What did you do yesterday? If you’re like many Americans, you had the day off and you spent it with friends and family. Perhaps you went to a baseball game. You might have enjoyed a picnic with all the trimmings: hot dogs, corn on the cob, barbeque ribs, potato salad, coleslaw and apple pie. Perhaps you took advantage of the many Memorial Day sales and spent the day shopping. No matter what you did, we hope that you took a few moments to remember the reason for the holiday.
Memorial Day was created to pay tribute to the men and women who died in the service of America’s military, defending our freedom. Our older generation might recall the holiday was once known as Decoration Day which traces its name to the practice of placing flowers and mementos on the graves of fallen soldiers. Decorating the tombstones led, naturally, to the term Decoration Day.
Though the tradition preceded the Civil War, that bloody conflict produced far more graves to decorate. No one knows exactly when the decoration of the graves of our fallen heroes on a single day first originated but it might have been as early as 1862 in Savannah, Georgia or 1864 in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania. However, it was Charleston, South Carolina that formalized the day with an observance by freed slaves on May 1, 1865 to honor the Union soldiers who died during the war. Over the decades, the holiday transitioned to the last Monday in May each year because that was deemed the date when flowers were most likely to be in full bloom and ready to be cut and placed on the graves.
Regardless of the details, Memorial Day, as it is now known, is a time to remember all those who gave their lives to protect our own. Their sacrifices have spanned many declared wars, a number of undeclared wars and countless skirmishes and military actions.
Given American Queen Steamboat Company’s close ties to the South, the scene of most of the battles of the Civil War, and the Civil War’s importance in inspiring the creation of Memorial Day, it’s interesting to find ties throughout the country to the War Between the States. They exist even in places you might not expect.
While the lower stretch of Mississippi River down to New Orleans was the setting for many Civil War dramas, the upper Mississippi River is generally ignored when recounting stories of the horrific conflict that left over 600,000 American dead.
Although you might be a bit surprised to learn that St. Louis, one of the nation’s most important hubs for steamboat traffic, was not the location for any major Civil War battles, it still played a very important and occasionally violent role during the war. The Union Army campaigns being fought in areas such as Tennessee and Kentucky were often supplied by the men and material that passed through St. Louis. These battles in the Western Theater required a huge supply chain and a number of the earliest volunteers for the Union Army came from St. Louis’ population of 160,000 German and Irish Americans.
St. Louis itself became an arsenal for the North, despite the fact that as the war began Missouri tried to hedge its bets and straddle the fence between the North and South. But the arrival of Captain Nathaniel Lyon of the 2nd U.S. Infantry in March of 1861 made it clear which side the vast resources of St. Louis were going to support, despite the fact that Missouri’s governor was a Southern sympathizer. The reason Lyon entered the city was to ensure that the governor didn’t turn weapons over to the South and perhaps secede. If Missouri seceded, there was no effective way to supply Union troops to retake the state so by seizing the city’s arsenal, Lyon made it unwise for Missouri to entertain thoughts of secession.
And that’s when things got both interesting and a bit bizarre. With the outbreak of war, President Lincoln requested the remaining loyal states to supply troops. The Missouri governor refused to provide the requested four regiments and went so far as to assemble a band of militia surrounding St. Louis. It appeared as if he intended to retake the arsenal and hand Missouri to the Confederacy. Lyon purportedly dressed as a female farmer to gain access to the militia camps and discovered that some of the artillery had been removed from the arsenal without permission and for eventual use against Union troops. Lyon responded by moving the cache of weapons across the Mississippi River to Illinois, depriving the would-be secessionists of their firepower. However, St. Louis’ citizens, many of whom supported the Confederacy, didn’t take kindly to the move or Lyon’s other activities. Eventually, riots and skirmishes broke out, leaving 28 civilians dead and 90 wounded.
However, the German American population stayed solidly pro-Union and with Lyon in control of the arsenal, there wasn’t much St. Louis could do. In fact, the city was never attacked by Confederate forces and the North used it as a critical supply depot throughout the Civil War. But that didn’t stop the citizens from occasionally clashing amongst themselves as those who supported the South fought those who wished to see the North prevail. There were even fistfights among members of the same families. One riot in downtown St. Louis killed six people. St. Louis and Missouri stayed in Union hands. However, it’s interesting to note that later in the war, the Confederacy claimed Missouri as a member even though the state never actually seceded from the Union and Southern troops never had control.
Since American Queen Steamboat Company is offering an early booking discount for 2018, the time has never been better to make plans for a journey back through history. With Civil War themed cruises featured on both vessels, the iconic American Queen and the all-new American Duchess, you can choose how you wish to experience America’s history from the perspective of the river.