The Missouri Civil War Museum features artifacts that tell the story of Abraham Lincoln.

History Buffs, Don’t Miss the Missouri Civil War Museum in St. Louis

Monday July 24, 2023

By Rachel Huffman

“Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.”

Abraham Lincoln spoke those words in his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865, and today, they appear among the exhibits at the Missouri Civil War Museum in St. Louis, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this summer.

Located within Jefferson Barracks Park, which served as a training post for the Union Army during the American Civil War, the Missouri Civil War Museum does a commendable job of explaining the state’s complicated role in the conflict.

Utilizing thousands of artifacts – think flags, uniforms, muskets, gunpowder loading flasks, field glasses, swords, maps and photographs – the nonprofit educational organization helps preserve a visual record of America’s most defining moment in history.

Books from the American Civil War on view at a museum in St. Louis.

Housed in the renovated 1905 Jefferson Barracks Post Exchange Building, the museum begins by addressing some of the events that preceded the American Civil War, which directly affected Missouri, namely the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, the Supreme Court decision in the Dred Scott vs. Sandford court case in 1857 and the election of President Abraham Lincoln in 1860.

When Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in 1852, it shined a spotlight on slavery, as well. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s antislavery novel gave the public a personal glimpse of the evils of human bondage, and it became the second-best-selling publication of the 19th century, surpassed by only the Bible.

When the Civil War began in 1861, there were approximately 115,000 slaves in Missouri, who mostly harvested hemp and tobacco on regional farms.

An exhibit illustrates Missouri's role in the American Civil War.

Over the course of the war, more than 1,000 battles occurred in Missouri – “only Virginia and Tennessee had more battles,” Kristen M. Trout, museum director at the Missouri Civil War Museum, says. “Not many people know that statistic because of the information about the American Civil War that we typically learn in school. So, part of our mission, in addition to preservation, is education. We aim to teach people about Missouri’s unique role in the war, which gets skimmed over in textbooks. We want to bring local stories to life.”

Ringed with the names of the 25 largest Civil War battles in Missouri, the next section of the museum pays homage to the historical figures of the era, including Nathaniel Lyon. A graduate of West Point and a staunch abolitionist, Lyon arrived in St. Louis in early 1861 to command the federal arsenal. By the dawn of the war, the arsenal contained approximately 30,000 muskets, 90,000 pounds of gunpowder and 40 field pieces – enough weaponry to outfit an entire army.

Enoch Long, a daguerreotype photographer, moved his studio from downtown St. Louis to Benton Barracks at the beginning of the war. With thousands of Union soldiers passing through the barracks, Long had the opportunity to take their portraits, utilizing dramatic backdrops such as cannons, tents, American flags and vistas overlooking ironclads floating in the Mississippi River.

That brings us to St. Louis naval engineer James B. Eads and the Brown Water Navy. Part of its grand strategy of suppressing the rebellion by force, the Union aimed to isolate the Confederacy and choke its supply lines. One aspect of the Anaconda Plan was to completely control the Mighty Mississippi, so Eads built a fleet of ironclad gunboats known as the Western Gunboat Flotilla or Mississippi River Squadron. Major Union victories along the Mississippi River and its tributaries are largely attributed to the firepower and resilience of the ironclads.

These are just a few of the historical figures whom you can “meet” at the Missouri Civil War Museum.

Other exhibits address different aspects of the war such as camp life, medicine and money with artifacts ranging from smoking pipes to musical instruments, amputation sets to dental equipment and U.S. notes to Confederate bonds.

The Missouri Civil War Museum has an exhibit about camp life during the conflict.

Downstairs, the Missouri Civil War Museum acknowledges the involvement of Native Americans in the war, honors war veterans and addresses the importance of preserving photographs, literature and films of the war for future generations.

An extensive exhibit also delves into the history of Jefferson Barracks, where approximately 220 Civil War generals were stationed, including Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. Jefferson Barracks was also a major medical center during the Civil War.

“Missouri has so much Civil War history to explore, and the Missouri Civil War Museum has a lot of significant objects that surprise a lot of people,” Trout says. “On the lower level of the museum, you’ll find our most important artifact – Lincoln’s lost dueling saber. The duel occurred across the river from Alton, Illinois, most likely Sunflower Island, in the 1840s.

“We also have one of Lincoln’s life masks,” she continues. “It’s one of 15 that were cast from the original plaster mold taken of his face. To be able to tell stories of the 16th president with artifacts like those is remarkable.”

Another exhibit spotlights some of the first recipients of the Medal of Honor. Volunteering her services to the Union, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was present at numerous Civil War battles, including Manassas, Fredericksburg and Chattanooga. She was the first woman surgeon to work for the Surgeon General, and she became a prisoner of war in 1864. After her confinement, she returned to the field and participated in Sherman’s Atlanta campaign. In 1865, President Andrew Johnson awarded her the Medal of Honor for her valuable service to the government. The medal was revoked by the Board of Generals in 1917 but restored by President Jimmy Carter in 1977.

William H. Carney was born into slavery but escaped to freedom via the Underground Railroad. In 1863, he enlisted in the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which attacked Fort Wagner, a Confederate stronghold. During the charge, Sergeant Carney carried the regiment’s national flag, planting it on the parapet of the fort – while wounded. Even when the 54th was forced to retreat, Carney continued to carry the flag to safety, despite sustaining additional wounds. For his actions in defense of the colors, he received the Medal of Honor in 1900.

The Missouri Civil War Museum also has an original Medal of Honor from Private Charles Beaver with the 4th Missouri Calvary. Beaver, a German immigrant, moved to St. Louis as a teenager and later enlisted. At a battle against Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederate calvary, Beaver was on horseback in combat, and he saw his company commander stranded in between the lines of battle. At the risk of his own life, Beaver rode out to his commanding officer, gave him the horse to return safely to the Union line and ran back on foot.

“We received Charles Beaver’s Medal of Honor from his family,” Trout says. “Even before the museum opened, they entrusted us with the precious artifact. The fact that we know the story of his heroism – and we have his medal as proof – is something that we treasure.

“We have a great responsibility to – and a great passion for – preserving the past so that it can educate generations to come,” she continues. “We also rotate artifacts to keep things interesting for repeat visitors!”

An exhibit at the Missouri Civil War Museum illustrates the important role of music in the conflict.

The American Civil War redefined our country, and the Missouri Civil War Museum offers a unique perspective of the conflict. Whether you’re a history buff or not, you’ll find something intriguing here.

While you’re in the area, stop by the Jefferson Barracks Telephone Museum, which takes visitors through the intriguing history of telephonic communication with hands-on exhibits – plus, cute character phones in the shape of Snoopy, Pac-Man, the Keebler elf, the Jolly Green Giant, bumper cars, corn on the cob and more!

“When people visit Jefferson Barracks, they’re astounded by the beauty of the area and the preservation of the buildings, especially the Missouri Civil War Museum,” Trout says. “Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery is also worth a visit. Consisting of more than 310 acres, it contains burials from all major U.S. conflicts, beginning with the Revolutionary War. There’s so much to experience here, and the historic site continues to grow and flourish. There’s a lot of work going on behind the scenes to turn this into a top touristic destination for history enthusiasts.”