IN THE EARLY MONTHS of 1861--as the Confederate flag unfurled above Fort Sumter, as bands played and newly formed regiments paraded in towns and cities throughout the North and the South--two civilians sat disconsolately at the sidelines of the Civil War.
One had recently taken a desk job running a horse-drawn trolley line. He spent most of his days pushing papers, trying his hardest to concentrate on the minutiae of fare revenues and fodder costs, in an office permeated with pungent aromas from the company's adjacent stables. The other man was a down-at-the-heels, small-town shop clerk who had come to the city in search of an officer's commission. He camped out at his in-laws' house, trudging around the city each day, fruitlessly trying to attract the attention of the local military authorities.
The trolley-car executive was named William Tecumseh Sherman. The luckless clerk was Ulysses S. Grant. Both--as unknown to one other, probably, as each was to the nation--had found themselves in St. Louis.
It was not yet Grant's or Sherman's Civil War in the spring of 1861. During this opening act, the two future icons were fated to watch from the wings, restless understudies awaiting their turn onstage. Yet the story that unfolded around them that spring in St. Louis was a struggle as dramatic--and perhaps even as decisive--as any that would play out at Shiloh or Chattanooga. It was also a struggle unlike what most Americans today imagine: columns of blue and gray troops clashing nobly on the field of battle. Instead, the fight for Missouri in the spring of 1861--the first real military contest between Union and Confederacy--was a civil war in the truest and rawest sense, resembling those fought in our own time in such places as Beirut and Belfast: gun battles in the streets, long-simmering ethnic hatreds boiling over, and wailing mothers cradling slain children in their arms. It was also quite literally an American revolution--but with a cast of heroes largely forgotten to history, and with the Unionists, not the Confederates, as rebels.
THE LEADING CITY in one of the nation's most populous slaveholding states, St. Louis was a strategic prize like no other. Not only the largest settlement beyond the Appalachians, it was also the country's second-largest port, commanding the Mississippi River as well as the Missouri, which was then navigable as far upstream as what is now the state of Montana. It was the eastern gateway to the overland trails to California. Last but far from least, the city was home to the St. Louis Arsenal, the biggest cache of federal arms in the slave states, a central munitions depot for Army posts between New Orleans and the Rockies. Whoever held St. Louis held the key to the Mississippi Valley and perhaps even to the whole American West.
The city and its surrounding state stood at a crossroads between the cultures of the North and the South, between slavery and freedom, between an older America and a new one. The old Missouri flourished in the region known as Little Dixie, the rich alluvial lands where black field hands toiled in the hemp and cotton fields. The new one could be found in St. Louis, where block after block of red-brick monotony-warehouses, manufacturing plants, and office buildings--stretched for miles along the bluffs above the river. Each year, more than 4,000 steamboats shouldered up to the wharves, vessels with names like War Eagle, Champion, Belle of Memphis, and Big St. Louis. The smoke from their coal-fired furnaces mingled with the thick black clouds belching from factory smokestacks, so that on windless days the sun shone feebly through a dark canopy overhead.
Throughout the winter and early spring of 1861, the Union revolutionaries who would soon fight the battle for Missouri were preparing for the war in hidden corners of the city. They drilled by night in beer halls, factories, and gymnasiums, barricading windows and spreading sawdust on floors to muffle the sound of their stomping boots. Young brewery workers and trolley drivers, middle-aged tavern keepers and wholesale merchants, were learning to bear arms. Most of the younger men handled the weapons awkwardly, but quite a few of the older ones swung them with ease, having been soldiers in another country long before. Sometimes, when their movements hit a perfect synchrony, when their muffled tread beat a single cadence, they threw caution aside and sang out. Just a few of the older men would begin, then more and more men joined in until dozens swelled the chorus, half singing, half shouting verses they had carried with them from across the sea:
Die wilde Jagd, und die Deutsche Jagd, Auf Henkersblut und Tyrannen! Drum, die ihr uns liebt, nicht geweint und geklagt; Das Land ist ja frei, und der Morgen tagt, Wenn wir's auch nut sterbend gewannen? (The wild hunt, the German hunt, For hang-men's blood and for tyrants! O dearest ones, weep not for us: The land is free, the morning dawns, Even though we won it in dying!) These men were part of a wave of German and other Central European immigrants that had poured into St. Louis over the previous couple of decades. By 1861, a visitor to many parts of the city might indeed have thought he was somewhere east of Aachen. "Here we hear the German tongue, or rather the German dialect, everywhere," one Landsmann enthused. Certainly you would hear it in places like Tony Niederwiesser's Tivoli beer garden on Third Street, where Sunday-afternoon regulars quaffed lager while Sauter's or Vogel's orchestra played waltzes and sentimental tunes from the old country. You would hear it in the St. Louis Opera House on Market Street, where the house company celebrated Friedrich Schiller's centennial in 1859 by performing the master's theatrical works for a solid week. You would hear it in the newspaper offices of the competing dailies Anzeiger des Westens and Westliche Post. You would even hear it in public-school classrooms, where the children of immigrants received instruction in the mother tongue.
Politically, too, the newcomers were a class apart. Many had fled the aftermath of the failed liberal revolutions that had swept across Europe in 1848. Among those whose exile brought them to Missouri was Franz Sigel, the daring military commander of insurgent forces in the Baden uprising--who, in his new homeland,
became a teacher of German and a school superintendent. There was Isidor Bush, a Prague-born Jew and publisher of revolutionary tracts in Vienna, who settled down in St. Louis as a respected wine merchant, railroad executive, and city councilman--as well as, somewhat more discreetly, a leader of the local abolitionists. Most prominent among all the Achtundvierziger--the "Forty-Eighters," as they styled themselves-was a colorful Austrian emigre named Heinrich Bornstein, who had been a soldier in the Imperial army, an actor, a director, and most notably, an editor. During a sojourn in Paris, he launched a weekly journal called Vorwarts!, which published antireligious screeds, poetry by Heinrich Heine, and some of the first "scientific socialist" writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. In America he became Henry Boernstein...