Tuesday, May 10, 2011

150 Years Ago -- The St. Louis Riot

St. Louis RiotImage via Wikipedia

On Friday, May 10, 1861, the situation in St. Louis turned violent.

Union General Nathaniel Lyon, with two companies of regulars and several thousand German Home Guards, surrounded the state militia at Camp Jackson and demanded their surrender.

The militia protested, but had no choice but to surrender.  Soon the 639 enlisted men and five officers were marched through St. Louis to the arsenal to be paroled.  A crowd gathered to see what was going on, and when they saw the prisoners surrounded by the hated Dutchmen, they became more and more hostile, and soon erupted into violence.

From The Coming Fury by Bruce Catton:
"A woman screamed 'They've got my lover!' and ran close to spit on one of the guards; the guard turned on her with his bayonet and chased her down the street, wholly ignoring the storied sanctity of Southern womanhood.  A drunken man with a revolver tried to break through the cordon, was pushed violently away, and began to fire, wounding an officer.  Some of the Germans fired in reply; then the column wavered to a halt and suddenly the firing was general.  In the beginning, it was said that most of the soldiers fired in the air, but this did not last long, and many of the bullets found human targets.  In a little open square (William Tecumseh) Sherman stood watching with his small son at his side.  When the firing began, he pulled the boy to the ground and lay over him to protect him; he estimated that at least 100 bullets passed over them before the firing died down.  Smoke clouds drifting across the pavement veiled the movement of running men and women, and there was a wild uproar of musket fire, shouts, screams, hoarse cries of command, and the clatter of hurrying feet."

When it was over, at least 28 people -- civilians, soldiers and prisoners -- were dead.
"St. Louis was a wild town that night.  Thousands of people were on the streets, asking for news, prepared to make news on their own account.  Groups paraded back and forth, shouting, brandishing weapons, now and then firing in the darkness, some carrying the United States flag, others bearing the flag of the Confederacy.  Proprietors of saloons, restaurants, and theaters prudently shut up shop, fearing a general riot.  A store selling firearms was raided, and fifteen or twenty rifles were carried off before the police could disperse the mob.  Somehow, general rioting was averted, but trouble broke out afresh the next day when one of the German regiments, marching from the arsenal to its mustering place, fell afoul of an angry crowd at Fifth and Walnut streets.  In the senseless firing that resulted, from six to twelve persons were killed -- some of them, it was believed, soldiers hit by wild shots fired by their own comrades."

At Jefferson City, the state capital, the legislature was in session.  They leaned toward the Union until the news arrived from St. Louis.  Suddenly, they were vehemently pro-Confederate.  They passed a bill authorizing Governor Claiborne Jackson to spend two million dollars to repel invasion.  The bill also put every able-bodied man in the state in the militia, gave Jackson the power to appoint all militia officers, and made criticism of the governor an offense that could be punished by court-martial.

They adjourned for the evening, but were called back into an emergency session around midnight.  The rumor was that 2000 Federal troops were on the way from St. Louis to capture the capital.
"That midnight session was eerie; tense, shadowed, poised halfway between the desperate and the ludicrous.  Almost everybody came to the meeting armed, some men excessively so.  Rifles were stacked in the aisles, or leaned against desks; some members sat in their places with guns between their knees, and some wore heavy belts to which were fastened revolvers and bowie knives; and there were armed guards at the doors.  The tension was allayed when it became known that the Osage bridge, which must be crossed by any despotic Dutch levies that intended to enter Jefferson City, had been burned.  There would be a breathing spell, then.  The solons voted to send the state treasure to some safe place out of town, voted to do the same with the state's supply of powder, and then adjourned for the night, their weapons unused.  In the morning it was learned that the march on the capital was not taking place after all."

Lyon's actions kept Missouri in the Union, but put the entire state in an uproar.  Suddenly everyone was choosing sides, and many of those who had been for the Union before were changing sides.  Among these was Sterling Price, a leading citizen of the state, a former governor, former Congressman, and Mexican War veteran.  Jackson commissioned him a brigadier general and put him in command of the militia.

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