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Missouri's Civil War tipping point: 150 years after The Camp Jackson Affair


In the first weeks of the Civil War Missouri tried to remain neutral.

But May 10, 1861 was the tipping point.

In what came to be known as the Camp Jackson Affair, federal troops captured members of Missouri’s militia and killed 28 civilians in the chaos that followed.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Maria Altman reports on what happened that day 150 years ago and how it forced Missouri into the war.--------------------------------------

I’m standing near Grand Avenue and Lindell on what today is the campus of St. Louis University.

But back in 1861 this was on the city’s outskirts, an area known as Lindell Grove.

That spring Missouri’s militia, the National Guard of its day, gathered here to set up what they called Camp Jackson for a six-day exercise.

A sign now marks the significance of the spot.

“This is basically the event that ended up keeping Missouri in the Union,” says Pam Sanfilippo, an historian at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site.

She says delegates at a Missouri state convention had voted to remain in the Union that spring, as long as they didn’t have to fight their southern brothers.

Predictably, Missouri Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson refused to send the troops President Lincoln requested to put down the rebellion.

At the same time Jackson was secretly in contact with Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

The two conspired to smuggle weapons to the state militia at Camp Jackson, in order to attack St. Louis’ federal arsenal.

“Arsenals had been taken throughout other states that had seceded and so the intent seems to have been to capture that federal arsenal. To say that that’s a way of remaining neutral is a little duplicitous perhaps,” Sanfilippo says with a laugh.

The arsenal’s commander, Captain Nathaniel Lyon, caught wind of the plan.

He responded by moving the arsenal’s weapons to safety in Illinois then marching thousands of federal volunteers to capture the camp.

It’s a moment re-enactors, including Frank Aufmuth, re-created about a week ago at Jefferson Barracks

“You’re going to see the militia surrender as close as we can get that, then see things go terribly wrong,” Aufmuth said.

When things went terribly wrong

Outside Camp Jackson on that day a large crowd gathered to watch as their own Missouri militia surrendered to federal troops, some of whom were German newcomers.

Emotions ran high and Aufmuth says someone shot at the federal troops.

“What’s unclear is who really started the trouble. Was it the civilians from St. Louis who were unhappy about the home team being captured, which was the Missouri militia, or was it actual members of the militia that actually fired the shots?” Aufmuth asks.

Whoever fired the first shot, federal troops killed 28 civilians that day.

The names of those who died, a quarter of them children, were read at the commemoration.

Aufmuth says after that, everybody chose a side.

“Now people are forced into the war. Many who had Southern sympathies at all are going to be more polarized more towards being pro Southern, and those for the Union say ‘yes they were going to seize the arsenal, so we’re going to side with the Union,’” Aufmuth said.

St. Louis sticks with the Union

Riots went on for several days in St. Louis, but historian Pam Sanfilippo says despite the civilian deaths at federal hands, the city would stick with the Union.

“Reports are that people in St. Louis following Camp Jackson said stores were closed, that it was like Sunday it was so quiet on the street and no one dared raise a rebel flag again,” Sanfilippo said.

By the next month Governor Jackson and some of his militia were retreating through the state, followed closely by federal troops.

A new governor, a Union loyalist, was elected by a state convention.

Missouri would now fight under the Union flag, but many of its citizens would join the Confederacy and 1,200 battles and skirmishes would be waged here.

Maria is the newscast, business and education editor for St. Louis Public Radio.