The Farewell Letter of a Victim of the Palmyra Massacre

There is no doubt that this letter is one of the most heartbreaking ones I have ever read from the Civil War era. On October 17 and 18, 1862, from the cells of the Palmyra Prison, Captain Thomas A. Sidner of the First Northeast Missouri Cavalry penned a letter to his friends and family, notifying them of his pending execution. In command of the District of Northeast Missouri, Col. John McNeil sentenced to death ten random Confederate prisoners from the Palmyra Prison in retaliation for the supposed murder of a local Union sympathizer. With no ties to the murder, Sidner was told that he was to be executed the next day for a crime he was not guilty of. Later known as the Palmyra Massacre, this act became one of the most infamous war crimes of the entire Civil War.

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Col. John McNeil is on the left, with the District of Northeast Missouri’s Provost Marshal Office in the center and Col. Joseph Porter on the right. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Restoration Movement, and FindaGrave.

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Soldiers in Civil War Missouri Faced Issues with Rations

Hardtack, salt pork, cornmeal, and coffee are the four foods we associate with the average Civil War soldier’s ration. Much of what we learned about the rations comes from Hardtack and Coffee, the famous book written by John Billings of the Army of the Potomac. Though an excellent primary source into the life of a Union soldier, it is in the eyes of a soldier who fought in the best-equipped and organized Federal army of the war. In the Trans-Mississippi, particularly in Missouri, the life of a soldier was unique – especially in regard to what they ate and drank.

During the 1861 Missouri Campaign, which was decisively fast-paced, rations were especially difficult, particularly for the Federals of the Army of the West. The 200-mile-long supply line from St. Louis to Springfield was particularly rough. The first 100 miles between St. Louis and Rolla was by train via the Southwestern Branch of the Pacific Railroad; the next journey from Rolla to Springfield (the base of the Army of the West in southwestern Missouri) was by the dirt Wire Road. It took over a week to receive supplies from St. Louis. A soldier in the First Iowa Infantry described the ration situation perfectly:

Nothing all day but mush and coffee. We hear more of the battles at Manassas Gap and Bull Run. Here we are, camped on a flat prairie, and the miserable rations have given everyone the diarrhea.

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“Missouri Must Now Take Her Position”

Three days following the Confederate victory at Wilson’s Creek, Brig. Gen. Ben McCulloch wrote to the people of Missouri, urging them to act. Because McCulloch and his Western Army of Arkansans and Texans returned to the Indian Territory following the battle, the Texas Confederate leader has not been held in high regard and is frequently blamed for not pursuing the Federals and advancing to Lexington with Maj. Gen. Sterling Price, even though he led the Western Army and Missouri State Guard to victory. In McCulloch’s eyes, he needed to return to the territory his army was ordered to protect in the first place. He also saw the Missouri State Guard has ragtag and unfit for proper military service, causing major rifts between him and Price. Instead of remaining with the State Guard and establishing Confederate control in the state, McCulloch urged the people of Missouri to take up arms and finish the job on their own. Continue reading ““Missouri Must Now Take Her Position””

Defending Fort Davidson

On September 27, 1864, Major General Sterling Price’s 12,000-man Army of Missouri moved north towards their target of St. Louis and encountered the Federal garrison at Fort Davidson in southeastern Missouri in the St. Francois Mountains. Price advancing north from Camden, Arkansas into Union-occupied Missouri was the last major offensive movement of a Confederate army to attempt to recapture lost territory. Just two months prior, Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal Early launched a movement into Maryland with the goal of seizing Washington, DC. All other Confederate armies – with the exception of Price – were on the strategic defensive. At Fort Davidson, the first major engagement of the 1864 Missouri Campaign, we as historians tend to focus on Price’s repeated attacks against the Union defenses. In this post, though, we will spend time looking at the Union defenses and how they were able to hold the fort until able to safely retreat.

Constructed in 1863 and named for Brig. Gen. John Davidson, the Fort itself sat at a critical juncture for a large army to maneuver northward. Roads radiating from the towns of Pilot Knob and Ironton led to Middlebrook, Farmington, California, Potosi, and Fredericktown. The terminus of the Iron Mountain Railroad shot north from the iron furnaces at Pilot Knob to St. Louis. Additionally, the Fort sat in lowland, protected by the surrounding mountains, yet it could still protect the vital supply lines. At first glance, it may seem as if Fort Davidson were in a situation like Harpers Ferry in September 1862, where Maj. Gen. Stonewall Jackson utilized the surrounding heights for artillery positions to bombard the Union garrison on Bolivar Heights. The Army of Missouri would attempt just that against the Federals. The Union garrison would use the mountains to screen and protect the fort from an envelopment. You can visualize this in the map below.

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Remembering the Battle and Massacre at Centralia

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Captain “Bloody Bill Anderson”, who lead guerrilla troops at Centralia. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri. 

This week marked the 154th anniversary of one of the most notorious atrocities during the Civil War. At Centralia, Missouri, Captain “Bloody Bill” Anderson’s band of approximately 80 guerrilla troops converged on the town, hoping to cause damage to Federal troops, as Confederate Major General Sterling Price and his 12,000-man Army of Missouri moved north towards St. Louis. After looting the town, a train along the North Missouri Railroad line was halted by Anderson’s men. They forced everyone off the train, including roughly 24 Union troops returning home from the campaigns in Georgia. After burning the train, the Union troops were massacred. Three companies of the 39th Missouri Infantry under the command of Major A.V.E. Johnston were deployed to the town and were annihilated by Anderson troops along Young’s Creek. Historians and witnesses alike have described the bloody September day at Centralia, Missouri as “an incredibly brutal day” and one of the “most monstrous and inhuman atrocities ever perpetuated by beings wearing the form of man.”
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A Missourian Describes Why He Joined the State Guard and the Confederate Army

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The First Missouri Brigade at Prairie Grove, Arkansas. Courtesy of Andy Thomas, artist.

Unlike much of the South in the spring of 1861, Missourians stood dominantly neutral and conditional Unionist, though she was a fellow slaveholding state. The Missouri Legislature voted to remain with the Union, an overwhelming 98 to 1 in March. However, in May, when Federal troops fired into a crowd of civilians after capturing several hundred pro-secessionist troops (sanctioned by Governor Claiborne Jackson), hearts and minds changed drastically. Many conditional Unionists and those unsure about Missouri’s role in the war became pro-secessionist and desired to throw out Federal troops in their state. It was a game of revenge. Continue reading “A Missourian Describes Why He Joined the State Guard and the Confederate Army”

Take a Tour of the Camp Jackson Affair in Downtown St. Louis

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Etching of the Camp Jackson Affair, depicting the chaos of gunfire. Courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society.

Considered to be the culminating event of early-war tension in St. Louis, the Camp Jackson Affair changed the course of Missouri’s neutrality and the state’s role in the ensuing Civil War. With 28 people dead and scores more wounded, including women and children, the nation was shocked by the violence and the conduct of Federal troops (for detailed information on the Camp Jackson Affair, feel free to check out my blog series with Emerging Civil War here, or this article from the National Park Service).

Though St. Louis City and County was significantly smaller in size at the time of the Civil War than what it is today, we can still have a clear idea where these events occurred. Through Google Maps, I designed a driving tour of the Camp Jackson Affair for you to check out. It has a list of sites and directions to each stop. Continue reading “Take a Tour of the Camp Jackson Affair in Downtown St. Louis”