Nathaniel Lyon was born on July 14th, 1818, to Amasa and Kezia Knowlton Lyon, in Ashford, Connecticut. Dissatisfied with the life of a farmer, Lyon sought and received an appointment to West Point Military Academy in 1837. He graduated in 1841, as the eleventh ranked member of his fifty-two member class. Lyon commissioned into the Second Infantry and fought with them through the Mexican-American war, where he was wounded and promoted to First Lieutenant, and Seminole Wars. He was then posted on the edge of U.S. territory, and was a member in the ranks of troops that slaughtered Native Americans in Clear Lake, California.
After this, Lyon was stationed in Fort Riley, Kansas, where he served in the border wars known as “Bleeding Kansas”, and developed his anti-slavery ideology that would lead to him joining the Union cause in the U.S. Civil War. February of 1861 saw Lyon placed in command of Federal forces at an Arsenal in St. Louis. The Governor of the State of Missouri, Claiborne Jackson, was in favor of Southern succession, as was a large group of the state population. This lead to extreme tension between Missouri leadership and Union troops. At the start of the Civil War, Governor Jackson rejected Lincoln’s pleas for troops, and instead amassed a militia force with the intent to join the Confederacy. In May of 1861, Lyon and his men surrounded and captured the militia force under General D.M. Frost. In the process of moving the prisoners through the city, many civilians started a riotous mob, a mob that Lyon prompted his men to fire upon, an action which spawned the infamous Camp Jackson Affair.
In recognition of his actions in St. Louis, Lyon received command of all Union troops in the state, and a promotion to Brigadier General. Lyon’s next mission was to capture or kill any remaining Missouri Militia forces sympathetic to the Confederacy, as well as apprehend Governor Jackson. Lyon’s troops engaged Missouri militiamen and Confederate troops under General Ben McCulloch on August 10, 1861, at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. While rallying his outnumbered troops, General Lyon was fatally shot in the heart.
Union forces lost the battle, and in their retreat left behind Lyon’s body on the battlefield. It was eventually found and buried by Confederate forces, and later moved to his family’s lands in Connecticut.
(Written by Benjamin G. Harvey)