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Battleground Missouri: History Museum opens Civil War exhibit

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 11, 2011 - Missouri was one of the ugliest places on earth during the U.S. Civil War, and if you don't believe that spend a few hours at the new exhibit opening this weekend at the Missouri History Museum.

There is something to interest most everyone in "The Civil War in Missouri," which opens as the nation celebrates the sesquicentennial of the war and will run until March 2013. Among the 300 artifacts and 175 images on display:

  • Guns, pistols and other weaponry, including the sword broken by Lt. Col John Knapp during the capture of Camp Jackson in St. Louis in 1861, the deadly skirmish that signaled that war had reached Missouri.
  • Union and Confederate flags, including a restored regimental flag of the Missouri Guard at Camp Jackson elaborately embroidered by the "Ladies of St. Louis."
  • Uniforms worn by Missouri soldiers of both sides that remind us once again how tiny Americans were in those days. (Interesting note: A member of the St. Louis Grays militia was required to come up with the $31 to purchase his own uniform -- about $879 in today's economy.)
  • Paintings of war, such as the dramatic image depicting the fall of Gen. Nathaniel Lyon at the Battle of Wilson's Creek.
  • Documents that tell the story of the times, including a "freedom bond" license for Harriet Scott, the wife of Dred Scott.

Within the exhibit's glass cases and archival frames is Missouri history. The real, show-me kind of history that can be compelling -- or repulsive.
Imagine, for instance, how little warmth that thin woolen blanket provided a soldier wounded in battle. Or consider whether signing a piece of paper -- a so-called loyalty oath -- meant much if the alternative was going to prison.

Among the more powerful -- and astonishing -- artifacts: an 1841 ad for the steamboat Eagle selling $1.50 fares to residents of Alton to travel in comfort to St. Louis to watch the execution of four Negroes convicted of murder, arson and burglary.

Most of the objects are from the museum's own collection and haven't been exhibited in decades. Some have never been on display.

Missourian Vs. Missourian

Curator Jeff Meyer doesn't mind squelching any romantic notions about the war that ripped apart this nation 150 years ago, killing upward of 600,000 American soldiers. It was a brutal time that took its toll on all Americans, whether they lived north or south of the Mason-Dixon line.

"One of my goals was for people to have a better understanding of how complex the Civil War was in Missouri. How ugly it was. How divisive it was. And how conflicted people were about it at the time,'' Meyer said. "There were a lot of people who were patriotic on one side or the other, but a lot of people were caught in the middle and didn't know what to do.''

Before introducing the battlegrounds of the state, the exhibit leads visitors through the complexity of the pre-war years, including the divisive Missouri Compromise and the Dred Scott case.

The exhibit is as much about civilian life as it is about military conditions, and details the differences between living in the Union stronghold of St. Louis versus the wilds of rural Missouri, where farmers were forced to guess whether the raiders on their doorsteps were rebels disguised as federals or federals disguised as rebels.

Meyer, who has been working on the exhibit full time for nearly three years, said the importance of discussing the total Missouri experience became apparent as he started combing through the museum's collections.

"As I was going through these pieces I realized there were a lot of objects that represented a lot of different things happening in St. Louis and Missouri, not just the battles but the civilian experience -- what people were living through and how that was affecting them,'' Meyer said.

In addition to the artifacts, colorful interactive displays are scattered throughout the exhibit, inviting visitors to learn more about particular battles or topics. An intriguing game challenges visitors to judge for themselves whether a particular Missourian was loyal or disloyal. Think you know? Guess again.

Meyer acknowledges that the interactive quiz might be simplistic, but it illustrates the difficulties of officials who were attempting to enforce martial law among people who held fast to their opposing viewpoints.

"People had to sign a loyalty oath, which was a piece of paper saying 'I pledge allegiance to the United States.' For those who truly felt that way it meant a lot, but for those who didn't, it was just a piece of paper, signed under duress,'' he said.

A discussion about the compelling work of the Western Sanitary Commission leads to an explanation of how St. Louis would become a center to care for wounded soldiers but also a refuge for newly emancipated blacks and rural Missourians fleeing guerrilla raids and forced evacuations.

"The experience in the rural areas was much different from what was happening in St. Louis,'' he said. "St. Louis is a Union stronghold. There is some opposition in the city, but it's nothing compared to what is going on in the rural area. You had people trying to farm and carry on. Men are going off to fight. Women are left holding down the homestead. It becomes a psychological war, as well. Union soldiers are coming up to people in their homes dressed as guerrillas asking them who they are loyal to, and guerrillas are doing the same thing, dressing as Union soldiers. There is no right answer. What are you going to do? You never feel safe. You never feel secure. You're just always on edge.''

The Lost Cause

Meyer, who studied the Civil War in graduate school, said he has visited a number of Civil War battle sites though the years and had high ambitions for this exhibit.

"Every time we have a conflict there is so much that results from it, particularly in the case of the Civil War,'' he said.

Meyer said he hopes visitors will find something of interest in the exhibit -- whether it be seeing the Civil War guns and uniforms or learning about some aspect of civilian life they hadn't considered.

Mississippi River buffs might be interested in the section on James Eads who would later build that marvelous bridge that still bears his name today. During the Civil War, though, he was busy designing and building ironclad gunboats that the Union used to stop Confederate travel and supply movement. A curious artifact in the display: his 1862 patent model for "Improved Turret for War-Vessels."

For those interested in period medicine, graphics about battlefield surgery illustrate the horrific nature of injuries to arms and legs -- and a surgical kit is clearly more useful for amputation than repair.

"I debated whether or not to put the graphic up. I was afraid it might be too gruesome,'' Meyer acknowledged. "But this is war we're talking about, and the whole reason it's in that section was that we were talking about the Western Sanitary Commission. Doctors and nurses -- the people who are providing medical care -- are seeing things they've never seen before. They've never seen flesh and tissue that's been torn to shreds and bones splintered like that.''

The exhibit concludes with a discussion of life in the postwar years and the birth of a "romantic" way of viewing a war too painful for many to bear -- the "Lost Cause" that glorified the sacrifice of the South. While this attitude may have promoted national healing, it did little to settle -- or rectify -- the aftermath of slavery.

"Initially, the war was about preserving the Union, but that changed during the course of the war and it did become about liberation for those who were enslaved,'' Meyer said. "After the war, that kind of gets pushed to the side because everyone is focusing more on healing these emotional scars and trying to understand what they experienced in the war, whether they were actually fighting themselves or lost family members or were involved in some way -- and most people were involved in some way.

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