The silence that surrounds you at this site belies what happened here during the Civil War. This is where one of the earliest engagements of the Civil War took place. Stand in the spot where the Union fired the final battle shots.

Visitors can walk on the bluff above Carter Spring from which Union artillery fired the final battle shots, covering their withdrawal.
Photo by Denise H. Vaughn

ONE OF THE EARLIEST ENGAGEMENTS of the Civil War, the Battle of Carthage preceded the Battle of Bull Run by eleven days. This site marks one of the last skirmishes of the battle and the place where both opponents camped, on successive nights.

Both federal and state troops, in conflict with each other, bivouacked in this meadow by Carter Spring on successive nights, July 4 and 5, 1861.
Photo Courtesy of Missouri State Parks

The battle pitted the Missouri State Guard, a pro-Southern force, against Union volunteer regiments. The Guard, under the direction of Missouri’s secessionist governor, Claiborne Fox Jackson, consisted of 2,000 hastily assembled, poorly trained, and even some unarmed men. These troops faced 1,100 well-drilled, fully armed men led by Col. Franz Sigel. His men hoped to stop the Guard from reaching the southwest corner of the state and linking up with other Confederate forces to create an army of more than 10,000 men. Sigel’s troops camped at Carter Spring, now part of the historic site, while Jackson’s troops camped about 18 miles north.

On July 5, 1861, the two forces encountered each other near Dry Fork, about nine miles northwest of Carthage. The running battle started with an hour-long artillery duel, with Jackson attempting to surround Sigel’s troops, and then Sigel ordering a retreat. A skirmish at Dry Fork Creek left the heaviest casualties. Sigel retreated into Carthage, where Jackson launched another infantry attack. While the fighting continued, house to house, Sigel positioned his artillery on the bluffs above Carter Spring, the location of the historic site. He successfully continued his retreat under the cover of darkness.

The Battle of Carthage illustrates the problems of preserving a site that isn’t a well-bounded battlefield. At Carthage the action was fierce, but it lasted less than a day—never more than an hour or so at any one point—and it swept down nine miles of country road leaving no permanent marks. In 1990, legislation established the historic site focused on Carter Spring in the city of Carthage in Jasper County where federal and pro-South state forces ended the day’s hostilities and where both sides bivouacked. But the battle was much bigger than the Battle of Carthage State Historic Site and amorphous as well, as is often the case in the chaos of combat. As a result, the presentation is multifaceted. Park officials have placed an interpretive display at the state-owned spring site, but visitors also will want to see a city-owned Civil War museum near the square and take a self-guided auto tour along Civil War Avenue, driving the nine miles north to other scenes of action at Spring River, Buck Branch, and Dry Fork. Dry Fork, in particular, survives almost unaltered, its farm fields and creek probably looking much as they did on the day of the battle.

The battle at Carthage was small and not terribly significant. However, only at Carthage did a sitting governor, Gov. Claiborne Fox Jackson, personally and successfully led state troops against a US army. It was also a turning point for the cause of the South in Missouri. It raised Southern hopes, and the Missouri State Guard gained momentum that carried it to Lexington, the high water mark of the Confederacy in Missouri. Carthage made it clear Union occupation of Missouri would be contested ferociously. 

More Missourians fought in the Civil War, in proportion to the state’s population, than was the case in any other state. Some 60 percent of eligible men saw action—at least 50,000 serve the Confederacy and 109,000 the Union. More than 8,000 Black Missourians enlisted in Missouri regiments. About 14,000 Missourians gave their lives for the Union, and even more for the Confederacy.

Battle of Carthage State Historic Site
East Chestnut St., Carthage, MO
7 acres
Jasper County

To purchase the Missouri State Parks book, click here.

Learn more about Carthage here.