The Contested Memories of General Nathaniel Lyon in St. Louis

The Contested Memories of General Nathaniel Lyon in St. Louis

The removal of a Confederate monument from its original dedication spot in Forest Park almost two years ago aroused a great deal of controversy among St. Louis residents. Like the debates taking place in other cities that have Confederate iconography, supporters praised the removal of a monument they considered to be offensive and historically inaccurate. Meanwhile, protestors claimed that the removal constituted an erasure of history. If anything, they saw this action as a precursor to the erasure of other historic figures honored in the city, such as Thomas Jefferson and Charles Lindbergh.[1] What many commentators missed in the discussion, however, was that the “Memorial to the Confederate Dead” was not the first public monument in St. Louis to be removed from its original dedication spot. That distinction belongs to a monument honoring Union General Nathaniel Lyon that was relocated in 1960. Analyzing why this monument aroused so much controversy can lead to important insights not just about Civil War memory in St. Louis, but also the fungible nature of public commemoration.

The Nathaniel Lyon statue is currently located at Lyon Park. Notice that the monument’s text has been removed. Courtesy of the author.

In February 1861, the U.S. Army sent Nathaniel Lyon to St. Louis amid a growing session crisis in the city. Missouri Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson was sympathetic to the Confederacy and tried to find a covert way to take the state out of the Union. Claiming his authority as Governor, Jackson sent a force of Missouri State Militia under the command of Brigadier General Daniel Frost to the federal arsenal at St. Louis. They established an encampment named “Camp Jackson.” Fearing that the State Militia would confiscate the arsenal and take Missouri into the Confederacy, Lyon led a force of U.S. troops to Camp Jackson to arrest Frost and his soldiers. As Frost’s men were led through the streets of St. Louis on their way to be paroled, shots fired out between protestors and Lyon’s troops. Amid the chaos, more than two dozen people died in what has since been called the “Camp Jackson Massacre.” A little over a month later, Lyon and Congressman Frank Blair met with Governor Jackson and former Governor Sterling Price at the popular Planter’s House Hotel to discuss Missouri’s future. Lyon reportedly said during the meeting that “rather than concede to the State of Missouri for one single instant the right to dictate to my Government in any matter however unimportant, I would see you, and you, and you, and every man, woman, and child in the State, dead and buried. This means war.” When Lyon became the first U.S. General to be killed while leading troops at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek on August 10, he became a martyr for the Unionist cause and was seen by supporters as the savior of St. Louis.[2]

Union Civil War veterans in the city who were active in the Grand Army of the Republic began calling for a monument honoring General Lyon in 1927. Over the next two years they raised 15,000 dollars and hired the Swiss-born sculptor Erhardt Siebert to design the monument, which would be located at the original Camp Jackson site at Grand and Pine streets. Siebert, however, faced criticism even before the official unveiling on December 22, 1929. Numerous artists who saw the monument criticized several aspects of the overall design. Lyon’s horse looked small, weak, and sick; Lyon himself appeared to be falling off the monument, and perhaps worst of all, Lyon’s first name was incorrectly spelled as “Nathanial.” Edmund H. Wuerpel, Director of Fine Arts at Washington University—St. Louis, declared that “it would be a kindness to the city and its inhabitants if this latest creation should be withdrawn permanently from the public gaze.” Mayor Victor Miller asserted defensively that nobody was forcing residents to look at the monument. The criticism was so strong, however, that Miller agreed to establish a city art commission to review future proposals for public monuments.[3]

For the next twenty-five years, St. Louis residents debated the merits of keeping what was by all accounts an ugly monument. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch pleaded for a wealthy philanthropist to purchase and remove the monument as an act of kindness to the city. They also sarcastically argued that the space would be better suited to function as a parking lot. When President Franklin Roosevelt suggested in 1942 that some historical monuments should be turned into scrap metal to support the U.S. military effort in World War II, the paper eagerly volunteered the Lyon statue for destruction. The monument remained untouched, but Parks Commissioner Palmer Baumes offered a lukewarm defense of the monument and said he would have allowed for its removal if city leaders had wanted it.[4]

Students at Saint Louis University made the front page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch when they raised a Confederate flag near the Nathaniel Lyon statue in 1952. Courtesy of Proquest Historical Newspapers.

While many of these critiques centered around the monument’s poor aesthetics, Lyon’s presence as a figure within the St. Louis commemorative landscape was always contested. Residents who were sympathetic to the actions of Jackson and Frost considered Lyon an overzealous fanatic. He was, as one biographer describes it, a “Damn Yankee” who represented the worst dictatorial impulses of the Lincoln administration. Perhaps most notably, a group of students at nearby Saint Louis University (SLU) briefly hung a Confederate flag near the Lyon statue in 1952.[5] And as historian Joan Stack argues, Lyon’s presence in the commemorative landscape of the entire state was already under siege. A painting of Lyon by George Caleb Bingham that hung at the Missouri State Capitol was destroyed by fire in 1911. When a new painting by N.C. Wyeth was unveiled in 1920, it portrayed a distinctly Southern celebration of Confederate victory at Wilson’s Creek, leaving Lyon entirely out of the painting. Stack also points out that Lyon’s “this means war” proclamation has been uncritically accepted by both Missourians and historians as a factual statement, even though the claim was made by Confederate aide Thomas Snead in 1886 and no contemporary documents verifying the statement exist. “The widespread public acceptance of Snead’s quote reflects the extraordinary effectiveness of Southern apologists in recasting Lyon as a war-mongering zealot rather than an assertive patriot,” argues Stack.[6]

The key turning point in the Lyon monument’s future was not popular protest or a terrible world war. Instead, it was the actions of Harriet Frost Fordyce, a wealthy St. Louis philanthropist who also happened to be the youngest child of Confederate General Daniel Frost. An honorary president of the Missouri United Daughters of the Confederacy and a devout Catholic, Fordyce agreed to donate more than one million dollars to help renovate and expand SLU’s campus on the condition that Lyon’s statue be removed from its original dedication spot. SLU, in partnership with the city government, promptly worked to secure legislation authorizing the monument’s relocation to Lyon Park, a small ten-acre site near the Anheuser-Busch headquarters that had been established by Congress in 1869 (the land had been part of the city’s federal arsenal). Four months before dying at the age of 85, Fordyce and the city of St. Louis watched as the Lyon monument was relocated in June 1960. As an added bonus, SLU renamed its main campus the “Frost Campus” in honor of General Frost.[7]

The Nathaniel Lyon statue was removed from its original dedication spot and relocated to Lyon Park in 1960. Courtesy of Proquest Historical Newspapers.

This episode reminds us that while the current debate over Confederate monuments has captured the nation’s attention with an intensity not previously seen, public monuments have always been contested spaces of protest and controversy. With the Lyon monument, almost no one complained that removing the monument was an act of “erasing history.” Instead, protests centered around the need to develop a better system for assessing public art and to think anew about the impermanent nature of public iconography. For example, art critic George McCue argued that city residents took their public monuments for granted, making them essentially “invisible.” He suggested that a process of “periodic critical evaluation” of the relevance and usefulness of public monuments would place them back into the public eye and lead to larger discussions about the city’s values. “We remove old houses that have become eyesores, but we cherish old statues no matter how dubious they are as art, nor how inappropriate as memorials,” he complained.[8]

Post-Dispatch journalist Bill McClellan suggested in 1998 that Lyon’s victory at Camp Jackson was ultimately “transitory.” His monument had become an impediment to urban renewal in the city. SLU needed funds for a new campus and the city government sought to revitalize the surrounding area with new urban housing and amenities. Fordyce’s role as a privileged, wealthy philanthropist allowed SLU to become “the salvation of the midtown area.”[9] In the end, Lyon’s legacy as Civil War General was overwhelmed by dreams of civic “progress” that required a subtle celebration of the city’s Confederate heritage in order to be achieved. General Lyon’s heavily criticized monument ultimately lasted barely thirty years in its original dedication spot, but remains today at Lyon Park in a quiet space rarely seen by most city residents.

 

[1] Yaseem Serhan, “St. Louis to Remove its Confederate Monument,” The Atlantic, June 26, 2017, accessed May 7, 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/news/archive/2017/06/st-louis-to-remove-its-confederate-monument/531720/.

[2] Louis Gerteis, Civil War St. Louis (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2001), 78-125; Dennis K. Boman, Lincoln and Citizens’ Rights in Civil War Missouri: Balancing Freedom and Security (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press), 19-35.

[3] “$50,000 Memorial to Gen. Lyon Projected,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 10, 1927; “Gen. Lyon Statue Unveiled, Sponsor Raps its Critics,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 23, 1929; “Urges Removal of Lyon Statue as ‘Unesthetic’,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 16, 1929; “‘If People Don’t Like Lyon Statue, They Needn’t Look at It’, Mayor Says,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 17, 1929; “Art Commission Revived, But Mustn’t Meddle with Lyon Statue,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 18, 1929.

[4] [Untitled Editorial], St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 29, 1930; “That Red Alabaster Adam and Old Gen. Lyon,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 7, 1939; “City Demurs at Scrapping Statue Unless Metal is Vital to Victory,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 9, 1942; “More Sources of Scrap Metal,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 10, 1942.

[5] Christopher Phillips, Damn Yankee: The Life of General Nathaniel Lyon (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990); “Confederate Flag Flies Briefly Atop Main Pole at St. Louis U.,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 26, 1952.

[6] Joan Stack, “The Rise and Fall of General Nathaniel Lyon in the Missouri State Capitol,” Gateway (2013), 60-67. See also Kristen Pawlak, “Major Horace A. Conant and the Planter’s House Hotel Meeting,” Missouri’s Civil War Blog, January 10, 2019, accessed May 7, 2019, https://mocivilwarblog.com/2019/01/10/major-horace-a-conant-and-the-planters-house-hotel-meeting/.

[7] “Missouri Division of UDC Elects Officers,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 1, 1957; “Lyon Park Home for Lyon Statue Provided in Bill,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 16, 1959; “Gen. Lyon Statue Spared, Will Be Moved to Lyon Park,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 20, 1959; “Mrs. Fordyce Gives Million to St. Louis U.,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 16, 1959; “Gen. Lyon Rides Again,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 7, 1960.

[8] George McCue, “Our Invisible Public Monuments,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 26, 1959.

[9] Bill McClellan, “Statue of Civil War General Loses Battle to SLU’s Growth,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 29, 1998.

Nick Sacco

NICK SACCO is a public historian and writer based in St. Louis, Missouri. He holds a master’s degree in History with a concentration in Public History from IUPUI (2014). In the past he has worked for the National Council on Public History, the Indiana State House, the Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center, and as a teaching assistant in both middle and high school settings. Nick recently had a journal article about Ulysses S. Grant’s relationship with slavery published in the September 2019 issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era. He has written several other journal articles, digital essays, and book reviews for a range of publications, including the Indiana Magazine of History, The Confluence, The Civil War Monitor, Emerging Civil War, History@Work, AASLH, and Society for U.S. Intellectual History. He also blogs regularly about history at his personal website, Exploring the Past. You can contact Nick at PastExplore@gmail.com.

6 Replies to “The Contested Memories of General Nathaniel Lyon in St. Louis”

  1. My Father was Franklin Nathaniel Lyon Jr.General Lyon was his Grandfather!! We were told many stories after the war!! Is the Horse still In Lyon Park???

    1. Lyon was a murderous fanatic. A war criminal by definition. First his troops killed 28 civilians including woman and children. He didnt care what the citizens of Missouri wanted. he was only interested in imposing his will on the majority and would kill all to do it. His words, not mine.
      “Rather than concede to the state of Missouri for one single instant the right to dictate to my government in any matter however unimportant, I would see you, and you, and you, and you, and every man, woman and child in the state, dead and buried. This means war. ”
      Nathaniel Lyon

      1. Hi Dale,

        Thanks for your comment. Let’s work backwards. First off, as I argue in the above essay, Lyon’s “this means war” statement needs to be taken with great caution. I will quote from what I wrote above:

        “[Joan] Stack also points out that Lyon’s “this means war” proclamation has been uncritically accepted by both Missourians and historians as a factual statement, even though the claim was made by Confederate aide Thomas Snead in 1886 and no contemporary documents verifying the statement exist. ‘The widespread public acceptance of Snead’s quote reflects the extraordinary effectiveness of Southern apologists in recasting Lyon as a war-mongering zealot rather than an assertive patriot,’ argues Stack.”

        In sum, the alleged quote was not recorded at the time of the Planter’s House Meeting. It was mentioned by an adversary of Lyon’s–hardly an unbiased source–25 years after the time in which that meeting took place, by which time everyone else who had participated in the meeting had died. Did Lyon actually say those words? Perhaps, but the reality is that those words have to be taken cautiously because they can’t be fully verified.

        Your next point that Lyon “was interested in imposing his will on the majority” implies that a majority of Missourians favored secession. That is very questionable. Of course, no one would deny that Missouri was a bitterly divided state and that pro-Confederate sentiments were the majority view in some communities. St. Louis at the time was about 50-50 in its allegiances. But a state convention to debate the merits of secession had already rejected that option by a vote of 89 to 1 in February, reflecting the votes of a strong Unionist majority (or at least a cautious electorate that was hesitant to declare itself seceded and plunge the state into a possible Civil War). In reality, Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson’s efforts to secede Missouri from the Union were actually more reflective of someone “imposing his will on the majority” and disregarding what Missouri citizens wanted than Lyon.

        Jackson’s push to gain state control of the St. Louis Police Department, reject Abraham Lincoln’s call for troops, organize the State Militia, and then mobilize the State Militia to the federal arsenal at St. Louis could all be considered aggressive acts that unnecessarily escalated tensions in the state. Other federal arsenals in the South had already been taken over by secessionists, and the evidence suggests that Jackson was aiming to do the same in St. Louis. Lyon’s capture of the State Militia was a bold move, but given the evidence of Jackson’s prior words and actions and his unwillingness to cooperate with the federal government, Lyon acted in a way that ensured the safety of the federal arsenal. Where Lyon may have made a mistake was in marching his prisoners through the streets of St. Louis as they went to be paroled, which unnecessarily raised tensions and gave secessionists an opportunity harass Lyon and his troops (of course, one could also argue that Lyon had no other choice in that moment).

        Finally, your point about Lyon’s troops being responsible for those who were killed at Camp Jackson is heavily biased towards a Lost Cause interpretation of the Camp Jackson Affair. Lyon’s actions can and should be critiqued, but the reality is that secessionist actions, particularly Governor Jackson’s actions, bear some responsibility for what happened that day. In the end, Lyon’s move was praised by Unionists around the country and helped secure St. Louis for the Union. The Camp Jackson Affair was a tragic moment in the history of the Civil War, but it was not a war crime. If Lyon could be described as a war criminal, it would be for his actions in the slaughter of California Indians in the 1850s (but that is a subject for another time).

  2. I appreciate your balanced and clearly reasoned report of a tumultuous time in our local history. You obviously have no axe to grind other than illuminating a contentious time from our past, which is resurfacing in the present. Thank you for the light you shed, and for being a good teacher.

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