By Josh Letner
NEOSHO, Mo. —
A recent discovery in the collections of the State Historical Society of Missouri in Columbia could shed some light on a moment in Newton County history that, for more than 150 years, has been shrouded in mystery.
Last fall, Rudi Keller, a columnist for the Columbia Daily Tribune, stumbled across the “lost” journal of those members of the Missouri House of Representatives who convened in Neosho and Cassville in the fall of 1861 to secede from the Union.
John Bradbury, author and assistant director of the SHSMO Research Center in Rolla, says he doesn’t know how the House journal existed in the archives for so long without being discovered until now.
“There is no explanation as to why it had never been found by other scholars,” he said. “It was just overlooked. It was similar in title to the Senate journal, so presumably people looked at one entry and thought they were looking at the other.”
Bradbury says the House journal is significant because it and the Senate journal are the only two official documents from the rump legislative session in Neosho and Cassville.
Missouri’s Southern-leaning governor at the time, Claiborne Jackson, who was elected in 1860, had been maneuvering behind the scenes to bring the state into the Confederacy.
“Her honors, her interests and her sympathies point alike in one direction, and determine her to stand with the South,” Jackson declared of Missouri during his inauguration in early 1861.
But in June of 1861 Jackson and his allies in the state Legislature were forced to flee Jefferson City by Union Gen. Nathaniel Lyon and federal troops determined to keep Missouri in the Union.
Jackson headed south, toward the Arkansas line, with the Missouri State Guard, which planned to link up with Confederate forces in Northwest Arkansas. Union forces were determined to prevent that, setting the stage for the Battle of Carthage in July, one of the earliest engagements in the war.
As fighting escalated in Southwest Missouri that summer, Jackson made his way to Richmond, Va., where he met with Confederate President Jefferson Davis and told a crowd during one gathering that Missouri and Virginia would be the two key battleground states of the war.
Davis promised Confederate support to Jackson, but the Confederate government could not recognize Missouri until it formally withdrew from the Union.
The Lincoln administration, meanwhile, installed a provisional pro-Union government that elected Hamilton Gamble as governor.
After early Confederate victories at the battles of Carthage in July, Wilson’s Creek in August and Lexington in September, the rebel government had enough breathing room to gather a convention and vote on the question of whether to secede.
Bradbury says Southwest Missouri was the natural choice for such a gathering. Much of the rest of the state was in Union hands.
“It was the safest place for them,” he said. “They controlled Southwest Missouri at that time after the battles of Wilson’s Creek and Lexington. It’s far enough away from the Union army that they could meet in peace. It’s also close to Confederate support from Arkansas.”
While the discovery of the House journal does shed some light on the meetings, it does not settle a long-running debate among historians concerning the convention and the subsequent vote to secede: Was it legitimate?
The question has dogged historians since the war. Some newspaper accounts at the time said as many as 104 senators and representatives were present in Neosho — enough for a quorum. But other sources indicate the number was below the threshold.
Brian Grubbs, director of the Community and Conflict Civil War Project for the Springfield-Greene County Library, says he and colleague Michael Price are pouring over the House journal in an attempt to determine if there were enough legislators present at the conventions to form a legal quorum.
“Everybody thought for a long time that this missing House journal would provide a roster of all members there and prove that Missouri’s secession from the Union was legitimate,” Grubbs said.
But Grubbs found that congressmen in both houses made motions to forgo a roll call, thus depriving historians of a complete list of participants. However, Grubbs and Price have scoured both journals searching for any mention of legislators who spoke or made motions. They then determined what part of the state those individuals came from.
The legislative session in Neosho began on Oct. 21, 1861, and passed an ordinance of secession a few days later. Ten days later the legislators moved to the courthouse in Cassville. They adjourned on Nov. 7. with plans to reconvene in New Madrid in March 1862, but Union armies thwarted those plans.
Grubbs says he and Price have identified so far 11 senators and 29 representatives who were present at Neosho and Cassville, but 17 senators and 36 representatives were needed for a quorum.
Bradbury says the existence of a quorum didn’t matter to the legislators who attended the meetings.
“That question is kind of for the hairsplitters anyway because it’s quibbling over rules that nobody was paying attention to any longer anyway,” he said.
12th Southern State
The Confederate Congress in Richmond, Va., didn’t seem to care either, and admitted Missouri as the 12th Confederate state and gave it a star on the Confederate flag.
Grubbs says the votes taken in Neosho and Cassville had little effect on Union policy either.
“What these legislators did was really a non-issue for the United States government because they had already dissolved this legislature and installed a pro-Union provisional government,” he said.
Within a few months of the Neosho and Cassville conventions, the Union won a major victory at Pea Ridge, Ark., and won effective control over the state of Missouri for the remainder of the war. Although a bloody guerilla war continued to rage, the South never again threatened to gain control of the Show Me State, despite attempts later in the war.
With the absence of a true roll call, Bradbury says the journal’s discovery, while interesting to historians, still leaves the legality of Missouri’s session open to speculation.
“It doesn’t change much,” he said. “It’s just additional documentation for a conclusion that people had reached already.”
For Grubbs, the discovery of the missing House journal is tantalizing proof that there is still much to Missouri’s Civil war history that is left to be discovered.
To view Civil War documents online, Visit shs.umsystem.edu or ozarkcivilwar.org.