The Death of General Lyon

Dave Para—guitar,vocal; Cathy Barton—mountain dulcimer,vocal; Bob Dyer—vocal; Dave Wilson—fiddle

Nathaniel Lyon, killed at the Battle of Wilson's Creek in August 1861, has the distinction of being the first general to die in the Civil War. A Connecticut Yankee and West Point graduate, Lyon served in the Mexican War. During the Kansas/Missouri Border War of the late 1850s he was stationed in eastern Kansas and developed a fanatical abolitionism and a bitter hatred of pro-slavery Missourians.

Lyon's meteoric Civil War career was marked by swift and bold action. He moved quickly in St. Louis to capture the 800 men at “Camp Jackson,” and a month later, angrily declared war on Missouri Gov. Claiborne Jackson's State Guard under the command of Gen. Sterling Price, despite Lincoln's assurance to Southerners in his first inaugural address that the North would not initiate aggression. This move put Jackson and Price on the run and prevented the early efficient organization of the State Militia.

Pursuing Jackson and Price, Lyon attacked them at Wilson's Creek near Springfield, but his forces, outnumbered two to one, were defeated and Lyon was shot twice before falling mortally wounded from his horse. After some confusion in retrieving Lyon's body from the field of battle, he was taken to St. Louis and then to Connecticut for burial. Several songs and eulogies paid tribute to his sacrifice and praised him for “saving Missouri.” Painter George Caleb Bingham honored him in 1867 with an equestrian portrait, which hung in the Missouri State Capitol until it was destroyed when the capitol burned in 1911. Since that time, however, others have argued that his brashness started an intra-state conflict that otherwise might not have happened.

This broadside was published by J.H. Johnson Co. in Philadelphia with no author or date listed, although we can assume it was composed not long after the event. Its northern authorship would explain the omission of a sense of Confederate victory in the battle, as Union press reports (the earliest to be published) described the battle as a Union victory. A discussion of this discrepancy is found in a new, excellent book, Wilson's Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It, by William Piston and Richard Hatcher. The reference to Mississippi in the third verse is more puzzling as Piston and Hatcher make no reference to any regiments raised in MIssissippi fighting in the battle. The pro-Southern forces consisted of Confederates from Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana under Ben McCulloch, and the Missouri State Guard under Gen. Sterling Price. It was Price's men who largely faced Lyon's troops at Bloody Hill. Perhaps the fact that Missouri was not a Confederate state at the time of the battle made a substitution for the Mississippi reference more palatable to the song's author.

The song was written to the tune of "John Anderson, My Jo," a song sometimes credited to Robert Burns.

The wild dog sought his matted lair, the rattlesnake his hole,
For smoke and boom of heavy guns o'er Springfield's prairies rolled;
And swiftly rushed on Iowa's sons, and boldly Kansas pressed.
For they would meet a foe that day, these Soldiers of the West.

Long raged the fight near Wilson's Creek, and thick flew ball and shell;
Like tigers fought these frontier men, like wounded tigers fell;
Then Lyon cried, as he scanned their ranks, with sore odds now oppressed,
“We're here to die, but not to fly, my brave sons of the West.”

Three times the men of Iowa, and Kansas side by side,
Charged on a swaying host of foes, and checked the Southern tide;
Then Mississippi's pride recoiled—Arkansas and the rest—
Unable to withstand the shock of the Soldiers of the West.

A bullet from the sullen foe now entered Lyon's side;
In vain the dying hero, the fatal wound would hide;
With sorrow deep, bronzed hunters weep, sad thoughts their hearts distressed.
No more would Lyon lead them on to battle in the West.

When doubt and fear o'erhung the land, and treason filled the air,
Then Lyon chose his country's part, for her his sword did bear;
To her he gave his heart so brave, and all that he possessed,
And lastly, gave the life he loved on a prairie of the West.

The day will come, when North and South will live in peace again;
When men will drop the dented sword to reason with the pen;
Then many a tongue will breathe his name—a name among the best—
The man that led on Springfield's plain the Legions of the West.

© Big Canoe Records, 1995