Missouri: A Hotly Contested State in the American Civil War


By Gary Gallagher, Ph.D., University of Virginia

Missouri had a head start on the Civil War as it was embroiled since the mid-1850s in the war along the Kansas-Missouri border. Missouri was involved over the fight whether Kansas would be a free or slave territory. Why was Missouri used for low-level violence on the border?

A Harper's weekly painting with a scene from the war-torn Kansas-Missouri border
Missouri was pulled apart by guerrilla fighting during the course of the American Civil War. (Image: Harper’s weekly/Public domain)

Attempts to Make Missouri a Confederate State

In 1861, the Governor of Missouri, Clayburn Jackson, a pro-Southern veteran of the border fighting in the 1850s, did everything to take Missouri into the Confederacy. He persuaded the legislature to call a secession convention, but most of the men elected to the convention were strong Unionists. Missouri Unionists and secessionists organized and armed themselves in April and eyed each other warily in the state.

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A Firebrand in Nathaniel Lyon

On May 10, violence broke out when Captain Nathaniel Lyon, a firebrand, aggressive anti-Southern man, led Unionist troops against pro-Southern militiamen at Camp Jackson, near St. Louis, and compelled them to surrender. As the prisoners were being marched through the city, a pro-Southern mob gathered, harassed the column, and shots were exchanged.

Captain Nathaniel Lyon, a pro- Union man was a hero to many Unionists in Missouri
Many people did not approve of Captain Nathaniel Lyon sending Unionist troops against pro-Southern militiamen at Camp Jackson, near St. Louis. (Image: Ehrgott, Forbriger & Company, Cincinnati/Public domain)

Lyon’s actions sent many conditional Unionists over to the Confederacy. People who didn’t like what Lyon had done decided to support the Confederacy: amongst them was Sterling Price, a former Governor of the State, who was given command of pro-Southern troops in Missouri. Lyon, meanwhile, was made a Brigadier General: a hero to many strong Unionists in Missouri and people in the North.

In June, Lyon took the force, which was not well-trained and pushed into the southwest corner of the state. Meanwhile, the Unionist state convention, which had adjourned in March without voting in favor of secession, reconvened to function as the state legislature in Missouri. It declared the governorship vacant to name a Unionist governor.

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Battle of Wilson’s Creek

Military events came to a head in Missouri on August 10 in the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, the second big battle of the Civil War. It took place in southwest Missouri when Nathaniel Lyon and about 6,000 men attacked Sterling Price, who commanded a motley force. He achieved some early success, but he was eventually driven back, losing his life in the process. He became a great martyr to the Union cause at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek.

Painting by Kurz and Allison, showing the glimpses of battle of Wilson's Creek
The Battle of Wilson’s Creek was the second big battle of the American Civil War. (Image: Kurz and Allison/Public domain)

Each side suffered casualties at Wilson’s Creek, and Sterling Price followed up the victory by marching north to the Missouri River. John C. Frémont, the Republican nominee for the Presidency in 1856, was very well connected in Missouri. He was sent to Missouri in July to take overall command of the Federal troops who mounted a counteroffensive that slowly pushed Sterling Price’s forces back toward Arkansas.

Missouri Remains a Divided State

By November, the military situation in Missouri was stable and firmly in the Union. Like Kentucky, however, it remained a divided state. Clayburn Jackson and the pro-South portion of the deposed legislature said that they were seceding from the Union. Just as in Kentucky, it was declared that they would cast their lot with the Confederacy. The Confederacy added the thirteenth star to their flag for Missouri. Missouri didn’t really leave the Union, but the pro-Southern people in the state pretended it did, as did the Confederate government.

Missouri sent nearly 90,000 soldiers into the Union army and at least 30,000 into the Confederate army. About 3,000 Missourians fought as guerrillas in the most vicious guerilla war of the entire conflict. Missouri was pulled apart by guerrilla fighting during the course of the Civil War.

Guerrilla War in Missouri

William Quantrill, Bloody Bill Anderson, Jesse and Frank James, the Younger brothers, and many others were Confederate guerrillas in Missouri. Their opposite numbers were the Jayhawkers from Kansas, the Redlegs. It was a war with no rules. Civilians got caught up in it; whole counties were de-populated which was a bitter situation, but the state remained in the Union which was safe for Lincoln.

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Importance of Maryland

Maryland demanded special attention because the United States would have a real problem if it left the Union. The United States capital would be in the Confederacy if Maryland left the Union. Washington was full of Southern sympathizers and remained so even after the war. But there were lots of rumors in Washington early in the war about what was going on in Maryland and how Maryland was going to join the Confederacy.

Pro-Confederate Sympathy

The state was opposed to secession and to the Confederacy, but Baltimore was a hotbed of pro-Confederate sympathy. That was apparent from a very early point, which troubled the Lincoln administration. On April 19, a mob in Baltimore attacked the 6th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment as it marched through the town. The soldiers returned the fire. Outraged pro-Confederate Marylanders then proceeded to burn railroad bridges and cut telegraph wires leading into Washington, D.C., cutting Washington off from the rest of the North for a significant period.

The Maryland legislature met in April and voted to recognize the Confederate States of America as a Nation.

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Keeping Maryland in the Union

Lincoln acted decisively to keep Maryland in the Union. He sent troops to Baltimore and other key points to show the flag and the presence of the United States power in those places. He suspended the writ of habeas corpus in parts of the state, which meant that citizens didn’t have to be told why they were being held. Many Marylanders were arrested for pro-Confederate activities.

One of the persons arrested was John Merriman, who appealed for his release under a writ of habeas corpus. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney heard the case who ruled that only Congress had the power to suspend the writ of habeas corpus. Lincoln who Commanded the Army, had the power to do that and his view won out.

Common Questions about the border state of Missouri

Q: What was the significance of the border states in the American Civil War?

The significance of the border states in the American Civil War was that they possessed large populations, important resources, and key geographical positions.

Q: Is Missouri a Confederate state?

Missouri was in the Union but like Kentucky, it also remained a divided state. Clayburn Jackson seceded from the Union, declaring they would cast their lot with the Confederacy. The Confederacy added the thirteenth star to their flag for Missouri.

Q: What were the four border states in the American Civil War?

The four border states in the American Civil War were Kentucky, Delaware, Missouri, and Maryland.

Q: Was Maryland Union or Confederate?

The state of Maryland was divided between the anti-Confederacy and pro-Confederate sympathizers. But the majority had joined the state of Union.

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