Yesterday, there was a re-enactment in Montgomery, Alabama of the inauguration of Jefferson Davis as President of the short-lived Confederate States of America. Kevin has covered this at Civil War Memory. The actual event took place on February 18, 1861, which was a Monday. That very same day, six hundred miles north, in St. Louis and across Missouri, voters went to the polls to elect delegates to a convention to consider the relations “between the Government of the United States, the people and the governments of the different states and the government and the people of the State of Missouri; and to adopt such measures for vindicating the sovereignty of the state and the protection of its institutions as shall appear to them to be demanded.”
In January, the newly-elected governor of Missouri, Claiborne Fox Jackson, had taken office. In his Inaugural Address, Jackson had made it quite clear exactly where his sympathies lay. While he professed hope that civil war could still be averted and the Union saved, he unequivocally stated that in his opinion the destiny of Missouri and the slaveholding states was “one and the same.” He insisted that Missouri’s “honor, her interests, and her sympathies point alike in one direction, and determine her to stand by the south.” Jackson requested that the convention be called, and that a militia bill be passed that would give the governor sweeping military powers. There is little question that the majority of the legislature agreed with Jackson’s views. Although they refused to pass the militia bill, they immediately gave approval for the convention.
To most Missourians this prompt action by the legislature appeared to be a direct call for secession. Conventions in other slave-holding states had already passed secession ordinances. Federal installations and arsenals were already being seized across the South. On January 9 the Star of the West had been fired on while trying to re-supply Fort Sumter in South Carolina. On January 7 the pro-secession “Minute Men” were organized in St. Louis. To Frank Blair, even the mere consideration of secession was treasonous. He began to organize “Wide-Awake” Home Guard units in St. Louis. He also organized a “Committee of Public Safety” consisting of St. Louis Mayor O.D. Filley, James O. Broadhead, Samuel T. Glover, John How, and J.J. Witzig.
On January 11, there was a meeting of Republicans in St. Louis at which Blair insisted that there were only two parties in the country, one for the Union and the other for disunion. Given that Republicans had only accounted for ten percent of the vote in the recent elections, it was obvious to Blair that a coalition of parties opposed to secession would be necessary to combat Jackson and the secessionists. To affect this, the Wide-Awakes were disbanded, and the Republican organization was temporarily dissolved in favor of a more inclusive Union party. On January 12 there was a meeting of conditional Union men headed by men like Hamilton Gamble, Lewis Bogy and others in St. Louis, who were opposed to secession, but also opposed to the coercion of seceded states. 15,000 attended. Most of these would eventually join forces with Blair, and the other unconditional Unionists in opposition to Jackson.
On February 18, the issue was clear, should Missouri secede or not? However, there were three factions; the unconditional Union men, led by Blair, Gratz Brown, Glover, Broadhead, Filley, Edward Bates, and William McKee; Conditional Unionists led by Gamble, Alexander W. Doniphan, Sterling Price, Nathaniel Pacshall, and others; and the secessionists led by Jackson, Senators Green and Polk, and Lt. Governor Reynolds. Approximately 140,000 votes were cast; 110,000 for Union delegates and 30,000 for secessionist delegates. It would seem apparent that not all Missourians agreed with their new governor. Not a single avowed secessionist delegate was elected to the convention. Nevertheless, it would become apparent in the coming months that some conditional Unionists had little real commitment to the Union.
One historian has written that “a wave of rejoicing swept over the North at the news from Missouri of February 18. New heart was put into Union men of East Tennessee. The loyal sons of Virginia’s mountain counties were encouraged to stand out against secession, to separate from their State when it joined the confederacy, and to form themselves into the commonwealth of West Virginia, and a powerful factor was contributed to the sum of influence which held Maryland and Kentucky in the Union.”
This weekend, probably few Missourians stopped to consider the election that took place on February 18, 1861. It was not re-enacted and certainly did not get the attention accorded the Davis inaugural. That’s too bad. It was unquestionably portentous in the unfolding drama.