Sunday, May 24, 2009

A look back: 148 years ago, Civil War emotions boiled here

By Tim O'Neil

ST. LOUIS — In the first weeks of the Civil War, St. Louis was in a turmoil of divided loyalty. Gov. Claiborne Jackson schemed to add Missouri to the Confederacy. Congressman Frank Blair Jr. and Army Capt. Nathaniel Lyon worked to save it for the Union.

Unionists mustered volunteers to guard 36,600 weapons at the St. Louis Arsenal, on the Mississippi River at Arsenal Street. Jackson ordered state militia Gen. Daniel Frost to seize the guns. On May 8, a steamboat arrived with four cannons in boxes stamped "marble." Secessionists hauled them to Lindell Grove, a meadow on the western edge of town (now the site of St. Louis University) where Frost's militia was camped.

While strutting militiamen grandly accepted the compliments of ladies, the intense Lyon was busy. Legend has it that he donned a widow's veiled garb and rode through the militia camp. At noon on May 10 — 148 years ago Sunday — Lyon and his soldiers, many of them German immigrants, left the Arsenal for the two-hour march to Lindell Grove. They easily surrounded the militiamen, whose tents were just east of present-day Grand and Lindell boulevards.

Without a shot fired, Frost's troops surrendered and filed onto Olive Street. Hecklers had other ideas. Southern sympathizers mocked the German soldiers as "Hessians." A few threw rocks. Somebody fired shots. Union troops opened fire.

William Sherman, an area streetcar executive and future Union army hero, dove for a gully with his son, Willie, 7. Within moments, at least 28 civilians and seven soldiers lay dead or dying along Olive between Compton and Garrison avenues.

That night, three Germans were murdered downtown. The next day, another clash between soldiers and rioters at Broadway and Walnut Street cost six more lives. Federal reinforcements calmed the city, which stayed uneasily with the Union.

Frost joined the Confederate army. Lyon was killed while leading a Union army in battle near Springfield, Mo. Willie Sherman accompanied his father on the great campaign to capture Vicksburg, Miss., but contracted yellow fever and died.

On May 10, 1928, a statue of Lyon was installed at Grand and Pine Street. It was moved 32 years later to Lyon Park, next to the old arsenal, after Harriet Frost Fordyce — daughter of Gen. Frost — donated $1 million to St. Louis University. She died in 1960.

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