Struggling to Keep the Peace in Missouri

March 1, 1863 (Sunday)

General Samuel Curtis

Missouri had been a complete political mess even before the Civil War began. It had been predominantly settled by Southerners, many of whom either owned slaves or greatly benefited from neighbors owning slaves. However, by the time it was admitted into the Union in 1851, many others, mostly from the North, had settled there. A decade later, Northerners outnumbered Southerners.

This might have worked out well enough if the entire country hadn’t devolved into war. As a general rule, the Southern states were divided from the North over slavery. Missouri’s divisions, however, were more complicated since many of Missouri’s Unionists were pro-slavery. When the secession convention voted to stay in the Union (98 – 1), the governor, Claiborne Fox Jackson, decided to take matters into his own hands.

Jackson had been a hardline Missouri Democrat since the 1830s. The vast majority of those in the state wishing to secede were Democrats, as those wishing to remain loyal were Republicans. The Governor refused President Lincoln’s call for troops, mobilized the state militia and seized made a play for the St. Louis Arsenal. This was met by similar acts by Unionists and suddenly the entire state was a microcosm of the entire nation.

As the war lumbered on, both factions in Missouri sent troops east of the Mississippi to take part in the major fighting. Those left behind formed guerrilla bands and generally terrorized the countryside.

Largely, the guerrillas fighting in the name of the North were Republicans, as the guerrillas fighting in the name of the South were Democrats. And so, when the Democratic Party wished to hold a rally, it’s little wonder that it caught the attention of the Union authorities.

General Samuel Curtis, commander of the Department of Missouri, caught wind of it and wrote two letters on this date. First, he wrote to General Odon Guitar, commanding the Federal troops holding St. Joseph. His second letter was to Smith O. Scofield, editor of the St. Joseph Herald.

To General Guitar, Curtis described the duties of a Union military officer concerning a Democratic Party meeting. “It is said there is a Democratic meeting coming off soon,” wrote Curtis. “It is the duty of all military authorities on such occasions to keep the peace. That is all they should try to do.”

But if the Democrats got a bit carried away, if they made “treasonable speeches or commit treasonable acts,” Curtis directed Guitar to arrest them if his numbers permitted. He did not, however, figure it would come to that.

Claiborne Fox Jackson

Even so, Curtis suggested that “all liquor establishments must be closed if the least danger of riot exists, and no acts calculated to incite strife must be evinced by the military.” While the military should do nothing that might be seen as oppression, “military power must not be despised and degraded.”

“When we have no force,” he added in closing, “we may suspend military action, but traitors must be advised that punishment will soon follow offenses.”

Throughout the early war, most, if not all, of the pro-Southern newspapers had been shut down, and their editors arrested. While most of the remaining papers were pro-Union, there were a few who took the First Amendment to heart. One such paper was Smith Scofield’s Radical Republican paper, the St. Joseph Herald.

Scofield had been harshly critical of General Guitar, calling him a “petty tyrant, seeking a brigadiership.” This, instructed Curtis, had to be curtailed. To another, more friendly, editor, he wrote that he “would not blame Guitar if he closed the concern temporarily.”

The missives from the Herald, he continued to Scofield, “embarrass me, and do no good.”

As for the Democratic meeting, Curtis wanted Scofield to simmer down when it came to his abolitionist stance. Most of the charges leveled by the Herald against General Guitar had to do with the fact that the General was pro-slavery. Curtis was afraid that Scofield would hold a protest or even something more radical.

General Odon Guitar

“I hope you will allow the Democratic meeting to go on unmolested,” wrote Curtis as he did to Guitar. “Let them show their hand. It will not do for us to prevent a Democratic meeting per se. If treason is preached, take a note of the perpetrators, and we can attend to them at the proper time. I do not wish to give rebel leaders the advantage of a cry of military persecution of any political or religious sect, and prefer to run some risk rather than allow such an effort to divide our Union men.”

Curtis did what he could, trying to convince Scofield that there was “no need of proscribing our pro-slavery Union men, who, we know, are not actual rebels, but some of them fighting friends. Much as we may deplore slavery, it is an existing fact in Missouri, sustained by the laws, and we must tolerate it and respect loyal slave-holders.”

This was all such a tangled thing for Curtis to deal with. He had the Democrats trying to hold a meeting, while various secessionists were trying to subvert it to the South. He had to keep his military authorities, who despised secessionists, on short leashes, and contain local abolitionists, who despised both Democrats and the pro-slavery Union military authorities. And this was in but one small town!1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 22, Part 2, p134-137. []
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5 thoughts on “Struggling to Keep the Peace in Missouri

  1. One little correction: The Missouri State Guard didn’t take the St. Louis arsenal. They set up camp near the arsenal and it looked like they might make an attempt, which led Lyons to arrest them, starting the Camp Jackson Affair/Riot/Massacre (depending on your view).

    The State Guard did take the arsenal at Liberty, MO.

    In Columbia, MO, there’s a Guitar building, built in 1910. Reaching a whole five stories in height, it was dubbed “Columbia’s first skyscraper”. This was two years after Odon’s death. I don’t know if it was planned by him or named after him. The Guitar family is still prominent in Missouri.

  2. Doh! Correction of my correction. The Missouri State Guard did not seize the Liberty Arsenal, it was a pro-southern crowd. I’ll go have another coffee now.

  3. Eric, I don’t doubt Jackson would have seized the arsenal if he could have. Thanks for keeping us posted on the events west of the Mississippi.

  4. Most historians agree that Brigadier General Daniel Frost intended on taking the arsenal and was using his “militia training” at Camp Jackson as a cover while waiting for his chance. The question is: how did he think he could manage it? The federal forces and Unionist militias in St. Louis far outnumbered him. Was Frost like Sterling Price–constantly overestimating the number of Missourians who would take up arms against the North? Did he think he could take the arsenal by surprise?
    I’ve never seen an answer to these questions. Someone should dig into Frost’s papers (if they exist) and see if they can find an answer.

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