Thursday, December 22, 2005

Gerteis: "Civil War St. Louis"

[Civil War St. Louis, by Louis S. Gerteis. (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2001. Pp. 410, $34.95, Cloth. ISBN 0-7006-1124-X)]

By the middle of the 19th Century, the small river town of St. Louis, Missouri had been transformed into a thriving metropolis teeming with commerce. The radical changes brought to St. Louis by the influx of German immigrants and New England businessmen during the 1850’s went a long way toward fulfilling the city’s dream of becoming the true “Gateway to the West”. In only a short time, these rising political and economic forces gained the strength to challenge the conservative, pro-slavery majority in the state. St. Louis became a microcosm of the sectional issues that gradually tore apart the country.

The reader of Civil War St. Louis is introduced to an astonishing range of people and events. While focusing on the Civil War years, author Louis Gerteis’s traces in extraordinary breadth and detail the experience of St. Louisans from antebellum times through Reconstruction. From the Camp Jackson affair, Gerteis moves to the imposition of martial law and suspension of civil rights by Federal authorities. Conditions at Gratiot Street Prison and similar facilities that housed a large array of inmates are described in great detail. The story of organizations such as the Western Sanitary Commission and the Ladies Union Aid Society is told. Furthermore, the vital role of women in these groups and in the multitude of military hospitals is prominently featured. The author also traces the construction of the Federal ironclad river fleet and recounts its service on the Western waterways. Included at the end is a short chapter on Reconstruction. Overall, in what must have been a rather difficult task, Gerteis deftly illuminates for the reader the complex politics and realities of slavery in a conservative slave state loyal to a Federal government that increasingly became bent on the institution’s destruction.

Of course, no book is without flaws and a few errors made their way into the final text. For instance, Colonel Emmet McDonald was killed at the Battle of Hartville rather than at Huntsville and Lincoln of course was the 16th president not the 14th. Additionally, though the book is well-researched and highly detailed, it is rather thin on critical analysis when dealing with intensely controversial issues such as the Federal imposition of martial law and suspension of civil rights. While naval events are detailed, other military aspects are largely overlooked. The reality of St. Louis’s wartime role as a vital military nerve center in the West is greatly underdeveloped. Depictions of soldier life at Camp Benton and Jefferson Barracks and of the construction and occupation of the chain of forts surrounding St. Louis are almost entirely absent. Lastly, a period map of the city and environs would have been of great help to the uninitiated as most places and events in the book are located for the reader with street addresses as the sole geographical reference.

These issues aside, Mr. Gerteis has written a fine addition to a growing body of studies that deal comprehensively with the wartime experience of specific cities and towns. Readers interested in the political, economic, ethnic and racial divisions in a unique Border State city will find much to learn about and admire in this book.

(Reprinted with the permission of North and South Magazine, originally appeared in vol. 6 #1, reviewed by Andrew Wagenhoffer)

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