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1861 – Missouri is the Seat of War

Not surprisingly, most battles or engagements of the war’s first year occurred in the border states of West Virginia, Kentucky and Missouri. In fact, except for several actions in the northern portion of Virginia, all of the principal battles of 1861 occurred in these three states. It should not be surprising, although it is, that because of its geographic position and pre-war demographics, Missouri was the principal scene of conflict in 1861.

Forty-five percent (45%) of all land battles or engagements in 1861, and 45% of all Civil War casualties in that year, occurred in Missouri.

The Virginia battle known as the First Battle of Bull Run, or First Manassas, which was fought on July 21, 1861, is generally regarded to have been the opening battle of the Civil War. In fact, however, there had been nearly 30 battles or engagements in the war up to that time. Four hundred men had died or were wounded in Missouri alone. The Battle of Carthage, Missouri, was fought on July 5, 1861, and although there was only a fraction of the casualties that occurred two weeks later at Bull Run, Carthage deserves the title of first major land battle of the Civil War.

An interesting statistic: Measured by total number of casualties, putting aside Bull Run, the three largest battles of 1861 occurred in Missouri. The combined casualty totals in these three battles compare favorably to the Bull Run totals. In terms of casualties as a percentage of forces engaged, Bull Run does not compare in brutality to Missouri’s “big three.” The combined casualty rates in the Missouri battles of Wilson’s Creek, Lexington and Belmont were nearly twice the Bull Run rate.

Missouri’s claim to primacy is further confirmed by analysis of the events of the Civil War that preceded infantry combat. The first incident, Fort Sumter, involved an effort by Southern forces to seize a federal military installation and occurred on April 12, 1861. This was an artillery duel that produced no casualties. The second such effort occurred on April 20, 1861, when Missourians captured the federal arsenal at Liberty. Another effort was under way in St. Louis in early May; The Missouri State Guard was encamped in St. Louis for its annual gathering and purportedly planned to capture the St. Louis Arsenal. Pro-Union troops, mostly German-born, surrounded and “arrested” the militia on May 10, 1861, the Civil War’s first confrontation between armed and organized infantry. A riot ensued that, after a similar but smaller incident in Baltimore, was the first casualty-producing event of the war.

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