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.



Having a Great Time!

“There Are But Two Parties Now…”

     I have been thoroughly enjoying attending the 34th annual Mid- America Conference on History. I think my paper was well received. I have heard several excellent papers and have met some great people with whom I expect to maintain contact. Some of the highlights (and a lowlight):

     In my session, Mark Neels presented a paper titled, And So My Political Life Has Closed: Edward Bates and the Republican Convention of 1860. Mark contends that Bates’ candidacy was de-railed in part because the German-Americans, mainly Carl Schurz and Gustavus Koerner, refused to support him due to his earlier involvement with the Know-Nothings.

     Joan Stack’s presentation on newspaper portrayals of  Nathaniel Lyon in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek was fascinating. She has a Phd. in Art History and was able to show how drawings of Lyon and the battle were modeled on paintings of religious scenes which would have evoked  powerful reactions in mid-nineteenth century Americans. 

     Walter Ohlson presented a paper that was essentially a critical commentary on a book by Edward Ayers titled Let’s Talk About It: Making Sense of the American Civil War.  The book is a collection of essays designed to be used as a discussion guide. Ohlson found the chapter on Shiloh to be confusing and incomplete. I was not familiar with the book, but a couple of the professors in the room have used it and they also thought the chapter on Shiloh was less than satisfactory.

     There was one presenter I took exception with. Timothy Wescott’s presentation, Legislators of the Twelfth Star, covered the make-up of the legislators chosen by the deposed Jackson government in Neosho in 1861, who represented Missouri in the Confederate government during the war. Throughout his presentation he kept referring to this governmnent and to the legislators as “our” representatives.  Also, at the beginning of his talk, he said the Hamilton Gamble provisional government was “federally imposed.” When I asked him to clarify that, his reponse was that Lyon had driven the elected Jackson government out of Jeff City and installed a pro-Union government. I told him that the provisional government was constituted by a convention of delegates elected by Missourians, that there were no representatives from Washington or from the Lincoln Administration, and the convention did not do its work at the point of federal bayonets. It was Missourians at the convention. His reponse: “We’ll have to disagree professionally.”

   George Rable’s featured talk last night covered religion in the Civil War. Dr. Rable is an excellent speaker. He talked about how pervasive the idea of “providence’ was on both sides. Americans North and South believed in Divine Providence; that is that God has a plan and that everything happens for a reason. Both sides believed God was on their side, however, and they attempted to explain every victory or defeat in terms of the will of God. Victory was usually proof of God’s favor, defeat was usually proof of God’s chastisement for sin. Exactly what that sin was tended to be a matter of perspective, however.

    I’ll soon be heading over to Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield to listen to another talk by Dr. Rable and then go on a tour of the battlefield led by friend and former professor, Dr. William G. Piston.


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!


There’s Always Something New to Learn In History

Mission San Luis Obispo de Telosa

     There are many famous Americans of the 19th century. I’ve been studying the time period for many years and therefore I know much about the lives of several of them. But, it takes time and a lot of effort to truly delve into the lives of particular individuals. Even then, I can never truly know everything about the person. There are many people whose names I know, and perhaps I have encountered them in various narratives, but I only know of them in a particular time and place. When I happen to learn something new about them it is sometimes quite surprising; especially when the information is found in a place I wasn’t expecting. That is what happened today.

If you’ve been reading this blog, you know I worked for several years giving tours of San Luis Obispo, California. I took people to the Mission and told some of the history of the city. After moving to Missouri, I eventually worked at Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield, and wrote my graduate paper on the battle. Today I found a connection between San Luis Obispo and the Battle of Wilson’s Creek in an unusual place.

I was at work at Grant NHS and the site curator had an auction catalogue. I was looking through it and a letter that is currently up for bid caught my eye. This is the catalogue description:

  Union General Samuel Sturgis handwritten letter signed, dated 10 March 1886, on Ebbitt Hotel, Washington, D.C. stationery. He replies to Mary C. Day’s request for an autograph. After his graduation from West Point in 1846, Sturgis saw service in the Mexican-American War and at its conclusion, took part in Indian campaigns in the West. He writes to Day of his experiences in California. Letter reads in part, ”…I hasten to enclose my autograph in compliance with your request. You will be surprised perhaps to learn that I was what was called a ’49er, and it was at San Louis Obispo, that in the spring of 1849, I prepared and fitted out my small Company of Dragoons for an expedition against the Indians in the neighborhood of the Tulare lakes & the head of Kings River. In those days San Louis Obispo was simply an old Mission, but is probably now a thriving town. The world has changed so much since those days…” He signs, ”S.D. Sturgis”.


Samuel D. SturgisIf you don’t recognize Sturgis’ name you can see here. He was a Major at the outbreak of the Civil War. It was Sturgis who took command of the Federal troops who were holding out on Bloody Hill at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek when Nathaniel Lyon was killed. I had no idea that Sturgis had ever been in San Luis Obispo.

Sometimes it is these surprising little tidbits of information that make history so interesting. And, don’t you just love that last line, “The world has changed so much since those days…” Makes me wonder what he would think if he could see the world today.


Christopher Phillips Strikes Again – and this time it’s not Lyon

From “Captain Sam Grant” by Lloyd Lewis

     Apparently Christopher Phillips isn’t satisfied with attacking the first, but lesser known, Union hero, Nathaniel Lyon; he’s now going after bigger fish. His newest contribution to the New York Times Disunion series is an assault on the Union’s biggest and most well-known hero, Ulysses S. Grant. Why the Times chose Phillips for an article on Grant is a mystery when there are scholars much more qualified who could have been called upon (Hello, Brooks Simpson). I asked Brooks if he could post a review of Phillips’ article, but he answered that he doesn’t have the time, so this post will point out just a bit of what I see as problematic in the article in regards to Grant before the war. Anyone who has read this blog knows I disagree with much of what Phillips has written about Lyon, and I believe Phillips’ “revisionist” interpretation of the Civil War colors his views on Union heroes. See here, here, and here. So it is perhaps not surprising that I would take exception to his caricature of Grant. So here goes.

     First, it is a stretch at best to say that “Little Egypt” was ever Grant’s home, as one commenter on the NYT blog pointed out. Cairo, Illinois is almost four hundred miles from Georgetown, Ohio where Grant spent his boyhood years.  As Phillips acknowledges, the areas where Grant grew up and was educated were “hotbeds of abolitionism,” a description that could never be applied to “Little Egypt.” Ohio does not even share a border with Illinois and Grant never lived in Indiana. The closest Grant came to living in “Little Egypt” would have been his years in St. Louis where the politics of slavery were complex and increasingly contentious as I have discussed in several blogposts. If he wanted to write about a Union hero who was actually from “Little Egypt,” I might suggest John A. Logan.

     Phillips describes Grant’s father Jesse as “mildly anti-slavery.” While I would not say Jesse Grant was a William Lloyd Garrison or a Theodore Weld, he was pretty firm in his convictions. He wrote anti-slavery pieces for the local paper and he was more than a bit piqued when his son married into a “tribe of slaveholders” as he labeled the Dents. Then Phillips writes this:

“After graduating from West Point, Grant married the daughter of an affluent Missouri slaveholder and, after an undistinguished and often drunken army career, left to farm unsuccessfully on a rocky piece of Missouri timber that his father-in-law gave him. (Appropriately, Grant named it “Hardscrabble.”)”

First, Phillips completely skips over the fact that Grant was twice brevetted for bravery, which meant an honorary promotion to Captain, during the Mexican War. This begs the question, what would Phillips consider distinguished?  And then there is the “often drunken” charge. How does Phillips define “often”? When specifically is Phillips referring to here? During the Mexican War? While Grant was stationed in Detroit or New York? While he was making the difficult crossing of the Isthmus of Panama? Perhaps during Grant’s stay at Vancouver Barracks or his brief time at Ft. Humboldt? The charges of Grant’s alleged problem with alcohol have been, and will continue to be, debated among historians. I think there is little doubt that Grant drank on occasion while stationed on the west coast, but Phillips makes his statement as if it’s a proven fact that Grant drank all the time. This is a slanderous charge that should be better explained or at least qualified.  Then there is the disparagement of Grant’s efforts to make a living as a farmer back in Missouri.

     The name “Hardscrabble” had nothing to do with the soil or the farm itself; it was the appellation the Grants gave to the log house Grant built. It is an example of Grant’s wonderful sense of humor. As Julia wrote in her Memoirs, “The little house looked so unattractive that we facetiously decided to call it Hardscrabble.” And, Phillips’ assertion of Grant’s “poor head for business and ineptitude at farming” shows that Phillips knows little about Grant’s experience at White Haven. Grant’s biggest challenge was a lack of capital. Despite Phillips’ description of Julia’s father as an “affluent Missouri slaveholder,” Colonel Dent’s fortunes, by the time Grant arrived to farm in 1854, were already in decline. Like many plantation and farm owners, he was land (and slave) rich and cash poor. Grant tried to borrow money from his own father, but Jesse Grant was not happy Grant was involved with slaveholders and generally refused to help. Grant ran into three major obstacles in his quest to be a successful farmer. First, there was a “panic” or recession as we would call it today, in 1857, which caused farm prices to plunge. Second, Grant, his family, and the White Haven slaves were struck with a serious illness, likely malaria. Third, what really ended the farming operations, in June of 1858, a deep freeze killed farmers’ crops all around the St. Louis region. Given his lack of capital, this was a blow Grant could not overcome. None of these factors have anything to do with Grant’s ability to grow crops, which as near as we can tell, he was quite capable of doing. Furthermore, it should be noted that despite Grant’s struggles to support his family during these years, he was quite happy; he was back with his wife and children.

     This brings us to the issue of Grant and slaves. Phillips says:

 “Grant was even more ambivalent about slavery than his father — enough to free the only slave he ever owned (given to him by his wife’s father), but he was not sufficiently opposed to it to deter him from hiring slave field hands or sell his wife’s domestic servants.

 As I discussed in this earlier post, there is no evidence that Grant ever hired slave field hands. McFeely, from whom Phillips likely got this information, botched his handling of Grant’s letters upon which this is based. It is far more likely that Grant hired “free men of color.” Furthermore, Grant never sold any slaves ever! And, as I discussed in this earlier post, Julia never actually owned any slaves. Phillips goes on to say that Grant’s “ambivalence to slavery” did not “drive him from the Democratic Party, or even from the slave states.” Phillips, who has written books about Missouri politics should know that the Democratic Party dominated antebellum Missouri, but was often split into opposing factions. By the time Grant arrived in 1854, the Whig Party had begun to disintegrate and there was no Republican Party. Grant actually flirted with the Know-Nothing Party at one point, so he could not have been too dedicated to the Democrats. As I have said before, there were some who believed the Democratic Party would become the anti-slavery party. So what exactly does Grant’s association with Democrats really say about his views on slavery? See these previous posts (here and here) for more on this. The only slave state he ever lived in was Missouri and he had good reason for being there; he wanted to be with his family. For more on Grant’s views on slavery see here.

     I have to ask, what point is Phillips trying to make in describing Grant’s views on slavery before the war? That the war wasn’t really about slavery? That Grant didn’t really believe it was about slavery? As Brooks Simpson has pointed out before, what Grant thought about slavery tells us little about the cause of the war because he was not involved in the secession process on either side. But, we really don’t have to guess regarding what Grant thought. In 1861 he wrote explicit letters detailing his understanding of the cause, which I have written about before. These letters show a very insightful analysis and understanding of the politics of the day, which disproves Phillips’ most egregious assertion, that Grant was “largely politically uninformed.” That is just ludicrous.

I could go on with this post, but I think I will end here. It seems to me that Phillips took most of his article from McFeely’s biography which, in my humble opinion, is not the best source for understanding Ulysses S. Grant. He cites Simpson’s “Let Us  Have Peace,” but as Brooks said on his blog, his biography of Grant, “Triumph over Adversity,” would have been a much better source for this article. He also cites Joan Waugh’s book, but I can’t see much in this article that would reflect Waugh’s interpretation of Grant.



Who Really Won the Battle of Wilson’s Creek?

Excerpted and edited from my 2008 MA paper: 

    By all accounts, the Battle of Wilson’s Creek was a furious engagement in which citizen soldiers stood shoulder to shoulder, faced each other at close range, and fired deadly volleys of lead into each other. The fight for Bloody Hill, the focal point of the battle, raged for more than five hours. Despite repeated attempts by the secessionist forces to dislodge the Union Army from the hill, Union lines could not be broken.  Neither side could gain an advantage, but ammunition was running low. Following the death of Lyon, Major Samuel Sturgis assumed command, and under his orders during a lull in the fighting, the Federals retreated to Springfield, leaving the enemy in control of the field, but unable or unwilling to follow in pursuit. At Springfield, Sturgis relinquished command to Colonel Franz Sigel, who outranked him, and under Sigel’s orders the Union Army further retreated to Rolla. The Union retreat allowed the Confederates to occupy Springfield unopposed the next day. 

   Sturgis’ official post-battle report dated August 20, 1861, gave no indication of how he perceived the significance of the outcome. He praised the gallantry of his men, and claimed they retreated due to a lack of ammunition and water, believing they still faced an enemy that numbered 20,000 men to their less than 4,000.[1] Other Union officers offered similar assessments, praising their men and each other. Captain Frederick Steele stated:

I commanded the rear guard on the retreat towards Springfield, but saw nothing of the enemy; it was evident that he had been severely punished.[2]

Second Lieutenant John V. Dubois reported:

We were not followed by the enemy, who had, I think, been driven from the field.[3]

The only dire note of concern was sounded by Sigel. In his report of August 12, 1861, Sigel wrote:

Once in possession of Springfield, the enemy will be able to raise the southwest of the State against us, add a great number of men to his army, make Springfield a great depot, and continue his operations towards Rolla, and probably also towards the Missouri River (Jefferson City).[4]  

 On the secessionist side, Missouri State Guard commander, Sterling Price claimed:

The brilliant victory thus achieved upon this hard-fought field was won only by the most determined bravery and distinguished gallantry of the combined armies, which fought nobly side-by-side in defense of their common rights and liberties with as much courage and constancy as were ever exhibited upon any battle-field.[5]

Confederate General Benjamin McCulloch also claimed “a great victory over the enemy.”[6] Captain James McIntosh wrote to his troops:

The general commanding takes great pleasure in announcing to the army under his command the signal victory it has just gained. Soldiers of Louisiana, of Arkansas, of Missouri, and of Texas, nobly have you sustained yourselves! Shoulder to shoulder you have met the enemy and driven him before you…The opposing force, composed mostly of the old Regular Army of the North, have thrown themselves upon you, confident of victory, but by great gallantry and determined courage you have entirely routed it with great slaughter.[7]

     On August 28, 1861, the Confederate War Department sent McCulloch a congratulatory letter in which it stated the battle would “be mentioned in accents of gratitude not only in Missouri, probably liberated by your arms, but throughout the entire Confederacy…”[8] In the North, on December 24, 1861, the United States Congress passed a joint resolution thanking Lyon and his Army for their “victory against overwhelming numbers,” and, in “recognition of the eminent and patriotic services of the late Brigadier-General Nathaniel Lyon,” Congress promised: “The country to whose service he devoted his life will guard and preserve his fame as a part of its own glory.”[9]

     In the days after the battle most Northern newspapers declared a Union victory at Wilson’s Creek, while Southern newspapers boasted of a Confederate victory. “The victory of the Union force under General Lyon was brilliant and overwhelming,” gushed the Topeka Kansas State Record.[10] “Never has a greater victory crowned the efforts of the friends of Liberty and Equal Rights,” boasted Colonel John Hughes of the Missouri State Guard in the Liberty [Missouri] Tribune.[11]

     As early as 1863, Northerners published monographs declaring Wilson’s Creek a victory – or at least something close to a victory. Typical is the following, written by John S. C. Abbott in 1863:

Thus ended the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. In its results it may surely be counted as a victory, for it secured the safety of the army which thus could be attained. The enemy was thwarted entirely in his plans, and his baggage-train was fired and destroyed. The foe, admonished by the terrific blows they had received, did not venture to interfere with the retirement of the Unionists.[12]

The fact that the Union Army was able to retreat unmolested was, and would be, frequently cited as proof of a Union victory. 

     The focus on the issue of who won the battle in these wartime accounts is understandable. Success on the battlefield often meant stronger popular political support at home for each cause. Furthermore, as some studies have shown, issues of personal and community honor were at stake, particularly in the first year of the war.[13]

     In the years after the war, as Americans struggled to reconcile, interpretations of the war’s meaning had profound impacts on the shape of post-war society and political power. In Missouri, Radicals clashed with Conservatives over the civil and political rights of both former rebels and African-Americans.[14] Consciously or unconsciously, accounts of the battle of Wilson’s Creek written during these years contributed to this struggle over the memory and meaning of the war.

     In 1883 one of the first comprehensive published accounts of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek appeared.[15] Authorship of the slim volume was ascribed to Return Holcombe and W. S. Adams, though historians believe the manuscript was largely the work of Holcombe.[16] Holcombe clearly portrayed Wilson’s Creek as a Confederate victory, despite the fact that Price and McCulloch did not pursue the retreating Federals. He wrote:

     The news of the battle of Wilson’s Creek was received with great joy throughout the Southern Confederacy and everywhere that the Confederate cause had sympathizers, and the event did much for that cause in Missouri, by stimulating recruiting and causing many an undecided individual to come down off the fence and stand on the Southern side.”[17]

     The Holcombe and Adams account of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek was followed in 1886 by the publication of a book that had far reaching influence on the historic interpretation of the battle. Written by Thomas L. Snead, The Fight For Missouri: From the Election of Lincoln to the Death of Lyon, may be the first published narrative which proclaimed that Wilson’s Creek was the battle that saved Missouri for the Union, though not in those exact words.[18] Snead’s description of Lyon influenced public perceptions of the Union hero well into the twentieth century. The book, however, was not without controversy. Although the book was praised by some Union and Confederate veterans as “non-partisan,” “comprehensive,” “impartial,” and “fair,” many other former Confederates considered it to be too generous in its treatment of the Union opposition.  Also critical, though from the opposite perspective, the national Union veterans association, the Grand Army of the Republic, “attempted to have Snead’s writings removed from the public schools because they did not think that he was impartial.”[19]  

     Snead had been intimately involved with the Confederate war effort. Trained as a lawyer in Virginia, he had moved to St. Louisin 1851. A slave owner and a Democrat, Snead became editor of the St. Louis Bulletin, and became active in Missouri’s political affairs, earnestly supporting states’ rights and the pro-slavery wing of the Democratic Party. As events in Missouri became increasingly tense in early 1861 following the election of Lincoln, Snead moved to Jefferson City, where Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson commissioned him as his military aide.[20] Jackson was also a large plantation and slave owner, and had strong Southern sympathies.

     Jackson and Snead worked hand in hand to effect the secession of Missourifrom the Union. Snead was present at the Planters’ House meeting on June 11, 1861. Snead thereafter accompanied Governor Jackson, as Lyon and his Federal army chased the elected state government from the capitol at Jefferson City. He was with Jackson at the battles of Booneville and Carthage, and when Jackson relinquished his command of the state militia to General Price, Snead accepted the post of chief of ordnance under Price.[21] This meant that he was present at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek.

     Snead came to be a great admirer and champion of Price, and to detest McCulloch, whom he felt had squandered opportunities in Missouri by not cooperating with Price, and because McCulloch had shown such disdain for the valor of Missourians. As for Lyon, Snead wrote that he “had not fought and died in vain.”[22] Snead believed Lyon’s actions since he had arrived in Missouri until his death at Wilson’s Creek, gave the Unionists the time needed to take control of the state’s government and resources, which were “used to sustain the Union and crush the South.”[23]  He concluded:

All this had been done while Lyon was boldly confronting the overwhelming strength of Price and McCulloch.  Had he abandoned Springfield instead, and opened to Price a pathway to the Missouri; had he not been willing to die for the freedom of the negro, and for the preservation of the Union, none of these things would have been done. By wisely planning, by boldly doing, and by bravely dying, he had won the fight for Missouri.[24] 

     Snead’s praise would almost certainly ring true, were it not for the uncomfortable facts that Wilson’s Creek was not a clear cut victory for the Union Army and the Federals did abandon Springfield, albeit after the battle. Nevertheless, promoters of the idea of a federal military park at the site of the battle would use Snead’s “unbiased” testimony to accord Wilson’s Creek a historic significance that some historians deny. In addition, beginning in 1982, Snead’s words would be used prominently in the interpretive film shown to thousands of visitors to Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield.  Interestingly, in 1897, a report from the Committee on Military Affairs to Congress used the interpretation that the battle had saved Missouri for the Union to justify the detail of Army units to participate in the Wilson’s Creek reunion that year. Whether or not the committee was influenced by Snead’s interpretation is unknown, but it definitively stated:

So stubbornly did he [Lyon] and his devoted command contest the ground fought over that the victors were unable to pursue their advantage, and it is truthfully said that the result of the battle was to save the great State of Missouri to the Union.[25]

     In November 1884, Century magazine began publishing the most renowned series of soldier’s recollections of the war, and in 1888, issued a four volume collection of these articles titled Battles and Leaders of the Civil War.[26] In his article, William Wherry, Lyon’s aide-de-camp, praised the “unabated ardor and impetuosity [of] the Confederates.”[27] Pearce, who had commanded the Arkansas troops, wrote that upon their arrival at the crest of Bloody Hill and discovering the Federals had retreated:

We watched the retreating enemy through our field glasses, and were glad to see them go.[28]

Nevertheless, both continued to disagree over which side actually won. Wherry wrote:

Our troops continued to send a galling fire into the disorganized masses as they fled, until they disappeared, and the battle was ended.[29]

Pearce wrote:

At about this time (11:30 A.M.) the first line of battle before us gave way. Our boys charged the second line with a yell, and were soon in possession of the field, the enemy slowly withdrawing toward Springfield. This hour decided the contest and won for us the day. It was in our front here, as was afterward made known, that the brave commander of the Federal forces, General Lyon, was killed, gallantly leading his men to what he and they supposed was victory, but which proved (it may be because they were deprived of his enthusiastic leadership) disastrous defeat.[30]

 Note the praise for Lyon.

     None of the accounts published in Battles and Leaders, not even one contributed by Snead, claimed that Wilson’s Creek saved Missouri for the Union.

     Two more published accounts of the battle appeared during the reunion years. Both written by Union veterans, they are, as might be expected, partisan in nature. In 1890, Wiley Britton authored The Civil War on the Border: Volume I, 1861-1862.[31] Britton explained Price and McCulloch’s failure to pursue the retreating Federal army after the battle at Wilson’s Creek thus: “The combined Southern forces were really defeated on the field, and were not at all anxious to renew the conflict.”[32] Yet, at a later point in his narrative, Britton stated that the Union army was defeated at Wilson’s Creek. As a result of the defeat, there were no Federal troops in western Missouri, leaving the way free for Confederate forces to occupy that portion of the state and greatly increase recruitment.  McCulloch, however, refused to take advantage of the situation and cooperate with Price in his venture north to Lexington.[33] 

     John McElroy, in The Struggle for Missouri, published in 1909, generally agreed with Britton’s interpretation of Wilson’s Creek.[34] “Dedicated to the Union Men of Missouri,” his narrative was indicative of the difficulty in explaining the results of the battle without fully admitting a Confederate victory, but may be an accurate description nonetheless:

     The moral effect of the battle was prodigious on both sides. The Union troops were    conscious of having met overwhelming forces and fought them to a stand-still, if not actual defeat.  Every man felt himself a victor as he left the field, and only retreated because the exigencies of the situation rendered that the most politic move.[35]

    It was consequently a great encouragement to the Union sentiment everywhere, and did much to retrieve the humiliation of Bull Run.  The Confederates naturally made the most of the fact that they had been left masters of the field, and they dilated extensively upon the killing of Gen. Lyon and the crushing defeat they had administered upon Sigel, with capture of prisoners, guns, and flags. They used this to so good purpose as to greatly stimulate the secession spirit throughout the State.[36]

     Significantly, McElroy’s narrative concluded, not with the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, but with the Battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas in March of 1862. He wrote of Pea Ridge: “At the conclusion of the battle Missouri was as firmly anchored to the Union as her neighbors, Illinois, Iowa, and Kansas.”[37]


     [1]  U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Volume 3 (1881; repr.Harrisburg,PA: Historical Times, Inc.,1985), 69. 

     [2] Ibid., 79.

     [3] Ibid., 80.

     [4] Ibid., 85.

     [5] Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, 100.

     [6] Ibid., 107.

     [7] Ibid., 108.

     [8] Ibid., 130.

     [9] Ibid., 93.

     [10] Quoted in William Garrett Piston and Richard W. Hatcher III, Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 319.

     [11] Ibid. 

     [12] John S. C. Abbott, The History of the Civil War in America; Comprising a Full and Impartial Account of the Progress of the Rebellion, of the Various Naval and Military Engagements, of the Heroic Deeds Performed by Armies and Individuals, of the Touching Scenes in the Field, the Camp, the Hospital, and the Cabin, Volume I (Chicago, Illinois: O.F. Gibbs, 1863), 274.

     [13] Regarding the role of courage and honor in soldier’s motivations in the Civil War in general, see Gerald F. Linderman, Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War (New York: The Free Press, 1987). Regarding the role of courage and honor in soldier’s motivations at Wilson’s Creek, see Piston and Hatcher, Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It.

     [14] William E. Parrish, A History of Missouri: Volume III 1860-1875  (Columbia, Mo: University of Missouri Press, 1973), 116-169.

     [15] Return I. Holcombe and W.S. Adams, An Account of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek or Oak Hills (1883; repr.,Springfield,Missouri: Greene County Historical Society Independent Printing Co, 1998).

     [16] Ibid., ii-iii.

     [17] Holcombe and Adams, An Account of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek or Oak Hills, 74.

     [18] Thomas L. Snead, The Fight For Missouri: From the Election of Lincoln to the Death of Lyon (1886; repr.,Independence,Missouri: Two Trails Publishing, 1997).

     [19] Robert E. Miller, “Proud Confederate: Thomas Lowndes Snead of Missouri,” Missouri Historical Review, Volume 79, No. 2 (1985), 188-189.

     [20] Ibid., 171.

     [21] Miller, “Proud Confederate,” 174.

     [22] Snead, The Fight For Missouri, 302.

     [23] Ibid., 302-303.

     [24] Ibid., 303.

     [25] House Committee on Military Affairs, Wilson Creek Reunion, Springfield, MO. 54th Cong., 2d Sess., 1897, H. Rep. 2870.

     [26] Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel, eds., Battles and Leaders of the Civil War (1888;  repr., New York: Thomas Yoseloff, Inc., 1956).

     [27] William Wherry, “Wilson’s Creek, and the Death of Lyon,” in Battles and Leaders Vol. I, 296.

     [28] N.B. Pearce, “Arkansas Troops in the Battle of Wilson’s Creek,” in Battles and Leaders Vol. I, 303.

     [29] Wherry, “Wilson’s Creek, and the Death of Lyon,” in Battles and Leaders Vol. I, 297.

     [30] Pearce, “Arkansas Troops in the Battle of Wilson’s Creek,” in Battles and Leaders Vol. I, 303.

     [31] Wiley Britton, The Civil War on the Border: Volume I, 1861-1862 (1899; repr.,Ottawa,Kansas: Kansas Heritage Press, 1994).

     [32] Ibid., 109.

     [33] Ibid., 121.

     [34] John McElroy, The Struggle for Missouri (WashingtonD.C.: The National Tribune Co., 1909).

     [35] McElroy’s declaration that “every man” fighting for theUnion“felt himself a victor” may have been a bit of an exaggeration.  It seems unlikely Sigel’s troops, who had been scattered and driven from the field by McCulloch’s Louisianans, felt victorious.

    [36] McElroy, The Struggle for Missouri, 180.

     [37] Ibid., 342.



The Death of Lyon

150 years ago today, a fiery, red-headed, career Army officer laid down his life in the service of his country on a blood-stained hillside in southwest Missouri. The Battle of Wilson’s Creek had already raged for several hours when the fateful bullet struck Nathaniel Lyon. From Jeff Patrick’s new book:

“About 9:30 a.m., the confusion of battle created a gap in the Federal line. Lyon ordered Col. Robert B. Mitchell’s Second Kansas into the gap and then rode beside Mitchell as his unit marched in that direction, no doubt to show Mitchell where to place his regiment. But the Federals were, in the words of one Kansan, ‘unaware of the close proximity of the enemy.’ As Lyon turned to his right to watch the Kansans wheel into line, disaster struck. ‘All at once from the trees and bushes came a murderous volley, the head of the column being but a few yards from the ambushed [sic] rebels. Gen. Lyon and Col. Mitchell were conspicuous marks.’ Shots tore into the mounted officers and the leading companies of the Second Kansas. A rifle bullet entered Lyon’s left side, plowed through his heart and both lungs, and exited the opposite side. The federal commander was dead almost immediately.” 

Nathaniel Lyon was the first Union officer to die in battle in the Civil War. In the immediate aftermath of the battle, Lyon was hailed as a martyr to the Union cause, and a national hero. His body was taken by train back to his home state of Connecticut for burial and the excursion was somewhat of a precursor to that of Abraham Lincoln’s just a few years later. 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 a lack of ammunition and water on that blisteringly hot August day, and had dealt a stunning blow to the secessionists. 

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 men 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…”


This is the sculpture moved from the site of Camp Jackson.

For many years it was recognized that Lyon’s “gallant and patriotic services” had secured the critically important city of St. Louis and the state of Missouri for the Union. It might not be much of an exaggeration to say that if St. Louis and Missouri had been lost to the Confederacy the results of the war would have been completely different.  After the war, St. Louisans also determined to honor Lyon. They acquired property that had belonged to the federal arsenal and dedicated a public park to Lyon, including a granite obelisk. In 1929, a sculpture dedicated to Lyon and the Union troops at Camp Jackson was placed at the site of Camp Jackson. In 1960, Harriet Frost Fordyce, the daughter of Daniel Frost, the pro-secession commander of Camp Jackson who had surrendered to Lyon, donated a million dollars to St. Louis University to purchase the property with the caveat that the Lyon sculpture would be removed to Lyon Park.  

In my Master’s paper, which I have posted excerpts of here and here, I was critical of the National Park Service’s interpretions of Lyon at Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield in recent years. I wrote that “one is hard pressed to see how Lyon’s fame is guarded and preserved as Congress promised it would be so many years ago.” But, at least the battlefield itself is being maintained and preserved.  The neglect of Lyon Park by the City of St. Louis is downright shameful as can be seen in these photos taken just this morning. Presumably, this is due to budget issues, but I think if the City can’t do better than this then maybe the property should be returned to the federal government to be maintained by the Park Service…oh, wait, the federal government doesn’t have any money either.



A New Book On The Battle Of Wilson’s Creek

     I was checking out Civil War Books and Authors and learned that my friend Jeff Patrick’s book on the Battle of Wilson’s Creek has been published. CWBA gave the book, Campaign for Wilson’s Creek: The Fight for Missouri Begins, a positive review which does not surprise me. I worked with Jeff for about a year at Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield when I was in grad school at Missouri State. If my memory serves me correctly, Jeff earned both his BA and his MA in History at Purdue. Jeff has been working at Wilson’s Creek in various capacities for many years; the last several as the park’s librarian. Wilson’s Creek NB has what is probably the largest library dedicated to the Civil War in the National Park Service system. Jeff knows the battle and its participants as well as anyone. If you have been reading this blog you know I wrote my Master’s paper on the interpretive history of Wilson’s Creek. Jeff provided me with more information, including primary and secondary sources, than anyone. He also proof read my paper more than once. I owe him a huge debt of appreciation. I ordered my copy of Jeff’s book today. Without even having read it, I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the first major battle of the Civil War west of the Mississippi River.


Jo Shelby – Repentant Border Ruffian?

     In an early post I noted that in 1841, at the age of fifteen, B. Gratz Brown went to reside with his namesake great uncle, Benjamin Gratz, in Lexington, Kentucky, while attending Transylvania College. Brown’s cousin, Frank Blair was also in residence at the Gratz home and attending Transylvania. At the time, four of Benjamin Gratz’s sons were there, ranging in age from fourteen to twenty-one. They were Michael Barnard Gratz, 21, Henry Howard Gratz, 19, Hyman Cecil Gratz, 16, and Cary Gist Gratz, 14. Benjamin Gratz’s first wife, Maria Gist Gratz, the mother of these boys, died in 1841, and Uncle Benjamin soon re-married. His new wife, Anna Boswell Shelby, was a widow who brought another son to the family, Joseph O. Shelby, 11 in 1841.[1]

    Brown’s biographer stated that despite the four year age difference between Brown and Shelby, they became “devoted friends.”  And yet, the two could not have taken more divergent paths. I have been reading Daniel O’Flaherty’s 1954 biography of Shelby which was re-printed in 2000 with a new foreword by Daniel E. Sutherland which you can read here. It is actually quite incredible to think of these young men at the Gratz home in Lexington debating the politics of the time and listening to visitors like Henry Clay, John J. Crittendon, and Francis Blair, Sr., Frank’s father, and then to think of the impact they had on the nation and on Missouri in particular. While later in the 1850s, Gratz Brown and Frank Blair fought slavery and its extension from their political base in St. Louis, Shelby and Henry Howard Gratz had also moved to Missouri and were engaged in very profitable hemp growing and rope manufacturing in the heart of Little Dixie on the Missouri River, heavily invested in the institution of slavery. While Brown and Blair were planting seeds for an anti-slavery Republican Party in Missouri, Shelby became a dedicated border ruffian, aligning himself with Claiborne Fox Jackson, David Rice Atchison, and other pro-slavery leaders in western Missouri. In 1855 he raised a group of volunteers to ride into Kansas for the purpose of fraudulently voting to make Kansas a slave state. [2]

     When the Civil War started in Missouri, Shelby quickly joined the fight and was present at Wilson’s Creek as a captain in the Missouri State Guard. Sadly for the Gratz family, the youngest Gratz son, Cary, had enlisted as a captain in the First Missouri Volunteers and was also at Wilson’s Creek on that hot August morning. As O’Flaherty wrote:

     “There was not half a mile’s distance between Captain Cary Gratz and Captain Jo Shelby when Lyon struck at Wilson’s Creek. It is possible that Shelby saw the face of his stepbrother and cousin amid the smoke that rolled across the field that morning, without recognizing it. Whether he did or not will never be known; but undoubtedly he saw it afterward on the battlefield stilled in death.”[3] 

     Shelby went on to earn a reputation as the premier cavalry commander in the Trans-Mississippi. When Lee surrendered in Virginia, Shelby refused to give up, and instead headed for Mexico. He was immortalized by Hollywood in the 1969 film The Undefeated starring John Wayne. A character played by Rock Hudson in the film was purported to be based on Jo Shelby.

     I want to write more about Shelby’s post war activities, but for now I want to consider this excerpt from a letter he wrote in 1882 in response to one he had received:

     “…We failed but we (the South) have the satisfaction of Knowing that no people on Earth endured or fought more from patriotic desires – We were overcome by the hirelings of the World, who were avaricious, Mercenary, ignorant of our people, devoid of honor and patriotic duty. It is over, and as we all surrendered it behooves us all to abide by the terms imposed. As to the institution of slavery, nobody cares that it is obliterated. All the world is opposed to it, and in due time the South would have abolished it – So it was not the loss of it we objected to, but the manner in which it was taken from us. The War has demonstrated that so far as the Constitution is Concerned, it amounts to Naught – It is force that frames Constitutions and fanatics when they can exercise the power over the Masses will by force break Constitutions. After all it is the greatest number of bayonets…”[4]

     Coming from a man who had been a leader of men who had violently fought all democratic efforts to thwart the extension of slavery this is a remarkable statement. I can’t help but wonder what Frank Blair and B. Gratz Brown would have thought of this letter if they had ever seen it. Regarding the Constitution, it seems to me that his assertion that “fanatics when they can exercise the power over the masses will by force break Constitutions” could really be applied to the pro-slavery fanatics like himself. But what really intrigued me was his assertion that the South would have ended slavery on its own “in due time.” This is an argument still made today. Of course, one may ask exactly how long is “due time,” but also what evidence is there that the South had any intention of abolishing slavery at any point in the future in the 1850s or 60s?  While contemplating Shelby’s letter I came across this article by James Loewen in which he wrote:

     “Slavery was hardly on its last legs in 1860. That year, the South produced almost 75 percent of all U.S. exports. Slaves were worth more than all the manufacturing companies and railroads in the nation. No elite class in history has ever given up such an immense interest voluntarily. Moreover, Confederates eyed territorial expansion into Mexico and Cuba. Short of war, who would have stopped them — or forced them to abandon slavery?

     To claim that slavery would have ended of its own accord by the mid-20th century is impossible to disprove but difficult to accept. In 1860, slavery was growing more entrenched in the South. Unpaid labor makes for big profits, and the Southern elite was growing ever richer. Freeing slaves was becoming more and more difficult for their owners, as was the position of free blacks in the United States, North as well as South. For the foreseeable future, slavery looked secure. Perhaps a civil war was required to end it.”

     In 2009 the town of Waverly, Missouri, where Shelby had enslaved people working his rope factory in the 1850s, dedicated a statue of their famous Confederate. You can read about it at this SCV website. Note that they place the blame for the Kansas-Missouri border war squarely on the Kansans. I’m sure they would appreciate the above quoted letter, but I wonder if they know that Shelby, a few weeks before his death in 1897, discussed the sacking of Lawrence with Kansas historian William E. Connelley and said this:

     “I was in Kansas at the head of an armed force at that time. I went there to kill Free State men. I did kill them. I am now ashamed of myself for having done so, but then times were different from what they are now, and that is what I went there for. We Missourians all went there for that purpose if it should be found necessary to carry out our designs. I had no business there. No Missourian had any business there with arms in his hands. The policy that sent us there was damnable and the trouble we started on the border bore fruit for ten years. I should have been shot there and John Brown was the only man who knew it and would have done it. I say John Brown was right. He did in his country what I would have done in mine in like circumstances. Those were days when slavery was in the balance and the violence engendered made men irresponsible. I now see I was so myself.”[5]

[1] Daniel O’Flaherty, General Jo Shelby: Undefeated Rebel (Chapel Hill and London: the University of North Carolina Press, 2000, reprint of 1954 publication), 15; Norma L. Peterson, Freedom and Franchise: The Political Career of B. Gratz Brown (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1965), 4-5.

[2] Ibid, 18, 21-43.

[3] Ibid, 79.

[4] Ibid, 353-354.

[5] Ibid, 44.


More On NPS Civil War Interpretation

    There seems to be quite an interest in my last two posts which were extracts of my Master’s seminar paper, so here is one more portion. After an examination of the interpretive history of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, including how the participants remembered it, the legislative process of creating the National Battlefield, and the subsequent interpretation offered by the National Park Service, this was the conclusion of The Battle of Wilson’s Creek in History and Memory.


     On December 3, 1990, a local resident, Ken Young, appeared on a Springfield, Missouri television broadcast to present a guest editorial. He argued the Civil War had been a “four year holocaust …the bloodiest, most barbaric incident the civilized world had ever witnessed.”   Furthermore, in his opinion, “the legacy of the war was a continuation of the conflict itself.” Proof of this was that, despite the abolition of slavery, “the South would not admit defeat…blacks were murdered by the hundreds of thousands by public hangings and many forms of barbaric torture.” He also noted the “Ku Klux Klan is a Civil War legacy of shame.” The lesson of the war was “that if civilized people have disagreements which cannot be resolved by applying common sense, then simply resort to killing each other.” In Young’s mind, this lesson did not justify the expenditure of federal tax dollars to preserve battlefields and glorify the Civil War. Rather he recommended “Wilson’s Creek should be deeded to Greene County and transformed into a full-fledged recreational facility for all to enjoy.” “The Civil War,” he said, “is an event we all should forget.”[1]

     Obviously taken aback by this opinion, the National Park Service at Wilson’s Creek felt obliged to respond. Chief Ranger John Sutton appeared three nights later to offer a rebuttal. Sutton justifiably argued the Wilson’s Creek park had a long history of community support, and he pointed out the lengthy efforts to achieve its creation. He stated the park was already being used for recreational purposes, as well as commemorating the battle.  He noted: “Each year, millions of people travel to National park areas with names like Valley Forge, Yorktown, Gettysburg, Pearl Harbor, and the Vietnam Memorial. They come to these parks not only to learn what took place then, but what their meaning is today.”  The real reason the National Park Service preserves Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield, according to Sutton, was so that visitors “can come to understand those tragic times and can therefore answer for themselves: ‘Who am I?’ Where do I come from?’”[2]

     It would be unfair to say that Young learned the wrong lessons at Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield because it is not clear that he ever even visited the park.   Nevertheless, if visitors come to National Park sites to learn “what their meaning is today,” and if they visit the sacred ground of Civil War battlefields like Wilson’s Creek to learn “cultural values and lessons,” as preservationists claim, then the National Park Service has an enormous responsibility to teach the proper lessons and to interpret the true meaning of the war. Yet, there seems to be no consensus on what that meaning is.

    Contrary to Young’s admonition, the Civil War will not be forgotten, but how it should be remembered is still open to debate.  In a Decoration Day speech in 1894, Frederick Douglass told his listeners:

Fellow citizens: I am not indifferent to the claims of a generous forgetfulness, but whatever else I may forget, I shall never forget the difference between those who fought for liberty and those who fought for slavery; between those who fought to save the Republic and those who fought to destroy it.[3]

Douglass was responding to the forces of reunion and reconciliation sweeping the nation, which had already resulted in the North’s abandonment of Reconstruction and the capitulation of many Northerners to Lost Cause interpretations of the war. Jim Crow had begun his infamous career. Now, as then, however, Douglass’ memory of the war is far too simple for many Americans, including historians, scholars, and the National Park Service, to accept.

     W.E.B. DuBois wrote in Black Reconstruction in 1935: “We fell under the leadership of those who would compromise with truth in order to make peace in the present and guide policy in the future.”[4] If DuBois was correct, the interpretive history of Wilson’s Creek is an indication of how compromised truth became. In post-war narratives, former Confederates, denied secessionists in Missouri were fighting for slavery. At Wilson’s Creek veterans’ reunions, reconciliation required a celebration of white martial valor at the expense of the historical truth of emancipation. These reunions were still being held while the Ku Klux Klan was holding meetings in what is now Fantastic Caverns (a local tourist attraction today), and when in 1906, Springfield was the site of a horrific lynching.[5] Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, promoters of a National Military Park at Wilson’s Creek continued to use the reconciliationist vision of the battle and the Civil War, ignoring the issues of emancipation altogether, while Springfield remained a strictly segregated city.[6] They touted the battle as both a Confederate victory, and the battle that saved Missouri for the Union. This paradoxical interpretation allowed them to achieve their goal, but left the federal government, through its agency the National Park Service, to disseminate what is, at best, a highly debatable interpretation. The National Park Service interpreted Wilson’s Creek in terms of the reconciliationist vision that “justice” must be accorded both sides.

      In his 2003 doctoral dissertation, John Spievogel observed: “The Park Service’s voice is not inflammatory or propagandistic. In fact, in following the professional conventions and methodologies of the trained historian, the agency strives to read the past as dispassionately as possible.”[7] Spielvogel argued that the National Park Service has successfully incorporated an emancipationist vision of the war into its historical parks, such as Harper’s Ferry, but introduction of an emancipationist interpretation at Civil War battlefields threatens to upset the delicate act of “avoiding unbalanced criticism of either the Union or the Confederacy.”[8] Spielvogel wrote that “since emancipationist memory identifies with Union victory and rejects what it sees as the racist motives of the Confederacy, battlefield interpretation that is informed by emancipationist memory will ultimately criticize the South.”[9] What Spielvogel failed to recognize is that, despite the continued affinity of many white (and a few black) Southerners for their Confederate heritage, “the South” is not the Confederacy. Southern historian Charles Joyner wrote eloquently in an essay published in 2003:

I am a southerner, and I love the South. But I reject the notion that the test of one’s loyalty to the region is reverence for the Confederacy… [Secessionists] precipitated the bloodiest war in American history to preserve the right of some southerners to hold other southerners in perpetual bondage. In retrospect, it is difficult to see how anyone who truly loves the South can ponder the disastrous Confederate experiment without more regret than pride. When the folly of our forefathers in breaking up the Union brings down pain and poverty upon three generations of southerners, we do not serve the region well by praising them for it.[10]

     The National Park Service is listening to historians like Joyner and Blight, but as Spielvogel noted, the Park Service is concerned about “the loss of credibility as unbiased and objective historians that would result from framing [its Civil War] narratives with public memories that have not as yet been naturalized as objective history.”[11]

     In January 2008, the National Park Service issued a draft copy of a document titled Holding the High Ground: A National Park Service Initiative for the Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War. The initiative outlined the direction the National Park Service intended to take in its Civil War interpretation. It stated:

     Today, we face an era where the historic ownership of the memory of the war by veterans and their descendents (with the government – i.e. National Park Service – serving as their agent) has been challenged. New research and new approaches to military history have shed new light not just on the Civil War, but on sites that comprise the National Park System. The monolithic interpretation of the war as purely a noble adventure undertaken by noble men (on both sides) for noble ends with noble results for all ignores the undeniable fact that the war was a struggle between competing visions for a nation. It ignores the undeniable fact that the war was experienced differently by different people – depending on race, gender, geography, socioeconomic status, and cultural background. Today, all of these factors continue to shape how Americans view their war, and the war continues to mean different things to different people. That this is so adds vivid texture to the examination and interpretation of one of the seminal events in the history of human and civil rights.

     Historical scholarship has evolved as well, challenging many of the assumptions we have held in the past about this era. The scholars themselves often disagree on their interpretations of the Civil War period, but it is important for parks to recognize and tell our visitors that history is a subject of continual debate, rather than a set of fixed facts.[12]

     The story of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek is the story of a complex period in American and Missouri history which is difficult to tell in the short amount of time most visitors spend at Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield.  That is the challenge facing the National Park Service. As the Park Service continues in its efforts to interpret the battle and the war, and as fresh scholarship on the Civil War and its impact on Missouri and its people appears, new chapters in the ongoing struggle over the history and memory of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek (and the Civil War) will need to be written.

     [1] Ken Young, Point of View, guest editorial, KSPR-TV, Springfield, Missouri, December 3, 1990. Full text on file at Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield.

     [2] John M. Sutton, Point of View, rebuttal to Ken Young guest editorial, KSPR-TV, Springfield, Missouri, December 6, 1990. Full text on file at Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield.

     [3] Frederick Douglass, Decoration Day, 1894. Quoted in David W. Blight, “‘For Something beyond the Battlefield’: Frederick Douglass and the Struggle for the Memory of the Civil War,” in The Journal of American History, Vol. 75, No. 4. (Mar., 1989), 1156.

     [4] W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, 1935. Quoted in Blight, “‘For Something beyond the Battlefield,’” 1156.

     [5] Katherine Lederer, Many Thousand Gone: Springfield’s Lost Black History (USA: Missouri Committee for the Humanities and the Gannett Foundation, 1986), 3.


     [6] Ibid., 45.

     [7] Spielvogel, “Interpreting ‘Sacred Ground,’” 214.

     [8] Ibid, 217.

     [9] Ibid.

     [10] Charles Joyner, “Forget, Hell!” in Legacy of Disunion: The Enduring Significance of the American Civil War, ed. Susan-Mary Grant and Peter J. Parish (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003), 28.

     [11] Spielvogel, “Interpreting ‘Sacred Ground,’” 220.

     [12] National Park Service, Holding the High Ground: A National Park Service Initiative for the Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War. (Unpublished draft document, January, 2008), 6. On file at Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield, Republic, MO.