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.


Responding to the Emancipation Proclamation

     No doubt most of you are aware that yesterday, September 22, marked the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s preliminary announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation. There have been several articles and blogposts regarding this momentous occasion in American history. See here, here, here, and here. Of course then, as now, the Proclamation had its critics and its champions. I want to share a letter sent to the President from St. Louis on September 27th, 1862:

My Dear Sir,

              I cannot forego the pleasure of writing my congratulations with those of every loyal man in St. Louis who has any love of freedom in his heart, and sending you personal thanks for the good and brave Proclamation of Sept 22. It is the noblest act of the age on this continent and I trust that God may uphold you, and keep you in his safekeeping, and that a great free nation reaching from the Lakes to the Gulf may in the hereafter give you all honor as the first President of this Republic who dared to plant himself and his nation upon the principle of freedom. You need have no foreboding of reaction against such a message of liberty; for it is the generic spirit of our people taking shape and will maintain itself against every assault both from within and without. It will need only notification from you that they who serve the government will not be permitted to thwart its policies – for the only base of the reactionary combination at the north is a demoralization ceni (illegible) of love of spirits.

            Permit me to enclose a copy of some remarks made by me in this city on the 17th inst., and when I could not have anticipated how near this so much wished for consummation was at hand. That will explain a feeling of disappointment which found expression there, but which I do not now regret because it will be only another evidence how sincere is my present congratulations.

                                            Yours very truly and with a devoted regard

                                                                                                       B. Gratz Brown 

     Brown had been agitating for emancipation in Missouri since at least 1857, when he had stood up in the Missouri statehouse and delivered a major anti-slavery speech. This was considered a stunning act in a slave state.  In April 1862 Brown had been a primary force in establishing the Missouri General Emancipation Society, which was tasked with swaying public opinion in favor of the abolition of slavery. He had called for a state Emancipation Convention which met in June 1862. He had urged Missourians to vote only for representatives to state offices who would support President Lincoln’s offer of compensated emancipation in Missouri. On September 17, 1862, the very day thousands were dying at Antietam, Brown had addressed a meeting of the Missouri General Emancipation Society. This is the address (the “remarks”) which he enclosed in the above  letter sent to the President. In the speech Brown had been highly critical of what he considered Lincoln’s dilatory actions regarding slavery.   

     When Brown sat down to write his laudatory letter to President Lincoln, he apparently was under the mistaken impression that the Emancipation Proclamation covered slaves in Missouri. One can only imagine his disappointment when he learned otherwise. He would thenceforth become critical of the President again and, in 1864, promote the candidacy of John C. Frémont to replace Lincoln in the White House.


Grant, the Jews, and the Separation of Church and State

      On June 20, Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site will welcome guest speaker Jonathan D. Sarna, author of the recently published book, When General Grant Expelled the Jews. Grant scholars know that in December 1862, as the General in command of the Department of the Tennessee, Grant issued what is described as the “most notorious anti-Jewish order by a government official in American history.” The infamous General Orders No. 11 decreed:

     The Jews, as a class violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department and also department orders, are hereby expelled from the department within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order.

     Post commanders will see that all of this class of people be furnished passes and required to leave, and any one returning after such notification will be arrested and held in confinement until an opportunity occurs of sending them out as prisoners, unless furnished with permit from headquarters

     No passes will be given these people to visit headquarters for the purpose of making personal application for trade permits

     By order of Maj. Gen. U. S. Grant

     Sarna explains the circumstances that led to General Orders No. 11, including what might have motivated Grant to issue the order, without completely exonerating him. He does an excellent job of explaining the immediate affect this order had on innocent Jews living in the territory of Grant’s department. He introduces prominent Jews who immediately appealed to President Lincoln, who subsequently revoked the order.  The damage to Grant’s reputation, and the blot on his character could not so easily be revoked.  For his part, Grant himself quickly realized the mistake he had made, and spent the rest of his life doing his best to make up for it. As Sarna explains, Grant knew “that in expelling ‘Jews as a class’ he had failed to live up to his own high standard of what it meant to be an American” and this “was never far from his mind.”

     Here we are confronted once again with the question: What is an American? In this case the question more specifically is: Must you be a Christian (even more specifically, must you be a Protestant Christian) to truly be an American? Sarna relates that in the post-Civil War years many people concluded that the war had been punishment for “the absence of any adequate recognition of the soveriegnty of God…in our Constitution.” The National Reform Association was established in 1864, having as its objective to “declare the nation’s allegiance to Jesus Christ and its acceptance of the moral laws of the Christian religion, and so indicate that this is a Christian nation.” They proposed a rewrite of the Preamble of the Constitution which read:

     We, the people of the United States, humbly acknowledging Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, the Lord Jesus Christ as the Ruler among the nations, his revealed will as the supreme law of the land, in order to constitute a Christian government…

      A major supporter of this amendment was Missouri Senator B. Gratz Brown, despite the fact that he was the grand-nephew and namesake of Benjamin Gratz, a prominent Jewish merchant. According to Sarna, during the years of Grant’s Presidency there was a steady push to get this amendment passed, but it failed to ever make it out of congressional committee, thanks in large part to “effective behind-the-scenes lobbying” by prominent Jews. Instead, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments “greatly broadened the constitutional definition of  ‘we the people,’ just as Grant and his party had hoped.”

     Today, there is a continuing effort to declare the United States a Christian nation (see here). Is, or has, the United States ever been a Christian nation? To answer this question in the affirmative is to declare that thousands of people living in this country are not really Americans because they are not Christians. The consequence of this way of thinking is this: If they are not really Americans, are they entitled to the same rights and privileges? Are they equal? The Jewish Americans of Grant’s day recognized this and fought against it. They demanded that Thomas Jefferson’s “high wall of separation between church and state” be maintained. Ulysses Grant agreed. “Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the church, and the private school supported entirely by private donation,” he declared in 1875, and “keep the church and state forever separate.”    



Ulysses S. Grant and the Eight Hour Day

     Many of us today take for granted that a full work day is eight hours. Of course, many people work more than eight hours a day, but “overtime” pay is usually expected. (There are exceptions. I know from personal experience that bus drivers are exempt from overtime laws.) There was a time, however, when the length of a working day was not regulated. Ten, twelve, sixteen or more hour days were common.  The fight for an eight hour working day began in the aftermath of the Civil War, but the idea of government regulating the workday presented serious ideological complications.

     Labor agitators and workingmen’s unions pushed for eight hour laws in the mid-1860s with mixed results. Even when successful at getting such laws passed at the state and local level, the courts often interpreted the laws in such a way as to make them meaningless. The majority of business owners argued that a reduced workday would have deleterious effects on production, workingmen’s income, and society at large.

     One argument was that “licentiousness, gluttony, drunkenness, exposure, bad habitations, noisy and turbulent homes, will wear men out in half the time that steady labor in the mills at usual hours will.” The worker needed to be protected from himself. “Too much leisure is a detriment to his welfare.” Labor leaders, on the other hand, argued that the 24 hours of a day naturally divided into eight hours of work, eight hours for family and self-improvement such as education, and eight hours for sleep. Some employers who voluntarily shortened workday hours contended that production had actually increased, but these were few; most argued vociferously that production would fall. Workers argued that exhaustion from long hours caused them to work more slowly in the final hour of the day, and also, that they missed more work time due to illness and injury.

     Politicians of both parties, Republican and Democrat, grappled with the issue. On the one hand, property rights and freedom of contract seemed to suggest that the length of a workday should be a matter between employer and employed. Trade unions with their eight hour demands interfered with “the employer’s pretensions to exclusive control of his own property,” and furthermore “personal freedom is also destroyed, because the trade unions will not permit the men to do what they would of their own free option.” On the other hand, as the Philadelphia Daily News stated:

     “When a man is without means to subsist upon, his wants compel him to work, and he must ask for employment as a favor from someone who has the property required to carry on some kind of productive work. In plain language, property is a tyrant, and the people are its slaves…the penalty for resistance to its orders is starvation.” 

     And workers voted, leading politicians of both parties to at least pay lip service to the eight hour day. In order to avoid the appearance of the government meddling in private business, however, pressure came to bear on the idea of federal government workers being given an eight hour day. It was supposed that the benefits of an eight hour day could be proven to private employers through the example of federal workers. In December of 1865, Senator B. Gratz Brown proposed hearings on the subject of a federal worker eight hour day, but it would take until 1867 for a bill to finally pass. The bill had a major flaw however; it did not specify whether or not federal workers’ pay would remain the same or be reduced along with the number of hours worked. Up until this time daily or weekly wages were more common than hourly wages. Most federal executives reduced wages along with the mandated reduction in hours of work.

     The workers appealed to Washington, but President Johnson’s Attorney General ruled that the law only addressed hours, not wages. Initially the change of administrations from Johnson to Ulysses Grant didn’t seem to help. Grant’s Attorney General reiterated his predecessor’s ruling. But, Grant himself took up the issue. On May 19, 1869 he issued an executive order that stated:

     “From and after this date no reduction shall be made in the wages paid by the Government by the day to such laborers, workman, and mechanics, on account of such reduction in the hours of labor.”

     Apparently Grant’s effort did not have the effect he hoped for because three years later he was compelled to reissue the same proclamation, saying:

     “And whereas it is now represented to me that the Act of Congress and the proclamation [of 1869] have not been strictly observed by all officers of the government having charge of such laborers, workmen, and mechanics…”

      An appropriations bill was subsequently passed in Congress that restored all pay lost by federal employees due to pay reductions between passage of the bill and Grant’s proclamation.

     Opponents of the federal eight hour law continued to fight for its repeal. Though unsuccessful in their attempts to repeal, they had allies on the Supreme Court. Through cases brought before them, the court essentially declared that while the law was valid it was not obligatory.  “A claims court declared that the eight hour law was ‘simply passed in deference to a sentiment of philanthropy,’ while wages and hours must be ‘determined by the inexorable laws of business.'”

     Labor would have to continue the fight.

See “Beyond Equality: Labor and the Radical Republicans, 1862-1872” by David Montgomery (1967) for a more detailed account.






B. Gratz Brown at White Haven 2011


  I was too busy to post much over the summer, so this is a very late post. In August, Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site presented the annual living history program,”Night Walk Into the Past.” Over the years the program has had different characters, themes, and formats. I have been involved the last three years since I’ve been there. The first year I portrayed a railroad worker of the nineteenth century and last year I was Joseph Reynolds ca. 1860. Those years I was assigned a character and handed a script to memorize. This year I wrote my own script. After several re-writes and input from our Site Historian to make it the right length and fit for the overall program, I portrayed B. Gratz Brown in August, 1861. Unfortunately, I am already 21 years older than Brown would have been in 1861 (he was born in May, 1826), he was sporting a much longer beard, and he would not have been wearing glasses. While I may not have looked much like Brown, I hope my script, which contained some of Brown’s own words, and my performance conveyed a sense of Brown’s convictions, his passion, and his view of the momentous events unfolding in that violent summer 150 years ago. I wish I  had a video, but to my knowledge, no one made one, so here is my script, if you’d like to read it:

Good Evening Ladies and Gentlemen.  I’ve just arrived at White Haven to speak with Colonel Dent, to let him know I saw his son-in-law General Grant at Ironton and to relay a message from him. I must say, I wasn’t expecting to see anyone else, but perhaps you are here to wish Colonel Dent well on Grant’s promotion. I see familiar faces so I know many of you reside in St. Louis. If you cast your votes for my election to the state legislature, let me thank you. I suspect many of you have read my editorials in my newspaper the Missouri Democrat, so you know where I stand on these vexing issues dividing our country today, but on the chance that some of you have not, if you will all indulge me, I will explain my views.

Like Colonel Dent and several of you here tonight, I am a Southerner. I come from a distinguished family of Virginians and Kentuckians, men who fought for our independence from Great Britain and for the founding of our democratic form of government. Yet, I have openly declared myself an opponent of slavery. This may not be typical of a Southerner. However, I strongly believe the institution of slavery retards progress, and cannot be reconciled with freedom and popular government. You may recall that I was forced to defend my honor as a gentleman when challenged for my views in 1856 – the last duel fought on Bloody Island. That scoundrel Thomas Reynolds, claiming to be a Democrat, and courting the German vote, was merely doing the bidding of the slave power in this state. When I exposed him in my paper, he challenged me to a duel. I tried to avoid such an outdated form of chivalry, but when he called me a coward for doing so, I had no choice but to issue a challenge myself. Reynolds shot me in the leg, and I’ve had to use this cane ever since.

When I arrived in Missouri more than ten years ago, I became a dedicated Democrat.  I remained a Democrat as long as I could, but when that party rejected free soil principles, when it aligned itself with slavery and oppression; I left and helped found the Republican Party here in Missouri. The platform of the Republican Party mirrors my own beliefs. You have heard me say in speeches and in my editorials: Wherever you see a free citizen of our state, relying upon his own labor, farming his own land, and living by the industry of his own hands, point to that man and say, there is the Republican platform. Free labor and free democracy are synonymous terms, ladies and gentlemen. Free labor and slave labor are incompatible institutions; one or the other must dominate or banish its rival. You must choose which you will prefer – upon which you will rest the liberties of yourselves and future generations.

As a Republican, I campaigned against the election of Claiborne Fox Jackson for Governor of this fine state.  I could see that his claim of being a Douglas Democrat was nothing but a ploy to get elected. And I have been proven right. Since his election as Governor, he and his no-good Lt. Governor, – Reynolds – yes, that same rascal I met on Bloody Island – they have tried every way possible to take Missouri out of the Union. In his inaugural address of January last, Jackson proclaimed that the destiny of Missouri and the slaveholding states was “one and the same.” This is absurd. Though slavery has tended to associate Missouri with the South, she owes no debt of gratitude to that section. She cannot be identified with the South either by geographical position or by natural association. Three fourths of Missouri’s exports go to northern seaports, and two thirds of her imports come from the North.  

As Governor, Jackson refused President Lincoln’s call for troops to put down this unholy rebellion and then carried on negotiations with the rebel government to bring arms into Missouri and to force secession on Missourians. His treasonous designs had to be stopped. I was proud to serve as Colonel of a regiment of my German neighbors in St. Louis who stood up for the Union and arrested that nest of secessionists assembled at Camp Jackson.

My regiment was then sent to Rolla for a time, before being reassigned to protect the railhead at Ironton. We were ninety day volunteers who responded to the President’s call, and supplies were running short. Our uniforms, which had been hastily made, were in tatters, and we were facing a far superior force to our immediate south. When Ulysses Grant arrived at Ironton with fresh troops to relieve me just a few days ago, I assured him that I was quite glad to see him, and we spent some time talking as I turned over my command. I did not know him personally when he lived in St. Louis. I had heard from some that he shared Colonel Dent’s proslavery principles, which might be expected since Grant lived under Dent’s roof here at White Haven. What I learned is that Grant is more a man of my beliefs than Colonel Dent’s. The Colonel might not appreciate that, but he ought to be proud of his son-in-law’s promotion. 

Right now this country needs more patriotic men like Grant. When southern slave states refused to abide by the fair and democratic election of Abraham Lincoln, and fired on our glorious Stars and Stripes, Grant immediately volunteered his services to his threatened country. He told me that we have a government and laws and a flag and they all must be sustained. These are sentiments with which I heartily agree. Grant’s skills seem to lie in military tactics and strategy, and while I am proud of my military service, I feel I can better serve the country by returning to my political career. Battles to keep Missouri in the Union and to abolish slavery must be fought on the field and in the political arena. That great battle at Wilson’s Creek near Springfield this month has shown this to be true.

Now, I’ve heard that the rebels are claiming a great victory at Wilson’s Creek.  I tell you, although they were greatly outnumbered, our Union boys fought bravely and dealt a stunning blow to those secessionists. General Lyon gave his life on Bloody Hill, but his gallant actions at Wilson’s Creek and here in St. Louis at Camp Jackson have secured St. Louis and Missouri for the Union. Furthermore, he drove those traitors Jackson and Reynolds out of Jefferson City which allowed a provisional government that is loyal to the Union to be established. General Lyon should be revered as a national hero.

It grieves me deeply to say that my young cousin, Cary Gratz, also fell at Wilson’s Creek. I fear many more may be sacrificed upon the altar of freedom before this wretched rebellion is put down.

Well, my apologies for keeping you all so long, but we are facing trying times and I hope you will consider the things I have said. I actually came out here at Grant’s request to ask Colonel Dent to pass on information about him to his wife up in Galena, Illinois. He has sent several letters to Mrs. Grant, but with the mail being interrupted and him moving his headquarters so often, there is no telling when or if she will receive them. So, I will take my leave of you now and see if I can deliver General Grant’s message. Good night and may God bless and preserve our United States.



Night Walk 2011 cast: EricHudson, David Newman, Anne Williams, John Samson, Sherie Phillips, Bob Pollock, Cynthia Knittel Van Sluys, Doug Harding.


Was Grant a Democrat? (part two)

Notice the slogan on the banner, "The Union-It Must Be Preserved"

     The other day I spent some time at the Missouri Historical Society looking through their collection of the papers of Thomas Hart Benton where I found this campaign circular from the state election of 1856. This would be the last campaign of the man who had so much influence on Missouri’s early history, and on the nation at large. Benton, a slaveholder from Tennessee, had been an advocate of slavery in Missouri during the debates over the Missouri Compromise, and had become Missouri’s first U. S. Senator, serving nearly thirty years from 1821-1851. In 1852, he won a term in the House. These years of Benton power coincided with the years of Colonel Frederick Dent’s arrival in Missouri (1817), his financial success as a merchant in the fur trade in St. Louis, his purchase in 1820 of the White Haven farm, and the time when U. S. Grant courted and married Julia, Colonel Dent’s first born daughter.

     Benton, as I wrote in an earlier post, was a dedicated Democrat and supporter of Andrew Jackson. Benton was a leading champion of westward expansion and a dedicated Unionist. It was his strong belief in the United States as a nation that led him to oppose South Carolina’s Democrat Senator John Calhoun during the debates over the Wilmot Proviso. Benton, a slave-owner himself, had no sympathy for the abolitionist cause, but he was also afraid that Calhoun’s unceasing attempts to protect slave-holders’ rights by uniting the southern slave states against the free states of the north threatened the disunion of the states. His fear that the Union was threatened by extremists on both sides of the slavery issue led him to oppose the expansion of slavery into the new territories. Missouri’s other Senator, David Rice Atchison, was firmly pro-slavery and quite willing to cooperate with Calhoun. Benton’s opposition to Calhoun, Atchison, and the expansion of slavery caused a bitter divide in the Democratic Party in Missouri between Benton and anti-Benton factions. (This division of the party over slavery issues wasn’t just limited to Missouri. There was a time when some prominent Democrats believed their party would actually become the anti-slavery party; Salmon P. Chase, for example.)   

       By the time of the elections of 1856, Benton’s influence had waned in Missouri. Partly this was due simply to the fact that he had been around so long, but also he found himself caught between the strongly pro-slavery faction of the Democratic Party in Missouri, led by Atchison, Claiborne Fox Jackson, and others, and the increasingly strident anti-slavery faction. Benton’s chief political lieutenants, Frank Blair and B. Gratz Brown, with their St. Louis German constituency, were becoming more and more outspoken in their opposition to slavery. To an extent, Benton had been with them, which is why the pro-slavery faction hated him. Benton opposed the expansion of slavery into new states and territories, but as Brown and others began agitating for the abolition of slavery in Missouri as well, Benton felt betrayed. What Benton really wanted was to just have everyone shut up about the slavery issue so the country could get on with its business growth and westward expansion. 

     Benton did not win the Governor’s seat in 1856. On August 4th he garnered a majority of votes in the St. Louis area, but out-state Missouri was overwhelmingly in favor of the proslavery anti-Benton faction. He lost to the proslavery Trusten Polk. 1856, of course, was the same year that the Republican Party ran its first candidate for President, John C. Fremont, Benton’s own son-in-law. Yet despite the high hopes of Blair and Brown, Benton refused to endorse his son-in-law. On November 3, 1856, Benton addressed a crowd in St. Louis. As one of Benton’s biographers wrote, “Frank Blair had built a strong following for Fremont, and the city’s vote might change the fate of America. Thomas Hart Benton knew this and had come for a last persuasive effort.” He endorsed James Buchanan, saying that although he loved and had supported Fremont in his western explorations,

“…knowing from the first that Mr. Fremont was to be the candidate of a sectional party, I told him that it was impossible that I could support any such nomination. No matter what came, he must be national, he must have a vision that could look over the Union. He must not be a dividing line, he must be national, or I [sic] cannot only not endorse him but I must take ground against him.”

When Buchanan won, Benton’s daughter, Jesse was convinced it had been her father’s influence that had cost her husband the White House.

     What is striking about this is how similar Benton’s views were to the explanation Ulysses S. Grant gave for voting for Buchanan. From his Memoirs:

     “It was evident to my mind that the election of a Republican President in 1856 meant the secession of all the Slave States, and rebellion. Under these circumstances I preferred the success of a candidate whose election would prevent or postpone secession, to seeing the country plunged into a war the end of which no man could foretell. With a Democrat elected by the unanimous vote of the Slave States, there could be no pretext for secession for four years. I very much hoped that the passions of the people would subside in that time, and the catastrophe could be averted altogether; if it was not, I believed the country would be better prepared to receive the shock and to resist it. I therefore voted for James Buchanan.”

    Did the great Democrat Thomas Hart Benton have an influence on Ulysses Grant? Grant himself wrote that he “was a Whig by education and a great admirer of Henry Clay.” But, in Missouri, the Whig party had never commanded a very large following, and over the years had either sat out elections or sided with one faction or another of the Democrats. By the mid 1850’s when Grant came to farm White Haven the Whig Party was disintegrating. As Grant wrote, “the Whig Party had ceased to exist before I had the privilege of casting a ballot.” (Note also that B. Gratz Brown had come from a strong Whig family background in Kentucky and had become a Benton Democrat.)

     In examining Benton’s possible influence on Grant, it is also intriguing to consider the views of Colonel Dent, but this is a challenge because there appears to be only second hand accounts of Colonel Dent’s politics, and often these are post-war reminiscences. Without doubt, Colonel Dent considered himself a Democrat. It has been said that this is why Grant did not get the County Engineer position in 1859; because he had been residing at White Haven living and working with his slave-holding Democrat father-in-law. But which faction of the Democrats in Missouri did Colonel Dent actually identify with? There are some clues. For example, as early as February 5, 1846, Grant wrote a letter to Julia from Texas in which he asked her, “Has John [Julia’s older brother] made application for an appointment in one of the new Regiments that are to be raised I hope he has not let the opportunity slip. With Mr. Benton’s influence he could probably get a Captaincy.”  Years later in January of 1854, Grant wrote Julia from Ft. Humboldt, California: “Hunt is making application for promotion in a new Regiment, should be raised this Winter, and any assistance that could be given by your father, or brother Lewis, in the way of writing to Col. Benton he would gladly receive, and, appreciate.” Clearly, Grant believed that there was a relationship of some importance between Benton and the Dents from early on. Was Dent still listening to Benton as Benton began to argue against the expansion of slavery?

     Colonel Dent is often painted as a fire-eating secessionist in complete opposition to his son-in-law, but the true picture of Colonel Dent and his relationship with his son-in-law is more complicated. On May 10th, 1861, the very day of the Camp Jackson affair, Grant was at the White Haven farm and wrote to Julia back in Galena: “Your father says he is for the Union but is opposed to having an army to sustain it. He would have a secession force march where they please uninterrupted and is really what I would call a secessionist.” On May 15, Grant wrote Julia, “As I told you your father professes to be a Union man yet condemns every measure for the preservation of the Union.”  Obviously, Grant and his father-in-law were not on the same page in 1861, but it is interesting to note Dent’s insistence that he is for the Union. Benton had died in 1858, and many of his supporters, under the leadership of Blair and Brown, became Republicans. One of the more fascinating what-if questions in American history is how would Andrew Jackson have responded to the secession crisis in 1861? This is equally true of Thomas Hart Benton. Was Colonel Dent, by this time an aging patriarch with a declining fortune, left politically rudderless with the passing of Benton? In her Memoirs, Julia recalled the scenes of patriotism she witnessed in Galena, Illinois in the spring of 1861. She remembered a torchlight parade and thought of it as a serpent out to “crush in its folds the beloved party of my father, of Jefferson, of General Jackson, of Douglas, and of Thomas Benton.”  And as I noted in an earlier post, there is the passage where she quotes her father in the midst of the war saying: “Good Heavens! If Jackson had been in the White House, this never would have happened. He would have hanged a score or two of them and the country would have been at peace. I knew we would have trouble when I voted for a man north of Mason and Dixon’s line.”

     I am not aware of any extant direct correspondence between Benton and Colonel Dent. Perhaps someone who has done more research knows of more evidence of the relationship between the two, but I think in some cases the differences of opinion between Grant and Dent in the 1850s have been exaggerated and I would like to know more about all this. As slim as the evidence appears to be, I don’t think we can have an accurate picture of Grant without a study of antebellum Missouri politics. Yesterday I asked, was Grant a Democrat? I still think the answer is…not really. But if he was, what kind of a Democrat was he?


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.


Missouri’s Statues In The U. S. Capitol

      Several years ago my wife and I visited Washington D.C. for the first and only time. We took the tour through the Capitol building which was a thrilling experience for us, having both spent our entire lives on the west coast. Prior to this visit I did not know about Statuary Hall or that each state has contributed two statues of important people. You can read about the history of Statuary Hall here. My guess is that there are many people who don’t know about this and that few can name the two people representing their state. How many Missourians know that the two statues contributed by Missouri are Thomas Hart Benton and Frank Blair?

     The law that created Statuary Hall was passed in 1864 and reads:

…the President is hereby authorized to invite each and all the States to provide and furnish statues, in marble or bronze, not exceeding two in number for each State, of deceased persons who have been citizens thereof, and illustrious for their historic renown or for distinguished civic or military services such as each State may deem to be worthy of this national commemoration; and when so furnished the same shall be placed in the Old Hall of the House of Representatives, in the Capitol of the United States, which is set apart, or so much thereof as may be necessary, as a national statuary hall for the purpose herein indicated.

 This is a rather vague criterion, hence there are, what I would term, some highly questionable choices; for example, Virginia has none other than Robert E. Lee standing there in the Capitol of the government he made war upon. Somehow I doubt that the men who passed the law in 1864 would ever have expected to see Lee included. It is also interesting to note that the states may at any time change the statues. This has happened recently; Michigan replaced Zachariah Chandler with Gerald Ford and California replaced Thomas Starr King with Ronald Reagan. These are interesting and debatable choices. The process by which the choices are made is also interesting, as noted by the bloggers to which I linked.

     All of this has had me wondering about the selection of Benton and Blair. Certainly, there are any number of Missourians who might have been or could be honored with a statue, so why Blair and Benton?  To this end I sent an e mail to the Missouri State Archives and received this very kind reply:

Dear Mr. Pollock:

 I have checked the Journals of the Missouri House and Senate during the period 1893 – 1899.   The bill to set up a commission to carry out the directive to have statues of Benton and Blair passed in 1895 and the commission reported that the work was completed in 1899.  I can tell you that the bill was sponsored by Rep. John L. Bittinger, Republican, of Buchanan County, but I didn’t find any information about why Benton and Blair were chosen or if others were considered.

 The bill itself has only general language – which I think came from the federal act – that Benton and Blair were “illustrious for their historic renown and distinguished for their civil and military services.”  We don’t have legislative records other than the published journals for this time period because so many records were lost in the 1911 Capitol fire.

 In 1899 there was also legislation to pay for a cemetery memorial for Benton and in that case there was a statement entered in the journal about Benton’s contribution to the state.  It’s not directly on point to your inquiry but I suppose it illuminates something of the esteem in which he was held at the time.  I could send you a copy of that document if you’d like to see it.

 I don’t know if there has ever been consideration given to replacing either statue and it wouldn’t be practical to try to search for that in archival records without a specific date range to search.

 You might find more information in a search of historical newspapers.  Here’s one site you might take a look at if you’d like to attempt that: http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/search/pages/

 Thank you for your inquiry.  Please let us know if we can be of further assistance.


 Robyn B.


 Missouri State Archives

 What a shame that the legislative records were lost to a fire! I have not yet tried to search for newspaper accounts on this, but I might at some point. I did do a quick google search for John Bittinger, who turned out to be quite a fascinating individual himself. This from an 1881 biographical sketch caught my eye:

 “Mr. Bittinger, while in no sense a partisan, has always taken an active part in politics as a member of the Republican party.  In 1862, he was a delegate and Secretary of the first Emancipation State Convention ever held in Missouri, and has been chosen a delegate to every Republican State Convention since the organization of the party.  In 1872, he was a delegate to the National Republican Convention held in Philadelphia, which nominated President Grant for a second term, and was also a member of the Republican State Central Committee for many years.”

So, Bittinger, a Republican, was instrumental in having Benton (a life-long Democrat) and Blair (who, although a founding member of the Republican party in Missouri, quickly reverted back to the Democrats after the war) chosen to represent Missouri in the U. S. Capital. I also find it intriguing that Bittinger attended the Emancipation Convention which was a creation of B. Gratz Brown. I will be writing about that later.

Finally, I wonder how long it will be before someone or some group decides that Missouri should change their statues. I’m actually a bit surprised Benton and Blair (Blair in particular) have stayed so long.


Carl Schurz

     The New York Times piece today, written by Ted Widmer, focuses on the most prominent German-American of the 19th century. Carl Schurz was one of the most dedicated and hard-working supporters of Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party in 1860. At the Republican national convention, the ambitious German immigrant was appointed a member of the official notification committee which travelled to Lincoln’s home in Springfield, Illinois, to formally tender the party’s nomination for President of the United States.  Schurz had been a supporter of Lincoln’s rival for the nomination, William Seward, but he quickly set about campaigning for Lincoln’s election. As his biographer wrote,

     Schurz promptly went about establishing his planned speakers’ network. His wide-flung correspondence attests to his efforts from Connecticut to California and the hard work of the Republican National Committee’s foreign department. It was the first systematic attempt to corral the ethnic vote.[1]   

     Traveling from city to city, he covered over twenty-one thousand miles, giving speeches that were often reprinted as pamphlets. In late summer, Schurz returned to Springfield for a speaking engagement. Lincoln called on Schurz at his hotel, invited him to his home for supper, and accompanied him to the hall where Schurz gave speeches in both English and German. Lincoln stayed for both, even though he couldn’t understand German. From Springfield, Schurz crossed the Mississippi to St. Louis, where he gave a speech he titled “The Doom of Slavery.”

     He minced no words. The “Irrepressible Conflict,” he said, was not a mere quarrel between North and South, but a struggle between two societies, one slave and the other free. In the long run, slavery could not exist without encroaching upon freedom; consequently, it must be contained. As the nineteenth century was the century of progress, could slaveholders really believe that the peculiar institution could last forever? “Slaveholders of America,” he explained, “I appeal to you. Are you really in earnest when you speak of perpetuating slavery? Shall it never cease? Never? Stop and consider where you are and in what day you live.”[2]

The Germans of St. Louis would have been a receptive audience because, in addition to their natural enmity to aristocracy which is how they viewed the slaveholding planter class, they had already been fed a steady diet of Free-Soil anti-slavery rhetoric from their political leaders, B. Gratz Brown and Frank Blair, for several years.

      As Widmer’s article relates, Schurz was rewarded for his efforts with an appointment as Minister to Spain. Interestingly, in light of later events, Schurz was given the appointment at a time when relations between the United States and Spain were strained because of Spain’s reannexation of Santo Domingo. Upon arrival in Madrid, Schurz was presented at court immediately after the United States had lodged a strong protest against this. Schurz realized that the United States could ill-afford a complicating foreign war, however, and he therefore advised Secretary of State Seward to let the matter slide. By the time Schurz left Spain, newspaper attacks on the United States had stopped and Spain had refrained from intervening in the Civil War.

     Schurz returned to the United States to “get his military experience.” He was eventually appointed Major General and put in charge of the Eleventh Corps, but his quick rise in rank was resented not only by West Pointers, but also by many of the Germans. There were rumors that Schurz had used his good political connections to have the popular Franz Sigel removed from command. At Chancellorsville, Schurz’s division sustained 23 percent casualties, and the New York Times blamed the entire calamity on the Eleventh Corps in general and Schurz in particular. Schurz personally protested that the accusations were unfounded.

     The fair-minded Chicago Tribune might come to the corps’ defense; most later historians might absolve it from blame, but the controversy about the Germans at Chancellorsville was never fully laid to rest. “I fights mit Schurz und runs mit Schurz” sneered the army.[3]  

     Widmer concludes:  

     Following the war, Schurz pursued a long and brilliant political career that included stints as Senator from Missouri, an enlightened secretary of the interior, and an important role as a government reformer and anti-imperialist at a time when those principled stands were not especially popular.

 I would argue that to call Schurz’s post-war political career “brilliant” is a stretch. But I will save that for future posts.

[1] Hans L. Trefousse, Carl Schurz: A Biography (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1982), 87.

[2] Ibid, 89-90.

[3] Ibid, 135.