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11th Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing celebration brings Civil War history to life

Unidentified soldier at Benton Barracks in 1863
Library of Congress

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: What was Fairgrounds Park like in 1863? 24,000 men were on the grounds of what was known as Benton Barracks in the largest Union Army training camp in Missouri during the Civil War and the largest African-American recruitment and induction site from Ohio to California.

That past will come alive again at "Slave to Citizen Soldier: Life After the Emancipation Proclamation,” the 11th Annual Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing Celebration on May 18. The program this year is built around the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and will be held at the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing site, 28 E. Prairie Ave., by the Riverfront Trail just north of Merchant’s Bridge. The Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing is Missouri’s first nationally recognized Underground Railroad site.

An 1863 fashion show, a 19th century medicine show, a contraband camp aided by the Ladies Union Aid Society, a Freedman school, children’s activities and more will be part of what's offered to help replicate the time period. Historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln, Fredrick Douglass and Mary Meachum will also be depicted. Meachum was a free woman of color who helped guide many slaves to freedom across the Mississippi River to the free state of Illinois.

On Friday evening a replica recruitment camp is scheduled to be set up that will mirror the army training camp at Benton Barracks in the 1800s and highlight what newly freed slaves went through when enlisting in the Union Army during the Civil War. According to a news release, re-enactors will camp in tents and such period items as canon and cavalry units with horses will be at the site.

Angela da Silva is an adjunct professor at Lindenwood University and re-enactor director responsible for creating the replica recruitment camp.

Sketch of Benton Barracks
Credit National Park Service
Sketch of Benton Barracks

She said many people don’t know about the history of Fairgrounds Park because many people do not feel comfortable going there. "The race riot that happened there in 1947 or '49 was something that a lot of people forgot on purpose,” she said. She also said strong Civil War history is not taught in Missouri. "Benton Barracks was there from 1861 to 1866, and the black aspect was the final three years, which didn't generate a lot of documentation as far the public is concerned. Militarily there is a lot, it just isn't here.”

How can you learn more? "Historical research is like genealogy,” said da Silva, who is working on an extensive article on Benton Barracks. "What you run into is that in someone’s family history, they find that their four-times-removed great relative was stationed there. Some of the units, such as from Michigan and Iowa, will write home and make references to being here.”

The event is sponsored by Great Rivers Greenway, Youth and Family Center, the National Black Tourism Network, the City of St. Louis, St. Louis Public Library, Lincoln University, Lindenwood University, and the Daniel Boone Home and Heritage Center.

The closing event will honor Lincoln University, which was founded by the black 62nd and 65th regiments organized at Benton Barracks.

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