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Q&A with Jeff Meyer of Missouri History Museum - Ladue News: Arts & Entertainment

Q&A with Jeff Meyer of Missouri History Museum

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Posted: Thursday, December 8, 2011 11:52 am | Updated: 4:02 pm, Thu Dec 8, 2011.

Even though the Missouri Compromise of 1820 made it possible for Missouri to become the 24th state of the Union as a slave state, many Missourians did not see eye to eye on the topics of secession and slavery. A new exhibit at Missouri History Museum, The Civil War in Missouri (running through March 16), examines the intricacies and complications in the years leading to the start of the war in 1861, as well as during the war. Curator Jeff Meyer recently talked with LN about the extensive collection that commemorates the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War.

LN: What should visitors look forward to seeing and taking in at The Civil War in Missouri?

JM: We received a federal grant for a massive conservation project, and so we were able to pull out a lot of artifacts since they’ve been conserved and are now stable. We have some artifacts in this exhibit, like a lot of flags and some uniforms and other pieces, that have not seen the light of day either at all or in decades. And, we look at some stories and events that I don’t think will be familiar to the general public. We really don’t focus so much on the battles, but we do examine the history of slavery in Missouri as the cause of what ultimately results in war. We also focus on what was happening with civilians: How war affected civilian life, and what they did to help support the war effort. For instance, we look at how the women, who remained at home because their husbands or sons or fathers had left, cared for their families and their property and made ends meet. And why did people join the fight in the first place? Early on, Lincoln didn’t really take a stand on slavery. He insisted that the war was for the preservation of the Union, but once he authorized African Americans to join the fight, he changed what the war was about.

LN: Some historians believe that Missouri sent more men into battle than any other state. Is this your thought, as well?

JM: I have heard that theory, but I haven’t had a chance to verify it. It would make sense because of the division in Missouri. There were soldiers joining both forces, but the majority of Missourians fighting in the war were fighting for the Union. A lot happened between when Missouri entered the Union as a state and the time of the war. The population exploded. There was more diversity in the state after it obtained statehood, with not only an influx of immigrants coming, but also people coming from the Northeast and the South. It had this identity crisis, and you started to see the beginnings of a bitter division that ultimately resulted in war.

LN: Camp Jackson was located on the site that is now Saint Louis University. What transpired there? And can you share some thoughts on what it was like to live in St. Louis during this time?

JM: For St. Louisans, what occurred at Camp Jackson was a pivotal event. To this point, St. Louis was somewhat removed from the violence. Camp Jackson was an encampment of state militia who were mostly pro-secessionists. They were authorized by Governor (Claiborne Fox) Jackson to set up this encampment, which was perfectly legal in St. Louis. But of course, he had this plot to seize the U.S. arsenal to create an army that would help take Missouri out of the Union. When the Union officials found out about this, they moved the arms across the river into Illinois. The threat at that point was really over, but the Union forces were commanded by this over-zealous abolitionist, Nathaniel Lyon, and he decided to go ahead and capture the encampment. Shots were fired, and it was very confusing as to who started it. Soldiers and civilians were killed, including women and children.

I imagine St. Louisans were on edge all of the time—they were likely very tense, very fearful and probably uncertain of their safety. And the Camp Jackson event was not an isolated event. The very next day, there was another skirmish between civilians and soldiers that resulted in more deaths. This was all in the city of St. Louis.

LN: What is your favorite piece in the exhibit?

JM: There’s a pocket watch that was worn by one of the Missouri State Guard soldiers at Wilson’s Creek. I love that piece because I’ve seen in other museums’ Bibles, belt buckles and canteens that have been shot and have saved soldiers’ lives. To have something like that in our collection— an object that saved a soldier’s life—is just amazing.

LN: How much do you appreciate this period in our nation’s history?

JM: This period is fascinating to me because it’s the most pivotal event of the 20th century, and it’s something that still resonates with a lot of people. I think there’s still a lot about it to examine, and I hope through this exhibit, we’re able to give people some idea of how complex it was and how difficult it was to live during this period in time.

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