A Rare Sight of Union Troops Drilling in Missouri

St. Louis photographer Robert Benecke took this image sometime during the Civil War, its location documented as Missouri. Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Every day I am amazed by the number of primary sources that I have never stumbled upon before, especially with Missouri Civil War-related sources. To be fair, though, I have only been digging around for this kind of material since I started working at the Missouri Civil War Museum in 2011. Nonetheless, I am familiar with the many archives and repositories that contain photographs from the war in Missouri.

Recently, I came across this fascinating image from the J. Paul Getty Museum, showing Union troops in formation across from a row of A-framed tents. This is a rare image from the Trans-Mississippi, where you typically do not see much photography of scenes like this compared to the Eastern Theater. In far background, you can see a crowd of civilians watching the troops in clean uniforms, making me think this could be early war. Also in the background is a large building. Could this possibly be Benton Barracks, the Arsenal, or Jefferson Barracks? What do you think?

Photographer Robert Benecke after the war. Courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions.

The location is most like St. Louis, though, because German-American photographer Robert Benecke worked in a studio with well-known photographer Hermann Hoelke by 1862 in St. Louis (precisely at 4th and Market Streets). Benecke may have been inclined to take this image, because he himself served in the 18th Missouri Infantry until December 1861 when he received an eye injury, leading to his medical discharge. During the war, he would take additional photographs of downtown St. Louis and Benton Barracks.

We also have no information on the unit. Just because it may have been taken in St. Louis does not mean these were Missouri Union soldiers. We know many Union units passed through St. Louis, including those from Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Colorado, and others. Some United States Colored Troops units were also mustered and trained in St. Louis. Without insignia, individual identification, or the ability to examine their colors, we may never know. If you have any clues that you see in the photograph, comment below.

A crowd of civilians – possibly family members, friends, or supporters of the Union – watches the perfectly-aligned troops.
The line is two-men deep and the men here appear to be distracted by the photographer’s presence.
Here is a close-up of the building in the background. Possibly one of the St. Louis Arsenal buildings, Jefferson Barracks, or Benton Barracks?

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