Charcoals and Claybanks
Excerpted and Introduced by G.E. Rule
from “The Story of a Border City During the Civil War”, Galusha Anderson, 1908
Galusha Anderson 1861
Galusha Anderson was a Baptist minister in St. Louis from 1858-1866. His decidedly pro-Union “The Story of a Border City During the Civil War” has many faults. Anderson’s opinion of his own importance in events is exaggerated, and at times the reader would be forgiven for thinking that Blair, Lyon, Fremont, Schofield, Rosecrans, et al could have just stayed in bed –it was really Galusha who held the fate of the Union cause in Missouri in his strong hands. At one point he has an agitated southerner blame his preaching for the Union seizure of Camp Jackson. One suspects Anderson would not want to discourage his readers from reaching the same conclusion. Describing his first blast from a St. Louis pulpit against the heresy of secession, Galusha reports the event with a freighted solemnity and attention to minute detail most historians would reserve for the third day at Gettysburg or the final scene at Appomattox.
On the plus side, Anderson does have a fine eye for detail and his book is filled with many interesting anecdotes of life in St. Louis during the Civil War. Galusha’s Union sources (men like James O. Broadhead were his parishioners) seem to be excellent and allow the reader a valuable insight into the thinking of the pro-Union population of St. Louis. For those interested in the topic, Rev. Anderson’s book has many revealing stories of the stresses –and sometimes fractures– that can occur in “Christian fellowship” during a time of political upheaval.
The “Charcoals” and “Claybanks” were the local Missouri variant of the national struggle between Radical Republicans on the one hand and moderate Republicans and War Democrats on the other. The former were for total abolition of slavery –the sooner the better—and harsh treatment of the Rebels. The latter tended to be for “The Union as it Was” prior to 1861, with slavery continuing to exist in those states where it was already established and relatively lenient treatment of any Rebel who was willing to give up disunion. Much like “Yankee Doodle” a century before, the names were chosen by their enemies, but accepted with pride. The intramural fighting caused difficulties for every Union commander of Missouri. Anderson gives considerably more space for the arguments of the Charcoals, and one suspects that he considered himself –at least ideologically– one of their number.
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 our [Union men] hot fight for Missouri and the Union we unhappily split up into factions. We not only contended against secession but against each other. And the warring factions were significantly called Charcoals and Claybanks. The Charcoals taken as a whole were uncompromising radicals, while the Claybanks were the conservatives. Many of the Claybanks had been born and educated in the North, while some of the blackest of the Charcoals had been reared in the midst of slavery. They were recent converts to Unionism and gloried in their new-found faith.
What gave birth to these party names no one can certainly tell. Apparently, like Topsy, they “just growed”. The clay of Missouri is of a decidedly neutral tint. Perhaps an extremist, indignant at a conservative for his colorless views, called him a claybank; and since the name was descriptive, fitting, and easily understood by Missourians, it stuck. The conservative, stung by the epithet, may have warmly retorted, “You are a charcoal.” And that name, equally descriptive and fitting, also stuck. At all events each faction named the other, and each adopted the name hostilely given and gloried in it. And for many months these names bandied by the opposing factions played an important part in the heated controversies of our State.
Both Charcoals and Claybanks were loyal to the federal government. Upon the main issue, the preservation of the Union, they agreed; but they were at swords’ points upong the statement of the problem in hand and the method of its solution. The Claybanks contended that the foremost question was the maintenance of the Union. They were ready to preserve it either with or without slavery. So their cry was; “Let us first save the Union, and afterwards adjust the matter of slavery.”
On the other hand, the avowed object of the Charcoals was to save the Union without slavery; and perhaps they were unduly impatient with those who would save the Union with slavery, or even with those who would save the Union with or without slavery. But they were always ready to give a reason for the faith that was in them. They said: “Slavery is unquestionably the cause of secession and of this bloody war. If we preserve the Union and with it the cause of its present disruption, then, at no distant day, the same cause will rend it again, and our soil will be drenched with the blood of our children. We believe the doctrine of our great President, that the nation cannot continue half slave and half free. We therefore give ourselves to the extermination of the fruitful cause of all our present distress. We fight and pray for the restoration of the Union, but of the Union purged of human bondage.”
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When our military commanders came to us one after another, they were beset, not to say besieged, by the Charcoals and Claybanks in reference to the conduct of the war in Missouri. Each faction tried to forestall the other by getting the ear of the new general first, and telling him just what he ought to do in order to achieve success. Each was absolutely sure that only its way was right. Any other course than the one suggested would lead to utter disaster. Each party was so dead in earnest that when its views were discarded it cursed the idiot that had not heeded them. To do his duty intelligently and fearlessly amid this din of clashing opinions, a commander of the Department of the Missouri needed great clearness of though, coolness of disposition, and firmness of purpose. He did not lie on a bed of roses, but on bumblebees’ nest.
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The extreme [Charcoal] policy of General Curtis soon brought him into collision with our conservative, provisional [Claybank] Governor. The sparks flew. The Charcoals and Claybanks put on fresh war-paint. The one upheld the general and his radical policy; the other the Governor and his more moderate policy. While both parties were for the Union, they denounced each other in the hottest terms. If we had believed what both factions declared, we should have been forced to conclude that there was scarcely a decent man among all the Unionists in the State. Each party again and again appealed to the President for his support, but of course he could not side with either. At last, worn out by this incessant strife, in May 1863, he removed General Curtis from his command and put General Schofield in his place.
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Three days after he had relieved General Curtis, the President wrote him [Schofield] a letter, which is so quaint and so packed with good sense that we feel impelled to reproduce it. It tersely portrays the difficult task that confronted him.
Executive Mansion, Washington,
May 27, 1863
General J. M. Schofield:
My Dear Sir: — Having relieved General Curtis and assigned you to the command of the Department of Missouri, I think it may be of some advantage for me to state to you why I did it. I did not relieve General Curtis because of any full conviction that he had done wrong by commission or omission. I did it because of a conviction in my mind that the Union men of Missouri, constituting, when united, a vast majority of the whole people, have entered into a pestilent factional quarrel among themselves –General Curtis, perhaps not from choice, being the head of one faction, and Governor Gamble that of the other. After months of labor to reconcile the difficulty, it seemed to grow worse and worse, until I felt it my duty to break it up somehow; and as I could not remove Governor Gamble, I had to remove General Curtis. Now that you are in the position, I wish you to undo nothing merely because General Curtis or Governor Gamble did it, but to exercise your own judgment and do right for the public interest.
Let your military measures be strong enough to repel the invader and keep the peace, and not so strong as to unnecessarily harass and persecute the people. It is a difficult role, and so much greater will be the honor if you perform it well. If both factions, or neither, shall abuse you, you will probably be about right. Beware of being assailed by the one and praised by the other.