Cole Camp Missouri is in the rolling hills and plains of west-central Missouri south of the Missouri River. The events at Cole Camp are a prime example of how hot passions, prejudices, and the brutal nature of unconventional warfare defined the entire state during the American Civil War. As one of the early battles, it proved without a doubt that the brutality witnessed during the battle, would be the harbinger of that which would take place over the next four years.
However, many people, even those who study the conflict in Missouri know little if anything at all about the events in Cole Camp. There are many possible reasons. According to Robert L. Owens, “The most logical explanation is that the two forces involved were hastily thrown-together, rag-tag outfits with no regular officers or forces involved so there were no reports or details.”
This would also tie in with an eyewitness to the event at Cole Camp, Friedrich Schnake, who stated that he believed that Union Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon took no measure to pursue the retreating Confederates and that he “remained quietly with his men in Camp Cameron, near Boonville, until 3 July, as if nothing happened.” His reasoning for this was that he believed Lyon, as a Know-Nothing, hated Germans, who made up 95% of the Benton County Home Guards, Missouri Volunteers, and therefore did not concern himself with the event and even more likely, did not even make an official report of the event. While this seems to be very legitimate reasoning, due to a very brief and vague account in the Official Records (O.R.), however, the event was carried a week later in a New York paper with specific details of KIA and even including names.
In 1861 Cole Camp was situated at the crossroads of four major roads and any information, travel or troop movements across the state would eventually wind up passing through it. Benton, Pettis and Morgan Counties were split between southern-sympathizing residents and the German immigrants, who favored abolition and the Union. Suspicion and hostilities were ever-present and the rosters for the Home Guards and the State Guards would reflect this division. As the breakdown in negations at the Planters Hotel in St. Louis ended and Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson and Major General Sterling Price were on the run towards the southwestern portion of Missouri, General Lyon authorized loyal communities to organize Home Guards for protection. In Benton County, Abel H.W. Cook was commissioned to enlist men for the Home Guard and held rallies on June 11 and 12 where he enlisted over 900 Benton county men, mostly Germans, and then setup “Camp Lyon” on the north-south ridge between the adjacent farms of John Heisterberg and Harm Harms. The barns were their shelters and they drilled in the area between them. However, since the volunteers elected their own officers, most out of popularity rather than for their experience, a host of problems arose that would most certainly play into the forthcoming engagement. The men were over-confident, poorly trained, discipline was almost nonexistent, weapons had not arrived from St. Louis leaving half of the recruits unarmed and to top things off whiskey was in abundance. Just six days later these ill-prepared men would meet a foe they were scarcely ready for.
About 20 miles south of Cole Camp, the southern sympathizing town of Warsaw had raised two State Guard companies with a force of about 350 infantry and 100 cavalry. Led by Walter S. O’Kane, with the scouting information of Benton County Sheriff B.W. Keown, the State Guard skillfully planned their march to clear the way for their retreating governor and in the process, attack the hated “Dutch.” Their plan was simple – through intelligence gained by the Sheriff, they were aware of the deficiencies of their Union foes and chose to make their advance under cover of darkness. In addition, they carried a Union flag to deceive the pickets and the very green soldiers they were going to encounter. On June 19th around 1:00am, as they marched up the Butterfield Trail from Warsaw, they encountered a slave-holding, but loyal Unionist John Tyree who had witnessed the State Guards approach to Cole Camp and reported it to Abel Cook, who mostly disregarded Tyree’s report. Tyree was questioned and then shot, becoming the first causality of the battle.
Back in the Union camp, Cook not having taken Tyree’s report seriously sent for half his force he had furloughed and let the others sleep. This effectively left him with about 400 men in camp, 125 asleep in the two barns, muskets left outside to make room. To make matters worse, fifty more of them were asleep just north of the Heisterberg barn and none of these soldiers were aware of any danger or the attack that was to come.
Around 3:00am the State Guard arrived at Camp Lyon. The cavalry was sent to attack from the southwest as the infantry unfurled a Union flag and continued on, confusing the Union guards, who were then bayoneted before they could sound the alarm or even fire a single shot. The rebels then rushed the Heisterberg barn, shouted, “No mercy for the Dutch!” firing into the barn and killing anywhere from 15 to 20 sleeping Home Guard soldiers and wounding many more. At the sound of gunfire, the sleeping soldiers began to fire into the Southerners flank, pushing them back in retreat until they again regrouped and once again attacked the barn, now empty except for dead and wounded. The Union soldiers however, were now out of ammunition and retreated into the woods. As the soldiers who were asleep in the open formed ranks and prepared to make a defense the State Guard cavalry flanked them and chased them as well into the woods, however, the heavy undergrowth prevented the cavalry from penetrating too deep and the Home Guardsmen were able to take a defensive stand.
Back south at the Harms barn, the Home Guard were forming when they again saw the approaching Union flag in the darkness and before they knew what was happening, the Southerners fired a volley into them and killed quite a few and caused the green Germans to flee in confusion. As the Home Guard fell into total disarray and retreated into the night, they had abandoned almost every single weapon, 362 of 400, which fell into the hands of the State Guard. In 30 minutes it was over. It was the bloodiest battle the Civil War had seen to date, and it allowed Governor Jackson and General Price and their entourage to pass unscathed through Cole Camp as they headed to the southwest portion of the state. At dawn, drunken State Guard troops harassed prisoners, one German named Tomforte was shot because he stated he was a cook, not a soldier, and in their drunken state they believed him to be the Home Guard commander, Able Cook. Wounded men were tended to by women from nearby farms, some exchanged under a flag of truce and the rest as prisoners were taken back to Warsaw.
The numbers have varied but according to muster rolls 600 Union men are listed, however, an Adjutant Generals report dated 31 December 1865 listed only 526 and listed:
“2 officers and 22 men killed, 3 died later of wounds, 2 died of disease.”
“18 officers, 456 men honorably discharged, 23 discharged for disability.”
Reports of the time stated that nearly a third of the German’s were casualties, somewhere around 35 to 40 dead, 60 wounded and 25 to 30 had been captured. In contrast, the State Guard six or seven killed and about 25 wounded.
The question remains as to why the Battle of Cole Camp has fallen into obscurity? Why has it never received the attention that other battles have, with equal or less casualties? Official reports seem to be non-existent. General Lyon was more concerned with Boonville and Warsaw than he was with Cole Camp where he dictated the following to General George B. McClellan,
BOONEVILLE, MO., June 20, 1861.
General McClellan: I have notice that Missouri is assigned to your command. This (Booneville) is an important point, and should have at least a whole regiment, with an advance post at Warsaw, which is a nest of rebels, who have massacred at Cole Camp Union men. These will permit the Second Missouri Volunteer Regiment to concentrate at Jefferson City. I would have you send a regiment here, with a large supply of stores.
This seems to lend validity to the view of Friedrich Schnake who believed that Lyon had no concern for the Germans. But as Lyon was about to meet his fate at Wilson’s Creek, his battle plan partner was the native German Col. Franz Sigel. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle of this view and the fact that larger battles were beginning to take place, overshadowing the events at Cole Camp and sending it into the dusty memory of those fighting a war that was just beginning and would see more lives lost than all the wars prior combined. The other possibility is that the Union was soundly defeated by a better prepared and determined State Guard rather than the boastful Home Guard and this was an embarrassment that needed to be swept under the carpet. Even to this day, Cole Camp is not listed as one of the battles for the state of Missouri by the National Park Services CWSAC Battle Summaries.
The Battle of Cole Camp was significant in that it showed the brutality of war, the division that existed in small, rural communities, and a glimpse of what the next four years would hold in store for the rest of the country.