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Lyon, Nathanielfree

(14 July 1818–10 August 1861)
  • Christopher Phillips

Lyon, Nathaniel (14 July 1818–10 August 1861), U.S. Army officer, was born in rural Ashford (later Eastford), Connecticut, the son of Amasa Lyon, a farmer and local lawyer, and Kezia Knowlton. Lyon received a common school education and in 1837 gained entrance to West Point, from which he was graduated in 1841, eleventh in his class of fifty-two.

Choosing the infantry over more prestigious branches of military service, Lyon was assigned to the Second U. S. Infantry in Florida. After participating in campaigns against the Seminoles, he was transferred in 1842 to Sackets Harbor, New York. Lyon had a violent, hair-trigger temper and while there was court-martialed for the brutal beating and torture of an unruly enlisted man. A sworn bachelor, he proved himself a contentious and nearly unpromotable subordinate in peacetime, but he also proved an able leader in war. In the Mexican War, he fought at Contreras and Churubusco, was wounded, and received promotion to brevet captain for gallantry.

Lyon’s unique beliefs about religion caused him to believe himself the Creator’s chosen instrument for meting out punishment. Always rigid, after returning from Mexico he began to demonstrate a nearly psychopathic appetite for inflicting pain. Transferred to California, Lyon led an expedition in 1850 to seek out and punish local Indians accused of murdering three white residents. The action resulted in the extermination of two complete tribes. Moreover, Lyon’s draconian punishments of enlisted men became notorious. Convinced of his own moral righteousness, Lyon questioned authority at all levels. After he was transferred to Kansas in 1854, he caused the court-martial of a superior officer and the removal from office of the territory’s first governor by exposing a fraudulent land sale involving government property near the first territorial capital of Pawnee.

In Kansas Lyon witnessed firsthand the violence that erupted over the government’s attempt to settle the issue of slavery by means of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. He attributed the territory’s bitter strife to the “contemptible arrogance” of its proslavery faction. Accusing the federal government of “subserviency to the slave interest,” Lyon resolved to use all means to thwart the slavocracy, which he regarded as the source of the nation’s woes. He allowed soldiers at Fort Riley to vote illegally in a territorial election, assisted free-state “Jayhawkers” to escape arrest, and, though not an abolitionist, used government horses to assist fugitive slaves. By 1860 Lyon had become a strident adherent to the Republican party and wrote newspaper editorials supporting presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln and condemning the Democratic party, which he had formerly supported.

In January 1861 Lyon and two companies of infantry received transfer orders to St. Louis as part of an effort to bolster the defenses of the city’s federal arsenal. Although Missouri voted to maintain neutrality, it boasted an active secessionist minority, which included the governor and much of the legislature. Arriving on 6 February, Lyon believed the city’s military leadership to be of dubious loyalty and feared an attack upon the arsenal from the city’s secessionists. He quickly acquainted himself with Congressman Frank P. Blair (1821–1875), leader of St. Louis’s radical Republicans, brother of Montgomery Blair, one of Lincoln’s cabinet members, and son of Francis Preston Blair, one of the party’s founders. In return for rifles to arm the city’s large German population, which ardently supported the federal government, Blair offered Lyon immunity from the administration for any actions he might take in attempting to protect the arsenal. Together they forced the removal of Lyon’s moderate department commander, General William S. Harney. Lyon then assumed charge of both the department and the arsenal. He enlisted into federal service several thousand Home Guard militia, mostly Germans, and on 10 May captured the state militia encampment located on the city’s outskirts, where many of the secessionists had gathered. While returning to the arsenal, after being fired upon by a civilian mob, Lyon’s untrained Home Guards opened fire indiscriminately upon the crowd of spectators lining the street, killing at least twenty-eight, most of whom were unarmed. Several days of riots ensued, causing thousands to flee the city. Lyon’s actions hastened thousands of recruits to flock to State Guard camps around the state and caused a jittery state legislature to pass a military bill providing Governor Claiborne F. Jackson with unprecedented power to arm the state for war.

The day following the fracas, Harney was reinstated as commander of the department. In an effort to preserve peace, he and former governor Sterling Price, commander of the State Guard, drafted and published an agreement stating that the state forces would assume responsibility for keeping order in Missouri. Believing the Harney-Price agreement a mere subterfuge to afford the governor time to arm the state troops, Lyon—newly commissioned brigadier general of volunteers—and Blair obtained an order from Lincoln that relieved Harney of command for the second time. Again, Lyon assumed temporary command of the department.

On 11 June, Jackson and Price met with Lyon and Blair at the Planters’ House hotel in St. Louis. After four hours Lyon abruptly ended the conference by declaring, “This means war.” Within forty-eight hours he launched an expedition up the Missouri River toward Jefferson City. After occupying the state capital, Lyon pressed on toward Boonville, where State Guard forces were concentrated. On 16 June his troops easily scattered the Guardsmen, who joined with Confederate forces in Arkansas under Brigadier General Ben McCulloch to form a force more than double the size of Lyon’s. When Price learned that Lyon was at Springfield, he convinced McCulloch to move north into Missouri. Continuing south, Lyon skirmished with the Confederates at Dug Springs, then withdrew to Springfield. McCulloch and Price encamped on Wilson’s Creek, south of the city.

Losing troops daily to enlistment expiration, most of whom were St. Louis Home Guard, Lyon feared the loss of his entire force without giving battle. He agreed to a rash plan of one of his subordinates, Colonel Franz Sigel, popular leader of Lyon’s German troops, and divided his force for a surprise pincer attack. At dawn on 10 August, Lyon and Sigel struck the encamped Confederates. At the battle’s height, Lyon was shot through the heart and killed. After four hours of pitched fighting, the federal force withdrew. In defeat, he became the North’s first battlefield hero, its first general to fall. After a whistle-stop train procession, he was buried in Phoenixville, Connecticut.

Bibliography

Letters written by Lyon are rather few and are scattered about in a number of collections. The largest collection is located at the American Antiquarian Society, while other smaller collections are found in the Archives, History and Genealogy Unit, of the Connecticut State Library; in the Thomas J. Sweeny Papers in the Henry E. Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif.; at the Connecticut Historical Society; the Kansas State Historical Society; the Western State Historical Manuscript Collection/State Historical Society of Missouri Manuscripts; the Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland, Ohio; the New-York Historical Society; the Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield Park Archives and Library; and the Eastford, Connecticut, Historical Society. Lyon’s newspaper articles are published in The Last Political Writings of General Nathaniel Lyon, U.S.A. (1861). The most recent and complete biography is Christopher Phillips, Damned Yankee: The Life of General Nathaniel Lyon (1990). See also Ashbel Woodward, Life of General Nathaniel Lyon (1862); James Peckham, General Nathaniel Lyon and Missouri in 1861 (1866); Hans Christian Adamson, Rebellion in Missouri, 1861: Nathaniel Lyon and His Army of the West (1961); and Richard Scott Price, Nathaniel Lyon: Harbinger from Kansas (1990).