The Minute Men

The Minute Men

By Thomas L. Snead

A bio of Thomas L. Snead

Excerpted and Introduced by G.E. Rule

from “The Fight For Missouri”, Thomas L. Snead, 1886

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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Thomas L. Snead was, successively, a pro-Breckinridge newspaperman, aide to Governor Claiborne Jackson, adjutant to General Sterling Price, and CSA Congressman from Missouri. His “The Fight for Missouri: From the Election of Lincoln to the Death of Lyon” is the best first hand account of events in Missouri from late 1860 until August of 1861. Predictably, many Pro-Union partisans regard Snead as hopelessly biased towards the secessionist’s point of view. More surprisingly, some Pro-Confederate partisans consider that by 1886 Snead was too much of a “reconstructed Rebel” and not strident enough in defending the secessionist point of view. Snead himself was not above playing hardball during the war, signing the order in 1863 on behalf of General Sterling Price directing Captain Thomas E. Courtenay to raise a corps of 20 men for secret service to engage in sabotage behind Union lines in the Trans-Mississippi.

The Minute Men were the pro-secessionist group organized in St. Louis in January of 1861. Their stated purpose was to gain control of St. Louis, and its well-stocked arsenal, for the secessionist cause. Many of them went on to impressive careers with Bowen, Shelby, Morgan, and others. In excerpting from Snead’s book those sections concerning the Minute Men, there is always the danger that the resulting piece may give an impression unintended by the author of the original work had he the opportunity to write on the Minute Men solely instead of as part of a larger work. Any perceived problems of that sort should be laid at the door of the editor, not the author.

The St. Louis secessionists were no less active than the Union men. There were few in number; but most of them were young, ardent, and full of zeal. They regretted the determination of the Cotton States to secede. They would rather have had them remain within the Union, and fight within it for their constitutional rights. But they believed nevertheless that these States had the right to secede and to establish a separate Government if they chose to do so. Whether this was a constitutional right, or a revolutionary right they did not care; nor ought they to have cared. For the God-given right of revolution is a higher and a more sacred right than any which is based upon the mere bargainings and concessions of men. The people who abandon it or fear to assert it always lose their freedom sooner or later and sink surely to the condition of serfs or slaves. To the exercise of this natural right in 1776 the Republic owes its existence. To the assertion of it by the South in 1861 the Republic owes its present grandeur, and its perfect unity.

When South Carolina seceded these young St. Louisians no longer doubted that all the Cotton States would secede and form a Southern Confederacy, that between this Confederacy and the Union war would ensue, and that in this war the whole country would take part. For themselves they were resolved to fight with and for the South, among whose people and upon whose soil most of them had been born.

Throwing aside all vain regrets and bravely accepting the inevitable, they began at once to fit themselves for war; began to learn the rudiments of the art in the school of the soldier. They were very few, however, till Sturgeon’s folly [U.S. Assistant Treasurer who had requested Federal troops to guard the treasury in St. Louis. These troops, forty in number, arrived in St. Louis on January 11th, 1861 –ed.] set fire to the passions of men and lit the flames of civil war on the soil of Missouri. Many then joined their ranks –many who had hitherto held aloof for love of the Union or for the sake of peace, but who now despaired of both.

Basil W. DukeAmong these was Basil Wilson Duke, a young lawyer from Kentucky. He was about twenty-five years of age, able, enterprising, and bold; giving promise, even then, of those soldierly qualities which eventually made him John Morgan’s most trusted lieutenant and the brilliant commander of a Confederate cavalry brigade. In the presidential election he had supported Douglas with great zeal and some eloquence, and since then had earnestly deprecated disunion and striven to stay the current that was setting toward secession in Missouri. Now he awoke suddenly to the conviction that the North was going to make war upon the South. That was enough for him. To go with his people when they were attacked; to stand by them when they were in danger, uncaring whether they were right or wrong; to share their perils, and to fight with them against their foes, was with him an instinct and a duty. He at once joined the small band of secessionists and became their most conspicuous leader. Among them he found men as brave and as earnest as he; some of them with ability equal to his own, and talents as useful, perhaps, though not so brilliant and attractive.

One of these, Colton Greene, was a prosperous young merchant, hardly as old as Duke. A South Carolinian by birth, he sympathized earnestly with the people of that State and justified their conduct in seceding. With a rather delicate physical organization, and of a retiring disposition, he possessed the sensibilities, a cultivated intellect which was both sharp and strong, courage, and determination. He was, withal, painstaking, laborious and earnest, upright and honorable.

These two, with Rock Champion a great-hearted young Irishman, and a few others as daring, were as quick to organize the Secessionists into Minute Men as Blair had been to organize his Wide-Awakes into Home Guards; and they did it boldly and openly, beginning it the very day that the Federal troops arrived at St. Louis.

Never was there a finer body of young fellows than these Minute Men. Some were Missourians; some from the North; some from the South; and others were Irishmen. Among them all there was hardly a man who was not intelligent, educated, and recklessly brave. Some who had the least education were as brave as the bravest, and as true as the truest. Most of them fought afterwards on many a bloody field. Many of them died in battle. Some of them rose to high commands. Not one of them proved false to the cause to which he then pledged his faith.

They established their headquarters at the old Berthold mansion, in the very heart of the city, at the corner of Fifth and Pine Streets, and also formed and drilled companies in other parts of the city, against the time that they could arm and equip themselves. They were hardly three hundred in all, but they were so bold and active, so daring and ubiquitous, that every one accounted them ten times as numerous.

Like Blair and the Home Guards, they had their eyes fixed upon the arsenal, and expected out of its abundant stores to arm and equip themselves for the coming fight. In that arsenal were sixty thousand good muskets, while in all the Confederate States there were not one hundred and fifty thousand more. They were barely three hundred men, and more than ten thousand stood ready to resist them; but for love of the South, and for love of the right, and for the honor of Missouri, they were willing to peril their lives any day to get those muskets. And they would have gotten them or perished in the attempt but for the advice of their leaders at Jefferson City.

These counseled delay. They believed that it was better to wait till the people should, in their election of delegates to the Convention, declare their purpose to side with the South. They never doubted that the people would do this; never doubted that they would elect a Convention which would pledge Missouri to resist the subjugation of the South, and would put her in position to do it. Sustained by the voice of the people, and instructed by their votes, the Governor would then order General Frost to seize the arsenal in the name of the State, and he, with his brigade and the Minute Men, and the thousands that would flock to their aid, could easily do it.

In anticipation of all this and of the passage of the military bill, one of whose provisions required, as has been told, the disbandment of all unauthorized military companies, the Minute Men were now organized, according to law, and five companies duly mustered into the State service by General Frost on the 13th of February.

These companies –Captains Barret, Duke, Shaler, Green and Hubbard—were then formed into a battalion, of which Captain James R. Shaler was elected major, and were assigned to Frost’s Brigade. They afterwards formed part of Bowen’s Regiment.

* * *

An event which happened on the day that Lincoln was inaugurated, and on which the State Convention began its sessions at St. Louis (March 4th), came very near precipitating the conflict in Missouri, and gave Blair and Lyon good cause to press their demands upon the Government.

St. Louis CourthouseDuring the preceding night some of the Minute Men (Duke, Green, Quinlan, Champion, and McCoy) raised the flag of Missouri over the dome of the Courthouse, and hoisted above their own headquarters a nondescript banner, which was intended to represent the flag of the Confederate States. The custodian of the Courthouse removed the state flag from that building early in the morning; but the secession flag still floated audaciously and defiantly above the Minute Men’s headquarters, in the very face of the Submissionists’ Convention, of the Republican Mayor, and his German police, of the department commander, and of Lyon and his Home Guards; and under its folds there was gathered as daring a set of young fellows as ever did a bold, or a reckless deed. They were about a score at first, but when an excited crowd began to threaten their quarters, and the rumor to fly that the Home Guards were coming to tear down their flag, the number of its defenders grew to about one hundred. They all had muskets of the latest and very best pattern. On the floors of the upper rooms were heaps of hand grenades. In the wide hall was a swivel, double-shotted, and so planted as to rake the main entrance if any one should be brave enough to try to force it. At every window there were determined men, with loaded muskets, and fixed bayonets; behind them were others, ready to take the place of any that might fall; and in all the building there was not a man who was not ready to fight to the death, rather than submit to the rule of Abraham Lincoln; nor one who would have quailed in the presence of a thousand foes, nor one of them that survives today, who would not fight just as willingly and just as bravely for the flag of the Union. Outside, too, throughout the ever-growing crowd, other Minute Men were stationed, to act as the emergency might require.

Before the hour of noon had come all the streets in the vicinity were thronged with excited men, some drawn thither by mere curiosity and by that strange magnetism which mobs always exert; some to take part with the Minute Men, if “the Dutch” should attack them; some to tear down “the rebel flag,” and to hang “the traitors,” who had dared to raise it on the day of Lincoln’s inauguration.

Everything betokened a terrible riot and a bloody fight. The civil authorities were powerless. It was to no purpose that they implored the crowd to disperse; in vain that they begged the Minute Men to haul down their flag. The police could do nothing. The Home Guards did not dare to attack, for their leaders knew that the first shot that was fired would bring Frost’s Brigade, which was largely composed of Minute Men, to the aid of their friends, and that they would also be reinforced by the Irish, between whom and the German Home Guards there was the antipathy of both race and religion. Only once did any one venture to approach the well-guarded portals of the stronghold. The rash fools that did it were hurled back into the street, amid the jeers and laughter of the crowd. Blair and the Republican leaders, unwilling to provoke a conflict, kept their followers quiet, and finally towards midnight the crowd dispersed. The next day’s sun shone upon the rebel flag still flying above the roof of the Minute Men’s quarters. But Duke and Greene were unhappy, for they had hoped to bring on a fight, in which they would have been reinforced by Frost’s Brigade, and the Irish and many Americans, and in the confusion to seize the arsenal, and hold it till the Secessionists of the State could come to their aid. They were, nevertheless, greatly elated because the people believed more than ever that there were thousands of Minute Men, instead of hundreds.

* * *

On the same day that the Governor refused to comply with the requisition for troops [On April 17th, 1861 Governor Jackson sent a strongly worded refusal of the Federal requisition of four regiments from Missouri to put down the Rebellion –ed.], he sent Captains Greene and Duke to Montgomery, with an autograph letter to the President of the Confederate States, requesting him to furnish those officers with the siege guns and mortars which General Frost wanted for the proposed attack upon the arsenal; and Judge William M. Cooke was sent to Virginia upon a similar errand.

* * *

On reaching the Confederate capital they laid their requests before the President and his Cabinet, and explained to them the purpose for which they wanted the guns and mortars. Mr. Davis, who had, at one time, been stationed at St. Louis, and was familiar with the ground, approved the plan, and ordered the commandant of the Baton Rouge Arsenal to supply the requisition. He also wrote to the Governor of Louisiana, and asked him to render such assistance as he could to the Missouri officers.

* * *

The arms and ammunition were procured at Baton Rouge and shipped to St. Louis as merchandise, and consigned to well-known Union men. At St. Louis they were turned over (May 8th) to Major Shaler, of Frost’s Brigade, and taken to Camp Jackson.