Saturday, January 26, 2008

Merritt Griswold And The Civil War In St. Louis

When I first looked at Merritt Griswold's Civil War service records last year, I wasn't particularly impressed. He mustered into the Company D of the 3rd Regiment of the United States Reserve Corp as a Captain on May 8, 1861 and mustered out on August 17, 1861. Looking at the records, it seemed that Griswold had pretty much sat out the war. However, having done some research on the war in St. Louis, it appears that Griswold and his unit played a significant role in securing the city for the Union.

In the Spring of 1861, the loyalty of St. Louis and Missouri, a slave state, was very much in doubt. While the Missouri Constitutional Convention of March 1861 had voted overwhelmingly to keep Missouri in the Union, Governor Claiborne Jackson had pro-Confederate sympathies and refused Abraham Lincoln's order to raise troops for the Union. The state militias that were already existent were in the process of dividing along Union/Confederate lines and the pro-Jackson militias were actually taking offensive actions against Federal targets. In April of 1861, the Federal arsenal at Liberty, Missouri was seized and there were fears that the arsenal at St. Louis, the largest in a slave state, would be targeted.

The pro-Union forces in Missouri, led by Colonel Frank Blair and Captain Nathaniel Lyons, took decisive actions in April and May of 1861 to secure St. Louis. First, in what can best be described as an extra-constitutional move, Blair and Lyons hastily began to raise troops. Relying heavily on the Wide Awakes, a pro-Union political organization, Blair and Lyons raised ten regiments who would come to be known as the Home Guards. Second, with new troops in hand, Lyons seized the arsenal at St. Louis, securing it for the Union.

From there, things spiralled out of control quickly. On April 24th, three days after the seizure of the arsenal, a group from the pro-Confederate Minute Men political organization in St. Louis fired on a street car, believing that it was being used to transfer arms from the arsenal to Illinois. On May 1st, Governor Jackson called up the Missouri Militia and ordered it to encamp just outside of St. Louis. This encampment, which was dubbed "Camp Jackson", was just south of the present day location of St. Louis University and included the property upon which Thomas McNeary would build the Compton Avenue Grounds.

On May 10th, Lyons ordered the arrests of 670 members of the St. Louis Minute Men and, at the same time, an attack on Camp Jackson. Both the arrests and the surrender of the camp were accomplished peacefully but the strong display of Union force created an uproar among the pro-Confederate citizens of St. Louis.

James Peckham, in General Nathaniel Lyon and Missouri in 1861, has Lyon's account of what happened next:

Captain C. Blandowski, of Company F. (Third Missouri Volunteers), had been ordered with his company to guard the western gateway leading into the camp. The surrendered troops had passed out, and were standing passively between the enclosing lines on the road, when a crowd of disunionists began hostile demonstrations against Company F. At first these demonstrations consisted only of vulgar epithets and the most abusive language; but the crowd, encouraged by the forbearance and the silence of the Federal soldiers, began hurling rocks, brickbats, and other missiles at the faithful company. Notwithstanding several of the company were seriously hurt by these missiles, each man remained in line, which so emboldened the crowd that they discharged pistols at the soldiers, at the same time yelling and daring the latter to fight. Not until one of his men was shot dead, several severely wounded, and himself shot in the leg, did the Captain feel it his duty to retaliate; and as he fell, he commanded his men to fire. The order was obeyed, and the multitude fell back, leaving upon the grass-covered ground some twenty of their number, dead or dying. Some fifteen were instantly killed, and several others died within an hour. Several of Sigel's men were wounded, and two killed.

The actions of Blair and Lyons, despite the catastrophe that followed the surrender of Camp Jackson, secured St. Louis for the Union and, combined with U. S. Grant's actions at Cairo, Illinois and Paducah, Kentucky a few months later, was one of the most significant acts in the Western theatre of the war. With St. Louis, Cairo, and Paducah under control, the Union had secured the Upper Mississippi, the Western Ohio, and the Missouri rivers.

What was Merritt Griswold's role in all of this? While it's unknown what specific role he played in the attack on Camp Jackson, it is known that the 3rd Regiment took part in the attack. Peckham writes that "The regiments selected by Lyon to assist in the capture of Camp Jackson were the First, Second, Third, and Fourth Mo. Vols., and the Third and Fourth 'Home Guards' (Reserve Corps)." I think it can be assumed that Captain Griswold was present at the attack on Camp Jackson and was involved, during the late spring and summer of 1861, in securing St. Louis for the Union.

More importantly, Griswold's service in the 3rd Regiment tells us a great deal about him. In recruiting the Home Guards, Lyon relied heavily on two sources: German immigrants and the Wide Awakes. Since Griswold was not a German immigrant, it's rather likely that he was member of the Wide Awakes. Galusha Anderson, in The Story of a Border City During the Civil War, describes the group as "Republican in politics. It was made up of the most progressive young men of St. Louis. Many of them had just come into the Republican ranks; their political faith was new; they had the zeal and enthusiasm of recent converts. They were also stimulated by the fact that they were called upon to maintain their political doctrine in the face of the stoutest opposition. With their torchlights they had just been marching and hurrahing for Lincoln. They had cheered the vigorous speeches of their brilliant orators. Their candidate, though defeated in their city and State, had been triumphantly elected to the Presidency. Such a body of men, flushed with victory, was a political force which every thoughtful man saw must be reckoned with."

Anthony Monachello, in his article America's Civil War: Struggle For St. Louis, describes the Wide Awakes as "a shadowy political organization" that "spent most of their time attempting to win the hearts and minds of the local populace by organizing demonstrations, posting signs and publishing pamphlets extolling the virtues of their (cause)." They were also described as, essentially, a paramilitary organization that had violent clashes with their Minute Men rivals as early as March 4, 1861 and were stockpiling arms and undergoing military training in preparation for the outbreak of war.

I think that it's safe to assume that Griswold was ardently pro-Union. He took decisive steps in joining the Home Guards to defend the Union cause in St. Louis and most likely had been a member of a significant pro-Union political organization for some time before the outbreak of hostilities in St. Louis.

Under those circumstances, his statement to Al Spink that the Cyclone Club broke up due to the Civil War is rather poignant. The political tensions within the club must have been severe. Griswold, one of the founders of the club, was an active Unionist. His teammate, and co-worker, Edward Bredell, was obviously and firmly on the opposite side. Club President Leonard Matthews found the war "inconvenient" and purchased a substitute to serve for him. His own family was divided over the war and his father tried to talk his brother and fellow club member, Orville Matthews, into resigning from the Navy. Orville Matthews, of course, did no such thing and served the Union cause with honor.

Other club members who served with the Union include John Riggin, John Prather (who also served in the Home Guards), Frederick Benteen (who helped organize a company of cavalrymen in St. Louis), Joseph Fullerton, and William Collier.

I can find no record of any member of the Cyclone Club serving with the Confederates other than Bredell. However, since all known members of the club have yet to be positively identified, I feel that the chances are good that there were others.

Note: The three images in this post are of Camp Jackson (top), St. Louis 1861 (middle), and the attack on Camp Jackson (last).

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