St. Louis Mayor Asks For “Re-appraisal” of Forest Park Confederate Monument.

Mayor Francis Slay

Mayor Francis Slay

St. Louis’ long-time Mayor, Francis Slay, has asked for a “re-appraisal” of the Confederate Monument in St. Louis’ Forest Park, the 1,371 acre park which opened in 1876, and was the site of the 1904 World’s Fair. Interestingly, the original proposal for the park dates to the midst of the Civil War when in 1864 voters initially rejected the idea. Today, the park is home to several civic organizations, including the Zoo, the History Museum, the Art Museum, and the Science Center. The Confederate Monument was placed in the park by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in December, 1914.

We’re seeing more and more of these “re-appraisals” of monuments to the Confederacy, which is likely an indication that the grip of the Lost Cause on Americans’ understanding of the Civil War is precipitously declining, even as some politicians attempt to revive nullification and secession as acceptable political devices. Predictably, there have been a number of very ignorant and some quite bigoted responses to the Mayor’s request. It seems to me these responses merely confirm what the monument actually commemorates. Nevertheless, I have to ask, why now did the Mayor raise this issue? How would the city benefit from moving the monument? Where would it be moved to? Presumably these latter questions would be addressed by those who have been tasked with the re-appraisal. But, as many have said, moving it won’t change the fact that the Confederacy existed, or that Missourians were deeply divided (and, in many ways, still are). These facts can’t and shouldn’t be swept under the rug any more than the fact that Missouri was a slave state.

I do cringe when I read the kind of Lost Cause malarkey that can be found on these UDC monuments. But, monuments such as this one tell us as much about the time in which they were erected as they do about the events and people they commemorate. There are a number of monuments to Unionists in St. Louis. Three are right in Forest Park – Frank Blair, Franz Sigel, and Edward Bates. (By the way, these guys certainly had their faults as well.) The Mayor has suggested that in lieu of moving the monument, perhaps at least an interpretive plaque should be added to place the monument in its proper context. This makes more sense to me than moving it.



Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule

There was a time when I read a lot of novels. In the last ten years, though I can only think of two. I’m just too busy reading actual history books. However, there is a new historical novel out that demanded my attention – Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule, by Jennifer Chiaverini. I confess that I approached this book with trepidation. How could anyone write an entire book about a White Haven slave when so very little is actually known about them? How is a historian supposed to approach a historical novel? Most importantly, how will the average reader separate fact from fiction?

Chiaverini tells us at the end of the book:

Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule is a work of fiction inspired by history. Many events and people appearing in the historical record have been omitted from this book for the sake of the narrative. Although the lives of Ulysses S. Grant and Julia Grant are well documented, almost nothing exists about Jule beyond a few brief mentions in Julia Grant’s memoirs. Thus her life as depicted in this story is almost entirely imagined.

First, I think this disclaimer should have been at the front of the book, not at the end.

Second, it could be argued that the lives of Ulysses S. Grant and Julia Grant are actually not well documented. Despite the numerous books written about Grant, there is still much that is unknown, or, at the least open to interpretation and debate, particularly regarding Grant’s life before the Civil War. Julia Grant has had only one biographical treatment, The General’s Wife by Ishbel Ross, published in 1959. More importantly, this statement regarding the Grants also seems to imply that Chiaverini has actually presented factual information about the Grants in her book, but that is not the case either.

Third, Chiaverini fails to mention that her characterization of Julia’s family, especially her father, Frederick Dent, is almost entirely imagined. In fact, I think Julia would be appalled at the way her father is portrayed.

Fourth, she fails to mention that the slave character ‘Gabriel’ is a complete fabrication.

In all, Chiaverini amplifies what I believe too many historians have done over time. That is, they have used Ulysses Grant to represent the extremes of the anti-slavery, pro-Union, ‘pro-Northern’ side of the Civil War, and they have used Julia’s father, Frederick Dent, to represent the pro-slavery, pro-secession, ‘pro-Southern’ side of the war. This makes for a compelling narrative, and simplifies explanations of what the war was all about. After all, it WAS about slavery. However, when one looks more closely at the evidence on which these characterizations of Grant and his father-in-law rest, as I have over the last several years, it becomes apparent that the evidence is incomplete at best, as I’ve noted in previous posts. See here and here for starters. For Chiaverini, of course, none of this matters because her book is fiction, so she can massage the story any way she wants to make the pieces of the puzzle fit.

I won’t attempt to dissect the entire book, but I do want to highlight just a few passages that I found particularly egregious.

In the spring of 1860, Julia and Ulysses left Missouri for Galena, Illinois. Before leaving, according to Julia’s Memoirs, they “hired out our four servants to persons who promised to be kind to them.”  Chiaverini imagines that it is actually Julia’s father who hired out these enslaved people, and then imagines that one of them, Jule, has a horrific experience.

Then there’s this – it’s election time, 1860, and Julia and Ulysses are living in Galena, Illinois:

Julia, who considered herself a staunch Democrat, like Papa, supported Mr. Douglas, but Ulys, who had not lived in Illinois long enough to be permitted to vote anyway, preferred Mr. Lincoln. In his letters from White Haven, Papa sang the praises of a third candidate, Vice-President John C. Breckenridge, a former Congressman from Kentucky who emphatically opposed any restrictions on slavery but also rejected secession as a solution to the nation’s crises. “Mr. Breckenridge is the man to put things right,” Papa wrote to Julia a week before the election. “Mr. Lincoln’s election would be an utter calamity. Mr. Douglas’s a catastrophe of only slightly lesser proportions.”

A casual reader would be forgiven for believing that such a letter actually exists, but if it does, I’d love to see it. There is no indication in any primary source that Julia’s father favored Breckenridge. In fact, as Chiaverini notes a few pages later, Dent actually voted for Douglas. She just doesn’t explain why, if Dent so favored Breckenridge, he suddenly changed his mind when it came time to vote. And, Grant made it quite clear in his Memoirs that he also favored Douglas, not Lincoln.

In 1861, Chiaverini imagines Jule witnessing the Camp Jackson affair in St. Louis, but fails to mention that Grant was there as well, or that Grant wrote letters from White Haven to Julia in Galena at this time (these letters actually do exist) in which Ulysses tells Julia that her father is still claiming to be a Union man, despite his belief that the federal army shouldn’t coerce Missouri into staying in the Union.

Later, Chiaverini imagines a conversation between Julia and her father in which Julia reminds him that his son, Frederick T. Dent, is in the Union Army. Chiaverini has Julia’s father respond that her brother is in far off California and “if ordered to take up arms against his native South, Frederick would resign his commission.” This ignores the fact that Ulysses had already written a letter to his father-in-law in which he had told him that his son, Fred T. Dent was “for the old Flag as long as there is a Union of two states fighting under its banner and when they dissolve he will go it alone.”

Maybe I’m just too close to this story, but as I read the book, there were times when I wanted to throw it across the room. Maybe because I’ve spent countless hours reading and researching, trying to learn about and understand the Grants and the Dents, it bothers me that someone can come along and just make stuff up for public consumption. The St. Louis County library alone purchased 122 copies of this book, and it still took me a few weeks to get a copy, so obviously the book is being read. Again, will readers be able to discern fact from fiction? If this post sounds too harsh a note, I should probably apologize, after all, as I said at the outset, many historians, I believe, have exaggerated the contrasts in the social and political views of Grant and his father-in-law. Chiaverini has just taken this narrative to an extreme for the sake of a novel. And, maybe it doesn’t really matter. Maybe this book will prompt people to seek out the true story. The challenge, of course, is that the true story isn’t easy to find.





Growing Up at White Haven

From "The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant"

From “The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant”

The four sons of Frederick Fayette Dent, patriarch of White Haven, were all born between 1816 and 1823. Dent purchased the property in 1820. All four died before the coming of the twentieth century; George, the last to go in 1899. The world and America were vastly different places at the end of their lives than the world and the America they had been born into. Their famous brother-in-law, Ulysses Grant observed in his Memoirs that “the country grew, rapid transit [railroads, telegraphs, and steamboats] was established, and trade and commerce between the States got to be so much greater than before.” And, of course, there had been wars; wars for territorial expansion and a great war that had tested, as Abraham Lincoln so famously said, whether a nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” could long endure. Grant said “our republican institutions were regarded as experiments to the breaking out of the rebellion, and monarchical Europe generally believed that our Republic was a rope of sand that would part the moment the slightest strain was brought upon it.” The Civil War settled on the battlefield the question of secession, though “states’ rights” and the proper role of the federal government remained contested. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution radically altered definitions of freedom and citizenship.

The prologue to the movie Gone With The Wind read:

There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called The Old South…Here in this pretty world Gallantry took its last bow…Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their ladies fair, of Master and of Slave…Look for it only in books for it is no more than a dream remembered. A Civilization gone with the wind.

Historians have rightly condemned this romanticized vision of the “Old South,” yet this is exactly how many Americans chose to remember their past. Julia Grant chose to remember White Haven in ways not dissimilar. She adored her father, and admired her older brothers. In her Memoirs she wrote, “My four dear brothers, John, George, Fred, and Louis, were brave fellows, and to my mind and also papa’s and mama’s were heroes.” The Dents and their slaves were, for the most part, in Julia’s memory one big, happy family. It can be argued that Missouri, a border state, and especially St. Louis with its mix of cultures, was never the “Old South,” and White Haven certainly wasn’t the mythical Tara. As I’ve written before, White Haven never operated like a deep south plantation. For one thing, there was no cotton. Nevertheless, there were Masters and Slaves, and Frederick F. Dent, by most accounts, liked to think of White Haven as his plantation and himself as a southern aristocratic gentleman. Historian Eugene D. Genovese once wrote:

The planters [before the war] commanded Southern politics and set the tone of social life. Theirs was an aristocratic spirit with values and mores that emphasized family and status, had its code of honor, aspired to luxury, leisure and accomplishment. In the planters community paternalism was the standard of human relationships, and politics and statecraft were the duties and responsibilities of gentlemen. The gentleman was expected to live for politics and not like the bourgeois politician, off politics.

The planter typically recoiled at the notions that profit is the goal of life; that the approach to production and exchange should be internally rational and uncomplicated by social values; that thrift and hard work are the great virtues; and that the test of wholesomeness of a community is the vigor with which its citizens expand the economy.

The planter was certainly no less acquisitive than the bourgeois, but an acquisitive spirit is compatible with values anti-ethical to capitalism. The aristocratic spirit of the planters absorbed acquisitiveness and directed it into channels that were socially desirable to a slave society; the accumulation of land and slaves and the achievement of military and political honors. Whereas, in the North people were impelled by the lure of business and money for their own sake, in the South specific forms of property carried with [them]the badges of honor, prestige, and power.

This description of planter mentality is compatible with accounts of Frederick F. Dent. Dent had worked hard making his wealth as a merchant, but at White Haven he “aspired to luxury, leisure and accomplishment.” As Julia recalled:

He did not like the mercantile business after he had once enjoyed the repose of country life. He once said to me when I asked him why he did not remain in business in the city: “My daughter, the Yankees that have come west have reduced business to a system. Do you know that if a man wants a loan of a few thousand dollars for a few days –God bless you! – they want a note and interest. This was not so in my time.”… Papa found this place [White Haven] and the life so delightful that he gradually gave up all occupation and passed the summer months sitting in an easy chair reading an interesting book, and in the winter, in the chimney corner beside a blazing hickory fire, occupied in the same way.

Someone, of course, had to do the work required to live in the mid-19th century; tending the crops and livestock for food, the cooking, the laundry, even keeping that blazing hickory fire going in the winter. It is likely, however, that to Frederick Dent’s paternalistic way of thinking, it was he who was taking care of the enslaved people, not the other way around. This is reflected in Julia’s memory:

Most of our old colored people were from Virginia and Maryland, and papa used to buy for them great barrels of fish – herring from that part of the country. Molasses, tobacco, and some whiskey (on cold, raw days) were issued regularly to them from the storehouse, and then they had everything the farm produced, such as vegetables, bacon, beef, and, of course, poultry….[My father] was the most indulgent and generous of fathers and the kindest of masters to his slaves, who all adored him. I call back the memory of those Christmas holidays and Whitsuntide festivals, the weddings of those poor people…, the fine suppers the master and mistress always gave them on these occasions.

Julia’s very turn of phrase is interesting – everything the farm produced – as if “the farm” could produce anything without the labor of the enslaved.

At some point, Frederick F. Dent had acquired the military title of Colonel, and would be known as Colonel Dent the remainder of his life. By some accounts he had served in a militia during the War of 1812, though not as an officer, so the title was apparently honorary. Still, it comports with Genovese’s mention of military honors among planter gentleman. Frederick F. Dent was also very involved in politics, even though he never ran for office. When he died in 1873, one newspaper report noted he “was always called upon to preside at [local] political meetings. He persistently refused to accept office, though often asked to do so. He was always a staunch democrat, and boasted that he had voted for every democratic President since he had attained his majority, except Buchanan, of whom, for some reason, he did not approve. He almost invariably came to Washington to attend Presidential inaugurations.”

Genovese stated that “in the South specific forms of property carried with [them] the badges of honor, prestige, and power.” Certainly, the “form of property” Genovese is referring to is slaves. “Southern honor,” though, is a subject that has been much written about by historians and social scientists. A blog post at The Art Of Manliness, outlined Southern honor thus:

The code of honor for Southern men required having: 1) a reputation for honesty and integrity, 2) a reputation for martial courage and strength, 3) self-sufficiency and “mastery,” defined as patriarchal dominion over a household of dependents (wife/children/slaves), and 4) a willingness to use violence to defend any perceived slight to his reputation as a man of integrity, strength, and courage, as well as any threats to his independence and kin. Just as in medieval times, “might made right” in the American South. If a man could physically dominate or kill someone who accused him of dishonesty, that man maintained his reputation as a man of integrity (even if the accusations were in fact true).

Southerners brought these concepts of honor to Missouri; one only needs look to the history of Bloody Island in the Mississippi River near St. Louis. “Young boys were encouraged by both their parents and the community to be aggressive and manly, and to fight to defend one’s honor from an early age [and] that even if you got creamed, simply showing your willingness to fight demonstrated your manhood.”

This is the culture and environment in which the Dent brothers were raised. None of them stayed at White Haven to achieve the planter gentleman status that their father aspired to. In fact, their father’s dream of being a planter gentleman was crumbling long before the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, and their brother-in-law Grant’s attempt at making a go at White Haven only further showed the futility of such a dream. Each of the four brothers were individuals in their own right, and they made individual choices and lived individual lives. Nevertheless, when they left White Haven they, no doubt, took with them distinct ideas regarding family, politics, white superiority, martial manliness, class entitlements, and honor learned in their childhood. Though they would often live far apart, their lives remained entwined. In addition, in her book, New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age, Rebecca Edwards wrote:

Pre-Civil War Americans had expected most people to become independent craftsmen, shopkeepers, businessmen, or farmers, an ideal that in the early republic had undergirded confidence in the independence and virtue of the citizenry. Permanent paid employment was widely derided as “wage slavery.” Over the course of the post-Civil War decades, however, debate over the legitimacy of wage work faded. For most workers the key issues came to be not the fact that they were wage earners but whether they enjoyed decent hours and working conditions and whether they could live comfortably on their pay.

None of the Dent brothers ever became “wage slaves.” They became military officers, lawyers, business owners, plantation lessees, politicians, and government agents in various capacities. And, when the opportunities arose, they would often try to use their relationship to their famous brother-in-law to their advantage. Julia wrote that when her father died he “left a large and, I think, most worthy family to lament him.” She likely knew when she added the qualifier “I think,” that her assessment would be a matter of historic debate. Yet, theirs is a distinctly American story.



Atchison Declares War On Benton

The following article appeared in the Glasgow Weekly Times, Glasgow, MO, October 4, 1849. The contest for the soul of the Democratic Party was only beginning to heat up. In other news, the paper also notes that on August 2, out in Monterey, CA, Lewis Dent had been chosen as a delegate to the California Constitutional Convention along with another gentleman who would become famous as a result of the coming Civil War, H. W. Halleck.



We find the following card in the last Platte Argus:-

Platte City, Sept. 26th, 1849.

Capt. J. W. Denver,

Dear Sir;–Col. Benton has made a publication to the people of Missouri, dated Boonville, Aug. 30th, 1849, in which he makes a puerile effort to connect me and others of his colleagues, together with members of the last General Assembly of this State, and certain Judges, Bank Officers and others, in a conspiracy to drive him from the U. S. Senate. I will, when I have leisure, respond to this charge; and in the meantime I will inform the Hon. Senator, that in consequence of the base betrayal of the trust reposed in him by the State of Missouri, and his attempt to carry the Democratic party of this State into the Free Soil Ranks, I have been and am now making open war upon him, free soilism, Abolitionism, and all similar isms, and will continue to do so; and if he is not driven from the United States’ Senate, it will be no fault of mine.

Yours Truly,



152 Years Ago

Today marks the 152nd anniversary of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. The following is a brief account I cobbled together from various sources in ’08 while a grad student at Missouri State working at Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield. This can still be found on the park’s website. I still think it’s pretty good, except for the statement that “Lyon installed a pro-Union government at Jefferson City.” Further study has convinced me that is inaccurate.


The Battle of Wilson’s Creek

In the early morning hours of August 10, 1861, the rolling hillsides of southwest Missouri echoed with the thundering roar of cannon, the fire of muskets, and the shouts of officers and their men locked in mortal combat. By the time the smoke cleared, five hundred thirty five men lay dead in the hot summer sun. Hundreds more struggled with battle inflicted wounds. Included among the dead was Nathaniel Lyon, the first Union General to die in the Civil War.

Although the Civil War officially began with the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter in South Carolina, the roots of the conflict ran much deeper into America’s history. Indentured servitude and the institution of slavery were part of the fabric of colonial culture long before America declared its independence from Great Britain. Differences in climate, and economic and social development between the Northern States and the Southern States however, led to the decline of slavery in the North versus the growth of slavery in the South. When the United States Constitution was created in 1787 it protected the institution of slavery. Nevertheless, slavery increasingly became a politically divisive issue between the two sections in the early to mid 1800’s. A series of political compromises ensued as Southerners sought to protect their Constitutional right to own slaves from what they perceived to be an ever more anti-slavery North.

Missouri became a focal point of the slavery issue when in 1818 it requested admittance to the Union as a slave state. Missouri became the 24th State on August 10, 1821, but to maintain a balance of power in the Senate between slave and free states, the “Missouri Compromise” also admitted the State of Maine into the Union as a free state. In addition, the Missouri Compromise stated that slavery henceforth (with the exception of the State of Missouri) would not be allowed north of 36 degrees 30 minutes north latitude.

In 1853 Stephen Douglas, U.S. Senator from Illinois, desiring to establish state governments in the western territories, developed the concept of “Popular Sovereignty.” Embodied in the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, Popular Sovereignty declared that the people of each state should decide for themselves whether their state would be free or slave. The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act nullified the Missouri Compromise’s restriction on slavery north of the 36 degrees 30 minutes line. It once again focused the nation’s attention on Missouri and the slavery issue as pro-slavery Missourians and “Free-State” Kansans engaged in a bloody border war to determine whether Kansas would be a free state or a slave state. Opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act also prompted the birth of the anti-slavery Republican Party.

On the eve of the Civil War however, Missouri was a deeply divided state. Originally settled primarily by Southerners, there were large hemp and tobacco plantations along the Missouri River, an area later known as “Little Dixie,” where large numbers of slaves toiled. Elsewhere in the state, particularly in the growing city of St. Louis where a large German immigrant community thrived, and in the Ozark Mountain region where the terrain was not compatible with large plantations, anti-slavery sentiment, or at least strong pro-Union sentiment, existed. Many Missourians indicated their desire to remain neutral however, when in the Presidential election of 1860, they voted not for the Northern anti-slavery candidate, Abraham Lincoln, nor for the Southern pro-slavery candidate John Breckinridge, but for the candidate they believed represented compromise, Stephen Douglas. Remaining neutral would become an untenable position after Lincoln captured the Presidency by winning all the Northern States, and deep South slave states began to secede in protest.

 When the Civil War began in 1861, Missouri’s allegiance was of vital concern to the United States Federal Government. The state’s strategic position on the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers and its abundant manpower and natural resources made it imperative that it remain loyal to the Union. Missouri though, had elected a Governor, Claiborne Fox Jackson, who was a large plantation owner with strong Southern sympathies. While officially claiming neutrality, Jackson worked behind the scenes to effect Missouri’s secession. A state convention was held in February 1861 to consider Missouri’s secession, but Union sentiment ran strong, and Governor Jackson’s desire to take Missouri out of the Union was soundly defeated.

Following the firing on Ft. Sumter in April, President Lincoln called for troops to put down the growing rebellion in the South. Missouri was asked to contribute four regiments. Governor Jackson refused the President’s request and ordered state military units to muster at Camp Jackson outside St. Louis. Tensions heightened in St. Louis and across the state as lines were drawn between Unionists and Secessionists. Out of this volatile mix emerged a fiery U.S. Army Captain named Nathaniel Lyon. Lyon was a West Point graduate, career Army officer who had served time in the far west and in Kansas during the Kansas-Missouri border war over slavery. His experiences had confirmed an anti-slavery conviction in him and a determination to defend the Government of the United States. Lyon was placed in charge of the U.S. Arsenal in St. Louis which held 60,000 muskets, powder, and cannon.

When Lyon learned that Governor Jackson intended to use the state militia units encamped at Camp Jackson to seize the Federal Arsenal, he secretly moved most of the weapons to Illinois. Using the U.S. Army forces under his command and German immigrant militia units hastily sworn into Federal service, Lyon marched out to Camp Jackson and forced its surrender. Lyon proceeded to march the disarmed state militia captives from Camp Jackson, through the streets of St. Louis, to the arsenal. Angry Southern sympathizers lined the route, hurling insults, stones, and other objects at the Union soldiers guarding the prisoners. Shots rang out, killing and wounding several soldiers. The soldiers fired back indiscriminately. By the time the melee ended, 28 people were dead, including a child. Known as the “St. Louis Massacre,” the incident raised secessionist fervor across Missouri, and prompted the state legislature to authorize the Governor to raise the Missouri State Guard.

Lyon, elected a brigadier general of volunteers, was placed in command of all Federal forces in Missouri. After a futile meeting with Governor Jackson to resolve the crisis, Lyon led his army up the Missouri River and occupied Jefferson City, the state capitol. Jackson and the Missouri State Guard mounted an unsuccessful stand against Lyon at Boonville, before retreating to southwest Missouri. Lyon installed a pro-Union government at Jefferson City, picked up reinforcements in the form of volunteer units from Kansas and Iowa, and then proceeded across the state to track down the fleeing secessionists. By July 13, 1861, Lyon was encamped at Springfield with about 6,000 soldiers and three batteries of artillery.

Meanwhile, Governor Jackson had turned over command of the Missouri State Guard to Major General Sterling Price. Price had fought in the Mexican War and had served as Governor of Missouri himself. Although he was a plantation and slave owner, he had been a Union supporter until the events in St. Louis swung him irrevocably into the secessionist camp. Seventy-five miles southwest of Springfield, Price busily drilled the 5,000 men in his charge. By the end of July, Confederate troops from Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas, under the command of former Texas Ranger turned Confederate General Benjamin McCulloch, and Arkansas State troops led by Nicholas Bart Pearce rendezvoused with Price, bringing the secessionist force to a total exceeding 12,000 men. On July 31, after formulating plans to capture Lyon’s army and regain control of Missouri, Price, McCulloch, and Pearce marched northeast to attack the Federals. Lyon, hoping to surprise the Confederates, marched from Springfield on August 1. The next day, in a minor engagement with the secessionist’s advance guard at Dug Springs, Lyon was successful in driving the enemy from the field, but he realized he was outnumbered and withdrew to Springfield. The Confederates followed and by August 6, were encamped along Wilson’s Creek.

Price and McCulloch were at odds. Price wanted to attack Lyon at Springfield, but McCulloch was reluctant. McCulloch had little faith in the rough-hewn Missourians, 2,000 of which were not even armed. The rout at Dug Springs had only further eroded his estimation of their fighting abilities. Furthermore, Missouri had not officially seceded. Price agreed to give McCulloch overall command in an effort to pressure him into attacking. The Confederate leaders planned a surprise attack on the Federals, but rain on the night of August 9 caused McCulloch to cancel the operation. McCulloch feared the paper powder cartridges they carried would get wet, rendering their ammunition unusable. Remaining in camp, they inexplicably failed to put out pickets to guard against an attack.

Attack is exactly what Lyon had in mind. Leaving behind about 1,000 men to guard his supplies, the Federal commander led 5,400 soldiers out of Springfield that same night of August 9. Adopting a plan put forth by German immigrant Colonel Franz Sigel, Lyon split his forces. 1,200 men under Sigel marched wide to the south, flanking the Confederate right, while the main body of troops struck from the North. Outnumbered two to one, Lyon knew success hinged on the element of surprise.

Price and McCulloch were having breakfast at the Edwards’ cabin on the morning of August 10 when the Union army struck. Lyon’s attack caught the secessionist troops off guard, driving them back. Forging ahead the Federals overran several Confederate camps and occupied the crest of a ridge subsequently called “Bloody Hill.” Nearby the Pulaski Arkansas Battery opened fire, checking the advance. This gave Price’s infantry time to form a battle-line on the hill’s south slope. The battle raged for more than five hours. Fighting was often at close quarters, and the tide turned with each charge and countercharge.

Sigel’s flanking maneuver, initially successful, collapsed in the fields of the Sharp farm when McCulloch’s men counterattacked. Believing McCulloch’s soldiers to be friendly Iowans due to fact that the Iowan’s uniforms were also gray, Sigel ordered his men not to fire. By the time he realized his mistake, the enemy was upon him. Defeated, Sigel and his troops fled all the way back to Springfield, leaving Lyon and the remainder of the Union forces to fend for themselves on Bloody Hill.

At about 9:30 a.m., General Lyon, who had been wounded twice already, was killed while leading a countercharge. The Federals continued to fight, now under the command of Major Samuel Sturgis. By 11:00 a.m. their ammunition was nearly exhausted. During a lull in the fighting, Sturgis ordered a withdrawal to Springfield. As the Confederates cautiously approached the hill they realized the battle was over. For reasons historians continue to debate, Price and McCulloch did not pursue their retreating enemy.

Casualties (killed, wounded, and missing) were severe and about equal on both sides – 1,317 for the Union and 1,222 for the Confederates. Southerners claimed a victory at Wilson’s Creek, making the most of the fact that they held the field at the battle’s conclusion and that they had killed Lyon. Northerners however, felt they had more than held their own, had only reluctantly retreated due to lack of ammunition, and had dealt a stunning blow to the secessionists. Lyon was hailed as a martyred hero.

On December 30, 1861, Congress passed a joint resolution in which it said:

That Congress deems it just and proper to enter upon its records a recognition of the eminent and patriotic services of the late Nathaniel Lyon. The country to whose service he devoted his life will guard and preserve his fame as a part of its own glory.
That the thanks of Congress are hereby given to the brave officers and soldiers who, under the command of the late Gen. Lyon, sustained the honor of the flag, and achieved a victory against overwhelming odds at the battle of Springfield, [Wilson’s Creek] in Missouri…

Following the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, and the further retreat of the Union army from Springfield to Rolla, the Confederates occupied Springfield. Price and McCulloch continued to have their differences however, and Price could not convince McCulloch to follow up their apparent victory with further advances into Missouri. The Confederate forces under McCulloch and the Arkansas State troops under Pearce retreated into Arkansas, while Price, re-assuming command of the Missouri State Guard, moved north and captured the Union garrison at Lexington. The Battle of Wilson’s Creek and Price’s continued activities in the state, finally drew attention to the necessity of a large Federal force to secure southwest Missouri. In early 1862 Price was driven from the state and into Arkansas. The subsequent Union victory at the Battle of Pea Ridge in March kept organized Confederate military forces out of Missouri for more than two years. Nevertheless, for the duration of the Civil War, Missouri was the scene of fierce fighting, mostly guerrilla warfare, with small bands of mounted raiders destroying anything military or civilian that could aid the enemy. Price mounted one more campaign in September 1864 to capture his beloved Missouri for the Confederacy, but it ended in disaster when he was thoroughly defeated at the Battle of Westport. By the end of the war, Missouri had witnessed so many battles and skirmishes that it ranks as the third most fought-over state in the nation.

On January 11, 1865, a state convention passed an ordinance declaring that Missouri’s slaves were “now and forever free.” The decree emancipated Missouri’s enslaved people even before the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution advanced the promise of the Declaration of Independence throughout the re-united nation:

 We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, and among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.



Ulysses S. Grant In Missouri 1861

Brigadier General U. S. Grant, Cairo, IL, October, 1861. (From "U. S. Grant Album" by Lawrence A. Frost)

Brigadier General U. S. Grant, Cairo, IL, October, 1861. (From “U. S. Grant Album” by Lawrence A. Frost)

If you have been reading the recent exchange of comments here regarding Missouri’s loyalty to the Union during the Civil War, you might have noticed a quote attributed to Ulysses S. Grant. Grant was very familiar with politics in Missouri, having lived in the state from 1854 to early 1860. The outbreak of hostilities in early 1861 however, found him residing in Galena, IL, and so he volunteered his services from that state. Perhaps ironically, he soon found himself back in Missouri. I thought it might be instructive to look at Grant’s observations in Missouri in 1861, including the entire letter in which the quote mentioned can be found. (See the letter dated Nov. 22.) If there is one thing these letters show, it’s that simplistic explanations of the time aren’t possible. The Aug 3 letter is particularly intriguing in this regard, because it challenges our assumptions of what constituted a “secessionist” or a “unionist.” These letters also challenge the assertion that it was only federal forces oppressing innocent Missourians. (See the highlighted passages.)


From Macon City, MO, July 19, 1861, to his wife, Julia:

…I have been on the road between here and Quincy, and marching South of the road for nine days. When we first come there was a terrible state of fear existing among the people. They thought that evry horror known in the whole catalogue of disa[sters] following a state of war was going to be their portion at once. But now they are becoming more reassured. They find that all troops are not the desperate characters they took them for. Some troops have behaved badly in this part of the state and given good grounds for fe[ar] but they have behaved no worse than their own people. The Secessionist commit evry outrage upon the Unionests. They seize their property, drive them out of the state & c. and destroy the railroad track wherever they find it without a guard. Yesterday, I returned to camp on the line of the R.R. from a little march south as far as the town of Florida. As we went down houses all appeared to be deserted. People of the town, many of them, left on our approach but finding that we behave respectfully and respected private property they returned and before we left nearly evry lady and child visited Camp and no doubt felt as much regret at our departure as they did at our arrival. On our re[turn] evry farm house seemed occupied and all the people turned out to greet us. I am fully convinced that if orderly troops could be marched through this country, and none others, it would create a very different state of feeling from what exists now…


From Mexico, MO, Aug 3, 1861, to his father, Jesse Root Grant:

…I find here however a different state of feeling from what I expected existed in any part of the South. The majority in this part of the State are Secessionist, as we would term them, but deplore the present state of affairs. They would make almost any sacrifice to have the Union restored, but regard it as dissolved and nothing is left for them but to choose between two evils. Many too seem to be entirely ignorant of the object of present hostilities. You can’t convince them but what the ultimate object is to extinguish, by force, slavery. Then too they feel that the Southern Confederacy will never consent to give up their State and as they, the South, are the strong party it is prudent to favor them from the start. There is never a movement of troops made that Secession journals through the country do not give a startling account of their almost annilihation at the hands of the States troops, whilst the facts are there are no engagements. My Regt. had been reported cut to pieces once that I know of, and I don’t know oftener, whilst a gun has not been fired at us. These reports go uncontradicted here and give confirmation to the conviction that one Southron is equal to five Northerners. We believe they are deluded and know if they are not we are.

Since I have been in Command of this Military District (two weeks) I have received the greatest hospitality and attention from the Citizens about here. I have had every opportunity of conversing with them freely and learning their sentiments and although I have confined myself strictly to the truth as to what has been the result of the different engagements, the relative strength etc. and the objects of the Administration, and the North Generally, yet they don’t believe a word I don’t think…


From Ironton, MO, August 9, 1861 to Capt. J. C. Kelton, Asst. Adj. Genl U. S. A., St. Louis:

…Spies are said to be seen evry day within a few miles of our camp, and marauding parties are infesting the country, and pillaging union men within ten miles of here. At present I can spare no force, in fact have not got suitable troops, to drive these people back and afford the Union citizens of this neighborhood the protection I feel they should have…


From Cape Girardeau, MO, August 31, 1861, to Julia:

…there is a large rebel force in this section of the state and they are committing all sorts of depridations upon the Union people…


From Cairo, IL, Nov. 17, 1861, to Chauncey McKeever, A. A. Western Department, St. Louis:

…I have also been called upon to-day by a lady from Bloomfield who states that the Union people of that district are not only depredated upon but their lives are constantly in danger. many have already been murdered for entertaining Union sentiments, and people of this class  are not permitted to leave on pain of death.

She urges, on behalf of the Union people, that troops be sent there either to garrison the place perminantly, or for a stated period, giving citizens notice of the length of time they intend remaining so that they might take advantage of their protection to get away…


From Cairo, IL, Nov 22, 1861, to Capt. John C. Kelton:

I have frequently reported to the Western Department that the line of steamers plying between St. Louis and Cairo, by landing points on the Missouri shore were enabled to afford aid and comfort to the enemy.

I have been reliably informed that some of the officers, particularly the Clerks, of these Boats, were regularly in the employ of the Southern Confederacy, so called

The case of the Platte Valley, a few days since, confirms me in this belief

I have heretofore recommended that all the carrying trade between here and St. Louis, be performed by Government, charging uniform rates. I would respectfully renew the suggestion, and in consideration of the special disloyalty of South East Missouri I would further recommend, that all commerce be cut off from all points south of Cape Girardeau.

There is not a sufficiency of Union sentiment left in this portion of the state to save Sodom

This is shown from the fact that Jeff Thompson, or any of the Rebels, can go into Charleston and spend hours or encamp for the night, on their way north to depredate upon Union men, and not one loyalist is found to report the fact to our Picket, stationed but one & a half miles off

Missouri slave map


The shaded areas of the above map show the concentration of enslaved people in Missouri in 1860. The Grant letters are in chronological order. Grant’s first letters were written from north of Columbia, (notice Macon County had relatively few slaves), but by the end of the year when he writes the letter about South East Missouri, he is at Cairo, IL. Notice he specifically mentions Charleston, MO.  Charleston was the major river city of Mississippi County, MO, across from Cairo. It is that dark spot in the bottom right corner of the map. Many Missouri slaveholders remained loyal Unionists, but it should not be surprising that the strongest secession sentiment in the state was located in the areas where there was the highest concentration of enslaved people.






Missouri and Southern Identity


This video and the following commentary were posted by my friend Dr. Joan Stack on Facebook today and I am reposting them here with her permission.

    [The video above is] a lecture by historian Christopher Phillips. Some of you may know that I have problems with Phillips’ interpretation of the life and career of Gen. Nathaniel Lyon in his book, Damned Yankee. I was surprised to find that I liked this lecture, although I disagree with a few points (specifically with the suggestion that artist G. C. Bingham identified with the Confederacy after the war). Phillips actually has some pretty great research and references in his talk. I will be looking for some of these citations when his book comes out next year. HOWEVER, while I like many of the specific examples and points that he makes in his lecture, I have some problems with the overarching argument. In the presentation and in his upcoming book, The Rivers Ran Backward (Oxford University Press), Phillips argues that after the Civil War Missourians came to identify themselves as Southern.

      In an interview, Phillips summarized this thesis as follows, “Before the war, loyalties and how people defined their local communities and regions ran in one direction. After the war, they largely ran in an opposite direction. The war caused a seismic shift that still echoes today, where states like Kentucky and Missouri became ‘southern,’ and Ohio, Indiana and Illinois became ‘northern,’ or, for others, ‘Midwestern.’”

      Phillips presents a persuasive argument that the rebel-leaning, white supremacist element in Missouri had a powerful resurgence from the 1880s onward. However, I would argue that there has also been continued resistance to this element among the majority of Missourians. As a lifelong Missourian I have NEVER identified as Southern or Confederate. Phillips’ attempt to force a Southern identity on Missouri reminds me of the earlier attempt by another focus of Phillips’ research, Missouri’s rebel Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson, to drag the state into the Confederacy against the will of the majority of Missourians!

     In an informal survey of people that I know, the only Missourians who consider themselves southern come from southern Missouri. Most others feel uncomfortable with any regional identity and if they had to pick one, would consider themselves Midwestern.

     Many Missourians, including myself, have a split or schizophrenic identity. This fractured understanding of self gives many people from my state insight into a variety of regional allegiances. I believe Missourians’ complex identity has sometimes allowed them to understand the multifaceted nature of America as a whole better than residents of other states (think Mark Twain, G. C. Bingham, and Thomas Hart Benton).

With that said, Missouri’s recent entrance into the SEC supports Phillips’ argument, (but remember, we almost joined the Big Ten!)


Civil War in Missouri at the Missouri History Museum

     I finally got over to the Missouri History Museum on Tuesday to see the Civil War in Missouri exhibit. On Tuesdays, residents of St. Louis and St. Louis County get in free, which is always a good price. I had heard good things about it and was not disappointed; well, except for one thing I’ll mention in a minute.

     First, I think the exhibit does a nice job of showing how Missourians contributed to, reacted to, and helped resolve the sectional crisis. The issue of slavery can’t be missed, but of course, there were cultural, ethnic, and economic issues as well. I was impressed with the artifacts on display. A few in particular. There is a large flag that was hand embroidered by the ladies of St. Louis for the Missouri State Guard which was at Camp Jackson. I don’t know how many ladies labored to create it, or how many stitches went into it, but it is a beautiful piece of art. Also, this Wide Awake pin and ribbon; it’s amazing that these things survive today. Finally, the actual  Ordinance Abolishing Slavery in Missouri from January, 1865. All of these items serve to remind us that the history we read about in books was so very real; that it involved real people in ways I sometimes think we can’t imagine.

     Now, my one disappointment. I could not find a single mention of B. Gratz Brown! Seriously, how could such a prominent figure in St. Louis and Missouri’s Civil War and Reconstruction history not even rate a mention? Oh well, I really do recommend seeing the exhibit if you live in the area or will be in the area. The time of display has been extended through June 2, 2013.


Meet Dr. Joan Stack


 In my posts about the Mid-America Conference on History I noted a very interesting presentation by Joan Stack on images of Nathaniel Lyon after the battle of Wilson’s Creek. Joan had contacted me through the Y and T facebook page a couple months ago, so I was really looking forward to her presentation and getting to meet her. She is the curator for the State Historical Society of Missouri. Here she is talking about Claiborne Fox Jackson and the ‘lost’ journal of Missouri’s so-called rebel legislature. I’m thinking I need to take a drive up to Columbia.


The Mid-America Conference on History

     Tomorrow I will be heading over to Springfield to attend the Mid-America Conference on History hosted by Missouri State University. I will be presenting a paper on Thursday at the 3:15 session. I have presented papers to various groups and given interpretive talks for many years, but this will be my first academic conference. Dr. Worth Robert Miller is the conference coordinator this year. Dr. Miller was on my graduate committee  when I was working on my M.A. at Missouri State. It’s been more than four years since I saw him last, and it was a real honor to receive an email from him a few months ago asking if I had a paper I’d like to present this year.

     The paper I will be presenting discusses the personal politics and political party affiliations of Ulysses S. Grant in the years preceding the Civil War. Parts of the paper come from posts on this blog, but the paper represents the research and thought I’ve put into this subject for several years now; particularly the last four years since I’ve been at Ulysses S. Grant NHS. 

     We are all products of the times and the environments in which we are born, grow to maturity, live, and work. Ulysses Grant was no different. Grant biographers have relished the contrast between Grant’s upbringing in Ohio, including his father’s Whig Party and anti-slavery politics, and that of Grant’s years at White Haven, his Democrat, slaveholding, father-in-law’s Missouri plantation, where Grant lived and worked from 1854-1859. My paper explores those two seemingly contradictory influences on  Grant.

     I’m also looking forward to hearing several other presentations, including one by Joan Stack of the State Historical Society of Missouri titled, “The Hat, the Horse, and the Hero: The Impact of Newspaper Illustrations Representing the Civil War Battle of Wilson’s Creek on the Legacy of General Nathaniel Lyon.” Also, the featured speaker on Friday night is Dr. George Rable of the University of Alabama. His talk is titled, “God as General: Was There a Religious History of the American Civil War?” I listened to one of Dr. Rable’s lectures online not long ago in which he said there was an anti-party spirit at the outbreak of the Civil War; regular citizens believed partisan party politicians had brought on the crisis. I note in my paper that Grant displayed that anti-party inclination, despite his quick support of the new Lincoln Administration.

     If you will be attending, or if you are in the area this week, I hope to see you!