It has been a week since we visited this exhibit, so closure demands that I write about it. The Missouri History Museum is best when it sticks close to home. With its new exhibit, “The Civil War in Missouri”, it does just that. The exhibit ably covers the war, its causes, events, and aftermath. It ranges across the state and across state lines, but mostly remains close to home, close to Saint Louis.
This year marks the sesquicentennial anniversary of the start of the Civil War, a fitting point for commemoration. The problem for Missouri is that the war had been going on for some time by 1861. The rest of the country just happened to catch-up with us that year. This head start made for a dubious show of leadership on Missouri’s part.
Saint Louis then and still now was one of a pair of northern bookends, in what was a southern state, the other one being Kansas City. It held fast for the union cause and prevented Missouri’s slide into secession. Bloodshed officially came to Missouri, when union forces ousted secessionists from Camp Jackson, within the environs of present day Saint Louis. A few set piece battles, like Wilson’s Creek, serve only to punctuate what was essentially a guerilla war. A war marked by atrocities as much as fighting.
The History Museum’s exhibit covers all of these issues and more. Hundreds of artifacts comprise this show. Pictured above is the 34 star, 1861 flag. The union never recognized the session of the Confederate states, but did recognize West Virginia’s wartime split from Virginia, giving that flag 35 stars. Rather then just filling in one of the empty corners, that flag’s stars were rearranged, somehow fittingly leaving a hole in the center of that flag’s star field.
Most of the exhibit comes from the Museum’s collection. In every wartime exhibit, there is the cliché bible that stopped a bullet. In this exhibit there is Austin M. Standish’s dented pocket watch. Dented by a musket ball, it stopped the bullet and saved its owner life. More disturbing, for what it signified, there is James V. Johnston’s navel uniform. James was a powder boy on his father’s ironclad. He was also only six years old.
A significant, borrowed item is George Caleb Bingham’s Order No. 11, pictured below. In an effort to control the guerrillas in Missouri, a union general ordered the forced evacuation of the populace from four Missouri counties. Denied local support, this action did much to curb guerrilla activity. It also irrevocably harmed the vitality of those counties.
In addition to the exhibit’s historical artifacts, an array of interactive technology complements their value. Animated maps diagram military actions; Q&A scenarios allow the viewer to determine the loyalty or disloyalty of historical Saint Louisans; using electronic CAD software, design an ironclad, as James Eads would have. “The Civil War in Missouri” will be on display until March.