A Rare Sight of Union Troops Drilling in Missouri

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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? Continue reading “A Rare Sight of Union Troops Drilling in Missouri”

Freedom Fighters of Missouri

Over 8,000 African Americans from Missouri – mostly former enslaved – volunteered to fight for freedom in the Union Army in 1862 with the Confiscation Acts. Not until the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 did the Government approve of the mass mobilization of all-Black units for combat in the infantry, cavalry, and artillery. On May 22, the Bureau of Colored Troops was established by the War Department to handle the recruitment and mobilization of United States Colored Troops units. From that day forth, all African American units were to be designated as such. In total, about 190,000 joined the USCTs, making up for one-tenth of the entire Union Army by 1865.

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1 Sgt. William Messley of the 62nd USCTs. Courtesy of Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield

Below, I have compiled a list of the USCT units that were organized in Missouri during the war. The 8,000 men from Missouri that enlisted in these units joined mostly out of determination to achieve freedom from bondage, not necessarily to fight for country and union. Pay, stability, manhood, and the ability to finally independently care for their wives and children were many of the driving factors that encouraged their enlistment. For former Missouri slaves who fled to free territory in Kansas, where ardent abolitionists welcomed them, the stakes for freedom were even greater. These same troops would deploy into slave territory to fight the men who kept them and their families in bondage. Though many white soldiers and officers doubted whether they could actually fight in combat, these troops repeatedly proved their courage at battles such as Island Mound, Cabin Creek, Honey Springs, and Fort Blakely. Island Mound in Bates County, Missouri was the first known engagement where the Union Army deployed African Americans in combat in October 1862, even before the Emancipation Proclamation. Continue reading “Freedom Fighters of Missouri”

“The General Got The Diarrhea”

In the early summer of 1861, former Missouri governor and Mexican War hero Sterling Price, a conditional Unionist and supporter of neutrality, sided with the secessionists and took command of Governor Claiborne Jackson’s Missouri State Guard. Less than a month later and before his men ever fought in combat, Price was stricken with severe diarrhea and was forced to return home at Keytesville, Missouri to recover. Just like today, the pro-Union newspapers took the prime opportunity to make fun of the sick general.

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A political cartoon in the wake of the Battle of Boonville, poking fun at a sickly Sterling Price. Courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections

Continue reading ““The General Got The Diarrhea””

The Western Sanitary Commission Helps to Supply Grant’s Army at Vicksburg

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This scene from Belle Plain, Virginia taken in 1862, depicts the arrival of supplies and munitions for the Federal army. This was a common sight in the Western armies, as well, even though photographs were much less common. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In the late summer of 1861, Maj. Gen. John C. Fremont authorized the establishment of the Western Sanitary Commission, the western counterpart to the United States Sanitary Commission (USSC), based in St. Louis, Missouri via the General Order No. 159. Fremont and many other pro-Union Missouri leaders argued that the USSC was too concerned with the East and its main Federal army, the Army of the Potomac. Between the instability, bloodshed, mass mobilization of armies across the Union-occupied river towns, and the extensive riverine transportation networks, the West needed a sanitary commission that could provide medical services and help to care for the Federal troops mobilized in the region. Fremont, along with St. Louis leaders like banker and philanthropist James Yeatman, educator and civic leader William Eliot, entrepreneur Carlos S. Greeley, philanthropist George Partridge, and businessman John B. Johnson formed the leadership of the Western Sanitary Commission, an organization that rivaled the USSC and saved the lives of thousands of Federal troops in the Western and Trans-Mississippi Theaters. Continue reading “The Western Sanitary Commission Helps to Supply Grant’s Army at Vicksburg”

False Accusations: The Curious Court Martial of Colonel Bernard Laiboldt

On April 14, 1862 in the Army of the Southwest’s encampment near Forsyth, Missouri, Colonel Bernard Laiboldt stood trial. As commander of the Second Missouri Infantry Regiment, Laiboldt was charged with a count of “Misbehavior before the enemy & running away” and “conduct unbecoming an Officer and a Gentleman.” His military career hung in the balance as his fellow officers determined his fate.

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A Harper’s Weekly depiction of a court martial. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Continue reading “False Accusations: The Curious Court Martial of Colonel Bernard Laiboldt”

Remembering Missouri’s German Soldiers

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Pvt. John J. Weber of the 2nd Missouri Infantry, Maj. Gen. Peter J. Osterhaus, and Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel were all German immigrants who served in Missouri units. Courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society and Library of Congress.

When both historians and Civil War enthusiasts think of the larger German experience during the war, we tend to think of their failures, hence their degrading nickname, the “Damn Dutch.” The XI Corps’ routing at Chancellorsville and at Gettysburg dominate the overall narrative of ethnic German soldiers, a trend that has persisted since the war itself. However, this is the rather shallow story of just 9,000 Pennsylvania, New York, Illinois, Ohio, Connecticut, and Wisconsin German troops. More importantly, that number represents less than 4.5% of all German immigrants who served in the Union armies, which totaled out to be roughly 216,000.

In Missouri, the Germans had a much more significant story, saving the city of St. Louis – and ultimately the state – for the Union and contributed over 30,000 troops to the Federal war effort in Missouri. But, in the larger narrative of the war, these German troops – though successful – are out shadowed by German failures in the East. Contemporary criticism of the German troops were primarily dominated by nativism, or the bias against immigrants by native-born Americans. When failures of the Germans dominate the historical memory, then we also lose sight of their contributions to Union victory. Continue reading “Remembering Missouri’s German Soldiers”

Missouri Confederate Prisoners Die of Diarrhea and Typhoid at Rock Island

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Confederate prisoners at Rock Island in 1864. Courtesy of the Kentucky Historical Society. 

As most every student of the Civil War knows, more soldiers died of disease than in combat. Out of the roughly 700,000~ war dead, 400,000 of them perished from illnesses, which included measles, pneumonia, smallpox, dysentery, typhoid, and influenza. Due to a lack of proper sanitation, immunity, and nutrition, thousands of soldiers perished while in camp, in hospitals, and in prisons. Nonetheless, both Federal and Confederate surgeons tried their very best to save lives, even though they did not full understand yet the causes of disease. Major William Watson of the United States Army worked as a surgeon in the Hospital of the Prison Depot at Rock Island, Illinois, where he recorded many cases of diarrhea and typhoid among Missouri Confederate prisoners-of-war in the winter of late 1864. Continue reading “Missouri Confederate Prisoners Die of Diarrhea and Typhoid at Rock Island”

The Formation of the American Zouaves Regiment

Known as the “American Zouaves,” the 8th Missouri Infantry was as much a tool for recruiting young, enthusiastic Unionists as it was a social experiment in early-war St. Louis, Missouri. At the start of the Civil War, St. Louis was a booming river city, with growing populations of German and Irish immigrants, as well as native-born slaves and white civilians. In 1860, St. Louis was the 8th largest city in the United States, with over 160,000 people living within its borders and over half being foreign born. Though many immigrants in Missouri experienced nativist opposition in the 1850s, they were some of the first to respond to the rallying cry for volunteers to serve in the Union armies and navies.

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Sgt. Phillip Smith, Co. H, 8th Missouri Infantry wearing the signature Zouave uniform. Courtesy of the Peoria Historical Society.

To create a sense of unity and comradery, many recruitment officers segmented units based on ethnicity. The 7th Missouri Infantry Regiment, for example, was nicknamed the “Irish Seventh” for its large numbers of Irishmen. The “Western Turner Rifles,” or the 17th Missouri Infantry, consisted of Germans. There were many others, as well, that were formed to meet the quotas for the State of Missouri and to form a distinct unity between comrades. In early June 1861, Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon and Congressman Francis P. Blair, Jr. both actively supported the formation of a purely “American” unit, dubbed the “American Zouaves.” Continue reading “The Formation of the American Zouaves Regiment”