Alton Museum of History and Art, Alton, Illinois

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.

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