Curious Louis: We take a monumental look at the Civil War in St. Louis
"Why does the Civil War still hold sway over St. Louis and Missouri?”
That was the intriguing — and very large — question that Steve Flick submitted to Curious Louis. “We just can't seem to be able to get beyond the Reconstruction Era in this state,” said Flick, a lifelong St. Louisan.
We put Flick’s question to Louis Gerteis, a professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, who has researched and written extensively about the Civil War in St. Louis. He suggested looking at the question through the lens of a current controversy: Mayor Francis Slay’s efforts to evict the 100-year-old Confederate memorial from Forest Park. (See recap at the end of this story.)
So, we took a closer look at the disputed memorial and at a couple of other statues in Forest Park that you’ll probably recognize, even if you’ve never gotten close enough to read their inscriptions. Together, they tell a story of how the Civil War played out in St. Louis — in a monumental sort of way.
We also spoke with Silvana Siddali, an associate professor of history at Saint Louis University, who teaches classes on the Civil War and Reconstruction, and Ron Jackson, a former St. Louis Board of Education member who served on Slay’s committee to study options for the Confederate memorial.
We also read a lot of history and old newspaper stories. But this is a complicated topic, and we barely scratched the surface. We’ve included plenty of links to source material, if you’d like to know more.
What’s a monument like you doing in a place like this?
A century ago, St. Louisans quarreled over the Confederate memorial that is once again under fire. Opponents back then expressed a viewpoint that has a familiar ring to it: That the 32-foot shaft of Vermont granite glorifying the Confederate cause did not belong in a public place, much less Forest Park.
History, it seems, has circled back to the debate that preceded the monument’s unveiling on Dec. 5, 1914 — when the band played “Dixie,” and the men in the crowd of 500 removed their hats and cheered. Nearly 50 years after the Civil War tore the nation apart, “Southern organizations of St. Louis women” had won their battle to plant a tribute to the Confederacy in Forest Park.
Here’s a sample of what St. Louisans were saying at the time, pulled from news accounts of the period:
“I am opposed to Confederate monuments anywhere, but if they insist on having them I am opposed to having them in public parks. If there is to be one in St. Louis, it should be at Jefferson Barracks, where Confederate soldiers are buried.”
— Francis P. Becker, a member of the council of administration of the Grand Army of the Republic, a national organization of Union Army veterans
“The opposition to the monument is the height of narrow-mindedness. It is totally un-American and does not reflect the real spirit of St. Louis which is … generous and open-minded.”
— Mrs. Robert Funkhouser, board member of the Confederate Monument Association
“We look upon this monument controversy with indifference, and while we may doubt the propriety of placing a monument in a public park in St. Louis, which never was a Confederate city, we shall probably say nothing about it.
— Thomas B. Rodgers, assistant adjutant-general of the Missouri division of the Grand Army of the Republic. (Although the GAR did not as an organization protest the memorial, some individual posts did voice passionate objections.)
Newspaper stories chronicled the bickering of City Council members who initially turned down the request from the Confederate Monument Association.
But one week later, on Dec. 6, 1912, they reversed themselves, voting 9-2 in favor of allowing the monument. One councilman accused another of having been coerced by a St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial titled “Will St. Louis Offend Southerners?”
The newspaper had followed the memorial story closely, and on Dec. 3, 1912, published an editorial that reminded the council of the city’s “intimate relation” regarding trade with the South and Southwest — and that St. Louis commerce could suffer if the city were perceived as having “no sympathy for Southern sufferings.’’
Opposing the Confederate memorial was deemed bad for business.
Gerteis says the monument was erected during a period of “national reunion” between North and South that would have a lasting impact on how succeeding generations of Americans think about the Civil War. He sends history students to Forest Park to ponder — and question — the meaning of the flowery inscription on the memorial’s northern face:
“To the memory of the soldiers and sailors of the Southern Confederacy, who fought to uphold the right declared by the pen of Jefferson and achieved by the sword of Washington."
"With sublime self-sacrifice they battled to preserve the independence of the States which was won from Great Britain and to perpetuate the constitutional government which was established by the fathers."
"Actuated by the purest patriotism, they performed deeds of prowess such as thrill the heart of mankind with admiration. 'Full in the front of war they stood' and displayed a courage so superb that they gave a new and brighter luster to the annals of valor. History contains no chronicle more illustrious than the story of their achievements; and although worn out by ceaseless conflict and overwhelmed by numbers, they were finally forced to yield ..."
The message written in stone by the Confederate Monument Association was that the soldiers of the Confederacy had been patriots fighting valiantly for states’ rights and to perpetuate the constitutional government.
There is no mention of secession — or of slavery.
And that’s a problem, say Slay and the committee he appointed to reappraise the monument. They pointed to a lack of interpretive material at the memorial site that would provide context for the “post-Reconstruction political mythology” that it presents and the time period in which it was erected. While the Confederacy was being romanticized as a doomed but noble “Lost Cause,” Jim Crow laws and segregation were on the rise.
Have you met General Sigel?
Just a short walk from the Confederate memorial is an older Civil War monument that gets far less attention these days: The bronze equestrian statue of Union Army Gen. Franz Sigel, located at the intersection of Union and Grand drives.
With field glasses in hand, the general has guarded this spot for 110 years, since shortly after the 1904 World’s Fair. Restoration of the park was still under way on June 23, 1906, when the statue was unveiled with great pomp and patriotism. (Just a month before, a crowd had gathered at the park to watch the fair’s giant Ferris wheel come down.)
The monument, paid for by German-American residents of St. Louis, is a tribute to the general who helped pro-Union forces keep the city from falling to the Confederacy at the outbreak of the Civil War.
Sigel, who fled Germany after taking part in a failed rebellion, is representative of the changing population in the city before the war.
Before moving to Missouri, Sigel lived in New York, and he moved back after the war — there’s a statue of him there, too.
In St. Louis, Sigel co-founded a magazine and taught at the German Institute before he answered the call to war and brought a regiment of his former countrymen with him. Many German immigrants were passionate abolitionists.
Gerteis said that although St. Louis was one of the largest slave-holding counties in the state at the start of the Civil War, the city also had a large population of free people of color.
“They attracted and aided African Americans who would leave the Deeper South later in the 19th century — the Exodusters — and people moving to northern states like Iowa and into Kansas,’’ he said. “Many of them stopped along the way and were aided by the African-American community here. Many of them stayed.’’
Census figures show that from 1850 to 1860, the number of slaves in St. Louis County (which included the city then) was going up, but their percentage of the population was going down, Gerteis said.
“That’s because St. Louis was growing rapidly as a city,” he said.
Newcomers included Irish, and then German immigrants. Merchants from the Northeast settled in the city to open new businesses.
“St. Louis, by the time the Civil War broke out, was a Northern city in a Southern state,’’ Gerteis said. “If your readers want to consider why St. Louis is not regarded as a part of Missouri in a lot of ways, it goes back to that reality.”
Though Missouri did not secede from the Union, the state was represented by one of the 13 stars on the Confederate flag. That distinction can be traced to the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the political maneuvering in Congress that admitted Missouri into the Union as a slave state in 1821.
“Missouri was, by far, the northernmost slave state,” Gerteis said. “If you look at a map that shows the slave states and the free states, Missouri is way up there, surrounded on three sides by free states.’’
In the mid-1850s, concerns over the spread of slavery into Kansas sparked violent fighting between advocates of slavery and “free-soilers’’ on the Missouri-Kansas border.
Missouri was a rough-and-tumble place even before the Civil War, but Gerteis says that most St. Louisans — and Missourians — would have preferred not to take sides during the war.
“The broader sentiment was that Missouri should try to stay neutral,’’ Gerteis said. “[President] Lincoln made it clear that neutrality wasn’t an option.”
St. Louisans were forced to pick a side on May 10, 1861, one month after Confederate forces fired the opening shots of war at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. A violent skirmish in St. Louis — known as the Camp Jackson affair — was the turning point in Missouri Civil War history.
It’s also when Sigel entered the picture.
In a nutshell, Missouri Gov. Claiborne Jackson, a pro-Southerner, had refused to provide troops to defend the Union and instead called upon pro-Southern militia groups to gather for training at Camp Jackson, located at what is now the campus of Saint Louis University. Fearing that the militia would capture the federal arsenal in St. Louis, Capt. Nathaniel Lyon led pro-Union volunteers — including German-Americans led by Sigel — to break up the encampment. As Lyon’s army marched the captured militiamen away, violence broke out between the soldiers and civilian onlookers. It was unclear who fired the first shot, but 28 civilians, including children, were killed.
In the run up to Camp Jackson, the state legislature established a board of police commissioners, appointed by the governor, to control the St. Louis police force. That legacy of the Civil War remained in place until voters in 2012 approved city control.
Despite his magnificent bronze statue in the park, historians characterize Sigel as a mediocre military leader who had little success on the battlefield. But he was beloved by his German recruits, and “I’m going to fight mitSigel” was a popular war slogan.
About 100 veterans who were with Sigel at Camp Jackson at the beginning of the war attended the unveiling of his statue and cheered enthusiastically.
And, in 1911, when Union veterans gathered to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the federal victory at Camp Jackson, their march included a stop in Forest Park to decorate the Sigel statue.
Meet Frank Blair, the other Union general in Forest Park
The Sigel monument was actually the second to memorialize a Union general in Forest Park. The first was of Francis Preston “Frank” Blair Jr., who got his statue on May 21, 1885. It’s at the Lindell and Kingshighway entrance.
Blair was lauded for keeping Missouri in the Union, and although he held the rank of major general, his memorial depicts him as a statesman in civilian clothes.
Blair served in the Missouri House and the U.S. House of Representatives. With the approach of war, he recruited and organized pro-Union supporters — mainly German Americans — who were instrumental in the federal victory at Camp Jackson. Blair also organized the First Missouri Volunteer Infantry Regiment and served with Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. He led troops at Vicksburg and marched to the sea with Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman.
But Blair was a complicated man who was often at odds with more conservative members of his Republican party. He owned slaves but opposed the spread of slavery. Blair thought slaves should be freed and then encouraged to leave the country — or be deported — to start colonies in the Caribbean or Central America. He opposed voting rights for African Americans and Reconstruction policies that imposed harsh penalties on the South.
After switching to the Democratic Party, Blair was the Democratic candidate for vice president in 1868, running with Horatio Seymour, who lost to Grant.
Blair’s statue, erected 20 years after the Civil War ended, was one of the first in Forest Park. The mayor declared a citywide holiday for that unveiling, and thousands of well-wishers took trains and carriages to the still-new park, on the western edge of the city.
A large procession of Union veterans marched in tribute, and Gen. Sherman was among the speakers. He commended Blair for doing “more than any single man to hold this great central city of our Union to her faithful allegiance to the General Government, so necessary to the perpetuity of the Union.”
The monument to Union soldiers that never was
There is no Union counterpart to the Confederate memorial in Forest Park — no memorial to the Northern soldiers and sailors who died in the Civil War. But if Dwight Davis, the parks commissioner in 1912, had his way, there would have been.
After the City Council approved the Confederate monument, Davis told the Post-Dispatch that he would find a suitable spot for it, but he was trying to convince “the women controlling the memorial association” to change the design to a fountain that could be erected at one end of the flower garden on Government Hill.
“This will be the most beautiful spot in Forest Park,’’ he said. “Then if somebody will raise the money, a fountain to the Union soldiers and sailors can be erected at the other end of the garden.”
The fountains never happened. Instead, the Confederate monument was placed a half-mile from the Jefferson Memorial, now the Missouri History Museum. Emil Tolkacz, the city’s public works director who represented Mayor Kiel at the unveiling, said the monument would stand forever as a memorial to the bravery of the Southern soldiers.
The campaign to build the memorial had taken eight years. On May 13, 1906, the Post-Dispatch confirmed “rumors” that a Confederate Monument Association was raising money for a memorial, led by St. Louis chapters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
In keeping with the “reunion” sentiment of the day, the newspaper mentioned the work of the Confederate women’s societies in caring for old veterans and in helping to raise money for Confederate monuments in Springfield, Mo., and Richmond, Va. According to the story, the association intended to build a magnificent monument as a gift to the city and that in the past, “St. Louis has drawn no party line in giving: the blue and the gray have opened their purses without regard to buried differences.”
The association raised about $20,000 — the equivalent of a half-million dollars today — and tried to limit opposition with the monument's design: It was to have no soldier, weaponry, or military element.
The winning designer was George Julian Zolnay, who also designed “The Gates of Opportunity” in University City and the statue of Pierre Laclede near City Hall.
Zolnay had designed Confederate memorials in other cities. For the St. Louis memorial, he incorporated a low-relief “Spirit of the Confederacy” on the southern face of the monument above a bronze relief depicting a man surrounded by his wife or sweetheart, his mother and a child urging him to fight for the South.
Gerteis said the Confederate memorial in St. Louis followed a wave of pro-South monument-building across the Deep South, but also in northern and border states.
Baltimore has four Confederate-era memorials currently under scrutiny. Chicago has a Confederate memorial in Oak Woods Cemetery that dates to 1895. There’s even a memorial in Helena, Mont. (Montana didn’t become a state until 1889.)
The second revolution
In August 1915, just months after the Confederate memorial was unveiled in Forest Park, city officials faced another controversy related to the Civil War: Whether to allow the showing of D.W. Griffith’s "The Birth of a Nation” at the Olympic Theater. The epic silent film was based on the 1905 novel “The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan” by Thomas J. Dixon Jr. It glorified the rise of the Klan during Reconstruction and included extremely negative portrayals of African-American men.
Post-Dispatch reporter Carlos R. Hurd attended a preview, along with the St. Louis prosecuting attorney who was trying to prevent the motion picture from being shown in the city, and the judge who was to decide the case. The concern, according to Hurd’s story, was that “racial excitement” that followed a stage version of “The Clansman” had “culminated in wholesale lynchings in Springfield, Mo., and in Springfield and Cairo, Ill.” Before the film was shown, an announcement was made in the theater that it was not intended to show “any race as it exists today.”
After watching the film, Hurd wrote that the judge should take into account the enthusiasm of the audience for the clansmen. Hurd said that if he were the judge, he would "ask myself what my decision would be if it were religious prejudice, instead of race prejudice, to which the film appealed: and whether race prejudice is a safer thing to play with than religious prejudice.”
Griffith’s film was allowed, and it played to large crowds for five weeks, even though it cost up to $2 to see it — about $46 in today’s money. (Hurd was the Post-Dispatch reporter who in 1912 interviewed survivors of the Titanic aboard the rescue ship Carpathia. In 1917, Hurd would write eyewitness accounts of the race riot in East St. Louis.)
Harvard historian David W. Blight has called the Civil War a “second American revolution,” marked by the emancipation of 4 million slaves and the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments that ended slavery, “sanctified’’ birthright citizenship and created black male suffrage. The revolution was followed by what he calls the violent legacy of Reconstruction that saw the rise of paramilitary organizations like the Ku Klux Klan.
Blight is the author of “Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory,” which looks at the impact of reconciliation and the rise of segregation after Reconstruction.
He argues that the Civil War still holds sway over the nation.
In an essay for The Atlantic in April 2015, titled “The Civil War Isn’t Over,” Blight wrote that 150 years after Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Americans are still fighting about the issues at the heart of the conflict. And he reminded readers of the violent legacy of Reconstruction and the rise of paramilitary organizations like the Ku Klux Klan.
“In a process Southerners called ‘Southern Redemption,’ eight of the 11 ex-Confederate states came back under white supremacist, Democratic party control by 1875,’’ Blight wrote. “The final three — South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana — achieved that goal in the smoked-filled room political compromise of 1877 that settled the disputed presidential election of 1876 and provided the traditional chronological “end” of Reconstruction, even as so many of its issues were left to later generations to face.’’
That election was the race between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel J. Tilden, which ended in a squabble over electoral votes. The stalemate ended after secret negotiations that, in effect, ended Reconstruction: Hayes withdrew federal troops from Southern states that were still under military occupation.
Gone also were the loyalty oaths that had prevented former Confederate soldiers and supporters from voting.
But the national sentiment that a reunion between North and South was good for the country excluded African Americans, Gerteis said.
“One of the ironies of the Civil War era history is that at the very moment that slavery is coming to an end with the war and passage of the 13th amendment, white supremacy is on the rise,’’ he said. “Racism is on the rise, and reaches its apogee in the years right around World War I.’’
Silvana Siddali, associate professor of history at St. Louis University, said the ironclad loyalty oaths of the Missouri Constitution of 1865 — known as the Radical or Drake Constitution — had kept former Confederates out of state government long enough to allow some progressive civil rights legislation. The ironclad oath was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1867.
The 1865 state constitution banned all forms of slavery and required school boards to provide education to African-American children. (An 1847 state law had banned the teaching of reading and writing to African Americans.) But the constitution stopped short of giving African-American males the right to vote. That would happen in 1870, with the passage of the 15th amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“As the Civil War was coming to a close there was a brief moment of great hope that St. Louis would become a leader in establishing human rights for both freed and enslaved black people,’’ Siddali said.
But the Radical constitution was replaced by a new constitution in 1875 that required, among other things, separate schools for black children.
“The point to take away from all this is that it does take a strong legislature with an ethical stance toward human rights to enact laws that may be unpopular,'' Siddali said. "Was the process undemocratic? Perhaps. It did take people out of the reckoning who would have slowed down or maybe even destroyed that process.’’
Siddali said that many people who had supported abolition seemed to have little sympathy for the problems facing freed slaves after the war.
“Culturally, African Americans in the city lost a lot of the gains made during the early Reconstruction Era,’’ Siddali said. “They got landlocked into neighborhoods that didn’t get city funding and services — and that frequently got saddled with nuisance businesses, poor sewers and street repair.’’
For many African Americans in St. Louis, life got harder after Reconstruction ended, she said.
“Before the war, free black men could always get jobs,'' she said. "But there were fewer opportunities after the war.’’
"St. Louis is at a crossroads"
So, getting back to Flick’s question: Why does the Civil War still hold sway?
“I think that a lot of the racial issues we deal with nationally and that we have dealt with locally are issues that came to the forefront in the Civil War, and they never really left,’’ Gerteis said.
He considers the Confederate memorial a piece of history to spark discussion and awareness.
By the time Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and Congress adopted the 13th amendment to end slavery, the institution had been around since the early 1600s. In his inaugural address Lincoln described slavery as "250 years of unrequited toil " — and that was 150 years ago, Gerteis said.
"You can’t separate the United States from slavery or the effects of slavery from the United States,'' he said. "When people talk of being colorblind, and I don't care if you're black, white or purple, there's a deep untruth to that."
Ron L. Jackson, who served on Slay’s monument committee, agrees that it’s important for St. Louisans to know their history, but he doesn't believes the Confederate monument provides it.
“There’s no story there, and what it says on the stonework — it gives the people who fought and died for the Confederacy a holy place in terms of the union of America,’’ he said. “The Union was about staying together. The Confederacy was about separating. Even though they talk about states’ rights, we know that the bottom line was really about the preservation of chattel slavery in the South.’’
The committee found no interest among area universities and cemeteries asked to submit proposals for the memorial. There was just one taker: The Missouri Civil War Museum at Jefferson Barracks said it would take the memorial off the city’s hands but won’t pay for the move.
Regardless, Jackson believes the monument needs to go.
“Basically, it won’t change anything in terms of the way St. Louisans operate or do business, but symbolically it might make a difference,’’ he said.
St. Louis was once a thriving hub for immigration, Jackson said, but population has been declining for decades. And that is partly due to the way the city developed after the Civil War — with racially segregated housing and economic development, compounded by the Great Divorce of 1876, which separated the city and county and led to the fragmentation of communities.
“Parochialism is the biggest detriment we have in St. Louis. Like the municipal court commission failing to recommend consolidation of municipal courts,’’ he said. “Some people are more concerned about not losing than winning.’’
Siddali said she found Flick’s question about the Civil War insightful.
“It’s really important for St. Louisans not to lose sight of these questions, and the more we talk about them, the healthier we’ll all be,” she said.
Missouri has always been a divided state, Siddali notes. But what set Missouri apart from other slave states was its laws, going back to its territorial days, that allowed slaves to sue for freedom.
“There was always an assumption in Missouri that slaves, even though not free, did have the standing of a citizen to the degree that they could fight for their rights,’’ she said.
More than 300 people sued for their rights in St. Louis Circuit Court under the state’s 1824 freedom law, including Dred Scott, who won his freedom only to have it overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Siddali said that it was a paradox that Dred Scott could sue for freedom in Missouri -- and win -- at least for a while.
“St. Louis is at a crossroads, and always has been, between East and West,’’ Siddali said. “If you look at it that way, then maybe the Civil War can be seen as a turning point and not so much as a bottleneck. I do believe that in this city we are at a turning point. I see a lot of very hopeful signs that people are paying attention to what the problems are and are starting to think they need real-life solutions.’’
Siddali said she agrees that the Confederate memorial should go.
“It’s not an attractive piece of artwork,” she said. “There’s no intrinsic merit. It’s offensive to people. Move it.’’
Recap: The effort to move the Confederate memorial
* April 2015: Mayor Slay calls for a “reappraisal”of the monument on his blog.
* June 2015: After a white gunman kills nine African-American members of the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S. C., during a prayer service, national attention is focused on removing Confederate symbols — flags and monuments — from official displays.
(Slay noted that he had ordered state flags of Mississippi and Georgia out of the City Hall Rotunda when he was elected in 2001 because they had the Confederate banner on them.)
* June 21: Demonstrators protest at the Confederate monument in Forest Park and post “Black Lives Matter” signs on it.
* June 24: The memorial is vandalized with red and black paint.
* June 29: U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay sends a letter to Slay urging the monument to be moved. “Some may disagree and reflect on this memorial as a symbol of southern culture and Civil War reverence,’’ Clay wrote. “But symbols matter and should reflect who we are as a people today … It is not only time for a reappraisal of all public symbols that reflect upon the “peculiar institution” of slavery, but also time for removal. Symbols associated with this country’s racist, oppressive past should not be elevated or displayed in public places.”
* Dec. 10: The committee tasked by Slay to reappraise the monument releases its findings. It put the cost of dismantling and moving the monument to storage at $130,000. Erecting it on another site would cost $200,000. The committee also noted that various museums, academic institutions and Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery all declined to submit proposals for taking the monument. The Missouri Civil War Museum offered to store the monument but offered no plans for how it might be displayed in the future.