Battle of Boonville

Battle of Boonville

The Battle of Boonville was a skirmish of the American Civil War, occurring on June 17, 1861, in Cooper County, Missouri. Union victory established Federal control of the Missouri River and helped thwart efforts to ally Missouri with the Confederacy.


Claiborne F. Jackson, the pro-Southern Governor of Missouri, wanted his state to secede and join the Confederacy, but the state's overall sentiment was initially neutral. The elected State convention did not pass a secession ordinance as he had hoped it would.

Meanwhile, pro-secession elements seized the small arsenal in Liberty, Missouri and planned to seize the many more arms at the St. Louis Arsenal. They were thwarted by an energetic young officer, Capt. Nathaniel Lyon. Lyon allied himself with local politician Frank Blair and anti-slavery German immigrants in St. Louis to secure the arsenal. In the process, he used primarily German Union militia units to capture the Missouri State Guard as they were drilling nearby at Camp Jackson on May 10, 1861. When Lyon unwisely attempted to march the prisoners through the streets of St. Louis to the arsenal, a deadly riot erupted. This inflamed the latent pro-Southern sentiments of the state. As a result of Lyon's actions, the Missouri legislature promptly passed the governor's militia bill creating the Missouri State Guard, and it began to form from the old militia core.

Attempts were made at reconciling the differences, since Missouri had stopped short of seceding. The initial call up of the Missouri State Guard was halted by the legislature. In the interim, however, Nathaniel Lyon had been appointed a brigadier general and placed in command in Missouri. On June 11, 1861, the negotiations collapsed, since neither side trusted the other.

Gov. Jackson and State Guard commander Major General Sterling Price fled toward the capital at Jefferson City, arriving there on June 12. They quickly concluded that the city could not be held and left for Boonville the next day.

Gen. Nathaniel Lyon promptly set out after them by steamboat with two Federal volunteer regiments, a company of U.S. regulars and a battery of artillery--about 2,000 men in all. His goal was to seize the capital and disperse the Missouri State Guard. Lyon reached Jefferson City on June 15 and found that Jackson and Price had retreated towards Boonville.

Price realized that Jefferson City could not be defended and hoped to gain enough time to gather the State Guard units from Lexington and Boonville. He planned to withdraw from Boonville if Lyon approached. State Guard Colonel John S. Marmaduke's command began organizing at Boonville, while State Guard Brig. Gen. Mosby M. Parsons was instructed to take up a position 20 miles to the south in Tipton.

Price left due to illness and joined the forces assembling at Lexington. This was unfortunate, as it left the governor--a politician--in charge. Instead of retreating, Jackson determined to make a stand because he feared the political fallout of another withdrawal. Many of his men were eager to face the enemy, but they were armed only with shotguns and hunting rifles and lacked sufficient training to fight effectively at the time. Marmaduke was opposed to giving battle, but he reluctantly assumed command of the waiting forces.

Lyon left 300 Federals behind to secure Jefferson City and reembarked the remainder of his command on steamboats on June 16. They landed about 8 miles below Boonville on the morning of June 17. Informed of Lyon's approach, Jackson attempted to call up Parsons' command at Tipton, but it was unable to arrive in time.

The Battle

The battle was actually little more than a skirmish, but it was one of the first significant land actions of the war and had grave consequences for Confederate hopes in Missouri.

After disembarking, Lyon's troops marched along the Rocheport Road toward Boonville. They encountered pickets as they approached the bluffs, but Lyon deployed skirmishers and pushed his men forward rapidly.

On a ridge behind the bluff waited a few hastily formed and ill-equipped companies of the Missouri State Guard, totalling about 500 men. They had no artillery, since it was all with Parsons at Tipton. Inexplicably, Gov. Jackson held his only reasonably disciplined and organized command (Capt. Kelly's company) in reserve where it would take no part in the battle. Jackson observed the encounter from a mile or more away.

Lyon deployed his men and artillery and advanced. The artillery soon displaced sharpshooters stationed in the William M. Adams house. The Union infantry closed with the line of guardsmen and fired several volleys into them, causing them to retreat. This portion of the fighting lasted only 20 minutes. Some attempts were made to rally and resist the Federal advance, but these collapsed when a flanking Union company seized the camp behind them, and a siege howitzer on one of Lyon's riverboats began shelling the State Guard positions.

As Marmaduke had feared, the retreat rapidly turned into a rout. The guardsmen fled back through Camp Bacon and the town of Boonville. Some headed for home, but most joined the Governor in retreating to the southwest corner of the state. The short fight and precipitate retreat gained the nickname "The Boonville Races."

Lyon took possession of the town at 11 AM.

Casualties and Impact

Federal casualties were light with five men killed or mortally wounded and about seven less seriously injured. There are no reliable figures of casualties for the Missouri State Guard. Only a few are known to have been killed and probably a dozen or so were wounded. About 80 were captured. Lyon seized the State Guard's supplies and equipment at their armory, which included two iron 6-pounder cannon without ammunition, 500 obsolete flintlock muskets, 1200 pair of shoes, a few tents, and a quantity of food.

The real impact was strategic and was far out of proportion to the minimal loss of life. The Battle of Boonville had effectively ejected the secessionist forces from the center of the state and secured it for the Union. Price realized he could not hold Lexington, and joined in the retreat. Secessionist communications to the strongly pro-Confederate Missouri River valley were effectively cut. Would be recruits from the slave owning regions north of the Missouri River found it difficult to join the Southern army. Provisions and supplies also could no longer be obtained from this section of the state.

Another result was demoralization. While the Missouri State Guard would fight and win on other days, it was badly dispirited by this early defeat. Lyon's victory gave the Union forces time to consolidate their hold on the state. Marmaduke's disappointment led him to resign from the Missouri State Guard and seek a Confederate commission.


* [ National Park Service battle description]
* Rorvig, Paul; "The Significant Skirmish: The Battle of Boonville, June 17, 1861.", Missouri Historical Review, Jan. 1992.

External links

* [ Battle of Boonville illustrations from Harper's Weekly]

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