1861 - EMPTYING THE ST. LOUIS ARSENAL
Arms for the Illinois Volunteers
Among all the northern states Illinois was unique in that it had the longest border of any state bounding slave states. Missouri had the distinction of having more armed skirmishes than any other state during the Civil War. Emotions were so strong in Missouri that even after the formal close of the War, skirmishes continued. One Missourian who commanded Confederate troops in the trans-Mississippi went to his grave nearly thirty years after War's end still refusing to recognize the defeat and unrepentant in his disdain for the Union. Kentucky also had its share of action much of which came near the border but never crossed. Though the first armed skirmish of the War was in Alton in November, 1837, Illinois never had an armed skirmish during the War years of 1861 to 1865.
In April, 1861, troops were dispatched to Cairo, Illinois, in response to a perceived threat by supporters of the secessionist states. Troops consisted of some regular Army units and a number of Illinois Volunteers (Illinois in the Civil War). This threatened invasion of Illinois proved without basis, but one event in this "Campaign to Cairo" brought the War closer to Illinois than any other event. As with so many other incidents of the War, Alton had a central role. This event was described by the Illinois Adjutant General in Vol. 1 of his summary report of the 1861 to 1865 War years as an action in the "Cairo Campaign".
Capture of the Arsenal at St. Louis
One of the earliest and most daring exploits during the war, which is briefly alluded to in the Report of Adjutant General Fuller of 1863, was the capture of the United States Arsenal at St. Louis, by Capt. James H. Stokes, of Chicago.
Soon after the firing on Ft. Sumpter in April, 1861, a messenger was sent from Cairo to Washington to procure arms for the Illinois troops. He returned with an order from the Secretary of War, on the St. Louis Arsenal, for 10,000 muskets. At that time St. Louis was almost wholly in the hands of the enemies of the government, and it was a matter of grave doubt as the the ability of those in authority to execute the order, but this doubt was removed when Capt. Stokes volunteered to obtain the arms at all hazards, and receiving from Gov. Yates the requisition proceeded immediately to St. Louis.
In order, however, to reach the arsenal in safety, Adjutant General Fuller says he "was obliged to deny the principles of his manhood and avow disloyal sentiments to escape the vengeance of the mob the surrounded the arsenal. When once inside the arsenal Capt. Stokes showed the requisition to the commander, who doubted his ability to get the arms away in safety, but Capt. Stokes insisted that he could, and that the arms must be removed to Illinois at once or never, when he was given full permission to proceed in is own way to remove them. This was Wednesday night April 24. He then commenced with the assistance of a large force to get the arms ready for shipment, and Thursday evening telegraphed to Alton for the steamer City of Alton to run down to the arsenal at midnight. At 11o'clock the steamer was at the warf receiving the munitions of war. At 2 o'clock Friday morning the steamer moved out for Alton with 10,000 muskets, 100 new rifle carbines, 500 revolvers, 110,000 musket cartridges and a quantity of cannon, leaving only 7,000 muskets in the arsenal with which to arm the St. Louis Volunteers. Thus Illinois secured her first arms.
It is related that Capt. Stokes that he dept his own counsel so closely that when the boat was loaded and ready to steam out her commander had to inquire the destination. "Which way, Captain?" said Cap. Mitchell. "Straight to Alton in the regular channel" was the reply of Capt. Stokes. "What if we are attached?" said Capt. Mitchell. "Then we will fight" replied Capt. Stokes. "But what if we are overpowered?" said Mitchell. "Then run the boat to the deepest water and sink her," said Stokes. "I'll do it," was the brave reply of Capt. Mitchell, and away he steamed for Alton, arriving there at 5 o'clock in the morning, and by the aid of the men, women and children of that loyal city, who were made aware of the situation, the arms were soon loaded upon the freight cars of the Chicago and Alton Railroad, and that night were safely landed in Springfield, to the utter consternation of the secessionists of St. Louis.
The rebel leaders of Missouri had set their hearts upon the capture of the arsenal, and the confiscation of the arms, but through the courage and sagacity of Capt. Stokes they were completely foiled; and while this was only the beginning of the long and bloody struggle, yet this adventure will ever be regarded as one of the most brilliant and daring achievements during the entire war, and to Illinois belongs the credit.