Posted March 2001

Taming the Southern Belles

of St. Louis

by

John McElroy

 

Excerpted and introduced by G. E. Rule, from “The Struggle for Missouri”, John McElroy, 1909


Missouri Civil War Reader CD-ROM

Missouri Civil War Reader, Volume I - now available

The Fight for Missouri by Thomas L. Snead, 1886

The Struggle for Missouri by John McElroy, 1909

The Story of a Border City During the Civil War by Galusha Anderson, 1908

The Crisis by Winston Churchill, 1901

Basil Duke in Missouri by Gen. Basil Wilson Duke, 1911

The Brown-Reynolds Duel, 1911

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In 1863, at the age of sixteen, John McElroy joined an Illinois cavalry regiment.  Six months later he was taken prisoner and remained so until the end of the war, spending much of the time at the infamous Andersonville prison.  In 1879 he wrote a book about his experiences, “Andersonville: A Story of Rebel Military Prisons. Fifteen Months a Guest of the so-called Southern Confederacy”.  In 1909 he was back with “Struggle for Missouri”, with little of his anti-Confederate heat dissipated.  This book starts with a Missouri-centric history of the slavery controversy from the founding of the Republic and continues thru the Battle of Pea Ridge in March of 1862.

 “The Struggle for Missouri” is dedicated “To the Union Men of Missouri”, and they get the better end of every argument or controversy in its pages. According to McElroy, the viciousness of the guerrilla war in Missouri was due to one simple fact  --the mass of non-slaveholding secessionists were “White Trash” with a “dog-like fidelity” to the slaveholding upper-class secessionists. Just in case the reader might miss this vital point the first time, McElroy drives it home again and again, using “White Trash” nine times in his first chapter before settling down to just the occasional mention thereafter.  This class was so relatively numerous in Missouri, according to McElroy, because most of the nice folk who were pioneering in the first half of the 1800s shunned slaveholding Missouri for more civilized places like Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas. 

Despite McElroy’s “White Trash” obsession, “The Struggle for Missouri” does have virtues.  The plates in it are very nice, with large, striking black & white plates of Union heroes like Blair, Fremont, Sigel, Curtis, and Schofield. There are nice plates of Claiborne Fox Jackson and Sterling Price as well.  There are also two beautiful color plates  --one of the fateful meeting in June of 1861 at the Planter’s Hotel, and another of the St. Louis levy packed with steamboats before the war. McElroy supports his points liberally with more (and more complete) official documents than many other contemporary works on Missouri, though he usually fails to cite exactly where he found them.  His description of the Planter’s Hotel confrontation between Lyon and Price has some poetry to it, and McElroy seems to respect Sterling Price as much as it is in him to respect any Confederate.

 Taming the Southern Belles in St. Louis  is one of the few light-hearted stories that McElroy relates. To an age less used to euphemisms (whether that be good or bad), when McElroy refers to “ women of the town plying their vocation” and “disreputable women” he is talking about prostitutes. Or perhaps “sex industry workers” would be the current politically correct term (and maybe that euphemism habit isn’t dead yet).


 The secessionists of St. Louis had been encouraged by the untoward course of events in the East. After Bull Run had come the shocking disaster of Ball’s Bluff, and with Gen. Price only a short distance away on the Osage threatening Jefferson City and north Missouri, they felt their star in the ascendant, and became unbearably insolent. Gen. Halleck repressed them [in late 1861] with a vigorous hand, yet without causing the wild clamor of denunciation which characterized Gen. Butler’s Administration of New Orleans.

 It will be remembered that at that time it was thought quite the thing for young Secessionist women to show their “spirit” and their devotion to the South by all manner of open insult to the Yankee soldiers. Spitting at them, hurling epithets of abuse, and contemptuously twitching aside their skirts were regarded as quite the correct thing in the good society of which these young ladies were the ornaments. This had become so intolerable in New Orleans, that Gen. Butler felt constrained to issue his famous order directing that women so offending should be treated as “women of the town plying their vocation.” This was made the pretext of “firing the Southern heart” to an unwarranted degree, and Jeff Davis issued a proclamation of outlawry against Ben Butler, with a reward for his head.

 Sanguine Secessionists hoped that this “flagrant outrage” by “Beast Butler” would be sufficient cause for the recognition of the Southern Confederacy by France and England.

Henry W. HalleckGen. Halleck met the same difficulty as Butler very shrewdly. The Chief of Police of St. Louis had some measure of control over the disreputable women of the city, and made law for them. Under Gen Halleck’s order he instructed these women to vie with and exceed their respectable sisters in their manifestations of hostility to the Union cause and of devotion to the South. Where the fair young ladies of the Southern aristocracy were wearing Secession rosettes as big as a rose, the women of the demimonde sported them as big as a dahlia or sunflower. Where the young belle gave a little graceful twitch to her skirts to prevent any possible contamination by touching a passing Yankee, the other class flirted theirs’ aside in the most immodest way. It took but a few days of this to make the exuberant young ladies of uncontrollable rebel proclivities discard their Secession rosettes altogether, and subside into dignified, self-respecting persons, who took no more notice of a passing Union soldier than they did of a lamp-post or tree-box.

 


©2001 G. E. Rule

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