A Flag for the Militia

1, May 2012

Joe Johnston is a guest contributor who is writing articles related to the Civil War. To read others in the series, click here. His latest book, The Mack Marsden Murder Mystery, was published by the Missouri History Museum in 2011.


General Nathaniel LyonBrigadier General Nathaniel Lyon. Photograph by E. Anthony, 1860. Missouri History Museum.

The ingredients for Civil War had been simmering for 15 years: debates about slavery, stolen slaves, recaptured slaves, violence along the border with Kansas, abolitionists moving in next door, and general distrust. Paranoia was rampant. People were afraid of being attacked by neighbors, or by gangs of strangers favoring one side or another. The new governor, Claiborne Jackson, took office in early 1861, and then he and his government were summarily thrown out by the Federal government and replaced with Federal appointees. The exiled Jackson rallied the state militia around him, and when they camped on the western edge of St. Louis, tensions rose even higher.

The U.S. army in Missouri was under the command of General William Harney, who wanted to make peace between the state’s factions. Unfortunately, the leading military figure in St. Louis was Captain Nathaniel Lyon, the antithesis of Harney, a zealous, over-reacting patriot. He took command of the Wide Awakes, a club organized by Union man Frank Blair to march in parades and support the Republican party. But Lyon armed them and led them out to surround Jackson’s militia. The militia had no interest in fighting their fellow Missourians, and surrendered instead. But that wasn’t enough for Lyon. He and his troops forced them to march downtown as prisoners between two columns of Wide Awakes.

Nerves were on edge, and the procession was surrounded by a crowd that jeered, threatened, and threw rocks at the Federals. The residents of St. Louis hated seeing the militiamen treated like prisoners. These were people they knew: well-intentioned men who were loyal to the state and its elected government. Suddenly, a shot was heard. Lyon’s nervous officers instantly ordered the Union men to fire into the defenseless crowd. In the ensuing melee, 90 civilians were wounded and 28 were killed. The riot in St. Louis became known as the Camp Jackson Affair, and people reacted instantly all across the state, arming themselves, and forming into a kaleidoscope of military organizations—some aggressive, some defensive—with an endless variety of political, social, and economic agendas.

After the attack on Fort Sumter announced the beginning of the war in April 1861, the Wide Awakes began operating under the name of the “Home Guards.” It seemed a fitting moniker, and so other paramilitary organizations around the state started using it too. By June, Lyon was a brigadier general and was authorized by the War Department to establish local units to guard their towns, homes, and families from Southern troops. Some 20,000 men joined those units, which were also called Home Guards; despite the name, the units had no relationship to the Home Guards in St. Louis. To further confuse matters, Lyon’s Home Guard units were of two types. One was local, autonomous, and without uniforms or pay. The other was uniformed, equipped, paid, and under his command.

Lyon authorized a Home Guard in Steelville, seat of Crawford County, an area characterized by small family farms sustained by the Meramec River, smaller rivers, and numerous springs. One summer night, 50 men met in a barn. They came with a variety of political persuasions, and yet the meeting was about far more than politics. They were forming a militia with federal authority, but most wanted it for their own protection. The men of the Crawford County Home Guard simply wanted to keep the Civil War out of their corner of the state.

The meeting was going well until someone mentioned that their newly formed militia didn’t have a flag. Despite some objections from the Southern men of the group, it was agreed that Old Glory would do, and William P. Adair knew where such a flag could be found. He left the meeting for the nearby home of a friend. In those troubled times, Adair’s friend wasn’t sure whom he could trust, so he had stored his flag under his bed. After all, if Southern guerrillas rode up to his house and found his American flag, that could be reason enough to shoot him. But for the local militia, he was proud to pull it out and loan it to Adair, who hurried back to the meeting.

William AdairWilliam P. Adair. Courtesy of Joe Johnston.

When Adair told who had contributed the flag, somebody yelled, “He’s a Federal!” Indeed, the man was known to be a stout Lincoln supporter. Several men flatly refused to serve under a flag belonging to a Union man, a loud and rowdy argument ensued, and the meeting evaporated into chaos. With so many guns in the barn, it’s a credit to the men that they didn’t start shooting each other.

That’s how passionate people were. That’s how distrustful. And that’s how quickly things could turn from friendship to conflict. Especially so early in the war, it was all new to everybody. Thousands of men were tramping grain fields and feeding on livestock wherever they found it. Entire armies had no uniforms. They found themselves shooting in anger at their own neighbors, sometimes their own kin, on their own home ground.

It’s unclear from the historical record whether the Crawford County Home Guard was ever officially recognized by the Union. But a year later, in 1862, the Enrolled Missouri Militia (EMM) was organized all across the state, and again Crawford County men rose to serve. And yet, Crawford County’s 63rd Regiment was only commissioned for six months.

As for Adair, after joining two units that dissolved, he continued to wage war in his own way. He was appointed justice of the peace, and in that capacity he knew just about everybody in the county, as well as who was loyal to which side. He also knew who had good horses, and Adair saw to it that some of the horses belonging to Southern sympathizers entered the service of the Union army. By that time Missouri was under martial law, and Adair was soon hauled before the provost marshal for stealing horses. Since he acquired them from Southern sympathizers, Adair didn’t consider it a crime. And ironically, the army court that prosecuted him was representing the army that was enjoying the use of the horses. In the end, Adair gladly enlisted in the regular Army as a captain, and the court dropped the charges.

Over in Osage County, John R. Dallas and his big brother, Charles, joined the Home Guard. Being one of the older men, Charles was appointed a corporal. But the unit was soon disbanded, and the Dallas boys signed up with the 26th Infantry, which went on to glory. They fought the bloody battles against General Sterling Price, including at Elkhorn Tavern, Arkansas, and in Mississippi. They were at the siege of Vicksburg, and at Bennett House when Joseph E. Johnston became the last major Confederate general to surrender.

And so the militia became like a test of intention. When a man joined a unit that was disbanded, he had to go find another that would let him fight. John Piatt joined the 63rd EMM with Adair and the others. And after it disbanded, he still wanted to get into the action, so he enlisted in the 48th Infantry at Rolla, a major Union stronghold, the terminus of the railroad. But to Piatt’s disappointment, the 48th saw only guard duty.

When a man enlisted, there was no telling whether he would be denied the taste of battle, like Piatt, or thrown headlong into it, like Henry J. Bellis. Bellis, of Ironton, enlisted in the 68th EMM, and when that unit dissolved, he was appointed a corporal in the Provisional EMM, 8th Regiment. After some fighting, the 8th was dissolved too.

But Missouri was swarming with Southern guerrillas. To combat them, the new Missouri State Militia Cavalry was established. Most of the men from the 8th, including Bellis, joined the 5th Regiment of the cavalry. The recruiting was good. Men were promised they would stay in the state. It was all the more attractive because they patrolled in small groups ranging from five to a hundred men. And on most of those patrols they operated under the command of sergeants and captains, common men like them, rather than officers. They rode hard and struck hard. And of course, at times they were as brutal and out of control as the guerrillas they hunted.   

In 1864 General Sterling Price made his bid to retake the state for the Confederacy with some 13,000 men. But at every turn they were met with hastily rallied armies ready to meet him in battle, and with militia guarding strategic locations, like John Piatt’s 48th at Rolla. One of Price’s last gasps was in a little-known fight the Federals called the Battle of Marmiton River, and Price’s men knew as Charlot Farm. Henry Bellis and the 5th Militia Cavalry arrived after a forced march with horses so exhausted, the animals refused to charge. But the next day, Bellis and his men were in the thick of the fight.

Once Price was chased from the state, the 48th Infantry was no longer needed to guard the railroad, and they were shipped south to Nashville. The trip took over a week by train and boat. It was the heart of winter, and the men had no fires to warm themselves. So when they got to Nashville and camped, many, including Piatt, were sick and suffering from rheumatism and diarrhea. Again, they were assigned to guard the railroad. Piatt was so sick he couldn’t stand his watch, and was sent to the hospital. Some days he was fit for duty, but most days not. For him, it was a cold, wet, ugly war.         

In February, the regiment moved to Chicago as guards at the infamous Camp Douglas prison, where they watched prisoners dig graves for one another every day. Then they escorted diseased, starving prisoners to City Point, Virginia, to be exchanged for equally mistreated men from the Confederate prisons. And the whole time, Piatt was in and out of the hospital, doing half duty, almost as pitiful as the men he guarded. He suffered from his ailments the rest of his life, and yet he was one of the fortunate ones. The regiment lost 120 men to disease.

The word “militia” meant many things in Civil War Missouri. Besides the Home Guard and Missouri State Militia Cavalry, there were the Citizen Guards, the three-month, six-month, and three-year militias, the EMM, and Provisional Companies of the EMM, which was different from the Provisional EMM. Southern sympathizers had the State Guard, in which men fought under Gen. Price all the way across Arkansas and into Mississippi. There, that bloodied militia was disbanded, and nearly all of them enlisted in regular Confederate service.

When it all started, nobody knew how to fight a war against their fellow Missourians, so they learned together in polished units and homespun gangs. Men who served in the EMM were said to be in state units, not Federal. So in later years, when they applied for army pensions, they were denied. Some militiamen had no uniform and no pay, and were never called to duty. Others, like the free-roaming cavalry, were up to their necks in bloody assaults for two years or more. The personal stories of the individual soldiers are a blend of the heroic, wistful, and tragic. While history shines its spotlight on the Civil War of massive armies in herculean struggles, there was another broad, colorful, vibrant, and sad war waged in the backyards and cornfields of Missouri by the men of the militia. 

 —Joe Johnston, Guest Contributor