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