April 29, 1861: Lyon seizes the St. Louis Arsenal

Nathaniel Lyon
Nathaniel Lyon

The confusing situation in Missouri was coming to a head. Secessionist state militiamen were massing in St. Louis, and the St. Louis Arsenal, the largest repository of arms west of the Mississippi, was increasingly endangered. The small arsenal in Liberty, in the western part of the state, had already been taken by Confederate sympathizers. Nathaniel Lyon, in charge of the defense of the St. Louis arsenal, took control of it and sent most of the arms to safety in Illinois on April 29, 1861.

From the New York Times, May 4, 1861:


The Springfield correspondent of the Chicago Tribune gives the following exceedingly interesting account of the transfer of the arms from the St. Louis Arsenal:

Capt. JAS. H. STOKES, late of the Regular Army, volunteered to undertake the perilous mission, and Gov. YATES placed in his hands the requisition of the Secretary of War for ten thousand muskets. Capt. STOKES went to St. Louis, and made his way as rapidly as possible to the Arsenal. He found it surrounded by an immense mob, and the postern gates all closed. His utmost efforts to penetrate the crowd were for a long time unavailing. The requisition was shown. Capt. LYON doubted the possibility of executing it. He said the Arsenal was surrounded by a thousand spies, and every movement was watched and reported to the head-quarters of the Secessionists, who could throw an overpowering force upon them at any moment. Capt. STOKES represented that every hour’s delay was rendering the capture of the Arsenal more certain; and the arms must be removed to Illinois now or never. Major CALLENDER agreed with him, and told him to take them at his own time and in his own way. This was Wednesday night.

Capt. STOKES had a spy in the camp, whom he met at intervals in a certain place in the city. On Thursday he received information that Gov. JACKSON had ordered two thousand armed men down from Jefferson City, whose movements could only contemplate a seizure of the Arsenal, by occupying the heights around it, and planting batteries thereon. The job would have been an easy one. They had already planted one battery on the St. Louis levee, and another at Powder Point, a short distance below the Arsenal.

Capt. STOKES immediately telegraphed to Alton to have the steamer City of Alton drop down to the Arsenal landing about midnight. He then returned to the Arsenal and commenced moving the boxes of guns, weighing some three hundred pounds each, down to the lower floor. About seven hundred men were employed in the work. He then took five hundred Kentucky flint-lock muskets, which had been sent there to be altered, and sent them to be placed on a steamer as a blind to cover his real movements. The Secessionists nabbed them at once, and raised a perfect bedlam over the capture.

A large portion of the outside crowd left the Arsenal when this movement was executed, and Capt. LYON took the remainder, who were lying around as spies, and locked them up in his guard house. About 11 o’clock the steamer City of Alton came alongside, planks were shoved out from the windows to the main deck, and the boxes slid down. When the ten thousand were safely on board, Capt. STOKES went to Capt. LYON and Major CALLENDER, and urged them by the most pressing appeals to let him empty the Arsenal. They told him to go ahead and take whatever he wanted. Accordingly he took eleven thousand more muskets, five hundred new rifle carbines, five hundred revolvers, one hundred and ten thousand musket cartridges, to say nothing of the cannon and a large quantity of miscellaneous accoutrements, leaving only seven thousand muskets in the Arsenal to arm the St. Louis volunteers.

When the whole were on board, about 2 o’clock Friday morning, the order was given by the Captain of the steamer to cast off. Judge of the consternation of all bands, when it was found that she would not move. The arms had been piled in great quantities around the engines, to protect them against the battery on the levee, and the great weight had fastened the bows of the boat firmly on a rock, which was tearing a hole through the bottom at every turn of the wheels. A man of less nerve than Capt. STOKES would have gone crazy on the spot. He called the Arsenal men on board, and commenced moving the boxes to the stern. Fortunately, when about two hundred boxes had been shifted, the boat fell away from the shore, and floated in deep water.

“Which way?” said Capt. MITCHELL, of the steamer. “Straight to Alton in the regular channel,” replied Capt. STOKES. “What if we are attacked?” said Capt. MITCHELL. “Then we will fight!” said Capt. STOKES. “What if we are overpowered?” said Capt. M. “Run her to the deepest part of the river and sink her,” replied Capt. S. “I’ll do it,” was the heroic answer of Capt. MITCHELL, and away they went past the secession battery, past the entire St. Louis levee, and on to Alton, in the regular channel, where they arrived at five o’clock in the morning.

When the boat touched the landing, Capt. STOKES, fearing pursuit by some two or three of the secession military companies, by which the City of St. Louis is disgraced, ran to the market-house and rang the fire-bell. The citizens came flocking pell-mell to the river, in all sorts of habiliments, Capt. STOKES informed them of the situation of things, and pointed out the freight cars. Instantly, men, women and children boarded the steamer, seized the freight, and clambered up the levee to the cars. Rich and poor tugged together with might and main for two hours, when the cargo was all deposited in the cars, and the train moved off, amid their enthusiastic cheers, for Springfield.

While this account seems to downplay Lyon’s role, his biography indicates that the diversionary tactic involving a small cache of muskets was his idea, and that he was behind the entire operation. In any case, this quick action probably saved the state of Missouri for the Union.

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One Response to April 29, 1861: Lyon seizes the St. Louis Arsenal

  1. clincher says:

    Thanks for this. Nathaniel Lyon remains one of the most interesting characters of the period, despite his unfortunate early exit from the scene.

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