Saturday, October 31, 2015

Spirits of the Civil War in Alton The History & Hauntings of the Confederate Prison

Confined to the Alton Military Prison in 1863
When word reached the land where the Great Rivers meet that the United States was embroiled in a Civil War, many of the men from Alton and the surrounding area responded to Abraham Lincoln’s call for volunteers. One of the city’s greatest moments came only a few days after the proclamation of war, when the steamer City of Alton was used to remove military supplies from St. Louis to keep them from falling into the hands of the secessionists in that city.

St. Louis was a city that was sharply divided in 1861. However, when Claiborne Jackson took the oath of the governor’s office of Missouri, his inaugural address left no doubt that he intended to align the state with the rapidly forming Confederacy in the south. State conventions were suddenly being held to discuss secession from the Union. They met for the first time on February 28. In return, moderates began to call for meetings of a Constitutional Union party, hoping to preserve not only the Union, but also peace in the nation and in the state of Missouri.

The Constitutional Unionists and the Black Republicans watched closely the maneuverings of the Jackson men in St. Louis. Armed militiamen were stationed at the Berthold Mansion, where the Missouri secessionist banner with its single bar and crescent waved proudly. Meanwhile, Union men drilled openly and operated a headquarters at Turner Hall. Governor Yates of Illinois sent them 2,000 muskets in a load of beer barrels with which to prepare for trouble. Both groups had their eyes on the well-stocked St. Louis Arsenal near the river. Here, either side could easily capture more than 60,000 guns, along with 200 barrels of powder and other munitions.

Governor Jackson constantly warned that the secessionist men should take the Arsenal, but to no avail. However, he was reassured by General D.M. Frost, who reported that Major Bell at the Arsenal was loyal to the state of Missouri and would not allow the facility to fall into Unionist hands. Meanwhile, Isaac Sturgeon, federal assistant treasurer in St. Louis, was also concerned and not only about the Arsenal, but the funds in his charge as well. With very few United States regulars west of the Mississippi, he contacted Washington with his concerns. A short time later, a detachment was sent to strengthen the forces at Jefferson Barracks. Then, on the urgings of Mayor Oliver Filley, a loyal Union man, a group of soldiers marched into the city, took over the Customs House and removed the government’s money.

The chief military commander in Missouri at that time was General William Selby Harney, a close friend of Jefferson Davis. He was living in St. Louis at the time and saw no cause for alarm over the events that were being set into motion. However, Major David Hunter, who had conferred in the city with Isaac Sturgeon, was not so confident. Soon, Harney received a telegram from the War Department, asking whether or not it might be wise to bring soldiers from Jefferson Barracks to guard over the Arsenal. A few days later, Captain Nathaniel Lyon was sent from Fort Riley to St. Louis with a detachment of troops. Within a short time, he was placed in charge of the Arsenal and General Harney was called to Washington.

By the time that war broke out on April 12, talking had ended and the city was plunged into chaos. The first acts of aggression from the Confederacy sent ripples through the cautious peace in St. Louis and when President Lincoln called for four regiments of volunteers from Missouri, Governor Jackson denounced the call as “illegal, unconstitutional and revolutionary”. Meanwhile, a Committee of Public Safety was formed in St. Louis, headed by pro-Union Republicans and Democrats. They pledged “unalterable fidelity to the Union under all circumstances” and were determined to back the Union at all costs.

Four days after Jackson refused to obey the President’s orders, Captain Nathaniel Lyon was ordered to muster four regiments into public service. Before nightfall, he had them at the Arsenal, supplied with both arms and ammunition. On April 30, Lyon was informed that if he and the Committee of Public Safety deemed it necessary, he could proclaim martial law in the city of St. Louis. The military commanders feared for the safety of the arms that were secured at the St. Louis Arsenal and they ordered Captain James B. Stokes to use the City of Alton to salvage them and move them to Illinois.
Stokes proceeded downriver from Alton with a force of 700 men. They loaded weapons from the Arsenal onto the steamer but to divert the attention of a mob that was forming, he ordered 500 unusable muskets be placed on another vessel. A great show was made of this and while many in the crowd were distracted, others were taken into custody and locked up in the guard house.

Stokes and his men managed to remove 20,000 muskets, 500 pistols, 500 carbines, cannons and ammunition from the Arsenal. They secured them aboard the City of Alton and headed back up the river to Alton. They had not gone far before the steamer was in danger of running aground. It was dangerously overloaded and only by shifting the cargo back and forth were they able to stay afloat. The steamer arrived back in Alton during the early morning hours and when Stokes rang the fire bell, dozens of volunteers flocked to the river. The weapons and ammunition were quickly transferred to a waiting train and sent on to Springfield and into the hands of the forming Illinois regiments.

One of the men involved in the foray into St. Louis was Franklin B. Moore of Upper Alton. In July 1861, he would independently raise a company called the Madison County Rangers. The company became famous for their raids and their battles with Missouri guerilla troops. They were known for their bravery and captured over 1,200 prisoners and huge quantities of arms and supplies. Moore, who was known as “Fighting Frank” was the son of Abel Moore. His brothers, William and Joel, had been killed in the Wood River Massacre.

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