Was the Civil War in St. Louis over in an afternoon or three decades?

Posted on Tuesday, August 2, 2011 - 9:57am

One hundred and fifty years on, our understanding of the Civil War is richer than ever, as we acknowledge the cross-cutting loyalties of St. Louis residents, living out the war in a Union city in a slave state, along the border of slavery and freedom.

But here’s a basic question to reconsider: When was the Civil War? A standard answer might be 1861 to 1865, starting with Fort Sumter and ending with General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Most would allow Abraham Lincoln’s election might be an earlier start, and the last battle between Union and Confederate forces, at Palmito Ranch, Texas, on May 13, 1865, a better end-date.

My research suggests two far different answers for the Civil War in St. Louis: the Civil War was either over in one afternoon, or it consumed the city for three decades, from 1848 to 1877.

The afternoon in question is May 10, 1861, at Camp Jackson, when the Confederate-leaning officers of the state militia surrendered to a combination force of federal troops and German American volunteers. Camp Jackson’s commanding general Daniel Frost called the order from U.S. Arsenal commander Nathaniel Lyon to surrender “illegal and unconstitutional,” but he still complied. When the shooting began after the surrender, it was a harbinger of how hard it would be to maintain the peace in Missouri.

St. Louis saw no true Civil War battle. Though the city had street fights, the real battles were south and west, behind retreating Confederates and along the border with Kansas. Many St. Louisans—and Union General Lyon—died fighting, but far from home. The city was instead an administrative center, mustering soldiers building ironclad ships, and tending to the wounded and refugees.

In 1864, Confederate General Sterling Price led a raid toward St. Louis but his dramatic failure to capture Union troops at the Battle at Pilot Knob, about 90 miles south of St. Louis, lifted the fear of war from the city once again. 

In the months after Appomattox, Price fled to Mexico with many other Missouri Confederates, seeking to challenge their defeat; meanwhile, U.S. Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.) from Missouri who had served at Palmito Ranch raised funds to form a school, the future Lincoln University in Jefferson City, to honor the assassinated president and advance the cause of equal rights.

Price and the U.S.C.T. regiment are only the most prominent examples of how the Civil War did not end when the fighting did—any more than it had begun with the winter of 1860-1861. Questions over slavery and westward expansion had divided the nation since at least the Missouri statehood debate, and shaped Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton’s campaign for a transcontinental railroad, as well as the Dred Scott decision.

At the sesquicentennial, we should commemorate the events of one afternoon at Camp Jackson, the closest St. Louis came to a Civil War battle. But as we consider the Civil War in St. Louis and the nation as a whole, we need to remember its conflict shook the culture for decades—before, after, and ever since.


Adam Arenson is the author of the new book The Great Heart of the Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War < >, published by Harvard University Press. He is an assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at El Paso. See a timeline of events in St. Louis, read Civil War Era primary sources online, and learn about places to visit at http://adamarenson.com