Short URL for this page:

[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.
[decorative delimiter]

 [decorative delimiter] Class of 1841

Vol. II

(Born Ct.)

Nathaniel Lyon

(Ap'd Ct.)


Born July 14, 1818, Ashford, CT.

Military History. — Cadet at the Military Academy, July 1, 1837, to July 1, 1841, when he was graduated and promoted in the Army to

Second Lieut., 2d Infantry, July 1, 1841.

Served: in the Florida War, 1841‑42; in garrison at Sackett's Harbor, N. Y., 1842‑43, 1843‑46, — and Ft. Columbus, N. Y., 1846; in the War with Mexico, 1846‑48, being engaged in the Siege of Vera Cruz,

(First Lieut., 2d Infantry, Feb. 16, 1847)

Mar. 9‑29, 1847, — Battle of Cerro Gordo, Apr. 17‑18, 1847, — Skirmish of Ocalaca, Aug. 16, 1847, — Battle of Contreras, Aug. 19‑20, 1847, —

(Bvt. Capt., Aug. 20, 1847, for Gallant and Meritorious Conduct
in the Battles of Contreras and Churubusco, Mex.)

Battle of Churubusco, Aug. 20, 1847, — Battle of Molino del Rey, Sep. 8, 1847, — and Assault and Capture of the City of Mexico, Sep. 13‑14, 1847, when he was wounded at the Belen Gate; in garrison at Ft. Hamilton, N. Y., 1848; on voyage to California, 1848‑49; on frontier duty at San Diego, Cal, 1849, — Benicia, Cal., 1849, — Camp Stanislaus, Cal., 1849, — Monterey, Cal., 1850, — and Expedition to Clear Lake, Cal., and Russian River, 1850, being engaged in two Skirmishes with hostile Indians; on Quartermaster duty at San Diego, Cal., 1850‑51, — Ft. Miller, Cal.,

(Captain, 2d Infantry, June 11, 1851)

1851‑52, 1852‑53, — Benicia, Cal., 1853, — Ft. Lane, Or., 1853, — and Rogue River Expedition, 1853; on journey to New York, 1853; in garrison at Jefferson Barracks, Mo., 1854; on frontier duty at Ft. Riley, Kan., 1854‑55, — Ft. Leavenworth, Kan., 1855, — Sioux Expedition, 1855, — Ft. Pierre, Dak., 1855, — Cantonment Miller, Min., 1856, — and Ft. Lookout, Dak., 1856‑57; in garrison at Jefferson Barracks, Mo., 1858; and on frontier duty at Ft. Scott, Kan., 1858, — Ft. Randall, Dak., 1858‑59, — Ft. Riley, Kan., 1859‑60, — Silver Lake, 1860‑61, — and Ft. Scott, Kan., 1861.

Served during the Rebellion of the Seceding States, 1861: in command

(Brig.‑General, U. S. Volunteers, May 17, 1861)

 p75  of the forces for the Defense of St. Louis Arsenal, Mo., Feb. 7 to June 13, 1861, having, May 10, 1861, broken up the assemblage of Secessionists at Camp Jackson; in Military Operations in Missouri, June 11 to Aug. 10, 1861, being engaged in the Pursuit of the Rebels, and Capture of the State Archives at Jefferson City, June 15, 1861, — Action of Boonville, June 17, 1861, — Action of Dug Spring, Aug. 2, 1861, — and Battle of Wilson's Creek (Springfield), where he was

Killed,​1 Aug. 10, 1861: Aged 42.

Civil History. — Author of "Political Writings," being a series of letters, written in 1860, and published after his death.

Buried, Phoenixville Cemetery, Eastford, CT.

Biographical Sketch.

Brigadier-General Nathaniel Lyon was born, July 14, 1818, at Ashford, Conn. He sprang from a worthy, brave, and patriotic ancestry, his grandfather having been a soldier of the Revolution, while his grand-uncle, Colonel Knowlton, was distinguished at Bunker Hill, and lost his life the year after in the action on Harlem Heights.

Young Lyon, after receiving a good elementary education, entered the Military Academy, from which he was graduated July 1, 1841, and from choice​a was promoted to the Second Infantry. Soon after he was ordered to Florida, then a terra incognita of cypress swamps, pathless barrens, marshy streams, malarial atmosphere, venomous reptiles, and savage Seminoles. Here, for months, he was engaged in following Indian trails, exploring hammocks and morasses, and penetrating places almost impassable to wild beasts, till Halleck Tustennuggee's band was hunted down and captured.

On Lyon's return from Florida, he lived a few years in garrison at Sackett's Harbor, but in 1846 he was again summoned to the field to participate in the Mexican War, first under General Taylor and then in Scott's great campaign of 1847, in almost every operation of which Lyon was engaged; was wounded at the Belen Gate of the Capital, and for his gallantry and meritorious conduct at Contreras and Churubusco was brevetted a Captain.

Hardly had Lyon rested from his weary marches and frequent encounters with Mexicans, when he was ordered, via Cape Horn, to California, recently conquered, and swarming with a turbulent population. In 1850 he was sent upon an expedition against the hostile tribes about Clear Lake, which had murdered Captain Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Warner. After severely punishing them he directed his attention to those on Russian River, which were in like manner thoroughly subdued, having in two personal encounters saved his life by his activity, strength, and self-possession. For his skillful operations, and the rapidity and secrecy of his marches, he received the warm commendations of his commanding general.

In 1853 Lyon returned to the East, and the year after was sent to Kansas during the fierce struggle whether slavery or freedom should triumph in that territory. "If the sectional strife," says he, "must come, which the continued arrogance of the pro-slavery power will render inevitable, I am quite willing to see it now and do my share in the issue.  p76 I despair of living peacefully with our Southern brethren without constantly making disgraceful concessions." He was so bitterly opposed to what he considered the pusillanimity of the administration that he was about to resign his commission rather than obey its mandates. Fortunately Lyon was ordered to Dakota, and thus he was saved to the Army to take a distinguished part in the swiftly coming Civil War, which he felt could not be postponed. "It is no longer useful," says he, "to appeal to reason, but to the sword, and trifle no longer in senseless wrangling. I shall not hesitate to rejoice at the triumph of my principles, though this triumph may involve an issue in which I certainly expect to expose and very likely lose my life."

In the beginning of 1861 Lyon was ordered to St. Louis, Mo. He quickly scented the battle not far off. In a letter he says: "I do not see how a war is to be avoided. Under quack management it may be long and bloody. Yet I have no apprehensions above the final triumph of almighty truth, though at the cost of many unnecessary sacrifices. But let them come. I would rather see the country lighted up with the flames of war from the centre to its remotest border than that the great rights and hopes of the human race expire before the arrogance of Secessionists. Of this, however, there is no danger. They are at war with nature and the human heart, and cannot succeed."

It is unnecessary to speak of the antecedents which precipitated the Civil War in Missouri, a slave State, but containing a large element that appreciated the priceless value of the Union. The several parties in the State soon arranged themselves into two, — Secessionists and Unionists. Conspicuous among the leaders of the former were the Governor and Lieutenant-Governor, and of the latter Francis P. Blair, Jr., and Nathaniel Lyon. The Governor had the advantage of the State machinery, while Blair and Lyon had the support of the General Government. Both sides were active and defiant, but, Feb. 18, 1861, the State declared against secession by a majority of 80,000. The Governor and his adherents saw that war was inevitable, and urged that the first duty of the State was to prepare for it and arm in her own defense.

The seizure by the Seceding States of the Government forts and other public property, early in the winter of 1860‑61, naturally turned the attention of the Missouri Secessionists to similar action for obtaining the sinews of war within their reach. These consisted of nearly half a million dollars in the vaults of the Sub-Treasury at St. Louis, and 60,000 stand of arms, with a large supply of ammunition, at the arsenal near that city. The struggle now turned upon the possession of these prizes.

Brigadier-General William S. Harney, a patriotic and gallant veteran of the U. S. Army, was in command of the Department of the West, and Frank Blair was at the head of the "Home Guard," a Unionist organization. On the side of the Secessionists were the Governor, constitutionally the Commander-in‑Chief of the State forces, and General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Daniel M. Frost at the head of a brigade of Volunteer Militia which included five companies of "Minute Men," young, ardent, and full of zeal.

The Governor, relying upon Frost, had no doubt of getting possession of the arsenal, as its commandant, Major Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Bell, was a Southerner. But Bvt. Major Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Hagner soon superseded Bell, and Captain Lyon was ordered to St. Louis to command the regular troops. For a time he was foiled by superior authority in his purpose to command the arsenal, but ultimately attained his object by securing the removal of Hagner. Lyon certainly was the man for the occasion, and never lost sight of the important object — the retention of Missouri in the Union. He established the closest relations with Blair and the prominent Unionists, and by his boldness, zeal, and readiness to assume responsibility won their entire confidence.

 p77  The fall of Ft. Sumter, while it aroused and united the North, inspired the South with confidence in its ability to resist successfully the whole power of the Government. The Governor refused to honor the President's re­quisition for Missouri's quota of troops, sent commissioners South to obtain siege guns, ordered Frost's brigade into encampment, and summoned the General Assembly to meet at the capitol on the second of May to provide the means "required to place the State in a proper attitude of defense."

The Secessionists' plans for seizing the St. Louis Arsenal having been discovered by Harney and Lyon, the latter did not ask nor wait for instructions, but immediately called upon the Governor of Illinois for troops and occupied the hills commanding the arsenal, and also the streets adjacent thereto. The latter act was disapproved by Harney as being in violation of city ordinances. Lyon, in such emergencies, having no regard for the letter of the law, cut the Gordian knot, and, with Blair's assistance, had Harney suspended from command.

Lyon, being now in absolute control, armed the Home Guards and sent the surplus muskets and munitions from St. Louis to Illinois, which ended the contest for the arsenal.

The Governor, though balked by the determination and activity of Lyon, was still resolute. He purchased other arms and ammunition, and Frost established his camp (Jackson) in the western part of the city. Blair and Lyon, always alert, saw the danger involved in the Governor's preparations. Lyon, now in command of the Department of the West, promptly obtained authority to enlist 10,000 men and proclaim martial law in St. Louis.

He made a reconnoissance of Camp Jackson in the disguise of an old woman, and on May 1st demanded and secured the immediate and unconditional surrender of this "nest of traitors."​b

Pending further preparations for the inevitable contest, the Secessionists, knowing their weakness, asked for a conference to adjust matters without a bloody collision. The conference took place on June 11, 1861, between Governor Jackson and General Price on the one side, and General Blair and General Lyon on the other. Lyon opened the parley by saying that the discussion on the part of his Government would be conducted by Blair; but hardly had half an hour elapsed before Lyon took the matter into his own hands, holding his own at every point against Jackson and Price, masters though they were of Missouri politics, whose course they had been directing and controlling for years, while he was only captain of an infantry regiment on the Plains. When the conference had lasted four or five hours, Lyon closed it. "Rather," said he (he was still seated, and spoke deliberately, slowly, and with a peculiar emphasis), "rather than concede to the State of Missouri the right to demand that my Government shall not enlist troops within her limits, or bring troops into the State whenever it pleases, or move its troops at its own will into, out of, or through the State; rather than concede to the State of Missouri for a single instant the right to dictate to my Government in any matter, however unimportant, I would" (rising as he said this, and pointing in turn to every one in the room) "see you, and you, and you, and you, and you, and every man, woman, and child in the State dead and buried." Then turning to the Governor, he said: "This means war. In an hour one of my officers will call for you and conduct you out of my lines."

We have not space to detail the well-devised campaign which followed. Suffice it to say that Lyon sent Sweeny and Sigel to the Southwest, while he with his remaining forces advanced upon Jefferson City, putting the State Government to flight, and then moved upon Boonville to control the Missouri River, and all the country between it and the loyal State of Iowa.

 p78  The Secessionists, defeated at Boonville, retreated South, and on the way encountered Sigel's inferior force, which they defeated at Carthage. At the same time McCulloch, moving from Arkansas, joined Price and marched to the rescue of the Governor and his Missouri troops, hard pressed by Lyon and Sturgis moving so rapidly that they accomplished "nearly fifty miles in one day" of hot July. Lyon reached the vicinity of Springfield with about 7,000 weary men, and found himself confronted by the superior united Confederate and Missouri forces. He asked Fremont for reinforcements, but not a man came to his assistance, and not even a message to encourage him. To retreat was difficult, and was to abandon the Southwest and its teeming resources to the Confederates, and possibly to wreck the Union cause. Accordingly, with his brave spirit, which never quailed, he decided by a forced march to surprise, at daybreak, the enemy encamped on Wilson's Creek, and trust everything to the hazard of a battle.

It is unnecessary to describe the bloody conflict of Wilson's Creek. Where the contest was the hottest, there was Lyon, on his iron-gray charger, encouraging his men to new efforts, and inspiring all with his own dauntless purpose. Though severely wounded and his horse killed under him, he mounted another, swung his hat in the air, called upon his men to follow him, dashed into the thickest of the fray, and fell, shot through the breast.

Thus fell a hero possessing the tenacity of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Grant, the valor of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Hancock, the intrepidity of Kearny, and no little of the organizing faculty of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.McClellan. Had he lived he would have become one of the brightest stars in the galaxy of the Great Rebellion.

"Lyon," says Colonel Smead, in his admirable history of "The Fight for Missouri," "by capturing the State militia at Camp Jackson, and driving the Governor from the capital, and all his troops into the uttermost corner of the State, and by holding Price and McCulloch at bay, had given the Union men of Missouri time, opportunity, and courage to bring their State Convention together again; and had given the Convention an excuse and the power to depose Governor Jackson and Lieutenant-Governor Reynolds, to vacate the seats of the members of the General Assembly, and to establish a State Government which was loyal to the Union, and which would use the whole organized power of the State, its treasury, its credit, its militia, and all its great resources, to sustain the Union and crush the South. All this had been done while Lyon was boldly confronting the overwhelming strength of Price and McCulloch. Had he abandoned Springfield instead and opened to Price a pathway to the Missouri; had he not been willing to die for the Union, none of these things would have been done. By wisely planning, by boldly doing, and by bravely dying, he won the fight for Missouri."

Missouri was saved; but it subsequently required the iron will and great administrative power of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Halleck to bring order out of chaos, and utterly extinguish the embers of rebellion that long glowed within its borders.

Nathaniel Lyon was of the Andrew Jackson type of soldier, ever ready to dare all things and take the responsibility. He was well named, for he was as bold as a lion and an utter stranger to fear. This iron-souled man was endued with a genius for war, for to personal he added moral courage, inspired those under him with his own intense enthusiasm, and was cool and rock-fast amid the greatest dangers. Though apparently rash, his intuitive judgment, steady self-possession, and untiring energy crowned his enterprises with success. He pursued his ends, not by soft and plaint means, but by the most direct and audacious measures, having a sublime confidence in himself and believing in the justice of his cause. A sterner warrior rarely ever trod a battlefield, and a truer patriot never  p79 more freely shed his blood in advocacy of his principles. Tenacity of purpose continued till life's end, and his heroic death crowned the martyrdom to his faith. The termination to his brief and brilliant career in Missouri, where Secession held high carnival, saddened millions of Northern hearts, for the nation had looked hopefully to him as one of the most intrepid paladins in its defense.

From the field his glory his body was borne to his native State; every place through which the funeral cortège passed seemed buried in the profoundest grief, and everywhere the insignia of mourning met the eye and testified to his loss. But more than any outward symbols was the visible grief for the fallen chieftain who had passed forever from their midst. On a beautiful autumn day his lifeless form, which but a month before had bravely breasted the iron hail of the battlefield, was laid to rest by the side of his honored parents in the chosen spot of his own selection amid the hills of his boyhood's rambles. Glowing eulogies were pronounced at his grave by distinguished statesmen, obituary addresses were delivered in the United States Senate, and, to the eminent services of the departed general, appreciative tributes were paid in both the Legislature of his State and Congress.

"I do not think a braver gentleman,

More daring, or more bold, is now alive,

To grace this latter age with noble deeds."

The Author's Note:

1 General Lyon had sent frequent and urgent requests for reinforcements, the Rebels under McCulloch and Price being quadruple his army, but finding it impossible to procure them, he determined, rather than abandon S. W. Missouri, to give battle to the enemy, whom he met at Wilson's Creek, near Springfield, Mo. A regiment whose colonel had been killed asked for a commander. Though twice wounded, Lyon replied: "I will lead you; come on, brave men," and, while gallantly charging at their head, was struck in the breast by a Minie ball, and almost instantly expired. He was interred, with great honors, in Connecticut, his native State. After his death, Congress resolved: "That it deems it just and proper to enter upon its records a recognition of the eminent and patriotic service of the late Brig.‑General Nathaniel Lyon. The country to whose services he devoted his life will guard and preserve his fame as a part of its own glory." A monument to his memory was erected in Lyon Park, St. Louis, Mo., in 1874.

Thayer's Notes:

a Then as now, the higher a cadet graduated in his Class's standings, the more say he had as to the branch of the Army to which he would be assigned. Traditionally, the highest-ranking graduates joined the Corps of Engineers; the Infantry was at the bottom of the heap, and lower-ranking graduates would be assigned to her. Here we have a cadet who actually chooses the Infantry although his ranking gave him options.

[decorative delimiter]

b For a fuller and probably better account of the capture of Camp Jackson, see the page at FortWiki.

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 17 Sep 16