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When NAACP demonstrators marching from Ferguson, Missouri, to the state capital, Jefferson City, passed through Gasconade County last month, they found anything but a warm welcome from the residents of Rosebud, a tiny town of about 400 in the eastern midsection of the state. A Confederate flag was raised. Some left fried chicken, watermelon and 40-ounce cans of beer.
St. Louisans have found themselves more polarized than ever over the police shooting and death of teenager Mike Brown in Ferguson. However, the rifts that plague the city originate not in Ferguson or St. Louis but from Missouri’s long-standing identity crisis, still unresolved 150 years after the American Civil War.
Missouri was claimed by both the Union and the Confederacy and is the 24th and 12th star on their respective flags.
It’s an odd tale of dual historical narratives that can manifest as harmlessly as old men re-enacting Civil War battles and as ominously as masked residents of Rosebud flying the Confederate flag for black marchers. But perhaps this story is best told through the words of two heritage groups, one Union and one Confederate, both pushing to have their hallowed sites recognized by a state that has found itself as divided as ever.
This is a story of two Missouris: a “Missour-ee” and a “Missour-uh.”
For those who say Missour-uh
For those who know, it goes without saying that many of those who pronounce the state as “Missour-uh” affiliate themselves with the South, not the North.
It is also worth nothing that Darrell Maples, head of the Missouri Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said that what happened in Rosebud made him sick and that it “is an insult to the men who honorably fought under that flag for it to be used that way, and it makes our struggle that much more difficult.”
Their purpose is this: to have the Missouri Confederate battle flag flown at certain sites in Missouri.
And on a humid evening in mid-September, Maples and four of his friends filed into a small chapel at a cemetery just north of Higginsville. The Missouri Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans is a heritage organization that advocates for the preservation of Confederate history in the United States. Members went to an annual public meeting held by representatives of Missouri State Parks and sat silently as the site’s staff discussed projects and finances.
There was a silence when Jim Rehard, who oversees the Northern Missouri Historic District, proceeded to the public comment portion of the meeting. He raised his eyebrows, seemingly surprised by the length of the silence.
That’s when the first hand went up.
The Missouri Confederate Memorial State Historic Site is tucked away just north of Higginsville. A retirement home and hospital for Confederate veterans once stood there, where the inmates, as they were called, and their wives lived out their days before moving to the adjacent cemetery. A piece of William Quantrill, who led anti-federal militias in Missouri before the Civil War even started, is buried there.
The last man to be buried in the Higginsville cemetery was John T. Graves. He died in 1950 at the age of 108. The Confederate flag flew over the site until it was taken down in 2003 at the order of then-Gov. Bob Holden. Another flag was taken down in Pilot Knob under the same order. That year, Missourian and presidential hopeful Richard Gephardt declared the flag should not be flown anywhere in the United States.
“Let’s be honest. We all know it was a political move,” Maples said during the meeting. His companions nodded in agreement. More often than not, he calls it “Missour-uh.”
Maples and the rest of the group were not expecting any changes at this meeting, but their presence was part of their recent push to get the flag flying at the cemetery once more, having recently peppered Interstate 70, which connects St. Louis on the eastern edge of the state and Kansas City on the western border, with billboards calling for the flag to fly. They have launched a campaign to call Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon’s office and demand the flag, even though Nixon said that such a move was unlikely when asked about it in May.
But that doesn’t mean they aren’t trying. The Missouri division had a large presence at the Battle of Centralia re-enactment just days before the meeting in Higginsville. The re-enactment drew large crowds to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the battle, in which heavily outnumbered Confederate guerrilla fighters killed four-fifths of the Union troops sent to annihilate them.
At the re-enactment Tim Borron, of the Independence, Missouri, camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, manned a tent to distribute flyers about Higginsville and sell Confederate memorabilia.
“The men that are lying in that cemetery answered the call of their lawfully elected governors,” he said. “They did the patriotic thing and answered their governors’ call to defend their states. You can’t get more patriotic than that.”
When asked if he could understand why some might be upset about the flying the Confederate flag, Borron pointed to a nearby hand-made sign that read, “If 75,000 men of color fought for this flag, how can it be called racist?”
The Sons of Confederate Veterans frequently maintain out that Native American, Hispanic, and African American soldiers fought for the Confederacy. (Historians, however, note that only a small fraction of black Confederates were allowed to carry arms, with many coerced or forced into serving. Most, perhaps 50,000, worked as unarmed laborers.)
“By the same token, if you want to deem a flag racist, you have to deem that flag racist,” he added, pointing to a U.S. flag flying nearby. “Because it flew over the slave ships.”
And those that say Missour-ee
In the western part of the state, a counter story of Missouri in the Civil War is playing out. Olive Anderson of Kansas City is part of a group pushing for the preservation of a historical Union site, the battlefield at Island Mound.
Anderson comes from a different Missouri: “Missour-ee,” a state of a more Northern persuasion. A Missouri that remained in the Union despite being a slave state.
Her great-great grandfather, born into slavery and later freed, enlisted with the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry, which was the first unit of African-Americans to fight in the Civil War — contrary to the widely held belief that the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (depicted in the 1989 film “Glory”) holds that place in history.
“Finally, we’re getting some recognition,” Anderson said. “They were the first to fight, and we’ve got people working hard to keep that story out there, that they were the first [black soldiers] to fight in the Civil War.”
In 2012, Missouri State Parks — the same agency that oversees the Confederate cemetery in Higginsville — set aside some of the land at the Island Mound site as a state historic site. However, the battlefield itself is on private land, part of a neighboring farm.
Asked if she thinks all the land should be part of the site, she said, “Oh, Lord, yes.”
“First of all, when [my great-great grandfather] was released by his Native American captors, he could’ve gone to Canada,” she said. "And instead he decided to go to Kansas to enlist. They did not have to do what they did — put their lives in jeopardy like that. They were knowing that they took no prisoners.”
Missouri: It’s complicated
Modern Missouri is a place with a foot in both “Missour-ee” and “Missour-uh.”
And that just goes to show how Missouri’s place in the Civil War wasn’t simple, and it still isn’t. It remained a slave state, straddling the Mason-Dixon Line, but depending on whom you ask, it was either in the Union or the Confederacy, and it contributed 110,000 and 40,000 soldiers to each, respectively.
By the end of the war, there were 1,200 battles in Missouri, the third most in the country, after Virginia and Tennessee. Many of those battles were fought by soldiers from Missouri — on both sides.
“My colleagues and I often say that after almost everything you have to say about the Civil War, you have to put an asterisk by Missouri,” said William Blair, a professor of history at Penn State and the director of the Richards Civil War Era Center.
“Missouri was kind of out there when talking about guerrilla warfare and strife between families,” he added. “You see these things in other areas, but the intensity and endurance of it was in Missouri more than anywhere else.”
And a century and a half later, there’s the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, which is responsible for Missouri State Parks. “Part of the state park system’s mission is to preserve and protect the state’s most outstanding cultural landmarks,” Steph Diedrick, the department’s spokeswoman, said in an email. “We value all 35 historic sites currently in the system and encourage our guests to learn about all periods of our state’s history.”
Jim Rehard, who oversees the district that encompasses the Higginsville and Island Mound sites, was not available for comment.
“This is no big news to historians, frankly,” Blair said. Among historians, he said, there are generally three narratives of the Civil War in the United States: Unionist, white Southern Confederate and African-American abolitionist.
“When people dig in and become ideologically concentrated, then they will never accept or understand other sides or narratives,” he said. “Usually they try to say, ‘Mine is right, and the other isn’t,’ and that’s where we start to have problems.”
It has been said that as Missouri goes, so goes the nation. The Civil War was being fought in Missouri before the Confederacy was even formed. It’s a state that has voted for the winning presidential candidate in all but three elections since 1904. The 2008 and 2012 elections were close nationwide and even closer in Missouri. In it, every imaginable divide — urban/rural, black/white, rich/poor — can be found within blocks of each other
And now protests that swept the nation sprang from a movement that has its origins in a once overlooked suburb of St. Louis. As Missouri goes, so goes the nation.