The Battle of Cole Camp was a skirmish of the American Civil War, occurring on June 19, 1861, in Benton County, Missouri. The Confederate victory assured an open line of march for the fleeing governor and Missouri State Guard away from Lyon's force in Boonville.
On June 15, 1861, Union Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon occupied the Missouri capitol in Jefferson City. Two days later, he routed the portion of the Missouri State Guard then assembling at Boonville with pro-secession Missouri Governor Claiborne F. Jackson. As the portion of the guard accompanying Governor Jackson withdrew to the southwest of the state, a Unionist Missouri Home Guard regiment was in position to interfere with his retreat.
The majority of the inhabitants of Benton County were of Southern origin and sentiment; however, the German immigrants were pro-Union and anti-slavery. These Germans made up the core of the Benton County Home Guard. Captain Abel H.W. Cook began to form the regiment in early June and called for the volunteers to assemble northeast of Cole Camp on June 11.
A pro-secession force was gathering nearby at Warsaw. Captain Walter S. O'Kane organized the Warsaw "Grays" and Major Thomas W. Murray organized the "Blues." The combined force numbered about 350, with 100 of them mounted. O'Kane eventually was elecyed to command the battalion as a lieutenant colonel.
The secessionists were aided by Benton County's Sheriff, Bartholomew W. Keown. Keown attempted to arrest captains Cook and Mitchell at the Union Home Guard camp, but they refused to submit. The "arrest" apparently was cover for his real mission of gathering intelligence.
The Unionist force occupied two adjoining farms 600 yards apart which belonged to Henry Harms and John Heisterberg. The Home Guards called the location Camp Lyon. Cook had about 400 smoothbore muskets. While up to 900 men had initially gathered, as many as half on furlough for lack of weapons or for other reasons.
O'Kane's force marched from Warsaw toward Cole Camp on June 18 to attack the gathering Home Guard. A respected citizen, John Tyree, had witnessed the preparations of the secessionists and reported it to the officers at Camp Lyon. As he returned from reporting this, he was captured by O'Kane's men. He was recognized, tied him to a tree, and shot as a spy. (Ironically, Tyree was a slaveowning Union man.)
Despite Tyree's warning,, the Union pickets were overrun without alerting the Home Guard. There were admissions of extensive drinking in the camp and the men were sleeping in the early morning hours of June 19 when the attack began. O'Kane's infantry double-quicked from the east to the Heisterberg barn where a portion of the Home Guard were and delivered a volley into the shocked men. However, a company of Home Guard under Captain Elsinger was just north of the barn. They responded with fire into the flank of the attackers, but had little ammunition and as a result were soon forced to withdraw.
O'Kane's mounted force then slammed into and drove away another nearby group of Home Guard that was attempting to form to repel the infantry.
Meanwhile, the remaining unengaged Union men at the Harms barn under Captains Grother and Mueller formed to join the fracas. The presence of a Union flag now in the hands of the rebels confused the men and they held their fire until they were fired upon. They withdrew without engaging and the fighting ended.
Capt. Cook supposedly fled at the beginning of the fight. He claimed to have left to consult with Captain Totten of Lyon's forces, but his men claimed otherwise. His command ended sometime in July, and his widow was denied a pension after the war.
Casualties and Impact
Federal casualties were heavy with at least 34 killed or mortally wounded, 60 wounded, and 25 made prisoner. Perhaps most importantly, O'Kane's force captured 362 muskets with bayonets that would prove useful at the battles of Carthage and Wilson's Creek. Secessionist losses were around seven killed and 25 wounded.
O'Kane's men apparently murdered one of the prisoners who spoke little English and was a cook. They mistook him for Capt. Cook and shot him on the spot.
The victory opened a path for the fleeing Missouri State Guard. When O'Kane's men joined the gathering Missouri State Guard, their tale provided a morale boost to the rest of the beleaguered force.
Sheriff Keown was captured along with 683 other Missouri State Guard recruits on December 19 in the Skirmish at Blackwater Creek (actually a river.) As a result of his actions at Cole Camp and in another affair, he was charged with spying and robbing loyal citizens, but died in prison on April 16, 1862 before he could be brought to trial.
- Cole Camp Community, Here We Speak Low German, 1989, pages 183
- Cole Camp Community, Here We Speak Low German, 1989, pages 184
- Cole Camp Community, Here We Speak Low German, 1989, pages 181-3
- Cole Camp Community, Here We Speak Low German, 1989, pages 185
- Cole Camp Community, Here We Speak Low German, 1989, pages 186-9
- Cole Camp Community, Here We Speak Low German, 1989, page 190
- Cole Camp Community, Here We Speak Low German, 1989, page 290
- Anders, Leslie, The Blackwater Incident., Missouri Historical Review, LXXXVIII, No. 4, July 1994, page 422
- Cole Camp Community, Here We Speak Low German, 1989, pages 183-4
nl:Slag bij Cole Camp