By Evan Wood
A thirteen flag from the Revolutionary War seems like an odd relic to display inside of a Civil War museum, but only if you don’t know the story behind it. These Stars and Stripes were carried during the Revolutionary War by a man fighting for independence. The flag was kept in the family and passed down through generations.
Nearly a century later, it was inherited by another soldier fighting for his country. This Union Army soldier carried the flag into battle to preserve this country, as a tribute to his ancestor who’d fought in the war that established it. This is but one of the artifacts on display at the Missouri Civil War Museum, which recently opened its doors at Jefferson Barracks.
The tale of the flag is just one of many awaiting visitors in the museum, but behind it all is the story of an old brick building, soon to be demolished, and the man who wanted to save it.
In February 2002, the old Post Exchange and Gymnasium overlooking Jefferson Barracks’ historic parade ground was about to be bulldozed. The structure was built in 1905, within a decade of the other iconic red brick buildings still used by the National Guard. Originally, it housed a two-lane bowling alley, an indoor running track, a pistol range, barbershop, gift shop, and library. In the 1920s, it was used for troop barracks, and later, it served as a hospital during World War II. After the barracks were decommissioned in 1946, the building fell into disrepair, but before it could be demolished, it was spotted by Mark Trout.
Mark says old buildings are his fi rst love. When Mark saw the Post Exchange eleven years ago, he immediately thought it needed saving.
“The barracks here had fallen into disrepair,” Mark says. “Many buildings have been lost since World War II, and something needed to be done out here to start revitalizing the area.”
Today, the Post Exchange building’s situation has changed. The Missouri Civil War Museum, dedicated specifically to Missouri’s role in the conflict, opened in June inside of the building.
The museum features two floors of exhibits that tell the story of our state’s identity crisis in the midst of a nation at war. It features four hundred artifacts on display. Most of the artifacts sit in a large open atrium on the main floor where a running track can still be seen in the form of an elliptical mezzanine around the room’s perimeter. On the bottom level, the exhibits are backdropped by swaths of the building’s original brick, also fully restored.
Before you enter the building, the restoration’s results are in plain sight. The grounds are well maintained, a stark contrast from their former disrepair. In the museum’s main lobby, a slide show displays the restoration process. Photos of a building with boarded-up windows and vine-covered walls reveal the transformation. In all, the restoration and museum have cost around $1.5 million and have taken more than a decade to complete.
February 2002 is hardly the only time the barracks have been in danger, though. In fact, they were slated to be decommissioned and destroyed in the late nineteenth century. Instead, they got a face-lift, which included the red brick buildings the National Guard uses today, as well as the Post Exchange building where the museum is now housed. Originally, the buildings at Jefferson Barracks were all limestone— such as the Laborer House, Powder Magazine, and Old Ordnance Room that still stand—but the red brick is a stamp of the late nineteenth-century revival.
Restoring the building was challenging, but raising the money to do so may have been harder. Mark is quick to note that he received no federal or state funds to assist the costly project. He tried, though. Mark applied for many grants at the federal and state level and was eventually able to secure a contribution from St. Louis County. However, after failing to secure significant funding from the federal and state government, he decided to raise the funds independently as best he could.
A handful of corporations were sponsors, but the overwhelming majority of funding came through grass roots fundraising efforts. Although the museum is focused on the Civil War, he says most people who have contributed to the effort did not cite an interest in Civil War history as a reason for donating. Many had a personal interest in seeing the building restored, including veterans who once used it or were stationed at Jefferson Barracks.
Donations have not been exclusively financial. According to Mark, the restoration alone would have cost four to five million dollars if it weren’t for the tens of thousands of hours that volunteers donated.
John Maurath, the museum’s director of library services, started as one such volunteer. John was living in St. Louis when the project began. He heard that volunteers were needed for a new Civil War museum and decided to help, citing his own interest in Civil War history.
“I was there the first day and have been there ever since,” he says.
Because of volunteers like John, money that would have been paid to contractors was used instead on the museum collection. The collection includes more than 400 pieces on display currently and at least 1,200 more waiting in the wings, some of which will be part of exhibits that haven’t opened yet. The artifacts are primarily from or were used in Missouri, including some one-of-a-kind and priceless relics.
For instance, the descendants of Charles Bieger donated his Medal of Honor. Bieger was a German-American living in Missouri. He served the Union army during the Civil War and was awarded the Medal of Honor for jumping on a horse and delivering it to his captain whose own horse had fallen in the midst of battle.
While the museum has acquired many artifacts through purchases, a number were donated by people like Bieger’s relatives, eager to give their pieces of history a permanent home. “Many of these items have been in the family since the war,” Mark says, “and for a family to entrust me and this museum, even years before it was open, even when it was just a dream, is the most humbling thing that’s ever happened to me.”
Mark and his team have also been hard at work collecting books, letters, images, diaries, and other volumes for the library that will open in the building next door. The collection for the library already includes more than ten thousand pieces, many of which have been donated. John Maurath explains that in addition to the numerous volumes that will be available in the library when it opens, a database of Missouri soldiers is also being compiled.
“We’ve been collecting data since the beginning,” he says, “and eventually hope to have complete files on every single Missouri Civil War soldier or any Civil War soldier buried in Missouri.”
The database is a work in progress, and it relies partially on descendants and hobbyists to donate information in much the same way that the museum itself relied on donated Missouri artifacts. The database will be a part of the collection available to the public when the library opens.
Mark says his interest in the Civil War comes from a family legacy. “I had always known as a young child that my ancestors had fought in the Civil War.”
It didn’t mean much to him as a kid, but the significance became apparent as he grew older. Filmmaker Ken Burns, who directed an influential PBS documentary series on the Civil War, also fueled his fascination.
“If you go in my office right now, you will see Ken Burns in the DVD player,” Mark says. “I watch [it] every week”.
When his project began, Mark says he noticed that the state was bereft of a permanent museum exhibit that’s purpose was educating present and future Missourians on the state’s Civil War legacy.
“There had been talk of creating a Civil War museum around the St. Louis area,” he says. But with nothing in the works by 2003 and the 150th anniversary of the Civil War approaching in eight years, the time and place were a good fit.
While the state has a number of parks and historic sites related to the war, the Missouri Civil War Museum is more focused on artifacts and sharing a comprehensive collection of information than the preservation of a specific site. Nonetheless, Jefferson Barracks have no shortage of connections to the Civil War.
During the war, Jefferson Barracks was the largest base west of the Mississippi, and a who’s who of Civil War officers and generals had already served there. This list included Confederate General Longstreet, and Sterling Price, Missouri governor and eventual Confederate militia general, plus Union Generals Lyon and Sherman, who went on to lead his notorious march to the sea. Robert E. Lee was a lieutenant colonel in the 2nd Dragoons, which were established and based out of Jefferson Barracks. And as fate would have it, Jefferson Barracks was the first military post Ulysses S. Grant reported to after graduating from West Point.
The barracks also served as a major hospital for soldiers during the war, and there were times when it held more wounded or diseased soldiers than any other hospital in the nation, according to the Jefferson Barracks Heritage Foundation.
Although Mark was interested in protecting the building itself and creating a space to pay homage to the Civil War in Missouri, one of his ultimate goals was restoring historic details. Through research, Mark noticed the Post Exchange was missing a distinct feature: a cannon that once sat outside overlooking the parade ground. According to Mark, the original cannon was most likely sold or otherwise taken from the grounds when the base was decommissioned.
“So many things have been lost,” Mark says. “That’s something I’m very protective about.”
But by chance, Mark came upon an opportunity to recover something lost. While hunting down artifacts, he came across a cannon for sale, the make of which would have been similar to the one that sat outside the Post Exchange. After seeing pictures of the building dating back to its years of military use, he confirmed that the cannon for sale was an identical model and bought it.
Between restoring a building with a largely volunteer crew and fundraising during one of the worst economic recessions to date, the project has faced and overcome many staggering challenges.
“On paper, this wasn’t even supposed to work,” John says.
But in practice, it did.