Deadly Riots in St. Louis; Western Virginia’s Rebellion Against Rebellion

Friday, May 10, 1861

Missouri’s Camp Jackson, on the outskirts of St. Louis, hosted nearly 700 militiamen for the Southern cause. It wasn’t officially under the banner of the Confederacy, but was a bit more than sympathetic to secession. The streets of the camp bore the names of “Davis” and “Beauregard,” while Southern flags waved from the tents of the troops. It was only a temporary camp of instruction, however, its life to expire on the 11th of May.

Unionist Captain Nathaniel Lyon had raised a militia of his own, numbering around 7,000. These men held the St. Louis Arsenal which contained 10,000 muskets and many pieces of artillery.

That morning, General Daniel M. Frost, commander of the secessionist troops at Camp Jackson, wrote to Lyon. He had heard rumors that Lyon was going to attack the camp under the excuse that he feared Frost would attempt to seize the Arsenal. The idea of attacking United States troops or property had never been entertained, said Frost. In fact, he had even offered his services to the United States. Knowing that he was greatly outnumbered, Frost closed with a hope that any conflict could be avoided.

Lyon received the letter in the late morning, but refused to officially accept it. He then ordered his men to assemble. Word was put out that they were going to meet General Harney, the once-removed commander of the District, who was recently reinstated by Washington. Around two o’clock in the afternoon, these thousands of armed Unionist troops, along with 20 pieces of artillery, made their way up Market Street towards Camp Jackson.

Upon reaching the camp, they surrounded it completely, posting artillery on the heights above. The citizens of St. Louis, having given no credence to the rumor that the troops were assembling to receive General Harney, were gathering. Some men had armed themselves to rally in defense of the state militia troops at Camp Jackson.

Having surrounded the camp, Captain Lyon wrote to General Frost that the General’s troops were “for the most part, made up of secessionists who have openly avowed their hostility to the General Government, and have been plotting at the seizure of its property and the overthrow of its authority.” He accused them of being in open communication with the Confederacy as well as receiving “the material of war” from them.

In light of this, Lyon felt that it was his duty to “demand of you an immediate surrender of your command.” He gave Frost a half-hour to comply.

General Frost met with his commanders and they decided to surrender to Lyon’s superior numbers. Frost and his 700 men were to be considered prisoners of war, unless, as Lyon then informed the captives, they swore an oath to the United States. If the oath was taken, they could go free. Of the 700, only eight or so pledged that allegiance. The remaining prisoners were formed into lines, their destination being the Arsenal where they would be paroled until exchanged.

At this time, however, hordes of St. Louis citizens had gathered near the camp and the roads leading back to the city. The hills were covered with spectators.1

As the column made its way into town, a crowd of men, women and children, bordering on mob-like, was there to greet them. William Tecumseh Sherman was in the crowd with his young son, Willie, and witnessed “some hurrahing for Jeff Davis, and others encouraging the troops.” The father and son walked towards Camp Jackson. Stopping to talk with a friend, they witnessed a drunk man attempt to grab a musket from a soldier. He was pushed down, but then brandished a pistol and fired, hitting the leg of one of the soldiers.

With that, the regiment fired a volley into the air. “I heard the balls cutting the leaves above our heads,” Sherman later wrote, “and saw several men and women running in all directions, some of whom were wounded.” Sherman’s friend threw Willie to the ground and covered him with his body. Sherman hit the ground as well, but when he saw the troops reloading their muskets, he “jerked Willie up, ran back with him into a gulley which covered us, lay there until I saw that the fire had ceased.”

Escaping the tumult, they started for home, along the way seeing that “woman and child were killed outright; two or three men were also killed, and several others were wounded.”

Sherman noted that “the great mass of the people on that occasion were simply curious spectators, though men were sprinkled through the crowd calling out, ‘Hurrah for Jeff Davis!'”2

The firing was intense and deadly. Twenty-eight civilians were killed and another seventy-five wounded. Women and children were among them. Lyon’s men suffered only two deaths, while three of Frost’s men were killed.

The prisoners and guards finally made it to the Arsenal, but the city erupted in chaos. Any citizens who had been on the fence were now for the South. Many armed themselves and more took the streets with banners. Gun stores were sacked and their spoils distributed until the mob was quelled by the police.

Lyon’s show of force and authority had backfired as word quickly spread of the “Camp Jackson Massacre.” In the coming days, as word spread farther, the state legislature would take action.3

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Western Virginia’s Actual Rebellion

Rebel Major Boykin had spent four days in Grafton, western Virginia attempting to raise troops against the Union. The day after he arrived, he wrote to General Lee, who was just promoted to Confederate commander of all Virginia troops “to prevent confusion,” and informed him that things weren’t as favorable as he had hoped. On this day, he wrote again, expounding on that idea.

Finding no secessionist sympathies in Grafton, Boykin visited the surrounded counties, reporting that “the feeling in nearly all of our counties is very bitter and nothing is left undone by the adherents of the old Union.” With rumors of Union troops coming from Pennsylvania and Ohio to hold the rail line, he deemed it necessary to hold Grafton, though conceded that he would need troops from the east to help.

In closing, Boykin warned, “this section is verging on a state of actual rebellion.”4

Farther to the west, in Wheeling, a day of fasting and prayer was being observed. Nine out of the twelve churches were holding patriotic (meaning pro-Union) services. An eloquent sermon asking any secessionists in the congregation to leave, was given at the Methodist church by Rev. Smith from a pulpit decked out in stars and stripes. Other ministers prayed that the rebels might be subdued, and wiped from the face of the earth.5

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In Harpers Ferry, Col. Thomas Jackson received a reply from General Lee concerning his (Jackson’s) refusal to withdraw troops from the Maryland heights above the town. “I fear you have been premature in occupying the heights of Maryland with so strong a force near you. The true policy is to act on the defensive, and not to invite an attack.” Fearing such an attack, Lee warned that if it was not too late, Jackson “might withdraw until the proper time.”

Jackson’s troops would not be moved.6



  1. St. Louis Republican , May 11, 1861 as quoted (in its entirety) in The Rebellion Record edited by Frank Moore, 1861. []
  2. Memoirs of General William T. Sherman, Volume 1 by William Tecumseh Sherman, D. Appleton and Company, 1875. []
  3. Much of this report is taken from the St. Louis Republican , May 11, 1861 as quoted (in its entirety) in The Rebellion Record edited by Frank Moore, 1861. Other bits are from Wilson’s Creek by Piston & Hatcher. []
  4. Rebels at the Gate by W. Hunter Lesser. []
  5. The New York Herald, as quoted in History of the flag of the United States of America by George Henry Preble, 1880. []
  6. Stonewall Jackson by James Robertson. []
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Deadly Riots in St. Louis; Western Virginia’s Rebellion Against Rebellion by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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