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Missouri 'a dangerous place to live' during Civil War

Missouri 'a dangerous place to live' during Civil War

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Many a book details Missouri’s Civil War battles, starting with Wilson’s Creek in August 1861. In “The Homefront in Civil War Missouri,” retired lawyer James W. Erwin of Kirkwood takes a different approach, as his title suggests.

Much of his approach covers what we think of as “the home front” — medical volunteers, for example, and fundraising bazaars. But early in his book, Erwin defines the term more broadly:

“Missouri was a battleground — over one thousand engagements were fought in the state (the third most during the Civil War) — but it was also a homefront. St. Louis was a major military base and transportation center. It was filled with Union soldiers and sailors on their way south and with the sick and wounded returning north. Jefferson City was a rude, muddy town that housed an unelected and increasingly unpopular state government.

“Kansas City was a Union island surrounded by guerrilla strongholds. The countryside was up for grabs, suffering from the depredations of bushwhackers and soldiers alike. And Missouri was still a slave state in a war that came to be as much about emancipation as preserving the Union. It was a turbulent, dangerous place to live.”

That turbulence and danger resounds throughout Erwin’s slim, well-illustrated account. Some Missourians found themselves swept up in the conflict through the unlikeliest of circumstances.

Take the Rev. Samuel McPheeters, a Presbyterian preacher in St. Louis. In June 1862, he baptized a baby with the name the parents selected — Sterling Price Robbins, in honor of the Confederate leader at Wilson’s Creek. After some church members complained, federal officials banished McPheeters.

The book teems with accounts of guerrilla raids by Confederate sympathizers known as “bushwhackers” — and of retaliatory shootouts by Union soldiers and ragtag militia members. Even behind the lines, the Missouri of that era — like the Afghanistan of today — was a turbulent and dangerous place.

Early on, the Union army clamped a decree of martial law on the entire state. But Erwin notes that federal outposts were small and scattered, leaving lots of opportunities for guerrillas to seize. And some of the guerrillas hardly fit the popular image of ill-clad horsemen:

“In mid-1862, Maggie Creath and Lizzie Powell were suspected of having smuggled fifty thousand percussion caps out of Hannibal in their petticoats and given them to guerrillas. Creath ‘made quite a sensation’ when she appeared with a guerrilla named Clay Price in Monroe County, decked out in Rebel colors and with ‘a brace of pistols ornamenting her taper waist.’ The local commanders noted that the two women’s ‘beauty, talents and superior education have made many a man a bushwhacker who except for their influence would have been an honest man.’”

This honest little history puts a sharp edge on words like “turbulent” and “dangerous.”

Harry Levins of Manchester retired in 2007 as senior writer of the Post-Dispatch.

‘The Homefront

in Civil War Missouri’

By James W. Erwin

Published by the History Press, 124 pages, $19.99 (paperback)

James W. Erwin

When • 7 p.m. Aug. 13

Where • University City Public Library, 6701 Delmar Boulevard

How much • Free

More info • 314-727-3150; subbooks.com

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