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Bringing the Civil War in Missouri to life

The Missouri History Museum is opening a new exhibit Saturday called “The Civil War in Missouri.”

There’s a lot of ground to cover in a state that was bitterly divided by the war and saw more than 1,200 battles and skirmishes.

But the museum, founded just one year after the Civil War ended, has a treasure trove of artifacts from the era that bring the conflict to life.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Maria Altman got a sneak peak.


Museums are generally pretty quiet places.

But, as I found out, not so much in the days before a new exhibit opens.

“Everybody’s hanging graphics, we’re installing artifacts, getting the lighting ready,” Jeff Meyer, the curator of The Civil War in Missouri exhibit said. He oversees all the buzz that’s taking place in the days before the opening.

Meyer spent the last five years preparing for this, looking through the museum’s collections and pulling them together to capture Missouri’s war experience.

The state certainly saw its share of the bloody conflict.

“Missouri was divided. It was a place where Confederates and Union both tried to get control of the state,” Meyer said. “Thousands of soldiers joined the fight, and thousands died.”

More than 2,000 men died at Wilson’s Creek, the first major battle in Missouri.

Confederate Colonel Austin Standish survived that battle; saved by his pocket watch.

The shattered watch is on display here. It’s one of Meyer’s favorite pieces. (see a photo of the watch in the gallery above).

“A lot of museums’ collections have a Bible that was shot or a belt buckle, and this is the piece in our collection and it’s amazing to me that we have it,” Meyer said.

The Powder Monkey

Shery Hunter is finishing up the installation of what looks like a little boy’s sailor suit.

But this isn’t just a cute costume.

It’s an actual Union uniform worn by 6-year-old Jimmie Johnston, who served on his father’s gunboat as a powder monkey.

“Powder monkey boy gathered the powder for the cannons and whatever artillery is going on, and this young man replaced another young man who had been killed,” Hunter said.

Jeff Meyer found a picture of Jimmie wearing the uniform, which now hangs in the exhibit.

It’s a bit shocking to see the little boy, in Union blue, a knife tucked into his waistband.

“It’s really not that uncommon during the Civil War,” Meyer said. “We have children serving as drummers and orderlies and teenagers enlisting early, lying about their age so that they can go and fight. It’s just not that uncommon then.”

Even civilian children weren’t safe.

Fourteen-year-old Emily Summers was killed early in the war in one of St. Louis’ few skirmishes, the Camp Jackson Affair, when federal troops fired into a crowd.

Cailin Carter, a conservation lab technician with the museum, removes paper protecting the old coroner’s book and reads the girl’s entry.

“It’s Emily Summers and the first line is “gunshot wound of heart.”

General Order Number 11

One of a few pieces not from the Missouri History Museum’s collection is a painting by George Caleb Bingham, on loan from the Cincinnati Art Museum. (see a photo of the painting in the gallery above)

It’s Bingham’s rendering of a notorious Civil War action, General Order Number 11.

That’s when a Union official ordered all civilians out of their homes in a four western Missouri counties to prevent them from supporting Confederate guerillas.

“Of course you see these burning buildings, people crying, a line of people in their wagons and their goods traveling off into the distance, with someone in the foreground who’s been shot by one of the officers, for whatever reason we don’t know,” Meyer said. “This shows some of the brutality of the war.”

The power of the exhibit is that events of 150 years ago suddenly don’t seem so distant.

It has all the more impact because it happened right here in Missouri.

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