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.

N. LYON.

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.

“The Federal authorities have for months past in violation of the Constitution of the United States, waged a ruthless war upon the people of the State of Missouri, murdering our citizens, destroying our property, and… desolating our land. War now exists between the State of Missouri and the Federal Government…”- Claiborne Fox Jackson, October 21, 1861.

When the elected government of Missouri was forced out of the capital by Union forces under the command of Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon, all of the secessionist legislators who followed Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson were basically in a state of limbo. A provisional government was being instituted by the members of the State Convention in Jefferson City, while Jackson was in Richmond meeting with Confederate President Jefferson Davis in an effort to get Confederate support, even though Missouri had not formally seceded.

In a two-story brick courthouse in Cassville, Missouri, that was known as Missouri’s “second Confederate capitol,” members of the state legislature gathered between October 29 and November 7, 1861, to complete a legislative agenda that they had begun the preceding week in Neosho. In Neosho the General Assembly had passed an ordinance dissolving Missouri’s tie to the United States and another bill ratifying the provisional constitution of the Confederate States of America.

On October 31, 1861, Missouri’s “rebel” legislature moved to the Barry county courthouse in Cassville to continue its third and special session of the Twenty-first General Assembly begun 10 days earlier in Neosho. Before the Cassville session adjourned November 7, it was suggested that the next meeting be held in Pineville, McDonald County. The legislature rejected this proposal, resolving instead to assemble in New Madrid in March 1862. The New Madrid session was never held.

An important event of the Cassville session occurred November 4 when Governor Jackson notified the senate that he had appointed Sterling Price as major general of the Missouri State Guard. He also appointed the following brigadier generals: Nathaniel W. Watkins, 1st division; Thomas A. Harris, 2nd division; John B. Clark, 3rd division; W. Y. Slack, 4th division; A. E. Steen, 5th division; M. M. Parsons, 6th division; J. H. McBride, 7th division; and James S. Rains, 8th division. Three days later, however, an act was passed which permitted the dissolution of the Missouri State Guard as such. Entitled “an act to pay Volunteers of the Missouri State Guard,” it provided that if any member of the guard should enlist in the Confederate States army he should, with the assent of the commanding officer of his regiment, be given a full discharge from the Guard.

The senate, in a bill passed November 1 and already passed by the house, appropriated $10,000,000 to repel any invasion of Missouri and to sustain the State in an effort to maintain sovereignty. An issue of defense bonds, in denominations of from $1 to $500, was authorized to finance this appropriation.

Toward the end of the war the 49th Missouri volunteers captured the proceedings of the “rump” senate and also other papers and documents in Alabama. These records, forwarded to the Missouri secretary of state, were ordered printed by the house of representatives of the twenty-third general assembly, thus making available the only primary data of this “rebel” legislature. Among the captured documents is Jackson’s approval, November 8, 1861, of a house bill providing for an election for representatives to the Confederate States of America.

Governor Jackson’s hopes for a Confederate invasion of Missouri faded at the Battle of Pea Ridge in northwestern Arkansas on March 7-8, 1862. This major Confederate defeat doomed the fledgling Confederate state government to existence in perpetual exile. Governor Jackson would be dead of cancer before the year expired. His Lieutenant Governor, Thomas C. Reynolds, carried on the executive functions in various locations before finally establishing his capital-in-exile at Marshall, Texas, during the waning months of 1863.

The late Civil War historian, Shelby Foote, stated that,

…Guerrilla bands might rip and tear [Missouri]… raider columns of various strengths might cut swaths of destruction up and down [the state], but…[Missouri’s] star in the Confederate flag, placed there like Kentucky’s by a fleeing secessionist legislature, represented nothing more from now on than the exiles who bore arms beneath that banner.

By the spring of 1861 the people of Missouri were already familiar with the strife and sectionalism that plagued the country when the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Ft Sumter on April 12, 1861. Since the mid-1850’s1850s and the events now known as “Bleeding Kansas“, Missourians, far from the east, had fought and suffered over the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Missouri Compromise and the Dred Scott case and yes, slavery. Guerrilla warfare ravaged the state and it’s people all during the war and even afterwards.

There many things about Missouri during the Civil War that made it significant. Some were vital events, some, well, bragging rights. But it is beyond a doubt that this border state played a huge role in the conflict that would define our nation.

Missouri sent more men to war, in proportion to population, than any other state. Missouri had 199,111 volunteers. Approximately 27,000 Missouri civilians and soldiers were killed during the Civil War.

Missouri also saw many firsts: the first land battle of the Civil War which took place in Boonville Missouri on June 17, 1861. Ulysses S. Grant found his first battle of the war in Belmont, MO on November 7, 1861. The first Union general of the war, Nathaniel Lyon, was killed at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. In Greene County Missouri, Private Joseph W. Cole of Co. O 1st Kansas Volunteer Infantry Regiment would become the first Civil War soldier to be executed on July 14, 1861.

Other interesting facts about Missouri: Ulysses S. Grant was promoted to Brigadier General while serving in Ironton, MO. and Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) served a whole two weeks with Hannibal Missouri Confederates before tiring of the whole things and “retiring”. Missouri was the only state to have representatives in both the United States Congress and the Confederate Congress.

Not counting undocumented skirmishes, Missouri saw what is considered to be 27 battles within her borders. Missouri ranks third in the number of battles within her borders only behind Virginia and Tennessee. Some of the battles were little more than 20 minute skirmishes. Some, like Wilson’s Creek, Westport and Fort Davidson, were bloody and horrific and saw a huge loss of life.

The following battles all took place in Missouri:

1. Booneville
2. Carthage
3. Liberty
4. Cole Camp
5. Wilson’s Creek
6. Dry Wood Creek
7. Lexington (#7 and #24)
8. Fredericktown
9. Springfield (#9 and #19)
10. Belmont
11. Mt. Zion Church
12. Roans Tan Yard
13. New Madrid/Island 10
14. Kirksville
15. Independence (#15 and #26)
16. Lone Jack
17. Newtonia
18. Clark’s Mill
20. Hartville
21. Cape Girardeau
22. Fort Davidson (Pilot Knob)
23. Glasgow
25. Little Blue River
27. Byram’s Ford
28. Westport
29. Marmiton River

After the beginning of the Civil War, the arsenal in Liberty, MO had been attacked by pro-Confederates and a large number of rifles and muskets were taken. The arsenal in St. Louis was by far much larger than the one in Liberty, with as much as 40,000 rifles and muskets. Fears that the pro-Confederates would attempt to seize the St Louis arsenal, a militia was raised under the command of Captain Nathaniel Lyon to protect the arsenal. Lyons militia was largely composed of German immigrants and members of the Wide Awakes organization.

Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson ordered the Missouri Militia for maneuvers just outside of the arsenal in what was known as Camp Jackson. The governor at this point was considered neutral, but had strong leanings towards the South.

On May 10, 1861, Lyons would force the surrender of the militia, but the men refused to take the oath of allegiance and Lyons marched the men to the arsenal through the streets of St Louis, guarding them with members of the German Home Guard. This sparked outrage with the citizens and they began to hurl rocks and pavement at the Union soldiers, particularly aiming at the Germans. A shot was fired and then Germans opened fire into the crowd, killing at least 20 civilians and wounding at least 50 more.

Rioting ensued and many more citizens and soldiers were beaten and mistreated. Eventually, Federal regular Army troops arrived and martial law was enacted. The relief of the Germans however, abated the situation and the rioting ended.

The Camp Jackson Affair would be an event that further provided proof of division in the country, and in the state of Missouri. It would also be one of the deciding factors in forcing most Missourian’s to pick a side as issues of the day such as nativism, slavery, and state’s rights were now thrust upon them. It would also be the catalyst in Lyons promotion to Brigadier General and replacing General William S. Harney as commander of Union forces in Missouri and for solidifying Governor Claiborne Jackson’s and former governor Sterling Price’s pro-Confederate position.

Price, Jackson, Lyons and Frank P. Blair Jr. would meet at the Planter House Hotel in St Louis to try and come to terms with the situations in Missouri, but Lyons would basically declare war and would then begin his pursuit of the pro-Confederates across the state, sparking many of the battles that would dot the countryside.