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Colonel Grimsley’s Constitutional Guard: The First Paramilitaries

During the 1860 Presidential election, St. Louis’ streets were host to multiple mass political organizations. Partisan marching clubs combined political mobilization and street theater with occasional brawling. The shocking election of the Abraham Lincoln, the candidate of the new anti-Slavery Republican Party, did nothing to lower the temperature in the contested city. Angry men in the city, and across the State of Missouri, vowed (according to their outlook) to refute, modify, or uphold the decision of the national ballot box. As the states of the Deep South moved to secession, in the border slave-holding state of Missouri people feared, and prepared for, civil conflict and the possibility of violence. In such an atmosphere the existing marching clubs did NOT disband. Instead they reorganized for the feared war ahead.

Colonel Thornton Grimsley,  commander of the

Colonel Thornton Grimsley,
commander of the “Constitutional Guards” paramilitary organization

Ironically, the first of the political street fighters to organize militarily were (theoretically) the moderates, the Douglas Civil Guards, who had supported Senator Stephen Douglas, the “National Democrat” candidate in the recent election. On or about November 13th, 1860, only seven days after the election, the Douglas men reorganized themselves into the paramilitary “Constitutional Guards” to pursue future political and….. potentially….military goals. On November 23rd, their leader, sometime Missouri militia Colonel Thornton Grimsley wrote to sitting Missouri Governor Robert M. Stewart to inform the state’s chief magistrate that his men stood ready to fight Abolitionism and “Black Republicanism” by political or military means:

“The Douglas civil guards[,] a political organization which was under my command during the presidential contest[,] has been disbanded- some ten days since and have reorganized under the name of the constitutional guards. The present organization was made mainly to operate for our City election in april [sic] next and is composed as before of ten companies one in each ward of the city the enrollment of members is fully two thousand men and are commanded by a Col, Lieut Col, and Major with their staff officers same as on [sic] a military establishment.

The companies are officered just as the provisions of [Missouri’s state] military law [the state’s Militia Law of 1858] require so that while we claim to be and are in fact a political organization we can as once adopt the military costume shoulder arms and wheele [sic] into line as soldiers of our common country. Having given you the history of the organization of the Constitutional guards and the intentions of those who were instrumental in bringing them into existence which is to wipe out black republicanism from this congressional district I have an other pleasing duty to perform.

Which is to offer you the services of seven hundred to one thousand of the guards for any military service which as the Governor of the state you may command them to perform. The men are now under regular military drill which will be kept up while the distracted state of the country lasts or until [Abolitionist] fanaticism supplants good government or is driven not only from Kansas but from our beloved and now distracted country” [Original in the Special Collections of the Missouri State Archives]

Colonel Grimsley was a successful St Louis businessman, former state Senator, militia enthusiast and pro-slavery activist. While he had no professional military training (or combat experience) he had been a fixture of the various incarnations of the St. Louis militia for decades. While the “Constitutional Guards” were NOT (yet) a legally constituted militia regiment, it is clear the Colonel Grimsley viewed them as a military force in waiting, and one that might be used to combat the growing power of the Republican party and (in Grimsley’s view) Abolitionism in Missouri.

It is unlikely that Governor Stewart, a moderate “conservative” on Missouri’s political spectrum, welcomed Grimsley’s thinly veiled belligerence, and there is no record of a reply or any action to regularize the “Constitutional Guards’” militia status.
Colonel Grimsley had similar difficulty interesting Stewart’s successor, pro-Secession Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson in deputizing him (Grimsley) to attack Federal forces in St. Louis. Grimsley reportedly wrote Jackson in early 1861 (likely mid-January) proposing Jackson authorize him to capture the U.S. Arsenal at St. Louis “which he could safely do, as he had over one thousand men [presumably from among the “Constitutional Guards”], drilled, armed and ready for any work.” Grimsley also reportedly claimed that militia Brigadier General Daniel M. Frost, Commander of Missouri’s First [St. Louis] Military District was ready to cooperate with him on a prompt attack on the Arsenal.

BG Daniel M. Frost , MVM Courtesy of the Missouri History Museum

BG Daniel M. Frost
Commander, 1st [St. Louis] Military District
Missouri Volunteer Militia (MVM)
Courtesy of the Missouri History Museum

This was certainly not true. On January 24th General Frost reported back to Governor Jackson to quash rumors of unwanted Federal activity at the Arsenal, transmitted to Jackson by leaders of St. Louis’ secessionist Minute Men paramilitary organization. While Frost was ready to attack the Arsenal (with official state forces) if an emergent situation arose, he believed that with proper political and military preparation the Arsenal would fall into his hands with little or no violence. He saw no need to involve the sort of enthusiastic amateurs who were urging the Governor to authorize them to attack Federal forces in St. Louis:
“Major [William H. Bell, commander of the Arsenal] is with us, where he ought to be…..I shall therefor rest perfectly easy, and use all my influences to stop the sensationalists [among area secessionists] from attracting the particular attention of the [U.S.] government to this particular spot. The telegraphs you received were the sheerest “canards” of persons who, without discretion, are extremely anxious to show their zeal. I shall be thoroughly prepared with the proper forces to act as emergency may require. The use of [state militia] force will only be resorted to when nothing else will avail to prevent the shipment or removal of the arms [from the St. Louis Arsenal].”

Frost then turned to the true author of the recent reports of Federal activity at St. Louis “Grimsley, as you doubtless know, is an unconscionable jackass, and only desires to make himself notorious. It was through him that that [Minute Men President Charles] McLaren and [James] George made the mistake of telegraphing a falsehood to you.”

Ironically, while General Frost privately felt that Grimsley was too much a loose cannon to involve in the Governor’s official secessionist planning, Grimsley’s public reputation….at least in the press….was that of a moderate, perhaps even a Conditional Unionist.

Feb 16, 1861 MISSOURI REPUBLICAN Constitutional Guards Mobilization Orders

Constitutional Guards Mobilization Orders

The MISSOURI REPUBLICAN, the leading organ of the “National Democrats” in the St. Louis media market, viewed the “Constitutional Guards” as a resource for its political faction. At the time, the MISSOURI REPUBLICAN maintained a (somewhat erratic) Conditional Unionist editorial policy. The REPUBLICAN’s editors felt it proper not only to write approvingly of the “Constitutional Guards”, but to print the “orders” of its various ward paramilitary “Companies” on its editorial pages, to ensure that organized men which the REPUBLICAN believed supported its political policies could be properly mobilized.

The announcements to the right were published in the February 16, 1861 edition of the MISSOURI REPUBLICAN. They are the orders from Grimsley and his subordinate “officers” ordering the “Guards'” ten companies to mobilize that night. These postings were part of a series of articles to mobilize partisans for a rally on the evening of Febuary 16th in support of the “Constitutional Union” slate of candidates (generally viewed as a mix of “conservative”, i.e. pro-slavery, Unionists of varying enthusiasm) for election to the approaching state Constitutional Convention. Despite the MISSOURI REPUBLICAN’s official disdain for the Republican Party and the President-Elect, at the time the paper was advocating for a policy of state “neutrality” to keep Missouri on the sidelines of  the developing conflict. The REPUBLICAN’s editors and other Conditional Unionists seemed to have viewed the “Constitutional Guards” (militant neutralists?) as a useful counterweight to pro and anti-secession militants active in St. Louis.

Unconditional Unionists were not so sure about Grimsley’s men. When, in January, there was a rumor of a possible raid on the Arsenal, Major Bell reportedly consulted with St. Louis Mayor Oliver Filley and Colonel Grimsley. In response Grimsley apparently attempted to exploit Bell’s fears and occupy the Arsenal. The Unconditional Unionist MISSOURI DEMOCRAT described the subsequent events with amusement, “the Constitutionals gallantly mustered a corps of picked volunteers, and proceeded to the Arsenal to reinforce Major Bell. On their arrival they were, as we are informed, most courteously received although that the honor of their presence within the walls was respectfully declined”.

Despite Grimsley’s militant intentions, and the “Constitutional Guards’” military pretensions, there is no evidence that before May 1861 the group’s members carried out any effective military function. This is likely the result of animosity between Grimsley and General Frost (despite their shared secessionist goals). Frost, a graduate of the West Point class of 1844 and a Mexican War veteran, was contemptuous of the amateur Grimsley. Also, as commander of the St. Louis military district Frost resented “Colonel” Grimsley contacting Governor Jackson directly,  attempting to encroach on Frost’s role as area commander. For his part, Grimsley could have done what the openly secessionists Minute Men did, subordinate his organization to Frost and officially enlist his men in the Missouri Volunteer Militia (M.V.M.). But this would have (at best) made him a subordinate officer under Frost, and denied Grimsley the chance for individual glory as a war-time commander, something he had unsuccessfully sought as far back as the Blackhawk War in 1832.

The result was one more example of the mutual mistrust, miscommunication, and lack of cooperation which would plague the efforts of Missouri secessionist efforts through May. While Grimsely claimed that he could mobilize “over one thousand” of his men for service against Federal forces, there is no evidence he played any part in (or even had knowledge of) Frost and Jackson’s April-May moves to seize the Arsenal using militia forces. It is likely though, that some of Grimsley’s more secessionist “Constitutionals” decided to enlist in the new militia companies Frost raised in April and May in support of the planned attack. Indeed the newly raised Company “I”, of Frost’s 1st Regiment MVM was officially nicknamed the “Grimsley Guard” in his honor. Had the May militia muster continued past May 10, as it appeared it was going to, perhaps more of Grimsely’s man would have peeled off and filled Frost’s four planned state regiments.

As it was though, the majority of the “Constitutional Guards” were not at the militia drill site at “Camp Jackson” when Frost’s men were arrested on May 10. Instead, hundreds of Thornton Grimsley’s “drilled, armed, and ready” Guardsmen were at large, scatted over St. Louis. It is likely that these men…hostile to “Black Republicanism” and the “German element” prevalent among Federal volunteers…..played a role in the lethal violence which followed the arrest of the militia, and that continued though the days which followed.

Subsequently, the “Constitutional Guards” ceased to exist, as all non-Federal military formations in the city were ordered disbanded. As for the “Guardsmen” themselves, it is likely that a number when South, joining the secessionist Missouri State Guard or regular Confederate units. It is also likely that like other Conditional Unionists, other members of Grimsley’s organization joined the Federal volunteer regiments raised in Missouri, their support of Union overcoming their hostility to the incumbent Republican party.

Next time, we will examine St. Louis’ Minute Men paramilitaries….the true firebrands of secession. But that is a tale for another day.

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The Missouri Secession Crisis Project: An Introduction

Investigationes Missourienses: The Missouri Secession Crisis Project
The contested state of Missouri was the site of the United States’ longest civil conflict, stretching from 1854 well into the mid-1870’s. While the state’s experience with violence began with pro-slavery militancy in Kansas, Missouri’s long “Inside War” (its infamous guerrilla conflict) and devastating conventional war grew from obscure political and military maneuvering during the first few months of 1861. The events of this period have been the subject of long discussion, but these efforts have been handicapped by contradictions in post-war histories and the absence key primary sources: destroyed; lost; or overlooked.
The Missouri Secession Crisis Project has been an archival research project to uncover the origins of Missouri’s “civil war within the Civil War”, to help scholars and citizens understand why the state’s internal struggle was so vicious, so hard to end, and so shrouded in mystery.
The Jackson-Frost Conspiracy: America’s 1st attempted military coup …..a plot that no one has ever heard of.
Here at the end of the Civil War Sesquicentennial, it is a fitting time to discuss the preliminary findings of a major research project exploring an important but under-examined aspect of the American Civil War.
Since 2009, the Missouri Secession Crisis Project has attempted to understand the outbreak of war in the U.S.’s “Most Divided State”. During the Civil War itself, the state had two governors, two legislatures, two bodies of “regular” state troops contending in the great battles of the Western Theater, two militia forces, guerrillas and state-controlled counter-guerrillas. The social fabric of the Missouri was torn and the state became a byword for violence and disorder.
The mystery of Missouri, is the question of how this bloodbath “Inside War” was triggered. The standard historical narrative holds that the conflict was the result of one man’s fanaticism, of Federal bungling, and that civil strife that could have been avoided.


Captain Nathaniel Lyon Courtesy of the Missouri History Museum

Nathaniel Lyon: The Villain of the Piece?
According to the generally accepted understanding of Missouri state history, despite a growing tide of violence during the pre-war years, and despite a strong constituency for secession among militarized veterans of “Bleeding Kansas” cross-border violence Missouri could have avoided internal conflict. In March 1861 the people of Missouri…through a State Convention….. rejected secession and civil war. Further, the common narrative holds that the state government, led by a man (Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson) associated with extreme (and even militant) pro-slavery activism, accepted this decision, establishing the possibility that Missouri would be spared the worst of the coming Civil War. Finally, this historical narrative states that this chance for peace was thrown away when Federal forces under Captain Nathaniel Lyon attacked the camp of the legally assembled Missouri Volunteer Militia (MVM) outside of St. Louis on May 10, 1861 (in the “Camp Jackson Affair”….or the “Camp Jackson Massacre” depending on one’s outlook). This unwarranted Federal breach of the state’s sovereignty toppled Missouri into the larger war, and triggered a savage “Inside War” between Missourians which might have been avoided.

This standard narrative has proven false.
The Missouri Secession Crisis project has examined over 4,000 period documents and transcriptions (primarily from October 1860-August 1861) to trace the ACTUAL events which precipitated the worst phase of America’s longest civil conflict….the Missouri civil war. The period documents show a train of events far different than those described above. They show that in the conventional historical narrative cause and effect have been inverted, actor and subject reversed, and significant events deleted entirely.
The standard reading of the Missouri Secession Crisis is an extreme example an Agreed and Constructed Narrative. It is a hybrid history (assembled from pre-existing Conditional Unionist and Secessionist narratives) incorporating significant counter-factual elements, and apparently created (like the national Lost Cause Narrative) to served political and social purposes beginning in the late 1860’s. It replaced the wartime (and largely factual) Unconditional Unionist narrative by the late 1870s, and was subsequently written into state, and then national, histories of the Civil War.


Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

The Jackson-Frost Conspiracy
In reality, the militarization of the state in early 1861, and the eventual outbreak of violence, was the result of relentless efforts by Governor Jackson and his associates to take Missouri out of the Union regardless of the expressed will of the people. Having failed to achieve secession through a variety of political maneuvers in early 1861, on or around April 10, 1861, Jackson and his military and political advisers agreed to pursue a secret political-military strategy. The governor instructed trusted subordinates in the Missouri Volunteer Militia (MVM) to carry out an attack on Federal forces in St. Louis as soon as practicable. The actual mechanics of the attack were left to Brigadier General Daniel Marsh Frost, commander of the First [St. Louis] Military District of Missouri. The secrecy was aimed as much at Jackson’s Conditional Unionist supporters as Federal forces. Privately the governor considered his Unionist political allies “base submissionist[s]”.
The Jackson-Frost Conspiracy was discussed in the private post-war reminiscences of participants and verified by official correspondence and MVM orders. The plan envisioned the mobilization of the equivalent of four regiments of MVM troops at St. Louis to support the reduction of the U.S. Army command at the St. Louis Arsenal. While the Arsenal was protected by a stone wall and large numbers of semi-trained Unionist volunteers, siege guns mounted on the heights above the riverside facility would dominate the Federal command and its defenders. The vulnerability of the Arsenal to state artillery batteries  was made clear by Federal Brigadier General William S. Harney in an April 17 letter seeking guidance from the War Department. Confronted with heavy artillery the Arsenal was untenable.

Fortification efforts at the St. Louis Arsenal: Harpers Weekly

Fortification efforts at the St. Louis Arsenal: Harpers Weekly

Governor Jackson negotiated a simple quid pro quo with Confederate President Jefferson Davis: the removal of a threatening Federal presence on the Mississippi in exchange for siege artillery that could “batter down the walls” of the St. Louis Arsenal. On April 23, Davis met with Governor Jackson’s envoys at the temporary Confederate capital at Montgomery. The Confederate President gave his enthusiastic support to an attack at St. Louis, promising heavy artillery from the Confederate Arsenal at Baton Rouge. The military support was provided with the understanding on both sides that the attack would be followed by Missouri’s rapid secession and the state’s entry into the Confederacy. It must be said that from a variety of sources it appears that Governor Jackson’s associates led Davis to believe that the population of Missouri was eager for secession, and was they were only prevented from expressing their views by the coercive presence of Federal forces.
On May 9, 1861 a large train of Confederate siege guns….more powerful than anything available to the Federal forces at St. Louis…landed at the city’s commercial levee and was hauled (by a combined force of MVM troops and St. Louis police) to the militia encampment, “Camp Jackson” on the western edge of St. Louis.

24 Pounder Howitzer

CSA 24 Pounder Howitzer

Much was left to do however before the attack on the Arsenal could be carried out. Carriages had to be assembled for the siege guns, and hundreds of secessionist volunteers had to be mustered into new MVM companies and regiments. But the initiative appeared with the Militia. If the Federal authorities at the Arsenal waited, Frost’s troops could decapitate the U.S. Army command at leisure. Secessionists were also cheered by reports that General Harney, who had previously refused to allow patrolling outside the Arsenal grounds, was expected to return to command as early as May 11.
It was this last fact that triggered a Federal response to the long-developing secessionist conspiracy. Harney had pursued an accommodating policy with Frost, even though he had believed an attack on his position was being planned. In mid-April Harney had ordered the heights above the Arsenal NOT be occupied by Federal outposts, and there was every reason to believe Harney would order this key ground surrendered to Frost’s men once he returned. However, in Harney’s absence President Lincoln had specifically deputized Lyon (as interim commander at St. Louis) and a board of Unionist civilian advisers with the power to declare martial law in the city. On the evening of May 9th, Lyon met with the members of this civilian “Committee of Public Safety”. Faced with the arrival of the Confederate artillery and the fact that Harney’s return would likely preclude any future possibility of preemption…. and compromise the Arsenal defenses….all agreed to the immediate arrest of the Militia.
The next morning (May 10) Federal forces surrounded Camp Jackson and captured about 689 militia (less than half the total) and most of the Confederate artillery. With over 1,000 secessionist militia and volunteers at large in the city, it was likely inevitable that violence would break out, and at least 28 (mostly civilians) were killed in several spasms of gunfire along the line of march back to the Arsenal.
The capture of Camp Jackson was a military catastrophe for the Governor Jackson. He had ordered the majority of Missouri’s state arms to St. Louis where Lyon captured them along with the priceless Confederate siege batteries. Likewise, the majority of Missouri’s best militia companies had been captured, and the state’s metropolis was under direct Federal control. Worse, General Harney surprised most, by grudgingly endorsing Lyon’s actions, even while regretting the loss of life. Commenting on Frost’s overtly secessionist militia, and the Confederate arms at Camp Jackson, Harney proclaimed: “No government in the world would be entitled to respect that would tolerate for a moment such openly treasonable preparations”.
Faced with such a military (and political) disaster, most men would have abandoned the secession project, but Claiborne Jackson did not. Claiming Lyon’s raid as an unprovoked attack on the peaceful troops of a sovereign state, the governor succeeded in convincing an alarmed General Assembly (convened as part of the prior plan to attack the Arsenal) to pass a raft of laws to provide him money, troops and dictatorial political power. The only things he lacked were troops and arms.

Agreed and Constructed Narrative
In the fullness of time, the majority of Missourians would turn against Jackson (especially after damning documents were captured and published in state newspapers), but the damage to state unity was done. The failed attack plan, while successfully preempted, helped tumble Missouri into internal war. During and after the war three narratives (Unconditional Unionists, Conditional Unionist, and Secessionist/Confederate) would contend with varying success. The battle for narrative in Missouri would focus on these early events….on “war guilt”, and the assignment of responsibility for setting off the “Inside War”. During the war, most Missourians agreed it was Jackson and his men who had destroyed the state. But after the war, with the rise of a Democratic/ex-Confederate political alliance, a new hybrid of the Conditional Unionist and Secessionist arose. This constructed narrative exculpated (and facilitated the reenfranchisement of) ex-Confederates, and shifted the blame to the (by then) dead outsider Lyon, and Missouri’s politically weak ethnic German population (which had provided the majority of early-war Federal volunteers).
Missouri: The Apotheosis of Lost Cause Narrative Reconstruction

It is this dynamic, an extreme example of the process of generating a counter-factual Agreed and Constructed Narrative, that makes the Missouri Secession Crisis….and Missouri’s post-war violence….of potential interest beyond the community of Civil War historians and scholars of American History. Major events which were subjects of public discourse and press reporting in their time were effectively written out of history, for political advantage for some and to achieve final conflict termination for all.
While the Secession Crisis Project has carried out exhaustive archival research to identify the facts about the beginning of Missouri’s war, a similar and more difficult effort will be required to understand the creation of the Agreed Narrative assembled and internalized after the mid-1870s as part of final conflict termination.

Presenting the Evidence
The statements above are bold ones, and extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. While I am preparing scholarly papers on the various issues touched on, it is important for other scholars to be able to consider and discuss the period source materials that have helped us understand the events in “The Most Divided State” and how its history became obscured. In make that happen I will be presenting original documents, transcriptions and discussions of materials here, so that other scholars can follow the materials though the Secession Crisis. Shear volume will prevent all the materials from showing up here at Civil War in the West, but key documents will allow readers to follow the various actors as they make move and counter-move in Missouri.
In addition to understanding the Jackson-Frost Conspiracy and some of the first fighting in the Civil War, the documents provide important hints about other questions. Why did Jefferson Davis refuse to authorize a CSA advance into Missouri in 1861 (despite Jackson’s pleas that he do so)? Why did Missouri’s UNIONISTS engage in such vicious political fighting during the war? Why did the Missouri State Convention (composed mostly of conservative slaveholders) order the removal of Governor Jackson, the abolition of the Jackson’s Missouri State Guard, and the dissolution of the sitting Missouri General Assembly? Why was the intra-Missouri guerrilla war so vicious? Why did former Conditional Unionists turn on their wartime (Unconditional Unionist) partners and embrace ex-Confederates after the war? But those are discussion for later.
Thanks, Ahead of time.

Before closing I must thank some important people who have encourage and assisted this effort:
• Randy McGuire, PhD, of Oak Hills Christian College and former Assistant Archivist at St. Louis University’s Pius XII Library. The acknowledge expert on the St. Louis Arsenal, and my first collaborator.
• Professor Louis S. Gerteis, of the University of Missouri-St Louis, a mighty scholar and the author of the excellent The Civil War in Missouri: A Military History
• Professor Dennis K. Boman of Ashland University, author of Lincoln and Citizen’s Rights in Civil War Missouri and a peerless resource in discussing the political environment in Civil War-era Missouri.
• Professor Adam Arenson, of Manhattan College, a generous and supportive mentor and editor and author of the exceptional Great Heart of the Republic: St Louis and the Cultural Civil War
• Professor David Murphy of St. Louis University, a dear friend for life and an wise guide always
• Mr. John Dougan, a peerless advocate for the past, its importance in understanding the present and its role in making the future. He has been a constant encouragement and help in all my scholarly efforts. The staffers at the Missouri State Archives are extraordinary, skillful and worthy custodians of the state’s history.
• The staff at the Archives of the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis. Its specialized collections are a matchless national resource and they are expert and energetic guides.
• Professors David Jacobson and Derek Harvey of the Global Initiative on Civil Society and Conflict at the University of South Florida. They welcomed me into their family of scholars at the Global Initiative, and helped me sharpen my understanding of the role of Agreed and Constructed Narrative in Post Conflict Societies. They also hectored me into getting off the mark, and begin publishing these materials. ;
• All the other archivists, scholars and custodians of our history at: the National Archives; the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library; the Illinois State Archives; the St Louis City and St. Louis County Public Libraries; the Memphis Public Library, the Duke University Library; Houghton Library, Harvard University; and the National Park Service Archives at Wilson’s Creek, Ft. Donelson, Shiloh, Corinth, and Vicksburg National Battlefield Parks.

Categories: Missouri Civil War, Missouri Secession Crisis | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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