Civil War Past is Alive in St. Louis Attractions

The state of Missouri will mark the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War with a number of exhibits, events and activities, including various re-enactments of historic battles throughout the state.

In St. Louis, the Missouri History Museum will host “The Civil War in Missouri,” a comprehensive exhibit featuring interactive elements as well as compelling imagery and artifacts. The exhibition will be on display through – March 16, 2013, and promises to explore and address the distinctively Missouri issues that the state and its citizens wrestled with during the war years. Admission to the museum’s regular exhibits is free. Among the Civil War items on display are a Confederate uniform and drum, the original oil portrait of Dred Scott, and a painting entitled “The Last Sale of Slaves in St. Louis” by Thomas S. Noble.

Also slated to open late 2012 are the Missouri Civil War Museum and MCWM Studies Center at Jefferson Barracks Historic Site. The two facilities will become the state’s largest educational complex dedicated exclusively to the study of Missouri’s role in the Civil War.

Named in honor of President Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson Barracks is the oldest operating U.S. Military Installation west of the Mississippi River. The barracks was established in 1826 as the main training ground for the Army of the West. Its name honors President Thomas Jefferson and his Louisiana Purchase which expanded the American West.

The Barracks played a critical role in the history of America’s armed forces and its list of alumni includes more than 100 Civil War general officers. Some of the most well-known men who served here include Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, William Tecumseh Sherman, James Longstreet, Joseph Johnston and Braxton Bragg. Prior to the war, troops from Jefferson Barracks had escorted merchant caravans on the Santa Fe Trail and had been sent to fight in the Mexican War.

Jefferson Davis, later President of the Confederacy, was posted there in 1828, and Civil War notables Robert E. Lee, Joseph Johnston, and James Longstreet were among those who served at the outpost overlooking the Mississippi River. Lee is credited with saving the Mississippi River channel at St. Louis by devising a system of underwater dikes during his service at Jefferson Barracks.

Today Jefferson Barracks is a historical park containing restored military buildings, museums and an operating National cemetery. Admission to the park is free. Historical reenactments and military history programs take place at Jefferson Barracks throughout the year.

In a cabin he called Hardscrabble (a comment on the rough nature of the surrounding land), the man who would become the Union’s most famous general struggled to provide for his family. Ulysses S. Grant married a socially prominent St. Louis woman named Julia Dent. Her family disapproved, but the couple persevered and married in 1848 during Grant’s service in St. Louis. Grant resigned from the Army in 1854, unable to care for his growing family on a captain’s wages, and settled on land in St. Louis provided by his father-in-law Frederick Dent.

Grant was not a farmer. He worked the land for just three years before selling the farm and his hand-built cabin in 1859. Jobs in a St. Louis real estate office and in his father’s Galena, Illinois leather goods store also proved unsuitable for the former Army officer. At the onset of the Civil War in 1861 Grant reported to Army headquarters in St. Louis, beginning a wartime career that eventually would lead to the White House.

Today the ex-President’s two-story cabin is on display at Grant’s Farm, an animal preserve on the estate of the Busch brewing family of St. Louis. A fence made of Civil War gun barrels surrounds a portion of the estate near the cabin. Admission to Grant’s Farm is free, but reservations are required for the April through October season.

Another Grant home, White Haven, is part of the National Park Service and has been opened to the public. Grant lived in the two-story, white house in south St. Louis County from 1854-1858. After his presidency, Grant planned to retire to the home but sold it to pay off a debt just before his death in 1885.

Along a quiet road in St. Louis’ historic Calvary Cemetery, a simple, flag-draped monument marks the grave of Union General William Tecumsah Sherman. The General’s famous thoughts on the terror of war are documented in the stirring Museum of Westward Expansion located in the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial underneath the Gateway Arch.

Famous for his march to the sea near the end of the war, Sherman was retired from the Army and living in St. Louis when Civil War hostilities began. In one of the long conflict’s odd coincidences, both Grant and Sherman were both eyewitnesses to the only war-related fighting in St. Louis.

In spite of St. Louis’ position as the western headquarters of the Union Army, the only military action within its boundaries took place in May 1861. Union forces captured more than 600 Confederate-sympathizing Missouri militia as they plotted to capture the well-stocked federal arsenal at Camp Jackson in what is now midtown St. Louis. Riots broke out as the militiamen were taken into custody. Four Union soldiers and 27 confederates were killed. Grant and Sherman were present in the crowd.

Several other battles were fought in Missouri during the Civil War years. The state got its first taste of the conflict on June 17, 1861 at Boonville; Union commander Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon was killed in the battle of Wilson’s Creek August 10, 1861; and Quantrill’s notorious Confederate raiders operated in central Missouri and Kansas. Missouri saw its last battle in October 1864 after suffering nearly 13,000 casualties since the beginning of the war just three years earlier.

Exhibits on St. Louis’ black history, including materials from the Civil War era, can be found at the Historic Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis as well as at the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park.

Missouri remained in the Union, though neighbors and families would be divided by the issues of states’ rights and slavery throughout the war.

Dred Scott is the former slave who helped fuel the onset of the Civil War through a suit first heard in the Historic Old Courthouse in St. Louis. Scott had lived with his owner, a Missouri doctor, in free territory for several years. On his return to Missouri, Scott argued that he should remain a free man. A series of trials, which eventually ended in the U.S. Supreme Court, began in St. Louis’ stately domed courthouse in 1847.

Ten years later, the nation’s highest court denied Scott his freedom. Shortly after the decision, Scott was given his freedom by a new owner and died in St. Louis less than a year later, a free man. Reenactments of the Dred Scott trial take place in the restored courtrooms of the Old Courthouse throughout the year. Scott is buried in St. Louis’ historic Calvary Cemetery, and visitors can find his grave by stopping at the Calvary Cemetery office and asking for a map and historical guide.

The widow of the Reverend John Berry Meachum used the basement of her St. Louis home as a stage on the Underground Railroad for slaves seeking freedom in the north. Years earlier her husband had established a “Freedom School” on board a boat in the middle of the Mississippi after an 1847 law forbade the education of black children. One of Meachum’s teachers, an ex-slave named Elizabeth Keckley, later moved to Washington, DC where she wrote about her experiences as a seamstress for Mary Todd Lincoln.

In “Lion of the Valley” author James Neal Primm recounts St. Louis’ 1861 glimpse into the future of slavery:

It had been the custom to keep the slaves of a deceased person in the county jail until the probate court ordered the sheriff to sell them at auction…there were seven persons to be sold…so the auctioneer was not surprised to find a crowd of two thousand young men on hand. When he asked for bids on the first slave, the crowd repeatedly roared “three dollars.” When the bidding reached eight dollars after two hours, the exhausted auctioneer led the slaves back to jail. No one ever again tried to sell human beings at auction in St. Louis.

Just north of Jefferson Barracks, inventor and engineer James B. Eads produced the Union’s first ironclad gun boats. Long before the famous clash of the Merrimac and the Monitor, Eads had 4,000 men working on the Union fleet in south St. Louis.

Eads’ first ironclad boat, the St. Louis, was launched in October 1861 and was the first of its kind to be bombarded by the South. The St. Louis also saw battle during the siege of Vicksburg, eventually helping defeat the Confederacy in the west.

Eads originally made his fortune from the invention of the diving bell, a breakthrough which allowed him to salvage steamboat wrecks along the Mississippi. His lasting gift to the area is the historic Eads Bridge, St. Louis’ first span across the Mississippi.

Dedicated by General Sherman in 1874, the lower railroad deck of the Eads Bridge carries MetroLink, St. Louis’ light rail system into Illinois. Visitors to St. Louis’ riverfront can study Eads’ revolutionary use of steel truss construction on the bridge from the foot of Washington Avenue at Sullivan Boulevard.

Updated:  August 18, 2010


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