Battle of Carthage (1861)

“The Battle of Carthage” by Andy Thomas

The western plains of Missouri would not likely have been the scene of an important battle in the early months of the Civil War. Yet as the Missouri State Guard, under Major General Sterling Price, moved south toward Confederate reinforcements in Arkansas, with the Union Army under Brigadier General Nathanial Lyon in hot pursuit, the engagement at Carthage, on July 5, 1861, would become the largest battle of the Civil War thus far.

The Federal pursuit of the secessionist militia was not a single column chase. Lyon’s forces split with the intention of cutting off the Missouri State Guardsmen and preventing their reinforcements from arriving from Arkansas. They intended, too, to blunt the wave of pro-militia public sentiment stemming from the humiliation of the Camp Jackson Affair. With a three pronged attack, Lyon hoped to nip their recruitment and burgeoning morale in the bud.

Union Colonel Franz Sigel arrived in Sarcoxie on June 29, and discovered that not only were Price and his men were camped south of Neosho, but deposed Missouri Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson, with his thousands of Missouri State Guardsmen, was waiting in Lamar for Brigadier General John S. Rains, commanding a state force out of Lexington. Sigel decided to move southwest to take out Price, then head north to take on Jackson and Rains. When Sigel reached Neosho on July 3, he was surprised to learn that Price had already reached Arkansas, and was camped near Maysville. That same day Rains reached Jackson’s camp, while Lyon moved south out of Boonville, in hopes of buttressing his forces with reinforcements out of Kansas. His goal was Springfield.

Sigel modified his plan, leaving a garrison of 94 men under Captain Joseph Conrad at Neosho. He continued on toward Carthage on July 4, and while camping for the night east of town, his outposts on the northern edge of town discovered that Jackson, and his 4000 men, were camped within 15 miles of Carthage.

Colonel Sigel had 1100 men and eight six-pounder guns. None of the men were cavalry. He couldn’t have known that half of Jackson’s men were unarmed, and most were untrained, unorganized, and similarly afoot. Though Sigel’s men were three month volunteers, they were well trained for the military maneuvers the former German soldier would order. They were well rested, well fed, and well organized under their disciplined leader.

The same could not be said of the Missouri State Guard. They seemed to run on pure adrenaline and excitement – never mind that those that had shoes might not have guns, or those that had guns might not have ammunition. They wore the clothes they enlisted in, thus there were no uniforms to distinguish them from one another, let alone from the opposing side or civilians. Jackson was a civilian, and as a commander in the Missouri State Guard, issued orders in his capacity as commander in chief, albeit a deposed one. Their organization, their discipline, and their capacity to serve as a cohesive military unit operating toward a common goal, was vastly limited before they even met their enemy.

Rains had joined up with Jackson north of Carthage, and the excitement in the camp at the oncoming hostilities created such a stir that most of the men heading out before dawn to battle the Federals had not eaten or adequately rested for the battle. Sigel’s men, on the other hand, were fully prepared to endure the long day ahead of them, despite the enormous numbers and seeming advantages of the enemy.

At 8:30 a.m., Sigel’s advance guard skirmished briefly with Captain Joseph “Jo” Shelby’s cavalry company. Sigel then sent in two companies of infantry in support, and the bulk of his own troops to take on Jackson’s main force gathering on a nearby hill. One company and one piece of artillery remained with the wagon train to protect the rear.

The Missouri State Guard forces gathering on the high ground between North Fork and Dry Fork, north of Carthage, were representative of Jackson’s forces in whole. There was no reserve, unless the unarmed mass of men at the rear could be considered as such. Jackson seemed to operate on the notion that sheer numbers would intimidate, and thus force the retreat, of Sigel.

The Union forces began firing, their German sharpshooters and competent artillery an excellent asset. The shots reverberated through the Ozark hills, and word of the battle reached the small Union garrison at Neosho. Captain Conrad received orders from Sigel to retreat to Sarcoxie, if necessary. Knowing his commander was hotly engaged and greatly outnumbered, Conrad commenced to a southward retreat. It was too late. Confederate forces out of Arkansas, alongside Missourians under Sterling Price, were already on a northward march to assist Jackson and Rains. Conrad and his men became prisoners of war.

The Union battery continued to pummel the scattered Missourians, eventually ceasing fire for lack of ammunition. Sigel assumed the Guardsmen guns were running low, as well. He had ordered the advance of his troops when he noticed the mass of Rebel cavalry on his perimeter. He likely believed that the enemy reserve would be armed, but little did he know that there what he saw was not a reserve to speak of, nor were any of them armed. His advance quickly became a retreat, a maneuver for which the German leader would be notorious.

It was a slippery spot from which to escape, and he barely achieved it. He concealed one of his batteries in an advantageous hilly spot, and briefly held the ford. Upon the advance of a State Guard cavalry to the east, which wrapped around the rear of his forces and secured Buck Branch to the south, Sigel realized his strength was in jeopardy. His men blasted their way south through Buck Branch in a furious move, fortuitously through inadequately armed State Guardsmen.

His military skill checked the advancing Rebels at Spring River, and again south of Carthage in a desperate move to save the Union supply line. Reaching the previous night’s camp south of James Spring, Sigel ordered his rear guard to keep Confederates out of Carthage proper. The pursuing Guardsmen were met with Union gunfire, and the sun set on a continued barrage of bullets. Sigel moved his forces east, along the Sarcoxie road, and continued to give as good as he got from the Rebels. He marched through the night, rested at Sarcoxie, and moved on to the relative safety of Mount Vernon thereafter.

Both sides claimed Carthage as a victory. At the time, the prevention of further Union encroachment into southwestern Missouri gave the Confederates their sense of victory. Sigel’s vastly outnumbered army may have failed to achieve the Union mission of checking the Southern troops, but his precarious escape with relatively low casualties gave his day at Carthage a higher regard in historical interpretation. The Union reported 44 casualties, not counting the 94 men captured at Neosho. The Confederate tally is estimated at between 74-200.i

The State Guard united with their Confederate brethren out of Texas and Arkansas, and was reinvigorated by the success at Carthage. The scattered but passionate men received a heavy dose of training, consideration from the leaders in Richmond for their persistence, and a much needed boost to their enthusiasm after their defeat at Boonville. Hoping to parlay the passion into a campaign to recapture the state, Jackson, Price and their men would continue their struggle against the Union at Wilson’s Creek, and beyond.

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