Where the Civil War Began

Information to help you plan your Missouri Civil War History Vacation
Where did the civil war begin?

Did you know?

  • More Civil War battles or engagements were fought in Missouri than in any other state besides Virginia and Tennessee?

  • In 1861, the year the war started, 45 percent of all battles and all casualties were in Missouri?

  • More Civil War generals are buried at St. Louis than at Arlington or West Point?

civil war army - Missouri Vacations
The Battle of Pilot Knob, Photo by Scott Sanders, Black River Fine Images

The story of how Missouri became embroiled in the Civil War conflict and why.

Since 1857, the nation had been deeply divided by the Dred Scott decision, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Lecompton Constitution, and John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry. When it came time for the 1860 presidential election, the pro-slavery Southern states knew the Republican Party was against the expansion of slavery into US territories, and Southern Democrats believed Lincoln’s stand against slavery would ruin the South. So, although it was regarded as rebellion, seven Southern states—South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas—declared their secession from the Union, as soon as Lincoln’s victory was announced. These seven states formed the Confederate States of America and elected Jefferson Davis President. Davis took his oath of office in Alabama just before Lincoln’s inauguration.

Both sides began to build their armies. The first battle of the war was in April 1861 when the CSA gained control of Fort Sumpter, causing four more states to secede from the Union—Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee. The five slave-holding border states—Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, West Virginia and Delaware—belonged to the Union, but their citizens were divided in allegiance. Missouri was a friend to both sides, sending men and supplies to both the Confederate and Union forces, it had a star on both flags and state governments on each side as well.

When the Union Army under Nathaniel Lyon seized the arsenal at St. Louis and moved its supplies to Illinois, pro-Southern Democratic Governor Claiborne F. Jackson called out the Missouri State Militia, under Brig. Gen. Daniel M. Frost. Lyon perceived their maneuvers as an attempt to seize the arsenal and attacked the Militia, parading them as captives through the streets of St. Louis.

The next day, on May 11, 1861, the Missouri General Assembly authorized the formation of a Missouri State Guard commanded by Sterling Price. Exactly two months later, Lyon met with Jackson and demanded that Missouri honor Lincoln’s call for troops. Jackson refused and was escorted (and eventually evicted) from office. The State Guard endured attacks by federal forces and ultimately, Claiborne Jackson and his State Guard troops were chased to southwest Missouri. The Battle of Wilson’s Creek, near Springfield, was the first battle in which Missourians sought formal help from the CSA. With more than 2,300 Union casualties, one of whom was Lyon, the Confederate Army won the battle. But they were too disorganized and ill-equipped to pursue the retreating Union regiments, and Price soon began a withdrawal of State Guard units from Missouri.

Missouri endured a trying period of bushwhacking guerrilla warfare from 1862 to 1864, which often pitted neighbor-against-neighbor. During this time, small regiments of troops from both sides were stationed throughout the state, including Fort Davidson at Pilot Knob, a Union fort, and nearby Fort Barnesville, which is believed to have been built and occupied in 1863. It is believed that the Union 13th Cavalry was camped at the village of Barnesville. This was known as a picket, meaning their main camp was elsewhere other than the fort. A small group of soldiers would have been placed at the fort for guard duty while the others were busy carrying out raids to keep control of this area and the extremely crucial military trail to Pilot Knob. The Confederates desperately wanted to regain control of this area and the trail to Pilot Knob. There is not much recorded history on the fort at Barnesville (near present-day Ellington). It was discovered in 1997, and although there is no evidence of a battle there, through the diligence of a local historian, Gerald Angel, Fort Barnesville was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1998 and is on the civil war tour of our region. For more on Fort Barnesville, **see below.

Although, or perhaps because, the Confederacy was clearly losing the war, in 1864 Price renewed his attempt to put Missouri under Confederate control by reassembling the Missouri Guard. Unfortunately for the Confederacy, and for Price, he was unable to repeat the victorious streak he had in 1861. Price’s Raid began in the southeastern portion of the state where he advanced northward to the end of the St. Louis and Iron Mountain Railroad at Pilot Knob, in the Arcadia Valley.

There he attempted to defeat the army at Fort Davidson in the Battle of Pilot Knob, He lost nearly 1200 men who were killed, wounded or missing, and ultimately, the battle. From there he struck northward where he found St. Louis to be too heavily fortified with Union troops and set out westward, parallel with the Missouri River. The Federal soldiers attempted to stop his advance—resulting in some minor and major skirmishes—The advance culminated in the Battle of Westport (in present-day Kansas City) and the defeat of the Southern army.

Since Missouri never actually seceded from the Union, it wasn’t forced to suffer the worst aspects of Reconstruction, and Democrats, who had been pro-slavery prior to the war, returned to being the dominant power in the state by 1873.

**The Discovery of Fort Barnesville
There have been generations of people that walked over and around this Redan type earthen fort at Deer Run State Forest in Ellington. Many had to speculate a little about what this horse shoe shaped mound had been. It wasn’t until 1995 when it was brought to the attention of our local civil war historian Gerald Angel, who identified it as a fort from his investigative experiences with nearby Fort Patterson. Research began, and through Gerald Angel and his assistants’ vigilant research, Fort Barnesville was entered on the National Register of Historic Places on July 1, 1998. This Fort is believed to have been built in early 1863 by the 13th Illinois Cavalry and the 25th Missouri Infantry, possibly aided by the 3rd Missouri Militia. Evidence has not yet been found of any major skirmish or battle. For more information stop by the Reynolds County Museum in Ellington, then go to Deer Run State Conservation Area where the fort is located, or even better, schedule a guided tour of this recently discovered fort by calling Gerald Angel at 1-573-663-2789.