Show Me Missouri: The history of Missouri during the Civil War

Bicentennial

SPRINGFIELD, Mo.- Race and politics are certainly part of the news today. But these issues go back so far, they’ve been part of Missouri’s story since the beginning. The founding of the state and the nation’s Civil War have close historical ties.

Even if they’ve never set foot in Missouri, history students all over the country know about the state because of the compromise made in 1820. Missouri Senator Roy Blunt offered his perspectives on the Missouri Compromise.

“Well, I think it’s hard not to conclude we were on the wrong side of the Missouri Compromise. You know, Maine comes in as a free state. Missouri comes in as a state that still allows slavery. The articles of confederation don’t get much credit for much of what they did. But the articles of confederation established the northwest ordinance, which is the states just to the east of us. Free public education, one section in every township that would be sold to have free public education, the prohibition against slavery. I’ve often wondered what would have happened if, in the rest of the new territories that would become states, the articles of confederation or the congress that followed it would follow that pattern: There will be no advancement of slavery, we will deal with it where it is,” said Blunt.

“Every compromise regarding slavery, whether it was in the constitution, or the Missouri Compromise, or the Compromise of 1850, was a compromise that we paid dearly for. In president lincoln’s second inaugural address, by then, he has no idea why this devastating war can’t end. It’s clear that the union has the advantages and money and people and supplies. But still, it can’t end. And says in his second inaugural, ‘Maybe this won’t end until every drop of blood drawn by the lash is paid for by drops of blood drawn by the sword.’ And, so whether it was the Missouri compromise or any other compromise that kept us on that road of slavery, a devastating price is paid because of those compromises, including the one that allowed Missouri to enter the union.”

All attempts at compromise failed. And maybe that’s the way it needed to be for the nation to come to grips with slavery. Missouri’s role in precipitating the conflict involved more than the Missouri compromise, however. The Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott Decision involved Dred Scott, who was a slave owned by St. Louis farmers.

Scott claimed that since he was taken to territories where slavery was illegal, he should be considered freed. The court disagreed, claiming that the constitution was not meant to apply to any one of African descent. Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 precipitated South Carolina leading the secession of states from the union. Like the rest of the nation, Missouri became embroiled in America’s deadliest war in history, including the battle at Wilson’s Creek.

Jeff Patrick, a park ranger at Wilson’s Creek, summarizes the conflict.

“Wilson’s Creek was the second major battle of the Civil War. The first major battle fought west of the Mississippi River, fought on August 10th, 1861. It’s the scene of the death of the first union general killed in combat during the civil war, General Nathaniel Lyon. And it really helps determine Missouri’s place in the union.”

Patrick says that place was marked by division, “It splits families. It splits communities. The Wilson’s Creek community is a perfect example of that. The John Ray family, who owned the house directly behind me, is a pro-union family.”

“But you could go to the other end of the battlefield and see the Joseph Sharp farm site. The Sharp farm, the Sharp family, is, in fact, pro-confederate. So communities that are small, tight-knit like this are split by the war, divided by the war. But also families are divided by the war. You some members of families that will support one side or the other, and they’re going to be divided during the war.”

The key issue: State’s rights in keeping slavery legal. Missouri, though considered a union state by the Lincoln Administration, was home to thousands of slaves.

“You have slaves in Missouri, about 114,000 slaves in the state as of the 1860 census. And the strange thing is you will have Missourians who support the union and are also slave owners. John Ray, for instance, is a slave owner. But he’s a pro-union man. You will have some southerners who are not slave owners who support the confederate cause, support the secessionist cause,” says Patrick

Patrick explains that Wilson’s Creek was a critical battle for the union because Southwest Missouri was a confederate stronghold.

“Union forces are going to fight the battle here to try to secure the state. There’s what we would call today a coalition army, rather than a confederate army, that’s come into this area, that is trying to attack Springfield.”

Tactically, the union lost the Wilson’s Creek battle but maintained dominance of southwest Missouri through several more conflicts, including the battle of Springfield in January 1863.

Patrick says that, beyond the fighting, the Civil War’s legacy had far-reaching impacts on southwest Missouri’s development.

Through the course of the war, you have a large number of troops that operate in southwest Missouri. So these veterans are going to go home then, and think about possibly coming back to the area, or they’re going to tell friends or relatives about this area, about the opportunities that are here. And that’s going to lead, I think, to a great deal of development in the 1870s and 1880s, where former soldiers are looking for opportunities, business opportunities, and they see the potential of this area. Whether it’s railroads, tomato canning, farming, mining, whatever other occupation they decide to take up. And they’re really going to see this as an area of great potential. So if you go to practically any cemetery in southwest Missouri, you will find union and confederate veterans that may have served here. But more than likely served elsewhere, and they moved into this area though because they see this as a prime opportunity.

Jeff Patrick

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