Reenacting the Civil War’s first important battle

Civil War, Missouri, Trans-Mississippi Civil War
The Civil War started early in Missouri. In 1854 fighting flared up over whether the neighboring Kansas Territory would become a slave state. Pro-slavery Missourians raided Kansas to kill and intimidate abolitionists, and Kansans raided Missouri, killing slave owners and liberating slaves.

When the first official shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter on 12 April 1861, Missouri was already prepared for an all-out fight, yet nobody knew which side it would take. While Missouri’s legislature and much of its population supported the South, its large German-American population and many of its cities and towns were Unionist.

The Confederates made the first move. The secessionist State Guard camped on the edge of St. Louis, supposedly for their annual drill but really planning on taking the Federal arsenal. The local Federal commander, a hotheaded professional soldier named Capt. Nathaniel Lyon, gathered several units of soldiers, surrounded the State Guard camp, and forced them to surrender. The move caused a riot in the city in which one soldier and 27 civilians died. It looked like the war was on.

%Gallery-124755%Then everyone hesitated. Leaders from both sides met in St. Louis to try to salvage the situation. Heading the rebel delegation was Sterling Price, commander of the State Guard, and Claiborne Fox Jackson, Missouri’s governor. The Union delegation made the mistake of bringing Lyon along. The devoted abolitionist had no illusions about the possibility of peace. He shouted at the Confederates that he’d rather kill every man, woman, and child in Missouri rather than have the state dictate terms to the Federal government.

That was that. Price and Jackson took a train from St. Louis west to the state capital at Jefferson City in the center of the state, but decided there were too many abolitionist German immigrants in town for comfort. They decided to gather their forces at Boonville, a prosperous, and secessionist, town 50 miles west on the Missouri river. Soon state militiamen and excited farm boys were rallying to the cause in Boonville, ready to fight the Yankees.

Lyon and 2,000 troops arrived at Jefferson City on June 15 to find the rebellious state government had fled to Boonville. They set out to meet them in a flotilla of steamboats.

While the rebels should have been led by Sterling Price, he came down with a bout of cholera and was home stinking up the outhouse. Command fell to Col. John Sappington Marmaduke, Governor Jackson’s nephew, who had resigned his commission in the U.S. Army in order to throw his lot in with the Confederacy. Marmaduke didn’t want to fight. His “army” numbered about 1,500. Few had any training and only about a third of them were armed. Yet Governor Jackson insisted they make a stand. He feared a retreat would lead to the disintegration of their nascent army.

On the morning of June 17, Lyon landed about seven miles east of Boonville with 1,500 men. Marmaduke, alerted to the danger, marched about 500 of his men to the top of a long ridge four miles east of Boonville. The terrain was good, with a wheat field to hide his inferior numbers, and a house to hide sharpshooters in.

Lyon’s professional troops, accompanied by a battery of cannon, marched along the river road towards town. Soon rebel pickets fired at them, then quickly withdrew in the face of such a large force. The Union troops soon found themselves facing the long, low hill atop which Marmaduke and his men waited. Lyon ordered the cannon unlimbered and the battery sent shot after shot onto the ridge as the Union infantry slowly advanced.

Gritting their teeth and trying to ignore the cannonballs whirring through the air around them, the rebels shot at the advancing troops. Their untrained fire proved inaccurate, and the Union ranks moved resolutely forward. Their artillery knocked two holes into the wall of the house, forcing the rebels inside to run. Marmaduke ordered a general retreat.

A few Confederates made a second line on the top of another hill. Once again the two sides poured fire at each other, and once again Union discipline and marksmanship took their toll. The rebels retreated once more, this time in complete disarray. Accounts vary, but it seems that there were about a dozen casualties on either side.

The first Union victory in Missouri had taken only twenty minutes. The Confederates ran so fast both sides ended up calling it the “Boonville Races.”

The Battle of Boonville had a significance far out of proportion to its size. The Union now controlled the Missouri River, which cut from west to east through the center of the state. The northern counties never got to organize in support of the Confederacy. The river also kept open a vital Federal supply line to Kansas. If the Confederates had been able to hold onto it, Kansas and the loyal territories to the west would have been nearly cut off. While the Confederates continued to fight for Missouri, the prosperous state with its industry and agriculture was never under any serious threat of falling into their hands.

Although there were a few little skirmishes before this like those at Philippi, West Virginia, and Bethel Church, Virginia, the Battle of Boonville was the first battle to have an effect on the outcome of the war.

Now to celebrate its 150th anniversary, the Battle of Boonville will be refought. from June 17-19 there will be reenactments, talks, and living history demonstrations. I’ve been to several reenactments in Missouri and the folks that do them really know their history and put on a great show. If you’re in the area, be sure to mark your calendar.

[Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Nation gears up for Civil War sesquicentennial: reenactments, exhibitions mark the 150th anniversary of America’s bloodiest conflict

Civil War, civil warA hundred and fifty years ago, the United States descended into a bloody Civil War. Young men on both sides eagerly signed up for what they thought would be a short and glorious conflict. A typical example is this private from the Fourth Michigan Infantry, pictured here courtesy of the Library of Congress. He poses, way too young and unconvincingly cocky, in the early days of the war in 1861. It’s so early, in fact, that he hasn’t been issued a uniform.

All across the United States, museums, historic sites, and reenactment groups are preparing for a series of events to mark the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War.

South Carolina was the first to secede on 20 December 1860, so the anniversaries have already started. Actual fighting, however, didn’t begin until the famous attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. Rebel artillery opened fire on 12 April 1861 in what are generally considered the first shots of the war.

Fort Sumter is now a national monument and the National Park Service is planning special exhibitions this year for the anticipated flood of visitors. Yet this isn’t the only anniversary in 2011. After Fort Sumter the war flared up all over the country.

The Missouri Civil War Sesquicentennial lists events for almost every week this year. Abe Lincoln will give speeches, reenactors will show off their weapons and uniforms, and museums across the state are setting up exhibitions on different aspects of the conflict. Missouri had one of the first battles of the war at the Missouri River port of Boonville on June 17. A Union force routed a group of secessionist Sate Guard troops in less than 20 minutes. The rebels retreated so quickly that both sides dubbed the fight “The Boonville Races”. While the battle was short, it opened up the Missouri River to Union steamboats, cutting the state in half and making it much easier for Union troops to control Missouri for the rest of the war. On June 17-19 the battle will be refought and this forgotten skirmish will get the credit it’s due.

%Gallery-116977%The first epic battle was at Bull Run, Virginia, on July 21. The battle is called First Manassas by the Confederates. Many Civil War battles are known by two names. It was a huge victory for the South and sent the Union army scampering back to Washington, DC. Historic Manassas Inc. is planning a four-day series of events that will include reenactments, concerts of Civil War music, and even a Civil War baseball tournament. One of the less-anticipated outcomes of the war was the popularization of baseball, which was played by soldiers of both armies. The idea of the game spread with them as they marched.

Besides the big sites and state-sponsored events, smaller organizations will be remembering the war too. The Echoes Through Time Learning Center and Civil War Museum will have a series of events over the next four years. Set up by a group of reenactors and amateur historians in a shopping mall in Williamsville, New York, this museum epitomizes how regular people are involved in Civil War research and education. These folks gather in Civil War Round Tables in almost every state and are always ready to welcome new members.

Even states that didn’t have any battles are marking the occasion. Maine’s Civil War Sesquicentennial will commemorate the men from Maine who fought and died. Their website has an interesting daily series of newspaper articles from Democrat and Republican papers from Portland. The political spin, name calling, and anger could be straight out of 21st century television news.

This is one of the things the Civil War can teach us. When Americans start thinking of other Americans who think differently as “the enemy”, the whole country can fall apart. The Civil War killed more than 600,000 soldiers and and more than 50,000 civilians. In an excellent op-ed in the Richmond Times, Charles F. Bryan, Jr., says he cringes when he hears people talking about “celebrating” the anniversary. He feels there’s nothing to celebrate about a war brought on partly by “grandstanding extremists and blundering politicians” that cared more about short-term political gain than helping the nation they claimed to have loved.

Civil War secret message decoded

Civil War, civil war
A coded message sent to the beleaguered Confederate commander of Vicksburg has been cracked, the BBC reports.

The Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond has had the message in its collection for more than a century. It had never tried to decipher the code of seemingly random letters until this year, when they sent it off to retired CIA codebreaker David Gaddy. While Gaddy is trained to break sophisticated modern codes, this early cipher was still tough enough to take him several weeks.

It turns out the message was sent to Confederate General John Pemberton telling him he wouldn’t be getting any reinforcements. The city was the key to the Mississippi River and had been under siege by Union forces for months. The message was dated 4 July 1863, the same day Pemberton surrendered. The bad news was probably the last straw. With his men short of food and munitions and the city in ruins, Pemberton’s last hope was getting reinforcements.

The fall of Vicksburg opened up the Mississippi River to Union gunboats and cut the Confederacy in half. It was one of the turning points of the Civil War.

[Photo courtesy U.S. Army]

Remembering the Confederate dead

Civil War,civil war, ConfederateNext year marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. As state and local planning committees gear up for a host of events, a quiet spot in western Missouri has been commemorating the war for more than a century.

The Confederate Memorial State Historic Site in Higginsville, 53 miles east of Kansas City, opened as a retirement home for Confederate veterans in 1891. More than 1,600 former soldiers and their families lived amid quiet forests and placid lakes. Remarkably, the last one didn’t die until 1950. John T. Graves was a veteran of General J.O. Shelby’s Iron Brigade, the best cavalry raiders west of the Mississippi. The Iron Brigade saw countless battles throughout the war but Graves survived them all, to die in the modern world at the age of 108.

Today the Confederate Memorial is still a peaceful spot. You can stroll through the woods where old men once hobbled along swapping war stories, or fish in lakes that fed more than a regiment of veterans. The chapel is open to visitors, as is the cemetery, where the tombstones preserve the names of some of the best, and worst, men who fought for the South.

The most notorious rebel to be buried here is William Quantrill. A bandit turned Confederate guerrilla, Quantrill was the terror of the border states, looting and burning civilian homes as much as he fought Union troops. A young Frank James, brother of Jesse James, rode with Quantrill and participated in his biggest atrocity–the burning of Lawrence, Kansas, where Quantrill’s band killed about 200 mostly unarmed men and boys. Quantrill was killed in the last days of the war in Kentucky. Part of his body is buried in Louisville, some of his remains are interred in his hometown of Dover, Ohio, and the Higginsville memorial has three arm bones, two leg bones, and a lock of hair.

More honorable soldiers are also here, including several from the Iron Brigade as well as other units that saw action in every theater of the war. In fact, every Confederate state but one is represented here. Many veterans moved to Missouri after the war to farm its rich, underpopulated land, so a wide cross-section of the Confederacy ended their days at the home.

So if you’re driving through Missouri on I-70, take a quick detour and check out a piece of history. And keep an eye out next year for lots of Civil War articles here on Gadling to mark the 150th anniversary.

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The Jesse James farm

Jesse James, Frank James
Jesse James grew up both lucky and unlucky. His father, Baptist preacher Robert Sallee James, owned a prosperous farm in Clay County. His slaves cultivated hemp and other cash crops, and Jesse and his older siblings Frank and Susan grew up in comfort. Robert kept a large library and both his sons became avid readers. Frank loved Shakespeare, while Jesse was more devoted to the Bible and newspapers.

The boys’ luck quickly changed. Although Robert had founded a successful Baptist church and was respected by his neighbors, he wasn’t content. In 1850 he decided to go to the gold fields of California to preach to the miners. Jesse James, then only two years old, clutched his leg and begged him not to go. Robert went anyway, and within a few months had died.

This was a financial disaster for the James family. It turned out Robert had left many debts and some of the family possessions had to be auctioned off. Jesse’s mother Zerelda, a tough Southern woman, married a wealthy farmer named Benjamin Simms, a man twice her age. This saved the financial situation but did not stabilize the children’s lives. Simms rejected his stepchildren and made them move into a relative’s home. Simms soon died by falling off a horse and Zerelda, showing little grief, married mild-mannered physician Reuben Samuel. The children moved back to the farm and Samuel treated them as if they were his own.

All should have gone well, but Clay County was on the border of the Kansas Territory. In the 1850s, there was a bitter fight over whether Kansas would be admitted into the Union as a slave state or a free state. Immigrants from the north arrived armed, ready to make Kansas free, while Missouri “border ruffians” crossed the border to disrupt local elections and skirmish with the Free-Staters. Kansas “Jayhawkers” raided Missouri, freeing slaves and killing slave owners. As slave owners themselves, the James family wanted Kansas to become a slave state. The majority of Missourians agreed with them, although a growing minority were outspoken abolitionists.

%Gallery-108204%Bleeding Kansas, as the fight was called, was the precursor to the Civil War. When the Confederacy formed in 1861, Missouri’s governor and much of the legislature wanted to join, but they met fierce resistance. Soon there were two Missouri state governments on opposite sides of the Civil War. Jesse was still a boy, but Frank was old enough to enlist in the Missouri State Guard, a Confederate outfit. He saw fighting at Wilson’s Creek and Lexington, both Confederate victories, then fell ill and was left behind and captured. Frank swore loyalty to the Union and went home, but when the Unionist state government required that all able-bodied men join a local Union militia, he fled and became a guerrilla under the command of William Quantrill.

Quantrill’s band of guerrillas, often called “bushwhackers”, terrorized Unionist civilians and attacked Union patrols. They became famous for their lightning raids and merciless persecution of Unionist civilians. Their worst atrocity was attacking Lawrence, Kansas, a center of abolitionism, and killing 200 mostly unarmed men and boys.

Everybody knew Frank rode with Quantrill. The local Union militia, the same one Frank had refused to join, showed up at the James farm. They had heard Frank and the bushwhackers were camped nearby. Finding 15 year-old Jesse working in the field, they demanded to know where Frank was. When he refused to tell, they beat him. The militia had better luck with Reuben Samuel. They put a noose around his neck, threw the rope over a high branch, and hauled him up. Just before he passed out, they dropped him back down, then hauled him up again. Eventually Samuel revealed where Frank was. The militia rode off in pursuit, but the bushwhackers got away.

Jesse never forgot that beating, and when he was sixteen he joined the bushwackers. He became one of the toughest of a tough crew and participated in the Centralia Massacre in 1864. His mother Zerelda stayed at home throughout the war, helping her boys on the sly and giving the militia a severe tongue lashing any time they appeared on her property. A local Union commander called her “one of the worst women in the state.”

After that the James farm never knew peace. Frank and Jesse, unable or unwilling to adjust to life after the war, continued their guerrilla activities as outlaws. They lived more or less openly on the farm. Many of their neighbors supported them as loyal Southerners, while others were too afraid to cross them. One night in 1874, a group of Pinkerton detectives, thinking Frank and Jesse were home, snuck up to a window and threw a bomb inside. The explosion mangled Zerelda’s arm and killed eight-year-old Archie Samuel, Frank and Jesse’s half brother.

In 1882 Jesse was assassinated by Robert Ford and Frank gave himself up shortly thereafter. He was found innocent of all charges (this was a time before fingerprinting and CCTV) and settled down to a peaceful life. Zerelda stayed at the farm until her death in 1911, giving tours of the farm for the curious. She even sold pebbles from Jesse’s grave for 25 cents. When she ran out of pebbles, she’d go down to the nearby creek and get some more.

At the James Farm Museum just outside of Kearney you can still buy a pebble from Jesse’s grave, and they still cost 25 cents. The visitor’s center explains the life and times of Frank and Jesse and displays many artifacts from the family. Hidden behind a screen of trees the James farm looks much as it was, lovingly restored in the 1970s by James devotees and filled with family heirlooms. The legend lives on there, as it does in many other spots where the James brothers fought, robbed, and died in Missouri.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: On the trail of Jesse James.

Coming up next: Jesse James robs his first bank!