Conflict along the Missouri state line had been occurring throughout the second half of the 1850s. Far away in the East, the political battles were raging. After John Brown’s unsuccessful raid on Harper’s Ferry, some believed that signaled the end to the threat from the west. Little would anyone expect that the first significant land battle would be pitted in the Missouri arena. One day after our nation celebrated the anniversary of its independence, the north and south clashed at the Battle of Carthage. As the eastern portion of the nation prepared for battle, the war out west was already heating up.
We want to thank the Battle of Carthage Museum for its hospitality. Rest assured all opinions are our own.
Battle of Carthage Museum
I’ll be honest and say that I was among the throng of people who were unaware of the significance of the Battle of Carthage. The history books fail to mention that this battle took place 11 days prior to the 1st Battle of Bull Run. To better understand this battle, we must rewind a month, to early June 1861. Missouri Governor Claiborne Jackson was a pro-Southerner who suspected the Union forces deployed by President Lincoln. A conflict between the Union forces and the Missouri militia, near St. Louis, added to the rising tension in the state. A last-ditch conference between the two sides failed to resolve the growing distrust.
Inside the Battle of Carthage Museum, we discovered an easy-to-follow floorplan. Most of the displays are housed along the outer walls of the space. Visitors can follow along the path of the battle, and find tidbits of information about the people that were involved. There are also some exhibits that informed us about the atmosphere in the region before, during, and after the battle. A large diorama shows how the battle played out, as it actually began outside of town, before moving into the city square.
War Out West
While Missouri was technically a neutral state, Southern sympathy ran deep in many of the rural areas. The war out west had already been raging for nearly half of a decade by 1861. To the north, bands of guerrilla fighters inflicted raids on both sides of the Missouri-Kansas line. Events like the Sacking of Lawrence and the Battle of Black Jack kept tensions high throughout the region. When Governor Jackson took the lead of the Missouri State Guard, it signaled the only time that a sitting U.S. governor led troops against the Union to which his state belonged.
After the decay of relations in St. Louis, the Missouri State Guard headed southwest. A delay in Jefferson City was thwarted by Union troops being led by Gen. Nathaniel Lyon and Col. Franz Sigel. The Guard retreated to Boonville, where a skirmish took place on June 17th. Jackson had hoped to rally groups of Guard in Boonville, as this area was sympathetic to the Southern position. His hope was to gather 50,000 troops and run the Union forces out of the state. The Union forces were made up of a large contingency of battle-hardened German immigrants. They were well equipped with artillery and made quick work of Jackson’s attempt to hold Boonville.
The Confederate forces consisted primarily of Missouri State Guard troops. Since the war was only beginning, there had not yet been time to raise funds and create a regulated look. Quite a few of the volunteers were armed with their own weapons from home, while others had no weapons at all. In fact, during a portion of the battle of Carthage, Confederate forces began a flanking maneuver using the unarmed participants. Since the Union was unaware of this, they had to take the threat seriously and began their retreat toward town.
A Battle Comes to Carthage
By using field artillery, as well as a brave bayonet charge, Sigel’s forces were able to successfully reach the Carthage town square. The Confederates continued their pursuit and a firefight broke out on the square. After a day filled with engagement, the Union forces were able to escape during the night. The Missouri State Guard lost 35 men and had 125 injured. They also suffered the capture of 45 soldiers. On the Union side, there were 13 casualties, 35 injured, and 5 captured. The victory went to the Confederate forces who would repeat the feat a month later at Wilson’s Creek.
Whenever we visit a new museum, we enjoy the little tidbits that we discover. It wasn’t too much of a stretch to imagine that the firefight caused significant damage to the buildings in Carthage. Many towns were decimated by the fighting that took place throughout the Civil War. When we learned that the town was home to a young Myra Maybelle Shirley, we were a little surprised. In later life, she would go by the alias of Belle Starr. Hailing from Missouri, it was no surprise that she would eventually be associated with the James-Younger Gang.
The Battle of Carthage was not the end of war-time activity in this city. Aggressions continued throughout the war and eventually led to the city being burned to near completion in August of 1864. After that, there was no reason for either side to use the buildings as a stronghold. By the fall of 1866, the town was seeing a rebirth and a return to prosperity. Located on the path of the original Route 66, visitors from all over the world pass through this city every year. We wonder how many realize the violent stories that accompany the city’s place in history.