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Missouri and the Civil War

LEXINGTON, Mo. – Civil War buffs are fortunate that Tilton Davis didn’t believe in home repairs.

Davis, a lawyer, bought the Oliver Anderson house in Lexington after the war and preserved the home for 50 years. The stately mansion was a strategic part of the Battle of Lexington, changing hands three times on Sept. 18, 1861, the first day of the three-day fight.

Today, visitors to the Battle of Lexington State Historic Site can tour the home and see for themselves the ferocity of the war. Holes in the brick exterior and in the interior woodwork and plaster walls show where the house was struck by musket shots and cannon fire.

“Old Tilton Davis was one of our first preservationists,” said John Maki, who works at the site and participates in battle re-enactments. “Mr. Davis never repaired any of the battle damage because he thought the old soldiers would be back to reminisce. To this day, we’re thankful he didn’t.”

America will mark the sesquicentennial of the Civil War next year, and only two states, Virginia and Tennessee, experienced more battles on their soil than Missouri. The state Department of Natural Resources commemorates several of the important battles and also maintains the Confederate Memorial, where old soldiers fighting for the South came to live out their years.

While most national activities will get under way in 2011, tourists can get a head start marking the war’s 150th anniversary by visiting Battle of Lexington State Historic Site in central Missouri, Battle of Athens State Historic Site in the northeast corner of the state, Battle of Carthage State Historic Site in the far southwest and Fort Davidson State Historic Site in the southeast.

Many Midwest historians will argue the war actually started in Missouri, long before the bombardment of Fort Sumter at Charleston, S.C., on April 12, 1861, says John Cunning, who directs management and interpretation for Missouri State Parks and Historic Sites.

“There was fighting on the border of Missouri and Kansas in 1856,” Cunning said. “The issues that caused our border war escalated on a national scale and finally led to the Southern states breaking away and trying to form a confederacy.”

The Missouri State Museum in Jefferson City will open a Civil War display next May, and the state also is developing an historic site at Island Mound, south of Kansas City, to commemorate a historically significant 1862 fight.

“That site is where, for the first time in the Civil War, anywhere in the nation, African-American troops came under fire,” Cunning said of Island Mound. “There was a fear that black troops wouldn’t fight, they would fear shooting at a white man.

“They faced quite a large force of mounted Confederate guerillas, and did so well it made the national press. Finally there was proof, black troops would fight. It wasn’t big, it wasn’t glorious, but it was an incredibly important battle at the time.”


Cunning suggested Lexington as a first stop on a Civil War tour of Missouri. “It is one of our best preserved battlefields,” he said. “And our interpretative program shows not only the military, but the civilian side.”

The displays in the visitor center explain the name for the fight that took place there, “The Battle of the Hemp Bales.”

A body of 2,700 Union soldiers under the command of Col. James A. Mulligan had fortified themselves inside the grounds of a college on the northern end of town. They also had commandeered as a field hospital the Oliver Anderson mansion, which was built by a pro-Southern slave owner.

Maj. Gen. Sterling Price, fresh from victory in the bloody Battle of Wilson’s Creek near Springfield, advanced on Lexington with 7,000 members of the pro-southern state guard. They encircled the college, and seized the hospital. Mulligan ordered the house re-taken in a bloody countercharge.

“Right here, on these stairs, a Congressional Medal of Honor was won by George Palmer,” said Maki, the re-enactor. “When the Union men re-entered the house, they hesitated to go up the stairs because there were armed state guardsmen up there. Palmer jumped on the stairs and said, ‘Who will follow me?’ His men followed and the state guard was routed.”

The siege of the college ended on the third day when the pro-southern state guard took hemp bales from a warehouse, soaked them in water and hid behind them as a rolling barrier. They advanced on the out-manned Union trenches, and Mulligan was forced to surrender after hand-to-hand combat.


Confederate Memorial State Historic Site is a few miles south of Lexington in a park-like setting with several fishing lakes.

A small white chapel and a field of some 800 modest tombstones mark where the Confederate Soldiers Home of Missouri was established in 1891, using private funds. The home welcomed some 1,600 of the former Confederacy’s destitute soldiers and their families.

The U.S. flag flew over the complex of buildings, most of them now gone, but the caskets of the soldiers were draped in Rebel colors at their burials.

On May 8, 1950, the last surviving Missouri Confederate soldier, Johnny Graves, died at the home at the age of 108. His marker is inscribed: “The last of Shelby’s men,” A reference to Confederate cavalry Gen. Jo Shelby.  After Graves’ death. the state transferred the four remaining widows to a nursing home, and officially closed the facility.

Because the soldiers who arrived were mostly privates, and mostly poor, the cemetery has few fancy monuments, but it has its share of celebrities, said Kay Russell, the site’s interpreter.

“We have Jim Cummins, who was the last surviving member of the Jesse James gang,” Russell said. “And we have William Quantrill, the Confederate bushwacker. Actually, we only have part of him – two leg bones, three arm bones and a lock of hair. He has three graves in three different states.”


Battle of Carthage State Historic Site commemorates the July 5, 1861, fight between Col. Franz Sigel and his 1,100 Union soldiers and the much larger pro-Southern force of former Missouri Gov. Claiborne Jackson.

A kiosk at the site, where both sides camped, explained what took place during one of the earliest battles in the Civil War.  

“It was a nine-mile-long battle,” said site superintendent Pam Myers. “They kept engaging each other, pushing one way and pushing back.”

Although out-manned, Sigel’s troops escaped the superior force with minimal losses under extreme conditions, enhancing the colonel’s military reputation.

“Sigel’s men were foot soldiers,” Myers said. “It was a very hot day, and it had rained. They had to ford several swollen streams in their wool uniforms. As the wool got wet, it got hotter and hotter. Sigel and his men retreated at the end of the day to kind of lick their wounds.”


In the summer of 1861, Athens was a thriving town of some 50 businesses and 600 people with a mill on the Des Moines River and a railroad depot on the other side in Iowa. But tension was mounting, and the area was divided. Townsfolk argued daily over which flag to fly over the county courthouses.

On Aug. 5, a force of 500 men under Union Col. David Moore used muskets commandeered from a freight train to repel Col. Martin Green’s pro-Southern state guard of about 2,000 men, who were trying to rescue Athens from Union occupation. When the smoke cleared from the two-hour battle, more than 50 were dead on both sides.

“They didn’t even have uniforms, some of them had just walked off the farm,” said Jerry Toops, site superintendent of the Battle of Athens State Historic Site, which marks the northernmost Civil War battle fought west of the Mississippi. “I think they thought it was going to be a fistfight, but some of them ended up dying.”

Today, Athens has three residents and the historic site has several of the original buildings, including the Thome-Benning mansion, which is known as “the Cannonball House.” Visitors can tour the interior, which is filled with period furniture, and see where a cannonball smashed through the front next to the kitchen door and whizzed out the rear.

The 406-acre site is a serene, wooded setting with a camping area, fishing lake and a hiking trail that follows the river bluffs.

“It’s so quiet and intimate, you can get into the moment,” said Jo Bryant, who helps interpret the site. “You can walk on the grounds they walked on. A lot of the bigger Civil War parks have the monuments. We have the old buildings still up.”


Things will get pretty noisy on Sept. 24-26 during a re-enactment at Fort Davidson State Historic Site at Pilot Knob in southeast Missouri. The site commemorates one of the more dramatic battles fought in Missouri, which is explained in a lighted diorama in the visitor center.

Maj. Gen. Sterling Price led an army of 12,000 Confederate soldiers into the area on his march to St. Louis. On the morning of Sept. 27, 1864, he decided to attack Fort Davidson, which was a small, hexagonal earthwork fort defended by Gen. Thomas Ewing Jr. and his 1,450 Union men.

The Union forces held during the day, but that night, under the cover of darkness, the soldiers silently fled the fort. A small group was left behind to blow up the powder magazine. Price lost 1,000 men during the battle, and never posed a threat to St. Louis.

“Technically, it’s a Confederate victory because the Union troops abandoned the fort,” said Cunning, the state park system’s director of interpretation. “But their holding action helped break the momentum of Price’s raid through Missouri. The guys who stayed back and lit that fuse performed a pretty heroic act.”

Some 700 re-enactors will stage that battle in September, with cannon fire, cavalry dueling and an explosive finale. The event is expected to draw up to 30,000 spectators.

“We blow up the fort in the evening after dark,” said Walt Busch, site superintendent. “We put powder charges in there and, on the count of three, everything goes up at once. “It does brighten the area.”