American Civil War: Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon

Nathaniel Lyon in the Civil War
Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon.

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Nathaniel Lyon - Early Life & Career:

The son of Amasa and Kezia Lyon, Nathaniel Lyon was born at Ashford, CT on July 14, 1818. Though his parents were farmers, Lyon had little interest in pursuing a similar path. Inspired by relatives who had served in the American Revolution, he instead sought a military career. Gaining entry to West Point in 1837, Lyon's classmates included John F. Reynolds, Don Carlos Buell, and Horatio G. Wright. While at the academy, he proved an above average student and graduated in 1841 ranked 11th in a class of 52. Commissioned as a second lieutenant, Lyon received orders to join the Company I, 2nd US Infantry and served with the unit during the Second Seminole War

Nathaniel Lyon - Mexican-American War:

Returning north, Lyon commenced garrison duty at Madison Barracks at Sacketts Harbor, NY. Known as a tough disciplinarian with a fiery temper, he was court-martialed following an incident in which he beat a drunken private with the flat of his sword before hog-tying him and throwing him in jail. Suspended from duty for five months, Lyon's behavior led him to be arrested twice more prior to the beginning of the Mexican-American War in 1846. Though he had concerns regarding the country's motivation for war, he traveled south in 1847 as part of Major General Winfield Scott's army.

Commanding a company in the 2nd Infantry, Lyon earned praise for his performance in the Battles of Contreras and Churubusco in August as well as received a brevet promotion to captain. The following month, he sustained a minor leg wound in the final battle for Mexico City. In recognition of his service, Lyon earned a promotion to first lieutenant. With the end of the conflict, Lyon was sent to northern California to aid in maintaining order during the Gold Rush. In 1850, he commanded an expedition sent to locate and punish members of the Pomo tribe for the deaths of two settlers. During the mission, his men killed a large number of innocent Pomo in what became known as the Bloody Island Massacre.

Nathaniel Lyon - Kansas:

Ordered to Fort Riley, KS in 1854, Lyon, now a captain, was angered by the terms of the Kansas-Nebraska Act which permitted the settlers in each territory to vote to determine whether enslavement would be permitted. This resulted in a flood of pro- and anti-enslavement elements into Kansas which in turn led to wide-ranging guerrilla warfare known as "Bleeding Kansas." Moving through the US Army's outposts in the territory, Lyon attempted to help keep the peace but steadily began supporting the Free State cause and the new Republican Party. In 1860, he published a series of political essays in the Western Kansas Express which made his views clear. As the secession crisis began following the election of Abraham Lincoln, Lyon received orders to take command of the St. Louis Arsenal on January 31, 1861.

Nathaniel Lyon - Missouri:

Arriving in St. Louis on February 7, Lyon entered a tense situation which saw the largely Republican city isolated in a mostly Democratic state. Concerned about the actions of pro-secession Governor Claiborne F. Jackson, Lyon became allies with Republican Congressmen Francis P. Blair. Assessing the political landscape, he advocated for decisive action against Jackson and enhanced the arsenal's defenses. Lyon's options were hampered somewhat by Department of the West commander Brigadier General William Harney who favored a wait and see approach to dealing with the secessionists. To combat the situation, Blair, through St. Louis' Committee of Safety, commenced raising volunteer units comprised of German immigrants while also lobbying Washington for Harney's removal.   

Though a tense neutrality existed through March, events accelerated in April following the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter. When Jackson refused to raise the volunteer regiments requested by President Lincoln, Lyon and Blair, with permission from Secretary of War Simon Cameron, took it upon themselves to enlist the called for troops. These volunteer regiments quickly filled and Lyon was elected their brigadier general. In response, Jackson raised the state militia, part of which gathered outside the city at what became known as Camp Jackson. Concerned about this action and alerted to a plan to smuggle Confederate weapons into the camp, Lyon scouted the area, and with the aid of Blair and Major John Schofield, devised a plan to surround the militia.

Moving on May 10, Lyon's forces succeeded in capturing the militia at Camp Jackson and began marching these prisoners to the St. Louis Arsenal. En route, the Union troops were pelted with insults and debris. At one point, a shot rang out which mortally wounded Captain Constantine Blandowski. Following additional shots, part of Lyon's command fired into the crowd killing 28 civilians. Reaching the arsenal, the Union commander paroled the prisoners and ordered them to disperse. Though his actions were applauded by those with Union sympathies, they led to Jackson passing a military bill which created the Missouri State Guard under the leadership of former governor Sterling Price

Nathaniel Lyon - Battle of Wilson' Creek:

Promoted to brigadier general in the Union Army on May 17, Lyon assumed command of the Department of the West later that month. A short time later, he and Blair met with Jackson and Price in an attempt to negotiate peace. These efforts failed and Jackson and Price moved towards Jefferson City with the Missouri State Guard. Unwilling to lose the state capital, Lyon moved up the Missouri River and occupied the city on June 13. Moving against Price's troops, he won a victory at Booneville four days later and compelled the Confederates to retreat to the southwest. After installing a pro-Union state government, Lyon added reinforcements to his command which he dubbed the Army of the West on July 2. 

While Lyon encamped at Springfield on July 13, Price's command united with Confederate troops led by Brigadier General Benjamin McCulloch. Moving north, this combined force intended to attack Springfield. This plan soon came apart as Lyon departed the town on August 1. Advancing, he took the offensive with the goal of surprising the enemy. An initial skirmish at Dug Springs the next day saw Union forces victorious, but Lyon learned that he was badly outnumbered. Assessing the situation, Lyon made plans to retreat to Rolla, but first decided to mount a spoiling attack on McCulloch, who was encamped at Wilson's Creek, to delay the Confederate pursuit. 

Attacking on August 10, the Battle of Wilson' Creek initially saw Lyon's command have success until its efforts were halted by the enemy. As the fighting raged, the Union commander sustained two wounds but remained on the field. Around 9:30 AM, Lyon was hit in the chest and killed while leading a charge forward. Nearly overwhelmed, Union troops withdrew from the field later that morning. Though a defeat, Lyon's rapid actions in the preceding weeks helped keep Missouri in Union hands. Left on the field in the confusion of the retreat, Lyon's body was recovered by the Confederates and buried at a local farm. Later recovered, his body was re-interred in his family plot in Eastford, CT where around 15,000 attended his funeral.  

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, February 16). American Civil War: Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2023).