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The Civil War In St. Louis

Kevin Killeen/Kelly Hatmaker
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1861 St. Louis Riots, from Missouri Historical Society exhibit in Missouri State Capitol

1861 St. Louis Riots, from Missouri Historical Society exhibit in Missouri State Capitol

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ST. LOUIS (KMOX) – The Civil War started 150 years ago today, engulfing St. Louis about a month later with riots and bloodshed in the city streets as pro-Union militia soldiers and a pro-Confederate mob clashed over one of the largest stockpiles of weapons in the Midwest.

It happened May 10th, 1861,  near Grand and Lindell at Camp Jackson. “They were fighting over the arsenal in St. Louis,” says Dr. Bob Archibald, President of the Missouri Historical Society. The arsenal contained 40,000 rifles and muskets, the most of any arsenal in a slave state. At the start of the Civil War, the Confederacy was desperate to grab hold of whatever weapons could be found, since most of the nation’s gun manufacturing was based in the industrialized North. On April 20th, 1861 – 8 days after Fort Sumter fell – Southern sympathizers had made off with about 1,000 guns from the arsenal in Liberty, Missouri.

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However, the struggles over slavery in Missouri began years earlier, and were mostly political, crystalized in the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which allowed it to become the only state in the Louisiana Purchase area to permit slavery. But the measure was almost immediately attacked by Southern states, and the compromise largely undone by the Dred Scott case, first heard in St. Louis. As the political situation in the United States deteriorated, blood began to be shed in a series of guerrilla raids, such as the infamous ‘Bleeding Kansas’ border wars of 1854, which pitted pro-slavery ‘Border Ruffians’ based in Missouri against Free-State ‘Jayhawkers.’

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'Bleeding Kansas' editorial cartoon, ca 1856

The debate over secession grew to a fever pitch in the late 1850s (even coming to blows in Washington, DC), but Missouri – though a slave state – professed to be a neutral. However a pattern developed within the state, with urban areas largely in favor of staying with the Union, rural residents on the side of the Confederacy. By the time of the Camp Jackson Affair, “the same fight had already occured over the St. Louis police board,” Archibald explains. “The St. Louis Police Department was one of the largest, quasi-military organizations in the state” and the pro-Confederate lawmakers in Jefferson City were fearful that the Union-leaning politicans in St. Louis would use the police to harrass their supporters.

While the bill was passed granting the creation of a state-run Police Board stacked with Confederate sympathizers in late March of 1861, the Union officer in charge of the arsenal in St. Louis was already making plans to immediately strengthen his defenses. Capt. Nathaniel Lyon recruited a large force of pro-union paramilitary militiamen, known as Wide-Awakes. His forces also included German immigrant volunteers, who were resented by outstate residents for their anti-slavery views.

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A Wide-Awake rally, ca 1860

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Nathaniel Lyon

The uneasy stalemate lasted until the fall of Fort Sumter on April 12th. Missouri’s secessionist governor, Clairborne Fox Jackson, ignored President Lincoln’s call for Union troops and instead ordered the state militia to muster in St. Louis, with his sights on securing the arsenal for the South. Hundreds of volunteers of the Missouri Volunteer Militia, supported by Confederate artillery smuggled up from Baton Rouge, set up “Camp Jackson” – named after the Governor –  near the present-day campus of St. Louis University.

Both sides met May 10th, as 6,000 Federal militia and regulars  advanced on the camp. They forced about 700 pro-Confederate troops to surrender – without bloodshed. But hopes for a peaceful resolution ended when the prisoners were marched through downtown St. Louis. Southern supporters who lined the route saw the forced march as public humiliation, especially since the Missouri Volunteers were being guarded by the German immigrant soldiers.

The crowd started shouting racial slurs at the Germans, then began hurling rocks and paving stones at the Federal troops. At some point, it is believed someone from the crowd fired a pistol at the soldiers, fatally wounding a Union officer. The troops in turn fired their weapons at the mob. At least 28 civilians were killed in the fighting, with another hundred injured. Two federal soldiers and three militia members were also killed.

Riots continued for several more days, until the arrival of more Union soldiers allowed military commanders to impose martial law on the city. The attack infuriated outstate residents, but it allowed the Union to capitalize on St. Louis’ strategic location as a major Mississippi river port, with the city becoming a base for making the gunboats (City-class ironclads, also known as Pook Turtles) crucial to the Federal attack that split the Confederacy in half and win the war in the West for Lincoln.

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USS Cairo, City-class ironclad built by James Eads

“When Union troops laid seige to Vicksburg, there was a St. Louis-based gunboat lobbing shells into the city,” Archibald says. “Those were built in Carondelet – about 14 of them constructed. The name of the person who designed them and oversaw their construction was James Eads.” Eads gunboats took part in almost every significant action on the upper Mississippi and its tributaries from their first offensive use at the Battle of Fort Henry until the end of the war. Eads, of course, went on to build the bridge that still bears his name.

St. Louis also supplied its fair share of Union generals with hometown connections — like William Tecumseh Sherman, who was working in St. Louis as the president of the St. Louis Railroad streetcar company, but volunteered for the Army around the time of the Camp Jackson affair. There was also Gen. Philip Sheridan, who was stationed at Jefferson Barracks when the Civil War broke out. And of course there is Ulysses S. Grant, Union general then president, who struggled on his family farm off Gravois Road, then tried his hand as a bill collector in St. Louis, before re-entering the military.

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Monument to Nathaniel Lyon with St. Louis Arsenal in background.

Looking around today, Archibald says there are some postive cultural echoes of the Civil War in St. Louis – such as the vibrant black churches, which have given rise to generations of local political leadership and cultural influence on art, music, literature and more.

But he also sees a more sinister legacy, like the lingering animosity between rural and urban areas in Missouri and the continuing segregation of blacks and whites in St. Louis – according to the U.S. Census, still the 7th most segregated city in America. “There’s no question that is a product of the legacy of the Civil War,” Archibald says. “As a community and as a nation, we need to continue to struggle mightly to overcome this and finish the business the Civil War started.”

Archibald says it’s also interesting that the language of the Civil War and the struggle for influence and control still persists, as seen recently when Maria Chapelle-Nadal – a black state Senator against giving back local authority of the St. Louis police department – called fellow African American lawmakers linked to a white campaign donor who is in favor of local control ‘house slaves.’

While he takes no side on the police control question – and the bill itself is more a fight about police pensions and crime fighting than slavery or states’ rights – Archibald says that the bitterness is a direct leftover of events 150 years ago. “Anyone who thinks that the take over was in its inception a good government measure or a reaction to corruption in the police department of St. Louis has it dead wrong,” says Archibald. “It was a war measure taken by a Confederate government so that they could have control over the police officers in St. Louis. It had nothing to do with corruption, it had nothing to do with the pension.”

A new website launched last month marked the start of St. Louis’ observance of the Sesquicentennial of America’s Civil War. The site, www.freedomsgateway.com , is a collaboration by the Missouri History Museum, the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission, Metro, the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site, the Jefferson National Parks Association and Bellefontaine Cemetery.

It provides visitors with comprehensive event, exhibit and other information related to the Civil War’s Sesquicentennial and the role that Missouri, and more specifically, St. Louis played in that historic conflict.

(Copyright KMOX)

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