Recently, my wife and I visited the Missouri Civil War Museum. I’d heard about it from an online friend, but we’d never visited. It sits in the grounds of the Jefferson Barracks Park, with near Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery nearby, located in eastern St. Louis County adjacent to the Mississippi River. The museum has an admission fee, but it’s reasonable and well worth the cost.
The museum was opened in 2002. It receives no funding from state or federal taxes; it’s a 501(c)3 educational organization. It was created with the specific purpose of saving the Jefferson Parks Recreation Building (built in 1905) and opening a museum dedicated solely to Missouri in the Civil War.
We started with the five-minute introductory video, which explained the history of Jefferson Barracks and how the museum came to be. And then it was on to the exhibits, which are on the main floor and in the basement level.
I was surprised. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the museum’s exhibits are extremely well-done and chock full of artifacts. The first room provided the background for the war – the events leading up to it as well as the 1860 election. But it’s all set in a Missouri context.
I found myself fascinated with a map showing how the counties voted in the 1860 election. Missouri, a slave or border state which remained in the Union, split its vote like many slave states did. But the map shows two counties that voted for Abraham Lincoln – St. Louis County and Gasconade County.
In 1860, the city of St. Louis was part of St. Louis County; the “divorce” happened in 1876, when the city decided it did not want to be part of all the criminal riffraff in the county – a decision that eventually became a huge mistake. The city’s business community and a large German immigrant population supported Lincoln, explaining why the county voted like it did. (There were slaveowners in the city and in St. Louis County, like Ulysses S. Grant’s father-in-law at Whitehaven, now a national park.)
Gasconade County on the Missouri River voted Republican because of its large German immigrant population. The town of Hermann, Missouri, was founded by immigrants in 1837 and became the county seat in 1842. They selected the area because the high river bluffs reminded them of the Rhine River. It became a center of wine production until Prohibition in 1920; the wine industry began its recovery in the 1960s and it’s part of the nation’s first officially designated wine district (which irritates Californians).
For both counties, the German population helps explain the reason for the vote for Lincoln.
On the main floor, the exhibits are displayed around the perimeter of what had been the recreation hall’s gymnasium. In one tour of the room, you can experience the history of the war and how soldiers and civilians lived through it – or died during it. The museum has really done an effective, engaging job here. More exhibits were downstairs, including how the Civil War has been portrayed by Hollywood.
What you gain from the overall visit is an appreciation for how the state was ravaged during the war years and how guerilla bands on both sides participated in that destruction and death. The exhibits also explain the engagement that began at the federal fort in Pilot Knob, in southeastern Missouri, and ended near Kansas City in the far west. (The state of Missouri also has a Civil War Museum in Pilot Knob, which is well worth a visit.) After the war, many of the Missouri guerrillas drifted into criminal gangs, including Jesse James and the Younger Brothers.
Our museum visit ended at the gift shop on the main floor, which, again, was surprisingly good especially for the new and used books for sale. The museum organization is also renovating the 1918 post exchange building next door, which will be used as a Civil War Studies Center, and it’s received several preservation and recognition awards since it opened. And each year its sponsors a Civil War Symposium, this year scheduled for March 24-26.
And, yes, I will be going back. It’s a wonderful gem of a museum.