St. Louis played a key role in the Civil War. Not only was it a significant naval base, but a riot at the edge of town led to the creation of Missouri’s militia and the effects of the war can still be felt today.
“Even during the war, people did not understand in much of the country how critical St. Louis was to waging the war,” said NiNi Harris, author of “A Most Unsettled State: First-Person Accounts of St. Louis During the Civil War.” “But what was important was that (President Abraham) Lincoln understood it. Lincoln knew New England could not win the war on its own, and that the union needed what were then called the western states.”
The same is true of telling the story of Missouri’s role in the Civil War, said Jim Erwin, author of “The Homefront in Civil War Missouri.” Although there were 1,162 battles in Missouri, the first scholarly book about the state wasn't published until 1958, he said.
Before The War
“We were a foreign city,” Harris said of pre-Civil War St. Louis. The city had about 160,000 residents, all living close to the Mississippi River. Harris said about 60,000 people were born in Germany, another 40,000 were born in Ireland, with a “steady trickle” of French and Swiss immigrants. There also were more free black men and women than enslaved men and women in the city, she said.
“This was a really vibrant, exciting, diverse community,” she said. “Commerce hugged the river — the river was the source of everything in this city.”
Outside of the St. Louis area, most of the population moved to Missouri from Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, Erwin said, and many brought slaves with them.
“Slavery in Missouri was a little bit different from the way slavery was conducted in the deep south — in Mississippi and Alabama and places like that — because most of the slaves lived on pretty small farms,” he said. “A large slave-owner would have 20 slaves. There were very few that had as many as 100.”
The rivers were key for those farmers, as well. The cash crop of the day was hemp, which was used to make rope. Hemp was sent down the Missouri River to St. Louis, then south on the Mississippi to be used to pack cotton bales.
“It was almost as if St. Louis was on one side of the Civil War and the rest of the state on the other side,” Harris said.
While Gov. Claiborne Fox Jackson favored secession, he “kept it to himself.” In March 1861, Jackson organized a convention in St. Louis to consider the issue. A vote was held; the majority did not want to secede. A few months later, after the Camp Jackson Affair, several Missourians joined the Confederate effort.
In all, Erwin said, about 109,000 Missourians fought for the Union, and 30,000 to 40,000 fought for the Confederacy.
“That probably does not include those who fought for the Confederacy on the guerrilla side,” he said. It also doesn’t include those who joined the Missouri State Militia, which was used to fight the guerrillas; the Enrolled State Militia; or African-Americans who joined the fight.
The Camp Jackson Affair
In May 1861, about a month after the Civil War started, Union troops were organizing throughout the German neighborhoods in St. Louis. State troops who supported secession, led by Gov. Jackson, were camped at what is now Saint Louis University. Both sides wanted control of the St. Louis Arsenal, located on South Broadway near what is now the Anheuser-Busch brewery, which contained enough arms to seize control of the state.
Union forces acted first, marching out and surrounding the secessionists.
“It’s an interesting saga in the city’s story because it’s more emotional than it is of real strategic importance,” Harris said. “The secessionists realize that all these volunteers in St. Louis are truly committed to the Union and that they will act.”
A crowd gathered as the Union forces marched their prisoners back to the city, and a riot broke out. Twenty-eight people were killed; most of them were bystanders.
“Who fired the first shot? Everyone has a different story,” Harris said.
After the Camp Jackson Affair, the state legislature gave Jackson power to create and equip a militia, the Missouri State Guard. Missouri’s first battle took place in June: The Battle of Boonville.
“The Camp Jackson Affair was probably what made everyone in Missouri realize that neutrality just wasn’t going to happen in Missouri — people were going to have to take sides,” Erwin said.
The Role Of The River
The Mississippi River and St. Louis’ position on the river were important throughout the war.
“If St. Louis had not become a Union stronghold, how would the Union have waged the war in the west? Where would they have waged it from?” Harris said. “And you realize: The stakes here were enormous.”
Engineer James Eads built ironclad gunboats in Carondelet from 1861 to 1864 for the Union. Those boats were integral in securing control of the Mississippi River.
“When the Union got control of the Mississippi River, they cut the Confederacy in half,” Erwin said. “It was a devastating blow to the Confederacy.”
Legacy Of The Civil War
The last Missouri battle took place in October 1864 in Newtonia. The Confederacy formally surrendered in April 1865.
In 1861, when the state legislature created the Missouri State Guard, it also transferred control of the St. Louis police board from the city to Gov. Jackson. Jackson appointed five people to the board: Like Jackson, all sympathized with the secessionist movement.
Jackson eventually was run out of Missouri, but the police board remained under state jurisdiction until 2013.
“We feel the results of the Civil War every day in the government of our city and our state,” Harris said.