If the Civil War had a dramatic impact on the economy and population of St. Louis its impact on rural Missouri – particularly west and south of St. Louis – was catastrophic. The first major Civil War battle fought west of the Mississippi River (Wilson’s Creek in 1861) and later the largest (Westport in 1864) were fought in Missouri. The southern and western borders of the state were ravaged by guerrilla warfare.
Accounts and images relating to Missouri’s pivotal role in the War Between the States are powerfully framed in one of the Missouri History Museum’s finest exhibits in recent memory. The Civil War in Missouri should resonate not only with Missourians statewide but with all Americans commemorating 2011 – 2015 the deadliest man-made disaster in the nation’s history.
For what happened in Missouri did not stay in Missouri but bled out of our borders westward into Kansas and Texas, and eastward into Georgia and Mississippi. Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman were both civilians when they witnessed insurrection in the streets of St. Louis in the spring of 1861. Steeled by the incalculable human losses which they later observed in battle, they were determined to end the war as expediently and as finally as possible.
Had the Federal Arsenal at St. Louis fallen to secessionists, as had the Federal Arsenal at Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Grant believed the Union would not have won the war. Enormous amounts of ammunition were at stake that in the final weeks and hours of the Civil War proved critical.
Captain Nathaniel Lyon’s decisive if peremptory actions in surrounding the Missouri Militia at Camp Jackson in 1861 prevented the arsenal’s capture but resulted in a street riot that inflamed rural Missourians to enlist for the Confederacy in such great numbers that the negatives nearly outweighed the benefits.
James Buchanan Eads’ design and construction of ironclads at Carondelet enabled Union forces to break the Confederacy’s blockade of the Mississippi south of Memphis and get much needed ammunition and medical supplies to federal troops, quite literally turning the tide of war on the western front.
Thereby allowing Union forces under the command of Major General Ulysses S. Grant to take Vicksburg, Mississippi and divide the Confederacy in half.
These stories and many others are depicted in the History Museum’s The Civil War in Missouri.
Whether you know the stories well or they are new to you, the opportunity to view such artifacts as the Coroner’s Record Book with the pages containing names and ages of St. Louisans killed in street riots, medical instruments used to treat the wounded of both sides on hospital boats and in city hospitals, handmade quilts created to raise income to aid refugees at the Mississippi Valley Sanitary Fair here in St. Louis or rural Missouri and photographs of men, women and children, black and white, who were drawn into the Civil War in Missouri, is priceless.
The Civil War in Missouri Exhibit offers a powerful, vicarious experience of an event so devastating in our communal history that it cannot be over-emphasized. Indeed it has been suggested that had the Union not held in the wake of civil war, Independence Day would not survive as a national holiday.
I highly recommend this exhibit to school groups from the fourth grade up. Since the exhibit runs through March 16, 2013 at the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis teachers have ample time to plan class outings.
I also believe that younger children should have the opportunity to explore The Civil War in Missouri with their families, with parents and grandparents. Adults with children might wander the exhibit in a leisurely way stopping to explain or discuss (using the information provided) whatever painting, illustration or artifact captures the attention of their child.
It doesn’t matter how many of the exhibit pieces the children choose. Subliminally they will absorb quite a lot, and they will focus upon what particularly interests them and what they can handle.
Parents may want to plan their own time to view The Civil War in Missouri at length for it is many-faceted and excellently done.
Interactive displays allow visitors to visualize geographic landscapes, the topography of Missouri – its creeks, rivers and countryside transformed into battlefields – as well as the unfolding of Union and Confederate strategies.
Numerous artifacts and works of art personalize the experiences of soldiers, slaves and freed slaves, and illustrate the plight of refugees – some innocent victims whose homes and farms were destroyed, some newly arrived immigrants to St. Louis.
The Missouri Historical Society ( housed in the Jefferson Memorial in Forest Park since shortly after the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904) was established in St. Louis in 1866 “for the purpose of saving from oblivion the early history of the city and state”.*
Fortunately its founding members, having barely survived the Civil War and seen enormous changes in St. Louis and Missouri even within the prior three decades, realized the need for such an initiative.
If you are traveling to St. Louis to visit The Civil War in Missouri Exhibit you will find it in the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park, where a huge sculpture of President Thomas Jefferson by Karl Bitter dominates the north entrance. Constructed with proceeds from the world’s fair that commemorated the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase, it was the first national monument erected to Thomas Jefferson in the United States.
Handsomely designed in 1911 by Isaac Taylor, supervising architect of the 1904 World’s Fair, the Jefferson Memorial makes up the northern section of the Missouri History Museum, a treasure trove that includes splendid remnants of that fair and a model of Charles Lindbergh’s The Spirit of St. Louis, which local businessmen financed.
* Excerpt from the Mission Statement of the Missouri Historical Society
Illustrations: Battle of Westport Mural in the Missouri State Capitol Building and Destruction of Lawrence Kansas by William Quantrell – pen & ink illustration from Harper’s Weekly Magazine, September 5, 1863 – both in the public domain at wikipedia.org.; Admiral Porter’s Fleet Running the Blockade of the Mississippi River at Vicksburg, April 16, 1863.
All photos taken within The Civil War in Missouri Exhibition and the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park were taken with my cell phone, without a flash, strictly for educational and non-commercial purposes.