Adapted from Prologue to The Civil War’s First Blood: Missouri, 1854-1861 by James Denny and John Bradbury, published by Missouri Life Media.
Despite their initial reluctance to sever ties with the Union, Missourians who were fundamentally Southern in culture and heritage constituted the majority of the state’s population. Identity with the South was a powerful and pervasive force in Missouri society and politics. Even before the Louisiana Purchase, frontier migrants from the Upper South, the most famous being Daniel Boone, crossed the Mississippi to settle in Spanish-controlled Upper Louisiana, where they found a well-watered forested country reminding them of their ancestral homelands in Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, and ideally sited for the establishment of Southern agriculture and customs.
The French had introduced slavery west of the Mississippi River in the eighteenth century and Southerners found it easy to transplant their own system of chattel slavery. The institution thrived most in the tiers of counties along either side of the Missouri River and along the Mississippi River, where the agricultural potential made slavery economically viable. By 1860, these counties contained nearly 77 percent of Missouri’s 114, 509 slaves. But for all the forces at work to make Missouri a border state with one foot in the South and one in the West, the state played as central a role as any Deep South state in the long-simmering controversy over slavery that ultimately erupted in civil war. In only a generation’s time, its citizens wrestled with the issue politically during the Missouri Compromise, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and through the proceedings of the Dred Scott case. Beginning in 1854, organized violence took its turn in Bleeding Kansas and along Missouri’s western border in a small preview of greater horrors yet to come.
Despite its initially southern nature, Missouri changed rapidly in the decade before the war, largely the result of immigration from the northern and eastern states, Germany and Ireland. By 1860, 30 percent of Missourians hailed from the northeastern states or foreign countries. Economic forces also linked Missouri to northern industrial centers, but there were none more important than railroads. Missouri caught the railroad building mania late. A network of seven thousand miles of rails already connected Chicago, New York, and Boston by 1859 when the Hannibal and St. Joseph, Missouri’s first rail line, was completed. By 1860, Missouri boasted eight hundred miles of railroad. St. Louis, the state’s largest city, river transportation hub, and industrial center, had a nascent network of railroads radiating into Missouri’s rich agricultural and mineral hinterlands.
Less than two months after Lincoln’s election, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union—six more, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas—followed suit by February 1861. But the newborn Confederacy was vulnerable in many ways. It claimed only 10 percent of the nation’s white population and 5 percent of its industrial establishment. And not all the slave states had come on board. Missouri was among eight Upper South border states that had not declared. The stakes were high for winning the allegiance of these states, which accounted for more than half the population of the South and produced half of the region’s horses and mules, three-fifths of its livestock and cereal crops, and three-quarters of its industrial capability.
Of the undecided states, Missouri was an especially choice plum for the picking. The most populous state west of the Mississippi River, Missouri ranked third nationally in corn and pork production and ranked high as a producer of grain and livestock. Missouri’s horses and mules were known throughout the country. Mineral districts in the southern part of the state contained rich deposits of iron and lead, and Missouri’s manufacturing establishments produced a wide variety of products that would be useful to a war effort. Long a center of western steamboating, St. Louis had machine shops, foundries and other facilities of military advantage in campaigning in the railroad-poor South. They included James B. Eads’s boatyard at Carondelet south of St. Louis, where the river man would soon build the ironclad gunboats used by Generals John Pope and Ulysses Grant to open the Mississippi and Tennessee rivers. Several railroads radiating from St. Louis penetrated the state’s interior in every direction. Also at St. Louis was the federal arsenal, a national institution since 1827. By the dawn of the war, the arsenal contained thirty thousand muskets, ninety thousand pounds of powder, and forty field pieces—enough weaponry to outfit an entire army to fight under Gov. Claiborne Jackson for the South. Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis, a longtime Regular Army recruit training and transfer depot, would have been an ideal staging area for such an army as Jackson might have assembled.
All of these factors added up to Missouri’s vital strategic importance as a breadbasket and supply depot for the nation that possessed its borders and many resources. Its location made it the northwest flank of the Trans-Mississippi theatre in the coming war. There was no predetermined logic to disunion; whoever controlled Missouri gained an important advantage. If secessionist leaders could form a state army and arrive at a common cause with the Confederacy, Missouri represented a potential Southern dagger poised at the Union heartland. Conversely, federal control of the state hinged upon immediate possession of the urban hub at St. Louis, thereby giving it mastery of the Missouri River and bisecting the secessionist heartland. St. Louis controlled the mouth of the Ohio River and also a significant stretch of the Mississippi River—the riverine avenue bisecting the lower South all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Opening the Mississippi became the Union’s primary military objective in the west, but only after securing Missouri and thereby its right flank.
When the time came to choose sides, Missourians immediately responded. Fighting men in no other state went for their hunting pieces more quickly or with more lethal intent. The initial reluctance on the part of most Missourians to embrace the coming war had nothing to do with pacifism or lack of warlike spirit on the part of its citizens. To the contrary, Missourians to that time had never seen a war on American soil they weren’t willing to pitch into. The summer of 1861 would prove no exception.