CARTHAGE, Mo. —
Brig. Gen. James Rains, Jasper County’s only Civil War general, had a habit of crying wolf. Or so thought his men.
In June 1861, Rains and the newly organized Missouri State Guard were fleeing toward the southwest corner of the state, pursued by federal troops under Nathaniel Lyon, a general determined to hold Missouri for the Union at all costs.
According to historians David Hinze and Karen Farnham, as Rains fled south he warned his men time and again that Lyon’s better-trained, better-equipped army was nearly upon them.
Warnings became so frequent that they lost their “shock value,” wrote Hinze and Farnham.
On the morning of July 5, 1861, James Broadhurst and many others in the guard assumed that Rains was overreacting yet again when he ordered his soldiers to form a battle line north of Carthage.
Broadhurst, from Clay County, soon had all the proof he needed that this was not another empty exhortation.
“We passed a soldier moving away from the front leaving a trail of blood. ‘Go on boys,’ he shouted. ‘This is the real thing.’”
‘Not one man’
That Missouri found itself on the front lines as the Civil War began in 1861 was largely the result of the machinations of two men.
Claiborne Fox Jackson had been elected governor in 1860, taking office on the eve of the Civil War. He was a Southerner by birth, a descendant of slave-holding, tobacco growers in Kentucky. In one sense, he wasn’t different than most Missourians. Two-thirds of the state’s settlers in the generation after the Missouri Compromise were, like Jackson, Southern men.
Though the state tilted South by birth and settlement, many of those early inhabitants — slave owners among them — also had no desire to see Missouri leave the Union and were unwilling to throw in with secessionists from the Deep South.
On that point, Jackson differed. The new governor publicly placated those who wanted to remain in the union with promises of support, but all the while maneuvered behind the scenes to bring Missouri into the Confederacy should the chance arise. With his inauguration in early 1861, Jackson, who had led border raids into Kansas before the war, made his true course clear.
“Her honors, her interests and her sympathies point alike in one direction,” he said of Missouri, “and determine her to stand by the South.”
Three days after Confederate gunners brought on the war by firing on Fort Sumter, President Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion. Jackson would have none of it.
“Your requisition, in my judgment, is illegal, unconstitutional and revolutionary in its object, inhumane and diabolical, and cannot be complied with,” the governor replied. “Not one man will the state of Missouri furnish.”
‘This means war’
The counter-punch to all Jackson’s scheming was New England-born Nathaniel Lyon, deep in his own intrigue. Lyon was as aggressive as his name implied, unapologetic in his opposition to slavery.
Like Jackson, he, too, had been maneuvering behind the scenes, but to keep Missouri in the Union. He had a powerful ally in Frank Blair, descended from a prominent political family. Blair’s father had been an adviser to President Andrew Jackson, his brother was a member of Lincoln’s cabinet. Blair was elected to Congress at the same time that Claiborne Fox Jackson was elected Missouri’s governor.
The two men plotted to have Lyon’s immediate commander in Missouri relieved and Lyon promoted to brigadier general.
With the attack on Fort Sumter, Lyon’s first task was keeping the federal arsenal in St. Louis out of Southern hands. Pro-Southern men had already seized federal arsenals in Little Rock and Fayetteville in Arkansas, and in Liberty, Mo. But the St. Louis arsenal, with its 60,000 muskets and 90,000 pounds of gunpowder, was the largest prize of all.
Lyon led a pre-emptive strike on the hundreds of pro-Southern militia gathering near the arsenal at a site they called Camp Jackson — in honor of the governor. Lyon surrounded the camp and demanded the men surrender, which they did. Marching his captives through the streets of St. Louis, Lyon provoked a riot that resulted in the deaths of 33 people.
Soon after, in a last-ditch effort to avoid war, Jackson, accompanied by a former Missouri governor, Sterling Price, commander of the newly organized Missouri State Guard, met Lyon and Blair in St. Louis. Unable to reach any terms, Lyon shouted to the new governor: “Better sir — far better — that the blood of every man, woman and child within the limits of the state should flow than defy the federal government.”
With that, Lyon slammed his fist on the table.
“This means war!”
Lyon moved immediately to drive the governor and his state troops from Jefferson City, and as they fled, chased them to Boonville, where they were dispersed and driven south after a short fight. The state guard divided into two columns with plans to reunite in Lamar. Rains led one column. The other was led by William Slack, who would die the next year at Pea Ridge, Ark.
Price hurried ahead toward Arkansas to rally Confederate troops there led by Brig. Gen. Benjamin McCulloch.
Lyon, meanwhile, had dispatched a second federal force, this one from St. Louis to head southwest. It was commanded by Brig. Gen. Tom Sweeny. With him went German-born Col. Franz Sigel, who reached Springfield ahead of the rest of Sweeny’s forces, and then pushed on, through Sarcoxie — Rains’ hometown — with 1,100 men, where they chopped down a flagpole with a Southern flag.
Sigel, picking up reports that the Missouri State Guard with 6,000 men was being hounded south, hoped to block their passage long enough for Lyon to catch them from behind, snapping them in a trap. He also had to move quickly in order to keep the state guard from linking up with other guard troops in McDonald County and Confederate troops in Arkansas.
On the morning of July 5, nine miles north of Carthage, Sigel encountered the state guard. From their vantage, the state troops watched as Sigel’s well-drilled Union soldiers maneuvered into battle formation with a military precision that they could only envy. More than one guardsman remarked on the pageantry they witnessed as they looked down from a rise near Dry Fork Creek.
“I remember feeling the beauty of the scene,” Lt. William Barlow, an artillerist with the guard, wrote years later. “We saw the bright guns of the federal battery and their finely uniformed infantry deploying on the green prairie about 800 yards distance.”
According to Steve Weldon, Jasper County archivist and one of the leading historians on the battle, that is part of what makes the battle of Carthage unique at that point in the war. There had been other skirmishes in Virginia and elsewhere, but not a battle like this.
“They are setting up a traditional Napolenic battle. They formed into battle lines. They started off with an artillery duel. It’s very traditional,” he said. “It’s a classic battle and classic battle formation.”
Barlow wrote later that he then turned to his captain, who gave the orders to fire.
“Bang! She went,” Barlow wrote, “and the first gun we ever saw fired in earnest — the first gun for Missouri — went flying through the air.”
Other accounts say the federals fired first. In actuality, both sides fired nearly simultaneously.
Barlow said his first shot had barely reached the federal lines when Union shells sliced the arms off two members of the state guard standing nearby.
What evolved over the day was a rolling battle, with Sigel’s outnumbered forces carefully pulling back as state guard horsemen attempted to flank him on either side. Rains, one of those horsemen, was nominally in charge of the battle, according to Hinze, while Jackson organized a large contingent of largely unarmed troops in the rear.
Barlow described the scene: “It was an almost continuous roar of whizzing shot and bursting shell, mules standing on end ... men becoming exhausted by hard work and excitement in the hot sun; and I all the time praying that the enemy would run, and thus bring this horrid battle to an end.”
Fifteen-year-old Asa Payne, a member of the state guard who would later move to Carthage, got his first taste of war that day, witnessing the first of many deaths he would see over the next year. He described one of the casualties: “He was cut almost in two by the explosion, and I noticed that his powder horn was driven partly into his body.”
At the ford across Buck’s Branch, south of Dry Fork, Sigel’s soldiers made another stand, but, without cavalry, were forced back again toward the Spring River, where another stand also proved temporary.
The fight then poured into Carthage, which would become one of the first towns in the nation to witness firsthand the Civil War and all its horrors.
Thomas Hood, a Carthage resident who witnessed the battle that day, described what he saw in a story that ran in The Carthage Press a half century later: “A canister shot entered the house of Rev. D.S. Holman, pastor of South Methodist Church. Mrs. Holman was standing in the bedroom when a spent canister shot entered the house and buried itself in the pillow on the bed. The pillow slid off the bed and went spinning around on the floor as if it were alive.”
That day and into the night, the old courthouse, which also was hit by artillery, doubled as a hospital.
“As I remember it, there must have been over 100 of the wounded,” Hood wrote. “I stood around and watched the surgeons operate. They had the south window of the room open and when they would saw off a leg or an arm, they would unceremoniously pitch it out the window onto the ground below. That pile of arms and legs was a gruesome sight. I remember I sized up the pile when the surgeons had finished and concluded there was a full wagon load of them.”
Accounts of the casualties vary, with some putting the number in the hundreds, others listing a few dozen on each side. The Civil War Sites Advisory Commission put it at 250 combined for both sides.
By nightfall, the town belonged to the guard. Sigel, though defeated, had led a masterful retreat down the road to Sarcoxie.
Barlow wrote of that night: “When our last shot was sent rolling over the prairie, about a half mile beyond Carthage, after dark, and the pursuit ceased, we were very glad the awful battle was ended, and went into camp thoroughly tired out.”
‘A memorable affair’
The New York Times on July 15, 1861, called the Battle of Carthage “the first serious conflict between the United States troops and the rebels.” The Encyclopedia of the American Civil War still considers it the “the first large-scale land battle of the Civil War.”
But the battle would soon recede beneath a red tide.
Within a matter of weeks, the Battle of Carthage would be eclipsed by First Manassas and then Wilson’s Creek, where the dead and wounded would number in the thousands. Within a year, at Shiloh, the toll of the dead from a single battle would reach tens of thousands.
Many of the soldiers who got their first taste of battle at Carthage, had nearly four more years of fighting ahead of them, at Wilson’s Creek and Pea Ridge, Vicksburg, Chattanooga and Chickamauga, and countless other places.
“The affair at Carthage hardly rose to the dignity of a respectable skirmish, but it was impressive and grand to us then,” Barlow wrote later.
Payne felt the same way: “As far as the battle itself was concerned, there is not a great deal to say, for if it had been fought a year later, it would have never entered into the dispatches of history, but being one of the first instances of hostilities in the state of Missouri, it was a memorable affair.”
This narrative was reconstructed using a number of sources, primarily “The Battle of Carthage,” by David Hinze and Karen Farnham; stories by the late Marvin Van Gilder, Carthage historian; and accounts left by soldiers and civilians that appeared in The Carthage Press, the (St. Louis) Daily Missouri Republican, the Missouri Historical Review and the Official Records of the War of Rebellion, and from interviews with Jasper County Archivist Steve Weldon.
Carthage considered site of first major land battle of Civil War
CARTHAGE, Mo. —
Brig. Gen. James Rains, Jasper County’s only Civil War general, had a habit of crying wolf. Or so thought his men.
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