Missouri Civil War Museum now open in Jefferson Barracks

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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

categories: Attractions, History

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History lovers, Civil War buffs and those who just love visiting a great attraction, take note! St. Louis’s newest museum–the Missouri Civil War Museum–is now open in historic Jefferson Barracks. Housed in a beautifully restored 1905 building, the museum brings to life a period of Missouri history like nowhere else does.

St. Louis is chock-full of amazing little gems, some of them off the beaten path.  The Missouri Civil War Museum opened recently at Historic Jefferson Barracks along the Mississippi River in south St. Louis, and what an incredible addition it is to the long list of St. Louis attractions.

Housed in the beautiful, historic Jefferson Barracks Post Exchange and Gymnasium Building built in 1905 for commissioned officers; this museum is the largest Civil War museum in the state of Missouri.

Jefferson Barracks, strategically located on the river and established as a federal military installation in 1826, is the oldest active military installation west of the Mississippi. Soldiers who trained here have been involved in every U.S. military conflict from the 1832 Black Hawk War to the war in Afghanistan. Part of the installation is now Jefferson Barracks County Park. Also here is Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.

Jefferson Barracks played a pivotal role in the Civil War. Both Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee trained here. Not only was Jefferson Barracks a military base, it also served as a hospital complex, at times treating more wounded soldiers than any other hospital in the North or the South.

With that history, Jefferson Barracks is a fitting location for the Missouri Civil War Museum.

A visit to the museum is a great way to learn about how the War Between the States played out in our neck of the woods. As a border state that allowed slavery but with a portion of its population staunchly against it, Missouri’s pre-war history and its role in the war were unique.

The museum’s pre-war gallery, in a room where officers once lounged in hot tubs, sets the mood and the stage for what visitors will see and helps visitors understand why Missouri came into the Union as a slave state.

“We want to teach people about Missouri’s unique role in the Civil War,” John Maurath, director of library services at the museum, said. “We truly have probably the most unique in all of Civil War history.”

In case your American history is a bit rusty, Maurath explained that Missouri saw fighting over slavery years before shots were fired at Fort Sumter.

In the squabbling over whether the U. S. should abolish slavery, the Missouri Compromise of 1820 set Missouri’s southern border as the slavery/free state line prohibiting slavery north of that boundary. The compromise also allowed Missouri to come into the Union as a slave state and Maine as a free state.

Later the compromise of 1850 eased sectional conflict probably postponing war for a few years but then “the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 nullified the Missouri Compromise,” Maurath said. “It would let the states decide if they wanted to be slave or free. It was kind of a slap in the face to the Missouri Compromise.”

Pro and anti-slavery people rushed into Kansas and Nebraska to establish residency and sway the vote. The result: guerilla warfare in what came to be known as “Bleeding Kansas.” The terrorism spilled into neighboring Missouri where both sides were “terrorizing and killing each other,” Maurath said.

“You hear about Gettysburg and Antietam but our story is so unique because we had a civil war within a civil war here. We had guerilla warfare, and we had terrorism from both sides,” he said. “We were fighting the war seven years before it started.”

Against that backdrop–with some Missourians firmly pro-slavery and others firmly anti-slavery–

Missouri entered the Civil War as a border state. It’s been said that some Missouri families had members fighting on both sides and, in fact, the state sent men and supplies to each side. And St. Louis sent more troops into battle in the Civil War than any other city west of the Mississippi.

The museum displays artifacts including uniforms, medical supplies and weapons from each side. The centerpiece of the museum is its main gallery in what used to be the gymnasium where many a soldier worked out in decades past. Exhibits are clustered around an island that features a cannon, a horse and a wagon, vital elements of the war, Mark Trout, the museum’s executive director, said. A popular item–and one of the museum’s few purchased pieces–is a parlor chair from the Lincoln White House.

“It’s one thing to donate money to a charity or a cause,” he said. “It’s another thing when you donate your great-great-grandfather’s muskets and medals from the war, his uniform from the war. People believed in me enough that they actually donated their family heirlooms that had been in their families for 150 years. These things aren’t borrowed. They turned them over to my care. I take that very seriously. I realized I couldn’t fail now. I had to keep going for them,” Maurath said.

Insider’s tip:  Visit the Missouri Civil War Museum soon while visitation is still relatively light. As the secret gets out about this incredible museum, crowds are sure to follow.

Guest Blogger Kathie Sutin a freelance writer from St. Louis, Missouri contributed this blog.