Category Archives: Biographies

Finding Missouri Governor and Union Brigadier General Thomas C. Fletcher in Hillsboro

This post was originally published on Emerging Civil War by Kristen M. Pawlak on December 26, 2020.

For many history buffs and road trippers, rural Jefferson County, Missouri is usually not very high – or maybe not at all – on the Civil War bucket list of sites to see. Sitting due south of St. Louis is the county seat, Hillsboro, where one of Missouri’s most influential Civil War and Reconstruction governors had his antebellum home.

Located in Hillsboro, Missouri is the 1850s home of Missouri Governor and Civil War veteran Thomas C. Fletcher. Courtesy of the author.

Bvt. Brigadier General and Missouri Governor Thomas C. Fletcher was actually born in Jefferson County, specifically the town of Herculaneum. The first county seat of Jefferson County (until the 1830s), Herculaneum was known for its lead mining and production, as well as its proximity to St. Louis, which is what most likely drew Fletcher’s parents to immigrate there from Maryland prior to his birth in 1827.[1] His family was well-off financially, having owned several slaves, and allowed him to receive an education and pursue a career in law.

Fletcher was quite politically active early in his adult life and career. At the age of 22, he became Circuit Clerk in Jefferson County; and after seven years of clerk service, Fletcher was admitted to the bar. It was while he served as the Circuit Clerk in Jefferson County’s seat of Hillsboro that he lived in this quaint home. Unlike his parents and upbringing in a slave-owning household, he became a Republican and abolitionist in the mid-1850s. Fletcher’s loyalty to the Republican Party and county greatly shaped the rest of his career and life.

A portrait of Col. Thomas C. Fletcher in his Federal uniform. Courtesy of Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield.

A love of Union, freedom, and equality, as well as having a distinguished political career, led Fletcher to become a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1860. When the Civil War broke out, two of his brothers – Perry and Charles – both enlisted in the 6th Missouri Infantry. In an accident at the St. Louis Arsenal in June 1861, Sgt. Perry Fletcher died. Two years later in October 1862, Fletcher enlisted and became Colonel of the 31st Missouri Infantry.  At the Battle of Chickasaw Bayou during the Vicksburg Campaign, he was captured by Confederate forces and imprisoned at the infamous Libby Prison until the spring of 1863. Though he was able to command troops in the field with the Army of the Tennessee, Fletcher was forced to return to Jefferson County in early 1864 due to lingering illness.

By the early fall of 1864, as Maj. Gen. Sterling Price’s Army of Missouri advanced into Missouri, a recovered Fletcher organized the 47th Missouri Infantry. Part of the Union garrison at Fort Davidson, Fletcher and the 47th Missouri were heavily involved in the Battle of Pilot Knob on September 27, 1864. Though forced to withdraw from Fort Davidson after repeated Confederate attacks, the battle itself was a major factor into why Price did not attack the vital Union city of St. Louis. Additionally, the political aspirations of Fletcher and the garrison’s overall commander Thomas Ewing contributed to the Federals’ decision to stay at Fort Davidson and fight it out against Price. Fletcher’s involvement in the battle, which certainly contributed to Union victory in the overall campaign, led to his promotion to brevet brigadier general.

Just two months after commanding troops in the field at Pilot Knob, Fletcher won a decisive victory over Democrat Thomas Price in the Missouri gubernatorial election of 1864. A border state, Missouri was immune to the Emancipation Proclamation, allowing slavery in her borders due to her loyalty to the Union. With his strong abolitionist beliefs, Fletcher was determined to end slavery.

On January 11, 1865, he helped lead Missouri and the General Assembly to formally abolish slavery in the state. That day at the Missouri State Capitol, Fletcher addressed the state with a public endorsement of abolition: “In the lightning’s chirography the fact is written ere this over the whole land – Missouri is Free! … Forever be this day celebrated by our people.”[2] Just twenty days later, Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery nationwide. Fletcher holds a special legacy in Missouri as helping lead the charge to end slavery in this divided border state.

Serving from 1865 to 1869, Fletcher oversaw Missouri’s tumultuous post-war era. Unlike the states in the former Confederate South, Missouri was not under Congressional Reconstruction. However, it faced fierce division between Republican wings and what a post-war Missouri would look like. Fletcher’s administration addressed issues regarding state railroad debt, education reform, post-war violence, Native American rights and the Constitutionality of test oaths.[3]

After his governorship, Fletcher returned to the practice of law, first in St. Louis then in Washington, DC. He ran for U.S. Congress in 1880, but lost. He passed away at the age of 72 in Washington, DC and was interred at St. Louis’ famous Bellefontaine Cemetery.

As Missouri’s first Republican and first native-born son to serve as Missouri Governor, Fletcher is a remarkable figure in Missouri, Civil War, and Reconstruction history. Leading the fight for abolition in Missouri and leading the state through some of its most chaotic years, he should be remembered more often. Next time you are in the St. Louis area, make sure a visit to Fletcher’s modest, unassuming, but beautifully-preserved home in Hillsboro is on the list.

Sources:

  1. History of Franklin, Jefferson, Washington, Crawford, & Gasconade Counties, Missouri (Cape Girardeau, MO: Ramfire Press, 1958), 427.
  2. Thomas C. Fletcher, Missouri’s Jubilee (Jefferson City, MO: W.A. Curry, 1865), 4.
  3. “Reconstruction in Missouri,” Community & Conflict: The Impact of the Civil War in the Ozarks, accessed December 23, 2020, https://ozarkscivilwar.org/themes/reconstruction.

A Member of the 8th Missouri Infantry Reflects on Why He Enlisted

This blog post was originally posted on Emerging Civil War by Kristen M. Pawlak, the same author of Missouri’s Civil War Blog.

One of the most thorough and remarkable diaries I have come across from a Missouri soldier is from a non-commissioned officer in the 8th Missouri Infantry. A German immigrant and Peoria, Illinois resident, Phillip A. Smith joined the “American Zouaves” regiment in St. Louis in the summer of 1861. Like many Missouri Union regiments, the 8th Missouri was largely composed of German immigrants (even though Brig. Gen. Nathaniel Lyon wanted more native-born Americans for this unit, hence the name) and built primarily of Missourians and Illinoians.

Sgt. Phillip A. Smith donned in his 8th Missouri Infantry Zouave uniform. Courtesy of the Peoria Historical Society.

On July 22, 1861, just days after mustering in at the St. Louis Arsenal and encamped at Jefferson City, the state capital that had been occupied by Federal forces at the start of the 1861 Missouri Campaign, Smith laid in bed and penned this diary entry about why he enlisted for three years of service in the Union Army. He reflected on the developing crisis, the rebellion, and “the slave question.” At that time, Lyon’s Army of the West was on an offensive campaign in pursuit of Maj. Gen. Sterling Price’s Missouri State Guard into southwestern Missouri. Smith, fervently pro-Union and antislavery, was deeply disturbed and angry toward Confederates, as seen below.

Continue reading

When Nathaniel Lyon Court Martialed the Second Cousin of Robert E. Lee

In the years prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, well over two-hundred future field commanders in the war were stationed in Missouri. These soldiers included Robert E. Lee, Ulysses Grant, James Longstreet, William T. Sherman, Braxton Bragg, and many others. They were trained and drilled on the parade ground of Jefferson Barracks Military Post located only a few miles south of St. Louis along the Mississippi River.

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Willie Lee is shown on the far left with a war-time image of Jefferson Barracks and Nathaniel Lyon on the right. Courtesy of the Reeves Family, Civil War Scholars, Missouri Civil War Museum, and The State Historical Society of Missouri.

Though many – like Ulysses Grant and J.E.B. Stuart – largely had positive experiences serving near one of the largest cities in the United States, some soldiers’ services at Jefferson Barracks were blotted with challenges. One of these soldiers was Lieutenant William “Willie” Fitzhugh Lee. Continue reading

Sketching Missouri’s Civil War

Iowa sketch artist Alexander Simplot was to the Trans-Mississippi Theater as Alfred Waud was to the East. With pencil and paper in hand and the pseudonym “A.S. Leclerc,” Simplot was tasked by Harper’s Weekly and the New York Illustrated News to visually document the Civil War in action from 1861 to 1863, particularly focusing on the war along and west of the Mississippi River. Interestingly enough, he was assigned to the Army of the West in the summer and early fall of 1861, and sketched parts of Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon’s campaign through Missouri. Simplot also sketched in St. Louis soon after, where he drew scenes of naval engineer James Eads’ gunboats and the Department of the West.

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Alexander Simplot’s portrait on the left, with a drawing made of a Civil War sketch artist in action. Courtesy of FindaGrave and George Mason University.

A native of Dubuque, Iowa, Simplot was born in 1837 into one of the most wealthy families of the region. Though looked down upon by his successful father, he developed a love of art at an early age. When civil war broke out in April 1861, Simplot had already graduated from Union College in New York and was working as a teacher in his hometown. A demand for sketch artists by newspapers encouraged him to sketch local scenes of the war. After visually documenting the mobilization of Iowa troops in Dubuque, Simplot sent his work to Harper’s Weekly, who immediately expressed interest in further employing him as a special artist. He had found his calling. Continue reading

Major Horace A. Conant and the Planter’s House Hotel Meeting

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Two illustrations show the Planter’s House Hotel ca. 1860, as well as the fateful meeting on June 11, 1861. Note the image on the right leaves out Snead and Conant – two forgotten individuals at the meeting. There was also no image of Conant to be found. Courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society and the Civil War Muse.

Many of us know the story of the infamous Planter’s House Hotel meeting on June 11, 1861. The six most-influential political and military leaders in the State of Missouri at the start of the American Civil War – Major General Sterling Price, Governor Claiborne Jackson, Thomas Snead, Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon, Colonel Francis P. Blair, and Major Horace Conant – met in St. Louis’ Planter’s House Hotel to prevent the outbreak of war within the state’s borders. Five of the six attendees of the meeting are very well known in Missouri Civil War lexicon. The only one who many are not aware of is Major Horace Conant, Nathaniel Lyon’s aide. Continue reading

One of Hannibal’s Railroad Men

Many of us know famed Missouri author Mark Twain’s short story, “The Private History of a Campaign That Failed,” which he pokes fun at his two-week-long service in the pro-Confederate Marion Rangers company. Not particularly invested in the greater issues of secession and slavery, Twain joined the unit following the Camp Jackson Affair, saying “our state was invaded by the Union forces.” While many men from Hannibal and Marion County, Missouri identified with the pro-Missouri and pro-Confederate cause, there were still many from that area who felt otherwise and supported the state remaining with the Union.

John Jay and Elizabeth Treat, ca. 1860. Courtesy of Paul Blackham.

Pvt. John Jay Treat (known as “Jay” to his wife) of Hannibal was one of those men, who volunteered to serve in the Home Guard and the Enrolled Missouri Militia throughout the war. His great-great-great grandson kindly sent me John’s information, letters, and photographs to share with all of you on the blog. Continue reading

A Missouri Militiaman’s War

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Pvt. Samuel H. Flint in Federal cavalry uniform. Courtesy of FindaGrave.

Throughout the war in Missouri, both Federal and State cavalry units were vital to protecting and securing lines of communication and supply routes. Unlike in many other theaters of the war, Missouri cavalrymen had to defend these lifelines and maintain law and order. For Pvt. Samuel Hamilton Flint, a member of both the 7th Provisional Enrolled Missouri Militia and the 15th Missouri Cavalry, was representative of many other Missouri men who enlisted in Union units; they were literally defending their own homes and families from the enemy.

Born and raised in the Ozark Highlands of Johnson Township, Polk County, Missouri in 1841, Flint was the oldest of four children of two Lexington, Virginia natives. Sometime before 1840, Ezekial and Mary Jane settled in southwest Missouri, similar to many other settlers from the upper South. Missouri’s vast rivers, fertile land, rich mineral deposits, ability to trade, no restrictions on slavery according the Missouri Compromise, and the capacity to invest in new land encouraged thousands to settle in the former Louisiana Territory. Additionally, the Old Wire Road led people from St. Louis to Springfield and beyond to Fort Smith, Arkansas. Like other settlers, the Flint family invested in their family farm. Continue reading

A Wounded Missourian Photographed by Surgeon Reed B. Bontecou

For over two years, renowned Union volunteer surgeon Reed Brockway Bontecou photographed hundreds of wounded soldiers – both Federal and Confederate – while serving as the chief surgeon of the U.S. General Hospital “Harewood” in Washington, DC. With the unprecedented number of wounded and sick, as well as the variety of grotesque combat injuries, Bontecou began photographing soldiers and recording their information. A pioneer of medical photography, he archived these case studies at the Army Medical Museum (now, the National Museum of Health and Medicine), making him the single largest contributor of medical photography to the museum.

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Sgt. Joseph Young’s portrait by Reed Bontecou at Harewood Hospital in Washington, DC. Courtesy of the National Museum of Health and Medicine.

Though Bontecou himself is fascinating, it is the soldier is what I am most intrigued by. Their blank faces reveal their suffering and pain, but it is most important that their are identified.  Each of the portraits depict the soldier either before or after their operations, showing off their wounds, injuries, or infections. It is up to the historian to dig apart their stories. Continue reading

A Son of Germany and the United States

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Major General Peter J. Osterhaus in 1864. Courtesy of Welt. 

Considered to be one of the most capable and effective commanders in the Western Theater of the Civil War, Peter J. Osterhaus was an adopted son of the United States, born in Coblenz, the government seat of the Rhine Province in the German Confederation, in 1823. Finding a passion in military service, Osterhaus entered the Berlin Military Academy and later served in the Prussian Army for the required one year of service. However, in 1848, like many young Germans, he actively supported the democratic and classic liberal revolutions in his home country. He joined the revolutionary army and hoped to use his military experience against the Prussian Army at Baden. By 1849, however, the revolutions against the monarchies of Europe were crushed, forcing many of the revolutionaries to flee their homelands for the world’s foremost democracy, the United States. Continue reading

The 6th Missouri’s Irish Surgeon Left for Dead at Port Gibson

One of the most fascinating stories of survival and fortitude from the Civil War comes from Port Gibson, Mississippi in 1863. Irish immigrant, surgeon, and now combat officer, Major James Lawlor Kiernan was severely wounded and was nearly captured in the wet, murky swamps near the Mississippi River, following one of the initial engagements of the Vicksburg Campaign.

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Brigadier General James Lawlor Kieran between 1863 and 1864. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The son of a British naval surgeon, Kiernan was born in a small Franciscan Catholic farming village in County Galway, Ireland in 1837. Well-educated and intelligent, he was enrolled at Trinity College in Dublin in 1854, but immigrated to the United States soon after, where he subsequently graduated from New York University’s Academy of Medicine in 1857. Living in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, he and his brother-in-law both practiced medicine and even edited their own weekly medical newspaper named the New York Medical Press until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. Continue reading