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Outlaws and Minnesotans or How I came to be writing a book on an obscure Civil War prison...
This book came about in an odd way. Before becoming immersed in Civil War Missouri, most of my writing had been science fiction and fantasy. Two of my main historical interests were the Viking Norse around the turn of the millennium (my people)-the previous millennium, that is-and the American frontier pioneers (more of my people).
It was in chasing this last interest that I came to be writing this book on Gratiot Street Prison. In 1876 Cole Younger (et. al.) robbed the bank in Northfield, Minnesota. Iím a Minnesotan (the Viking Norse thing was a clue) and anything about Minnesota, especially if it overlaps other areas of interest, gets my attention. While surfing around the web for information on Cole Younger and his Minnesota bank robbery I naturally started to dig into his Civil War Missouri background. Cole Younger was never in Gratiot. His brother James Younger was in Alton, which is a related Civil War prison, but thatís not the path I took to get to the book on Gratiot. No, it was Missouri, itself.
Missouri is an almost automatic interest of mine in every area (except the Viking Norse). My favorite science fiction author, Robert A. Heinlein, is from Missouri. He's even from the Kansas-Missouri border area that Cole Younger was from. Heinlein was born in Butler, Missouri which was part of the Order 11 "Burnt District" (though his family was not actually there during the war). Laura Ingalls Wilder, the great pioneer west author (who had lived in Minnesota) was also from Missouri. Add in Mark Twain. Mark Twain is added not so much because Iím a huge fan of Mark Twain, but because Heinlein was and he cites him frequently, so any mention of Twain trips my Heinlein interests.
So, looking in general at Civil War Missouri I ran into mentions of Mark Twain as a Confederate soldier. A wonderful account of his brief-very brief-time as a Confederate soldier was told by a friend and comrade of his, Absalom C. Grimes (weíll have much more on him in the book). The excerpts I found on the web from Grimesí book, "Confederate Mail Runner," published in 1926, were absolutely fascinating. I hunted up a copy of his book.
Reading Grimesí book, I no longer had any need to tie into an old interest; his book was interesting enough on its own. It was also so wildly unbelievable that I couldnít imagine it was, 1.) all really true, and 2.) so obscure and unknown to just about everyone except the most devoted of Missouri Civil War aficionados.
When this fascinating and puzzling book caught my attention I set about--purely for my own curiosityís sake--to see what I could prove or disprove in it. There was a lot I couldnít absolutely prove in my initial research, but there was also nothing in it I could absolutely disprove. The guy seemed to be telling the truth (and he was, as I did later establish, though he was frightfully tangled up as to many dates in 1862-63).
Now weíre up to Gratiot Street Prison. Grimes spent a lot of time there. I went looking for a book about Gratiot. There wasnít one. In one hundred and thirty-five years no one had written a book about this place. Gratiot wasnít a minor place. It was significant in more than simply the numbers who passed through its doors, or in death rates, or anything like that. It was a focal point, both itself and where it sat, for the entire war in the Trans-Mississippi. And, to be perfectly blunt here (and arguably biased), the Trans-Mississippi was the Civil War. The deeper I dug, the more everything kept turning back to the Department of the Trans-Mississippi, more specifically to Missouri, and when it came down to the core, right to St. Louis. And just about everyone and everything connected at some level or another to Gratiot Street Prison. It was unthinkable that there should be no book on Gratiot. I set about to fill this void.
So much information did I find, and so many startling (heck, shocking) discoveries did I make, that more books are planned beyond this:
Spies of the Mississippi: the Confederate secret service at its most active and significant centered in St. Louis. This book is about the network of spies and saboteurs who operated in the Mississippi river region. Prominent among them were:
Absalom C. Grimes--the Confederate mail carrier who was involved with a whole lot more than just carrying letters.
Robert Louden--Grimesí partner. Louden was incredibly hard to track down, partly because he was such a nefarious character that he'd been living under an alias years before the Civil War. The mentions of Louden in Grimesí book were both misleading (probably intentional) and incomplete (absolutely intentional). Louden turned out to have had an utterly wild life both before and after the war. And what he did during the war... well, just keep your eyes open for the upcoming article in North & South (now in print). To be fair, Louden did have his reasons for the things he did--no one is a villain in his own eyes. Robert Louden is obscure now, but then he was in all the newspapers. They should have hanged him when they had the chance.
Joseph W. Tucker--hereís another phantom who played an important role. Tucker published newspapers with editorial support going to General Sterling Price, pushing for the formation of a Northwest Confederacy headed by Price independent of both the USA and the CSA. Tucker also headed the saboteurs of the Mississippi river, securing payment for them from Richmond (which was a touchy bit of business because Jefferson Davis despised him).
William H. Sebring--another study in obscurity. Look him up in the Official Records. Heís mentioned only once and that in conjunction with Grimes and Gratiot and how POWs were mistreated (he was still mad about that incident fifty years later). What Sebring was really up to during the war is quite another story. What we had planned to do makes my blood run cold, one of his comrades commented years later. An odd event late in Sebring's life caused him to leave a paper trail where so many others, even those who wrote books and memoirs (like Grimes, John B. Castleman, and Bennett Young) omitted key information about the spy and sabotage network.
and thereís more...
Beyond Spies of the Mississippi will be another book focusing just on Robert Louden. (Yes, he turned out to be that significant.)
The oddest part of this whole research adventure is that it all turned right back around to the starting place--Cole Younger robbing banks. If you get a copy of Cole Youngerís autobiography, look up a fellow named Arthur C. McCoy. Iíve done a page on him in the website but it just scratches the surface of what was going on with him and those he was associated with. McCoy, who was Robert Loudenís brother-in-law, was robbing banks and trains after the war with the James-Younger gang.
I havenít found any Norse Viking connections, though, unless you want to stretch things a touch and count the Missouri Union Provost Marshal who was hunting down Louden, Grimes and Tucker and the others. J. H. Baker... he was a Minnesotan. He was also in Mankato, Minnesota in 1876 when the James and Younger brothers passed through on their way to Northfield.
©2001 D. H. Rule
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