Missouri – Where the Civil War Began
Pick up any history textbook and it will indicate the American Civil War began April 12, 1861, when Confederate batteries opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. That may have been the first “official” military engagement, although there were no casualties during the bombardment. However, the actual beginnings of the Civil War conflict can be traced to a series of events which took place half a continent away, in Missouri, 42 years earlier.
The political conflict between the North and the South took definite form in 1819, when Missouri applied for admission into the Union. Application was made entirely in accordance with the requirements of the Federal Constitution, closely adhering to procedures established in the admission process of other states.
Because the territorial laws of Missouri recognized and embraced slavery, Northern members of Congress refused to allow Missouri’s admission, while Southern congressmen fully backed Missouri’s application for statehood. According to Confederate military historian Col. John C. Moore, a staff officer with generals Marmaduke and Mugruder, congressmen representing the Northern states were the aggressors in this conflict over Missouri’s admission, even though their position held no basis in the Constitution. The confrontations in the nation’s Capitol over this issue were long and often violent. It was during this debate that the tensions between North and South took center stage in United States politics and Civil War became a distinct possibility.
After many heated battles, Congress passed the Missouri Compromise of 1820. As a result, Missouri was admitted to statehood in 1821. The compromise established a boundary between the Free States and the Slave States. This boundary extended a line originally laid out to settle a 1750 border dispute between Pennsylvania and Maryland. It was referred to as the Mason-Dixon Line, after the two British surveyors who established it in 1763-1767. It runs west to the Ohio River, then south along the Ohio and finally turns west along 36 degrees 30 minutes north latitude.
The Missouri Compromise held that Missouri would be admitted as a slaveholding state, but, thereafter, no slavery would be allowed north of the Mason-Dixon Line. The state legislature riled at this because the line followed the southern border of Missouri, thus imposing upon Missouri conditions which had not been imposed upon other states. Missouri became the only “Northern” state where slavery was legal. As a result, the Missouri legislature resolved to align Missouri with the Southern States. This resolution further fanned the fuels of North-South conflict within the fledgling state.
In 1854, Congress passed a bill many say made war inevitable. The Kansas-Nebraska Act created two new territories out of the Great Plains area west of Missouri and Iowa. This bill placed the slavery issue in the hands of the territorial voters. As a result, a conflict known as “Bloody Kansas” ensued, as Southern supporters from Missouri attempted to enforce their will upon the territories.
Fully seven years before the attack on Fort Sumter, this conflict brought about some of the fiercest fighting long before any actual declaration of war. Eventually, Kansas became a Free State and Missouri, surrounded on three sides by Northern States, braced itself for all-out war. Thus, even before it became a state, Missouri played an integral part in starting the struggle between North and South.
Another factor many historians contend contributed to the start of the war was the Dred Scott case of 1847 in St. Louis. Dred Scott, an enslaved black man, sued for his freedom. Scott had lived with his master, Army surgeon Dr. John Emerson, in the free state of Illinois and in the Wisconsin Territory, where the terms of the Missouri Compromise prohibited slavery. After Emerson died, his wife hired Scott out to an army captain. Scott attempted to buy his freedom and that of his wife, Harriet, but was turned down. He then sought his freedom through the courts. The United States Supreme Court, in what is perhaps the most infamous case in its history, decided that all people of African ancestry -- slaves as well as freemen -- could never become citizens of the United States and therefore could not sue in federal court. Scott, needless to say, remained a slave. This decision further fanned the flames of unrest in the country.
Missouri was frequently the scene of the most heated parts of this civil unrest. In 1861 alone, of the 157 battles listed in the Army Register, 66 took place in Missouri. Overall, Missouri suffered a greater number of battles and engagements -- more than 1,000 -- than any State except Virginia and Tennessee.
Missouri was the site of the northernmost battle fought west of the Mississippi River, the Battle of Athens. The Battle of Island No. 10, the second and arguably the largest battle of Ironclads, took place on the Mississippi River near New Madrid. The first battle fought by a Black regiment was fought in Missouri. Missouri saw the largest cavalry operation in American history. Missouri was the setting of unparalleled guerrilla warfare.
Missouri’s Civil War heritage lives on at various sites like the Missouri Civil War Museum, in St. Louis; Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield, near Springfield; the Ulysses Grant National Historic Site, in St. Louis; and numerous Battlefields, Parks, Museums and Gravesites throughout the state. For more information contact the Missouri Civil War Heritage Foundation at www.MoCivilWar.org, or go to www.VisitMO.com.
The Washington University Library, in St. Louis, holds 85 documents as part of its Dred Scott collection. At the Old Courthouse, in downtown St. Louis, visit the site of the Dred Scott trials and witness a re-creation of the original courtroom and reenactments of the case.
To learn more about the Missouri-Kansas Border Wars, take a trip to the Bushwhacker Museum and Jail in Nevada, Missouri. Confederate guerrillas were referred to as Bushwhackers. During the Civil War, Nevada came to be known as “the Bushwhacker Capital.” Heavy Bushwhacker activity prompted federal troops to burn Nevada to the ground in 1863.
Civil War buffs traveling south of Kansas City on Route 71 can locate a number of historical markers related to the Border Wars by zigzagging across the Missouri-Kansas border between Routes 71 and 69.
There are many Civil War battlefields to visit, museums to explore and monuments to view in Missouri. Learn more about the state’s pivotal role in early events of the Civil War, long before the bombardment in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. You see . . . it really did start in Missouri.