In order to see the country’s newest Civil War museum, you’ll have to visit the oldest active military installation west of the Mississippi River.
The Missouri Civil War Museum is in a recently restored building on the parade grounds at the Jefferson Barracks Historic Site in St. Louis. Established in 1826, Jefferson Barracks served soldiers in every major military conflict in America’s history, from the Black Hawk War in 1832 to the current conflict in Afghanistan.
Some 220 Civil War generals – from Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee and William Tecumseh Sherman to Confederate President Jefferson Davis – served duty at Jefferson Barracks. The national cemetery on the sprawling site is the final resting place for more than 16,000 Union and Confederate soldiers.
The four-story, 1905 Post Exchange and Gymnasium Building, which served as a gym, barracks and hospital before closing in 1946, has been meticulously restored and stocked with a treasure trove of artifacts, thanks largely to the effort of Mark Trout.
A former Marine, city police officer and general contractor, Trout was attending a swap meet at Jefferson Barracks in 2002 when he saw the deteriorating red-brick building, which was boarded up and abandoned.
“I wondered who’d own a beautiful building like that and do nothing with it,” said Trout, 50. “I’ve tinkered with old buildings all my life. The joke is that my heroes are Abraham Lincoln and Bob Vila of ‘This Old House’.”
Trout struck a deal with St. Louis County, which owned the building. He would lead a grass-roots effort to restore the building as a Civil War museum. With a healthy dose of volunteer labor and materials, the restoration spent about $1.7 million in the 10-year effort to bring the building back to life.
“We started with an organization of one at the time, and now have almost 700,” Trout said. “There is no federal, no state, no taxpayer money in this project and we had only one major corporate contributor (Emerson Electric Co.). This project was primarily funded on a grass-roots level by thousands of donations from individuals throughout the nation.
“We wanted to bring the building back to the original architectural style, and we’ve done that. If someone hadn’t done something, this building wouldn’t be here today.”
Trout owned some Civil War memorabilia; his small collection became the first donation to the building’s displays. As word spread, families with war heirlooms started donating them to the museum. Many of the items came from the relatives of soldiers who served at Jefferson Barracks.
“Today, we have about 2,000 artifacts; more than 500 on display,” Trout said. Asked to name a few of the most prized possessions, he replied: “That’s hard to do. They’re like my children – they’re all my favorites.”
On display are nearly every type of object that would have been used during the Civil War – from weapons, flags and uniforms to drums, crutches and bibles.
One exhibit tells the story of Charles Bieger, a private in the 4th Missouri Cavalry. Bieger was honored for entering enemy fire to rescue his captain, who had been shot from his horse in the Battle of Ivy Farm in Mississippi in February 1868.
“We have his spurs, portrait, saber, musket and bayonet,” Trout said of Bieger. “And, of course, we have his two Medals of Honor.”
A Wagon, Cannon and Real Horse
The self-guided tour starts in a room where a video explains Missouri’s early Border War with Kansas, years before the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter in South Carolina on April 12, 1861. On a lower level, portraits of Missouri soldiers who fought in the war flash on a screen.
The main floor features a large open atrium with what formerly was an elevated running track on the mezzanine around the room’s perimeter. Poster-sized photos of a historic nature hang in the mezzanine.
The walls below are lined with display cases filled with artifacts. A cannon, Studebaker wagon and stuffed horse stand on an oval island in the center of the room.
“We wanted a real horse on exhibit; fiberglass horses didn’t have the same impact,” Trout said. “Well over a million horses died in the Civil War. It was important to give them their due. Plus, children who live in the city may never have seen a real horse.”
Although the main 16,000-square-foot building is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, the job is not finished. Trout’s efforts have extended next door, where a smaller building is being restored for use as a library and research center. The target opening: 2015.
“We have more than 12,000 books and documents,” Trout said. “The 1918 building next door is being restored as the Civil War Research Library and Student Education Center.” A database is being compiled so visitors can look-up the war history of their relatives.
“The Jefferson Barracks Historic District had been in decline since World War II,” Trout said. “We knew a project like our museum could help ignite a revitalization of the historic site and it has done that. Now the final boarded-up building is being restored.”
Admission to the Missouri Civil War Museum: $7; ages 65+, $6; ages 5-12, $5; younger than 5 and active duty military, free. For details, schedules and information, visit the website.
Tom Uhlenbrock is a staff writer for Missouri State Parks, a division of the Department of Natural Resources.