Faugh a Ballagh: The Gateway City’s Irish Soldiers

By the outbreak of the war, St. Louis – the Gateway to the West – was a thriving and diverse, yet divided border town. Unlike many cities in the slave states, St. Louis was home to a growing community of European immigrants. By 1860, over half of the city was foreign born, most from the German Confederation or Ireland. The Germans were, by far, the most populous and influential ethic group in St. Louis. With 50,000 in St. Louis alone and united over the divisive issues of slavery and secession, they made a tremendous impact on the Union war effort in the city and their new home state. Just second to the Germans were the Irish, who accounted for nearly 30,000 (or 20%) of the city’s 161,000 residents. Missouri’s Irish – totally over 43,000 – was the highest population of Irishmen in any state in the South.[1] Typically overlooked compared to the Germans, the Irish were more-so divided over the tense issues encapsulating their community. Their impact on the Civil War in St. Louis deserves more attention and further study.

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A St. Louis-style St. Patrick’s Day in 1874 shows the gathering of  the Irish immigrant community. Courtesy of the Missouri History Museum.

Continue reading “Faugh a Ballagh: The Gateway City’s Irish Soldiers”

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

Who Is This Benton Barracks Soldier?

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One of the most recognizable African-American soldiers of the Civil War, this young soldier has represented the nearly-200,000 USCTs who served in the Union armies. Standing in front of the famous “Benton Barracks backdrop,” he has also been the face of former Trans-Mississippi slaves who risked their lives to fight for freedom. Around 8,000 of them were from Missouri. Unfortunately, he has remained anonymous to historians for over 150 years. Continue reading “Who Is This Benton Barracks Soldier?”

Beer in Civil War Missouri

Federal soldiers receive a ration of whiskey and quinine, showing the need for alcohol to calm nerves and stay warm during the frigid winter months. Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

While in camp at Rolla on March 9, 1865, Private Frederick A. Kullman of the 13th Missouri Cavalry sat down to write in his pocket diary about how he longed to escort prisoners to St. Louis. For him and much of his comrades, it was not to visit the city or to show their authority to the enemy, but to “try some more of that good old Lager beer.” In 1861, there were over forty independent breweries operating in St. Louis alone, with countless others along the Missouri River.

In the early nineteenth century, the most popular types of alcoholic beverages in the United States were whiskey, cider, gin, bourbon, rum, and wine. They could be manufactured without refrigeration and were drunk throughout the day by Americans. By the mid-nineteenth century, beer consumption exploded; and much of that has to do with the influx of German immigrants, particularly in Missouri. Continue reading “Beer in Civil War Missouri”

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

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”

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”

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”