Description

    U.S. General Nathaniel Lyon War Date Autograph Letter Signed "N. Lyon" and written as a captain three months before he would be the first Union general killed in the war. Two pages (front and verso of one sheet), 8" x 9.75" plain blue paper, St. Louis Arsenal, May 12, 1861, to Col. Lorenzo Thomas, adjutant general of the U.S. Army. This somewhat controversial officer writes, in full:

    "Sir, On yesterday I left to Capt Callender & Lieut Saxton the duty of receiving & arming about 1200 men from the Northern portion of the city, who on returning to their station were fired upon by a mob, which fire was returned by the troops, from which, all told on both sides, about 12 persons were killed, two of which so far as I am informed were of the U.S. troops. Further particulars of which may be here after transmitted.

    Gen'l Harney having arrived, has assumed command of the department, and has ordered into the city, all the troops of the regular service now here (except my own Company) and 4 pieces Artillery.

    It is with great delicacy & hesitancy I take the liberty to observe, that the energetic and necessary measures of day before yesterday, and reported in my communication of yesterday, require persevering, and consistent exertion to effect the object in view, of anticipating combinations and measures of hostility against the general Government, and that the authority of Gen'l Harney, under these circumstances, embarrasses in the most painful manner, the execution of the plans I had contemplated, and upon which the safety and welfare of the government as I conceive, so much depends and which must be decided in a very short period. Very Respectfully N. Lyon, Capt. 20th Infantry Comdg.
    "

    Lyon arrived in St. Louis in March 1861 in command of Company "D" of the 2nd U.S. Infantry. That same month, the Missouri Constitutional Convention of 1861 voted 98 to 1 to stay in the Union but to not supply weapons or men to either side if war broke out. Although the state was relatively neutral, Governor Claiborne F. Jackson was a strong Southern sympathizer who had been active in organizing a state militia for the Confederate cause and was prepared to plant batteries on the hills overlooking the St. Louis Armory. Gen. Lyon, as he states in this letter, had conceived a covert plan of operation against the Confederate authorities then attempting to secure the state government for the South. Having mustered three regiments of Illinois troops, Lyon secretly moved to Illinois all arms from the arsenal except for those needed for the arming of the citizens. The Confederate militia forces went into camp near St. Louis, at Camp Jackson, on May 6. Four days later, Lyon surrounded the camp, capturing Gen. Daniel M. Frost and 669 "St. Louis Minute Men" without serious incident. He then chose to march his prisoners through downtown St. Louis before paroling and dispersing them. The citizenry viewed this as a public humiliation to the state troops, especially since the militiamen were marched between two lines of the hated German Home Guards. Tensions mounted and before the day was over, 28 were dead and another 100 injured.

    This "St. Louis Massacre" caused great excitement in the city, bordering on panic. Lyon's superior, General William S. Harney, arrived, and as Lyon describes in this "delicately worded" letter to Thomas, brashly ordered Lyon's command into the city without consulting Lyon or addressing the general strategy he had thus far devised. Lyon not only questioned the efficacy of these orders but also the allegiance of Harney to the Federal government; he also threatened to throw Harney into the Mississippi if he weakened towards the Southerners. Much more politically adept than his superior, Lyon had maintained close ties with the Republican leaders in St. Louis, and as a result of this present letter to Thomas, along with the political pressure of Republican leader Francis P. Blair Jr. in Washington, he succeeded Harney as commander of the Department of the West on May 31. Two weeks later he overtook Jackson's state troops and scattered them at Boonville. On August 10, at the Battle of Wilson's Creek, Lyon was shot in the head, leg, and chest and killed while rallying his vastly outnumbered troops. His death was widely mourned in the North; his brilliant work had done much to hold Missouri for the Union. War dated letters of Lyon are rare, and this particular missive was written the very day he was promoted to brigadier general of the Missouri Militia. Very fine condition.


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