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Wednesday, August 28, 2013 / 10:30 AM

This Should Be a Movie: The Wild Civil War Tale of How St. Louis Lost Control of Its Police Department

This Should Be a Movie: The Wild Civil War Tale of How St. Louis Lost Control of Its Police Department

Our hero, Nathaniel Lyon.

The Missouri governor has finally lost control, and you’ll probably find nobody happier about the loss than Governor Jay Nixon. A complicated intrigue got Missouri governors saddled with operating the city’s police department more than 150 years ago, until a recent ballot initiative returned management to the city. A movie I want to make will explain how state control of the local police got started. Grab some popcorn.

Depending on where you stand politically, the antagonist in my flick might be Missouri’s pro-South, sly fox of a governor in 1861. In fact, Governor Claiborne Jackson’s middle name was actually Fox. He was a rabid secessionist, hell-bent on delivering St. Louis and the state to a burgeoning Confederacy. (I’m casting Nicholas Cage as Governor Jackson.) The scheming Jackson was in cahoots with Confederate President Jefferson Davis (played by Steve Buscemi). Davis was firing up Governor Jackson to mobilize the militia stationed at Camp Jackson (named after the governor) at Grand and Laclede. That’s roughly where SLU’s Busch Student Center is today. Davis even promised to ship stolen arms up the Mississippi to the governor to help Jackson force Missouri into the Confederacy.

Meanwhile, President Lincoln (call Daniel Day-Lewis while he still has his makeup and costuming) ordered Governor Jackson to quickly raise thousands of Missouri troops for the Union. Fox Jackson fired off a nasty response to Lincoln, saying in part:

“Your requisition, in my judgment, is illegal, unconstitutional, and revolutionary in its object, inhuman, and diabolical and cannont be complied with. Not one man will the State of Missouri furnish to carry on any unholy crusade.”

Oh, yes he did. To the commander-in-chief!

To test the winds, Governor Jackson called a special convention of delegates on February 18, 1861, to vote on whether to stay in the Union or secede. During the presidential election he knew that Lincoln had won St. Louis, but lost Missouri. Surely, state lawmakers were gung ho for a fight. But the vote of the special commission was 98-1 against secession.

Enter a dashing, enterprising, brilliant young Union captain, Nathaniel Lyon, fresh from the border wars in Kansas. (Let’s give his role to Ben Affleck, whom most folks don't seem eager to see portraying Batman.) Lyon was ordered by the president to secure the strategically set Camp Jackson in what is now midtown St. Louis. The young captain donned women’s clothing as a clever disguise and rode a carriage into and around the camp on a reconnaissance mission. Lyon didn’t like what he saw—including streets named after Southern leaders. The encampment contained too many potential rebels. Lyon mustered a few thousand volunteers and surrounded Camp Jackson. He then called for the surrender of General Daniel Frost (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman). Frost was a lackluster military leader, but a firm secessionist. Lyon took Frost and the rest of the Camp Jackson militia as prisoners of war. As the motley bunch was being marched off to the St. Louis Arsenal, an angry mob formed. One troublemaker, reportedly drunk, fired a shot from the rowdy, rock-throwing crowd and killed a young Union soldier. All hell broke loose; 28 were killed and as many as 100 were wounded in the riot.

(Frost was later traded to the South in a prisoner exchange; he eventually went AWOL and moved to Canada, following his wife, who had been forced to leave St. Louis because of the family’s Confederate sympathies.)

By nipping the Confederate plot at Camp Jackson in the bud, Lyon was able to protect the highly strategic St. Louis Arsenal for the Union. The prospects of losing that arsenal gave Lincoln nightmares—it was the top target for Jackson’s plot. The compound contained 60,000 muskets, 1.5 million rounds of ammunition, 90,000 pounds of black powder, and a mighty fine array of artillery.

If the Union had lost the St. Louis Arsenal, it would have certainly lost Missouri. That could have altered the course of the entire war.

In this struggle for power, the Lyon definitely trumped the Fox. While Jackson was frantically trying to deliver his state to the Confederacy, the crafty Lyon, newly promoted to brigadier general, secretly slipped 21,000 weapons out of the Arsenal and shipped them across the river to the safety of Alton, Illinois.

A frantic game between North and South was to try to figure out the leanings of all the paramilitary and quasi-military groups swaggering around all over town. When it was determined that the St. Louis Police Department might go Union, Governor Jackson set up a unique five-member Board of Police Commissioners to keep a thumb on city police. The mayor would serve, and the governor would get out his crony list and make the other four appointments. So what size city police force was Governor Jackson trying to sew up?

I had a chat with my good friend St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department librarian Barbara Miksicek the other day and posited, “Surely, Barb, the city cops must have been a formidable force in 1861 to make the governor so wary.” She checked her files and told me, to my surprise, “My records show there were 221 officers on the city police rolls in 1861. Most didn’t have uniforms, many worked when they chose to, and since they were not assigned firearms, they could carry any weapon they wanted.”

Are you kidding me? You mean all the fuss, all the subterfuge, all the intrigue, swashbuckling, and bloodshed for my movie got started more than a century-and-a half ago over control of a measly 221 police officers?

Unbelievable, isn’t it?

As a former police commissioner, appointed to a four-year term by Governor Matt Blunt, I’ll be carrying this information in my mind to a special ceremony at police headquarters this Saturday.

Just so I’ll be fully conversant if asked by any reporters whether I think home rule will make a difference, I asked another good friend, SLU political science professor Jim Gilsinan, if home rule will work for the SLMPD. He gave me these notes on the pros and cons:

“First the potentially good stuff: 1. Future decisions about the police force will be made by the citizens closest to any problems. The current state legislature with “downstate” views does not seem to be particularly sensitive to issues in urban areas. 2. Governance from afar has minimal ability to see the relativity of issues like crime to housing, employment, and school quality. 3. I’m assured by city officials that some duplicated services can be eliminated and big money saved.”

Professor Gilsinan believes that other key matters of which we should be aware are: “1. Local control of the police department does not increase or decrease the politics of policing. It can simply shuffle the debate venue around. 2. We’ll still see clashes between professionalism and politics in law enforcement. 3. Matters like management of the pension funds will continue to be a hot-button issue. 4. Law enforcement has to maintain a strong presence in oversight and citizen feedback, or we’ll spawn more NSA-type situations. 5. Plus, with local control, don’t allow special favors for special friends!

Thanks, Barbara and Jim. I’m now ready to go into that turnover ceremony, as Governor Jackson surely turns over in his grave. I know I will sleep better after this weekend knowing that the city police department probably won’t be snapped up by the Confederacy during my lifetime.

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