling Price, the popular
former governor and Mexican War hero who had recently served as president of the
convention that voted to keep Missouri in the Union. Jackson immediately
placed him in charge of the newly created state guard with the rank of major
As for the overall significance of the Camp Jackson Affair, Bruce Catton,
the eminent Civil War historian, has offered a good summary:
"Blair and Lyon had won the civil war in St. Louis before it really got
started, which was just what they set out to do, but as far as the rest of the
state was concerned, they had won nothing; they had simply made more civil war
inevitable. The fighting in St. Louis was clear warning that the middle of
the road was no path for Missourians. No longer would carefree militiamen
lounge picturesquely in a picnic-ground camp... Now they would fight, and other
men would fight against them, and no part of the United States would know
greater bitterness or misery."