American Civil War in Missouri Research Guide

A Brief History

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.

Articles from Missouri Historical Review and Missouri Times

Missouri Historical Review articles on the Civil War can be found here.



Many of the State Historical Society’s holdings are included in the SHSMO online catalog. The State Historical Society holds numerous books on the history of the Civil War.

Digital Collections

The American Civil War in Missouri digital collection contains letters, diaries, maps, and military records. Manuscript collections for the Civil War era are often personal accounts of events and actions of Missourians during the conflict and offer valuable insights into how Missourians experienced the Civil War. These collections also shed light on the events leading up to the war and how Missouri moved forward after the war.

View the Civil War Digital Collection


The American Civil War in Missouri collection contains letters, diaries, maps, and military records. Manuscript collections for the Civil War era are often personal accounts of events and actions of Missourians during the conflict and offer valuable insights into how Missourians experienced the Civil War. These collections also shed light on the events leading up to the war and how Missouri moved forward after the war.

View All Civil War Manuscript Collections


The State Historical Society of Missouri is digitizing and making freely available Missouri newspaper titles published during the Civil War era to provide access to information about local events across Missouri during this period. Newspapers provide an insight into the era from all parts of the state, covering events leading up to the war, battles and skirmishes, and the post-Civil War years. These newspapers provide alternative viewpoints of national events, and more importantly, they highlight the impact of the Civil War on a local and personal level.

For a list of all digitized newspapers, visit the Missouri Digital Newspaper Project.

For a list of newspapers on microfilm at The State Historical Society of Missouri, visit the newspaper catalog.

County Collection Title Date Range
Adair Kirksville North Missouri Tribune and Register 1870-1879
Andrew Savannah Andrew County Republican 1871-1876
Barton Lamar South-West Missourian 1870-1874
Bates Butler Bates County Record 1868-1878
Buchanan St. Joseph Daily Herald 1865-1877
Buchanan St. Joseph Morning Herald 1862-1865
Callaway Fulton Telegraph 1863-1880
Cape Girardeau  Jackson Missouri Cash-Book 1871-1878
Carroll Carrollton Wakenda Record 1872-1878
Cass Pleasant Hill Leader 1869-1873
Chariton Brunswick Weekly Brunswicker 1854-1857
Cole Jefferson City Peoples' Tribune 1865-1878
Cole Jefferson City Missouri State Times 1863-1870
Cole Jefferson City State Journal 1872-1878
Cooper Boonville Weekly Observer 1854-1856
Dallas Buffalo Reflex 1869-1873
Daviess Gallatin North Missourian 1864-1874
Greene Springfield Mirror 1856-1859
Greene Springfield Missouri Weekly Patriot 1865-1876
Greene Springfield Leader 1867-1878
Grundy Grand River/Trenton Republican 1869-1878
Holt Oregon Holt County Sentinel 1865-1921
Howard Boon's Lick Times and Glasgow Weekly Times 1840-1869
Iron Ironton Iron County Register 1867-1879
Jackson Kansas City Daily Journal of Commerce 1865-1878
Jasper Carthage Banner 1866-1879
Knox Edina Sentinel 1869-1875
Lafayette Lexington Missouri Valley Register 1866-1869
Lawrence Mt. Vernon Fountain and Journal 1874-1880
Lewis Canton Press 1862-1877
Lincoln Troy Lincoln County Herald 1866-1878
Linn Brookfield Gazette 1867-1874
Macon Macon Gazette 1862-1865
Maries Vienna Banner Of Liberty and Vienna Courier 1873-1875
Marion Hannibal Messenger 1854-1859
Marion Palmyra Whig 1854-1859
Marion Palmyra Spectator 1863-1879
Mississippi Charleston Courier 1859-1875
Moniteau California Weekly News and Central Missourian 1858-1868
Moniteau California Loyal Missourian/Loyal Journal/Moniteau Journal 1866-1875
Moniteau California Moniteau County Democrat/California Democrat 1870-1876
Newton Neosho Times 1870-1876
Nodaway Maryville Nodaway Democrat 1869-1877
Pettis Sedalia Democratic Press/Democrat/Weekly Democrat 1868-1878
Phelps Rolla Weekly Herald 1869-1876
Platte Platte County Reveille 1866-1871
Platte Weston Border Times 1864-1874
Polk Bolivar Free Press 1868-1875
Randolph Randolph Citizen 1855-1861
Ripley Doniphan Prospect 1874-1878
Saint Clair Osceola Herald 1866-1873
Sainte Genevieve Sainte Genevieve Fair Play 1872-1921
Saline Marshall Democrat 1858-1861
Saline Marshall Saline County Progress 1868-1876
Scotland Memphis Reveille 1865-1877
Scott Commerce Dispatch 1867-1872
Schuyler Lancaster Excelsior 1866-1875
Shelby Shelbina Democrat 1870-1877
St. Charles St. Charles Demokrat 1852-1878
St. Louis St. Louis Daily Missouri Republican 1854-1869
St. Louis St. Louis Missouri Republican 1869-1872
St. Louis St. Louis Republican 1873-1876
Worth Grant City Star 1871-1877

Photographs and Other Images

Art Collection

View the Art Collection Gallery on Flickr

SHSMO holds one of the largest collections of paintings by George Caleb Bingham including Order No. 11 while the Thomas Hart Benton Collection contains the Year of Peril series, lithographs and other works. Many other Missouri artists, both past and present, are well represented in SHSMO's holdings. Featured here is some of the art work from SHSMO's collection depicting the Civil War era.

Reproductions of Bingham's paintings, Order No. 11 and Watching the Cargo are now available.

Portraits Collection

View the Portraits Collection Gallery on Flickr

The portraits are of individuals related to the Civil War in Missouri. Images are from SHSMO’s photograph collection of over 100,000 original photographs, postcards, copy photographs and photographs of drawings, engravings, maps, paintings, political cartoons, and other images.

Scenes Collection

View the Scenes Collection Gallery on Flickr

This collection includes Civil War scenes from SHSMO’s photograph collection of over 100,000 original photographs, postcards, copy photographs and photographs of drawings, engravings, maps, paintings, political cartoons, and other images.

Miscellaneous Collection

View the Miscellaneous Collection Gallery on Flickr

Included in this collection are newspaper clippings, images and maps from SHSMO's holdings. Newspaper clippings are from SHSMO's online digital newspapers. Images and maps are from SHSMO's photograph collection of over 100,000 original photographs, postcards, copy photographs and photographs of drawings, engravings, maps, paintings, political cartoons, and other images.

Regimental Histories

Missouri had 1,162 military actions, the third highest number, after Virginia and Tennessee. Of that number, only two--Wilson's Creek (August 10, 1861) and Westport (October 23, 1864)-- are considered battles. The remaining incidents were primarily skirmishes.

Missouri had over a dozen state militia organizations during the Civil War. The primary in-state defensive and offensive military forces were the Enrolled Missouri Militia (EMM) and Missouri State Militia (MSM). The EMM was solely state force, primarily mobilized as needed, but plagued with accusations of both disloyalty and excessive zealotry. The MSM was a state force authorized and subsidized by the federal government. It was a full-time force and was primarily occupied in battling guerilla forces throughout the war.

The Missouri forces that fought east of the Mississippi River were primarily members of the Missouri Volunteers, or volunteers in federal service from Missouri (although the Union forces killed at the Battle of Centralia were recruits for the 39th Regiment Infantry, Missouri Volunteers). The Missouri Volunteers consisted of 56 regiments, infantry, 16 cavalry, 2 artillery, and one engineer regiments, as well as numerous independent companies, batteries, and battalions.

Missouri contributed a huge number of its men to both sides of the Civil War. Over 109,000 men enlisted and fought for the Union and at least 30,000 men fought for the Confederacy. This represents almost 60 percent of men of military age and places Missouri first among the states in proportion to the population.

To research regimental histories for Missouri and other states, the most used work is the book published by Frederick Dyer in 1908, "A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion":

Regions in Missouri

In preparation for the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, several projects were funded by digital imaging grants from the Institute of Museum and Library Services under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act as administered by the Missouri State Library, a division of the Office of the Secretary of State. The several grants that were funded covered specific areas of Missouri. This page is using those areas as a basis for the Regions of Missouri. Not all areas of Missouri were covered by the grants.

The State Historical Society also received funding from the State Library in an earlier grant to digitize over 5,000 pages related to the American Civil War in Missouri. These digitized collections are from across the state.

Statewide Collections

An Address to the Public, Vindicating a Work of Art Illustrative of the Federal Military Policy in Missouri During the Late Civil War
  by: George C. Bingham

Annual Report of the Adjutant General of Missouri for the Year Ending December 31, 1865
  by: The Missouri Adjutant General’s Office

Camp and Prison Journal Embracing Scenes in Camp, On the March, and in Prisons
  by: Griffin Frost

Civil War Sheet Music (The Sheet Music Collection)

Negro-Slavery, No Evil; or the North and the South
  by: Platte County Self-Defensive Association

Patrick Quirk (1845-1921), Diary, 1865 (C3943)

Report of the Committee of the House of Representatives...Appointed to Investigate the Conduct and Management of the Militia

The Lyon Campaign in Missouri
  by: E. F. Ware

Union and Anti-Slavery Speeches Delivered During The Rebellion
  by: Charles D. Drake

William Work Papers