The Civil War in Missouri: A Military History

The Civil War in Missouri: A Military History

by Louis S. Gerteis

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Guerrilla warfare, border fights, and unorganized skirmishes are all too often the only battles associated with Missouri during the Civil War. Combined with the state’s distance from both sides’ capitals, this misguided impression paints Missouri as an insignificant player in the nation’s struggle to define itself. Such notions, however, are far from…  See more details below


Guerrilla warfare, border fights, and unorganized skirmishes are all too often the only battles associated with Missouri during the Civil War. Combined with the state’s distance from both sides’ capitals, this misguided impression paints Missouri as an insignificant player in the nation’s struggle to define itself. Such notions, however, are far from an accurate picture of the Midwest state’s contributions to the war’s outcome. Though traditionally cast in a peripheral role, the conventional warfare of Missouri was integral in the Civil War’s development and ultimate conclusion. The strategic battles fought by organized armies are often lost amidst the stories of guerrilla tactics and bloody combat, but in The Civil War in Missouri, Louis S. Gerteis explores the state’s conventional warfare and its effects on the unfolding of national history. Both the Union and the Confederacy had a vested interest in Missouri throughout the war. The state offered control of both the lower Mississippi valley and the Missouri River, strategic areas that could greatly factor into either side’s success or failure. Control of St. Louis and mid-Missouri were vital for controlling the West, and rail lines leading across the state offered an important connection between eastern states and the communities out west. The Confederacy sought to maintain the Ozark Mountains as a northern border, which allowed concentrations of rebel troops to build in the Mississippi valley. With such valuable stock at risk, Lincoln registered the importance of keeping rebel troops out of Missouri, and so began the conventional battles investigated by Gerteis. The first book-length examination of its kind, The Civil War in Missouri: A Military History dares to challenge the prevailing opinion that Missouri battles made only minor contributions to the war. Gerteis specifically focuses not only on the principal conventional battles in the state but also on the effects these battles had on both sides’ national aspirations. This work broadens the scope of traditional Civil War studies to include the losses and wins of Missouri, in turn creating a more accurate and encompassing narrative of the nation’s history.

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The Civil War in Missouri is an easy read, and despite being primarily a military treatment, Gerteis gives us an overview of the political background and the Kansas-Missouri ‘border war.’ He does an effective job of weaving political, economic, and local problems into the overall picture. A useful read for anyone interested in the Civil War.” – The NYMAS Review

“Making a case for the national importance of Civil War military campaigns in Missouri, Louis Gerteis portrays the operations of Union and Confederate armies in vivid detail. Although Missouri was notable for the intensity of its guerrilla warfare, this book demonstrates that conventional armies largely determined developments in the state, forming the anchor of Union control in the trans-Mississippi theater.”—James M. McPherson, author of This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War

“Gerteis knows Missouri history in the Civil War better than anyone else. This book should bring about an important reconsideration of Missouri’s place in Civil War history. That reconsideration will affect our view not only of the state’s history but of the nature of the whole Civil War.”­—Mark Neely, author of Lincoln and the Triumph of the Nation: Constitutional Conflict in the American Civil War

“With this well-written military history of the conflict in Missouri, Louis S. Gerteis fills a long-standing void in state, regional, and national history in relation to the Civil War. He corrects the popular misconception that in Missouri conventional fighting gave way almost entirely to guerrilla war after 1861. Missouri was in fact the scene of the war’s third largest number of engagements (after Virginia and Tennessee), and it was the interplay between conventional and unconventional war that gave the conflict there its particularly horrific nature. This is a most welcome addition to Civil War scholarship.”—William Garrett Piston, editor of A Rough

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A Military History


Copyright © 2012 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8262-1972-5

Chapter One

"Your First Allegiance"

Small-scale slavery flourished in Missouri in 1860. In the state's largest slaveholding counties, small slaveholders defined and defended a distinctive southern culture in close proximity to Free State communities in Illinois and Kansas—and in St. Louis, a booming city at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers that identified itself economically and politically with the Northeast. With the exception of Cape Girardeau and New Madrid Counties in the Boot Heel and Greene County in southwest Missouri, slaves and slaveholders in Missouri clustered in the Mississippi River counties bordering Illinois from Lewis County south to St. Charles County and then along the Missouri River westward from Warren County to Buchanan, Platte, and Jackson Counties on the border with Kansas.

In the presidential election of 1860, Missouri's small slaveholders showed little sympathy for the Southern Rights candidate John C. Breckenridge. None of Missouri's largest slaveholding counties supported Breckenridge. Several supported the Unionist Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, including Chariton, Howard, and Cooper Counties in central Missouri and Franklin, Lincoln, St. Charles, and Jefferson Counties near St. Louis. All the rest of Missouri's largest slaveholding counties supported the Constitutional Unionist candidate, John Bell. Abraham Lincoln carried two counties in Missouri (St. Louis and Gasconade, both with large German populations) but Lincoln carried only 10 percent of the vote across the state and posted the smallest tally of the four presidential candidates.

Outside of St. Louis, small-scale slaveholders commanded Missouri's agricultural economy and its politics. These Missourians viewed themselves as southerners, and during the 1850s they had become increasingly radical in their defense of slavery. In the secession crisis they sympathized with the southern cause. But Missouri's small slaveholders were not eager for the civil war that soon engulfed them. Their support for Douglas and Bell reflected their desire to avoid a sectional conflict. This pairing of proslavery radicalism and conservative Unionism produced a distinctive demeanor, at once wary of secession and hostile toward the intrusion of outside influences. As the secession leader Basil Duke noted, Missourians were "ardent" in their sympathy for the southern cause but they were not "open and active" in expressing it. Impatient for action, Duke soon left Missouri to fight with his father-in-law, John Hunt Morgan. Throughout the war Confederates similarly found Missourians friendly but cautious. Missourians often lent their aid and support to those who took up arms against the Federal government but they never fully embraced the Confederacy. Missouri's Confederate leaders never enjoyed the outpouring of popular support that they exhorted and seemed to expect. Federal forces found the populace sullen: undemonstrative but hostile and subversive in the face of a Federal military presence. For North and South in the Civil War, Missouri remained an unpredictable, unstable, and contested border.

Claiborne Fox Jackson, the man Missourians elected governor in 1860, understood the temper of his state. In his political campaign, Jackson declared his support for Douglas. But those who knew Jackson well recognized him as a strong supporter of Southern Rights. He was, in his heart, a Breckenridge man. In the state senate in 1849, it was Claiborne Jackson who lent his name to the "Jackson Resolutions" that attacked Senator Thomas Hart Benton for his opposition to the expansion of slavery. In the words of Thomas Snead, who worked with Jackson to lead Missouri into the Confederacy, the Jackson Resolutions had taken "high Southern ground" to support extending slavery into the West. Jackson, wrote Snead, "was ever after recognized as one of the ablest leaders of the ... Southern Rights' Democrats."

In his inaugural address, Jackson unequivocally broke with Stephen Douglas. As Douglas lent his support to the new Lincoln administration, Jackson declared that Missouri would "stand by her sister slave-holding States." Missouri, said Jackson, would remain "devoted to the union ... so long as there is any hope that it will maintain the spirit and guarantees of the Constitution." But, if the "Northern States" were determined that no new slave states should be admitted or if they otherwise intended to interfere with slavery in existing states, it was they who had "abandoned the Union" and Missouri would not submit to a government "on terms of inequality and subordination."

The governor did not yet openly embrace secession, but he left no doubt that he wanted to mobilize the resources of his state to support the Confederacy. A resource of enormous importance was the Federal arsenal in St. Louis, the largest cache of military supplies west of the Mississippi River. To gain control of the Arsenal became Governor Jackson's compelling interest. Politically, St. Louis was in the control of the Republican Party. But only a small detachment of Federal troops controlled access to the Arsenal. Under the right circumstances, Jackson believed that the resources of the Arsenal could be appropriated by the state.

Jackson knew that he had important allies in St. Louis. Throughout the 1850s, the St. Louis business elite had aligned the city's economic interests with the Northeast, but southern ties and sympathies remained strong in the city. Moreover, the presence in the city of a large Irish and German immigrant population assured a volatile urban setting that could prove favorable to Jackson's goals. Jackson worked closely with the Minute Men, a pro-secessionist militia formed in St. Louis early in January 1861. The Minute Men challenged the Republican "Wide Awakes," a largely German paramilitary force that guarded Republican rallies and marches. A wealthy St. Louis businessman, Charles McLaren, founded and funded the Minute Men. But bolder, younger men—notably Basil Duke, Colton Greene, and J. R. "Rock" Champion—emerged as the leaders of the secessionist militia.

Although an avowed secessionist, McLaren displayed the cautiousness of an established businessman. He undoubtedly hoped that Missouri would join the Confederacy and he lent Governor Jackson his assistance to advance that goal, but McLaren probably considered himself too old for military service, and in any case, he was not willing to abandon his St. Louis business interests. Missouri's Union Provost Marshal Papers indicate that McLaren took the loyalty oath. As St. Louis historian Walter B. Stevens noted, "When the Civil War was in progress St. Louis brain and St. Louis capital were developing the mineral wealth in Montana." McLaren was among the St. Louis businessmen engaged in this enterprise.

Duke, Greene, and Champion were younger than McLaren and they were relatively new arrivals to St. Louis. They were anxious to fight for the cause of southern nationhood wherever they could. All three were impetuous, but the Irish-born Rock Champion stunned contemporaries with his boldness. Listed in the 1857 and 1858 St. Louis city directories as a "steamboat mate," Champion undoubtedly knew his way around the waterfront districts of St. Louis and other river towns. When he died near Corinth, Mississippi, in September 1862, his commander noted the fallen captain's "reckless daring and intrepid boldness."

Duke and Greene also distinguished themselves in battle, but they displayed a more disciplined courage that led to their rise to the rank of brigadier general in the Confederate army. A native of the bluegrass region of Kentucky, Duke studied law at Transylvania University before moving to St. Louis in 1858. Duke was in his early twenties in 1861. Also in his twenties was Colton Greene who moved to St. Louis from South Carolina in the mid-1850s. Greene had begun to establish himself as a retail grocer in St. Louis when his home state seceded and he prepared to go to war.

Duke, Greene, and Champion believed that southern men should act swiftly to seize the advantage in Missouri. They hoped that the Minute Men militia would give them an opportunity to do so. Indeed, the men who joined the Minute Men were ardent and bold secessionists. An older and somewhat improbable companion in this endeavor was twenty-nine-year-old Pittsburgh native James R. Shaler, an agent of the Pennsylvania Railroad in St. Louis. Shaler's economic interests were oriented to the North but he cast his lot wholeheartedly with the Confederacy. Duke described Shaler as "the bravest and most efficient colonel whom Missouri gave to the South."

Two other Minute Men veterans, Samuel Farrington and Overton W. Barrett, soon joined Confederate artillery units. Farrington later died, as Duke put it, "under the Southern flag." Irish-born Arthur McCoy became, perhaps, the most notorious veteran of the Minute Men militia. McCoy had joined the California gold rush before settling in St. Louis in the mid-1850s. In his mid-twenties when the war began, McCoy fought with Jo Shelby during the war. After the war, he joined the James-Younger gang.

The Minute Men eagerly took up arms and they hoped to precipitate a fight in St. Louis while Union forces remained relatively unorganized and vulnerable. Duke in particular hoped that by flying a home-made rebel flag from their Minute Men headquarters in the Berthold Mansion at Fifth and Pine they could goad the Germans into attacking them. If this happened, Duke believed that the state militia brigade (recently returned from the Border War with Kansas) and many of the city's Irish would come to their aid. Amid the turmoil, Duke believed that a determined band of Minute Men could take control of the Arsenal and deliver its munitions to Governor Jackson. As it happened, the Germans did not attack the Minute Men, but at a more fundamental level Duke's plan failed because older men acted with caution—far too much caution in Duke's opinion.

Undoubtedly, Daniel Frost was the most important of the cautious older men who frustrated the zeal of the Minute Men. Frost commanded the brigade of Missouri militia. These men—numbering about five hundred men and eighty officers—had recently fought in western Missouri against Kansas Jay Hawkers. The Minute Men leaders hoped that these experienced troops would be their allies. But Frost would not act rashly. A native of Schenectady County, New York, Frost graduated near the top of his class at West Point in 1823 and served with distinction under Winfield Scott in the Mexican War. Stationed at Jefferson Barracks in the early 1850s, he married into a St. Louis family. After suffering a severe wound in a skirmish with Indians in Texas in 1853, Frost resigned his army commission and devoted himself to his business interests in St. Louis. In 1858, he accepted an appointment as brigadier general in the Missouri militia.

Despite Frost's northern birth, Governor Jackson knew him to be reliable on the issue of Southern Rights. Shortly after Jackson took office in January 1861, Frost reported to the governor that he had met with the commander of the St. Louis Arsenal, Major William H. Bell, a North Carolina native. "He is with us," reported Frost. "The Arsenal," he continued, "if properly looked after, will be everything to our state, and I intend to look after it; very quietly, however." It was Frost's quiet approach that frustrated the hopes of the Minute Men. By midFebruary, the five companies of the Minute Men mustered into the state militia under Frost's command.

Jackson and Frost mistakenly believed that the state constitutional convention —authorized by the state legislature on January 18, 1861, and scheduled to meet on February 28—would take Missouri out of the Union. When this happened, the governor and the St. Louis militia commander expected Bell to transfer the Arsenal to the state. While Jackson and Frost awaited the deliberations of the convention, however, word of Bell's meeting with Frost reached General of the Army Winfield Scott who promptly replaced Bell with Brevet Major Peter V. Hagner. A forty-five-year-old West Point graduate and Mexican War veteran, Hagner was a native of Maryland, but he shared the conservative Unionist views of the Federal commander of the Department of the West, Tennessee-born General William S. Harney. Harney and Hagner hoped to avoid armed conflict over the Arsenal, but neither man would do the bidding of Governor Jackson or militia commander Frost.

Well aware of Governor Jackson's collaborations with the Minute Men and Daniel Frost, Union men in St. Louis also acted with determination to take matters in hand. Early in January, leading Republicans in St. Louis organized the Committee of Safety to arm a Unionist militia and coordinate with Federal military forces to protect the Arsenal and other Federal property in the city. It was not until the end of April that the committee received official recognition in an order from Secretary of War Simon Cameron (endorsed by President Lincoln) to General Harney directing him to collaborate with the committee. At that time, Cameron formally identified the members of the committee as Oliver D. Filley, John How, James Broadhead, Samuel T. Glover, J. J. Witzig, and Francis P. Blair, Jr. In fact, however, these men had been brought together by Blair who knew them to be both influential in the St. Louis community and politically reliable. Kentucky-born Francis P. Blair, Jr. (known as Frank), played a leading role among Unconditional Unionists in Missouri. He was the proprietor of the St. Louis Missouri Democrat, an antislavery paper founded in 1851 that became the voice of the Republican Party in the state. He also had powerful family ties to the Lincoln administration. His father, Francis P. Blair, Sr., led antislavery Democrats into the Republican Party and presided over that party's first presidential nominating convention. The elder Blair became a close advisor to Lincoln, and the new president chose Frank Blair's older brother, Montgomery, for the powerful patronage office of postmaster general.

The men Blair gathered around him as the Committee of Safety were all Unconditional Unionists, but they also represented the key elements of Unionist support in Missouri. Most of that support was centered in St. Louis, but there were similar pockets of Unionist support across the state. Across Missouri, Unionists drew support from businessmen who had personal and financial ties to the Northeast, from slaveholders who looked to the Federal government for protection, and from German immigrants. Blair took care to have each of these groups represented in the Committee of Safety. Oliver Filley and John How were wealthy businessmen and prominent Republicans. Filley was a native of Connecticut who in his late twenties had moved to St. Louis in 1833 and soon had been joined by his brother Giles. The Filleys built a highly successful stove manufacturing company, and both of the Filley brothers served as wartime Republican mayors of St. Louis. Born in Philadelphia in 1813, How had become wealthy as a merchant in St. Louis and had twice been elected mayor of the city—in 1853 as a Democrat and in 1856 as a Republican. He ran for mayor again in 1861 but lost to a candidate who ran as a "Union Anti-Black Republican."

How's defeat at the polls in 1861 underscored the fact that many Unionists in St. Louis did not embrace abolitionism. As in the rest of Missouri, they favored slavery, or like Frank Blair, they linked emancipation with racial separation and colonization. The fact that How had been attacked and defeated as a Black Republican suggests he was viewed as a friend of emancipation. If Unionists could be identified simply with emancipation, they would find little support anywhere in the state. Blair had always made racial separation the centerpiece of his antislavery appeal. And in John Broadhead and Joshua Glover, Blair identified two prominent St. Louis attorneys who shared his support for the Union and his hostility to what he described as the abolitionist wing of the Republican Party. Like Blair, Broadhead and Glover were men of southern origins. Broadhead moved from Virginia to St. Charles County in 1837. He later served as provost marshal for Missouri from May 1863 to January 1864. Glover was a native of Kentucky. He had practiced law in Hannibal before moving to St. Louis. A Republican and a colonizationist, he declared in a public address that "The separation of the white and colored races is demanded by the best interests of both."

John J. Witzig filled out the committee and provided Blair with a vital tie to the German community. Born in Mulhouse, Germany, in 1821, Witzig was a railroad engineer who had worked in France and Italy before moving to St. Louis in 1851. By 1859 he was superintendent of the Iron Mountain Railroad, a post he held until 1865.


Excerpted from THE CIVIL WAR IN MISSOURI by LOUIS S. GERTEIS Copyright © 2012 by The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF MISSOURI PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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