Civil War court archives give glimpse of daily life

Wittenauer writes for the Associated Press.

Relatively few lawsuits were filed in Missouri and the nation during the chaos and upheaval of the Civil War, the state archivist said, but once it ended, parties aggrieved by marital infidelity, continued enslavement and other wrongs turned to the courts for relief.

Their stories, made available to the public for the first time, provide a deep and tangible history of how ordinary Missourians struggled to recover after the war.

Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan last week announced completion of the effort to preserve and index more than 11,200 Civil War-era cases in St. Louis Circuit Court from 1866 through 1868.

“The files are as rich a repository as one would find anywhere,” State Archivist John Dougan said. They especially hold a wealth of material on women, African Americans, including the Underground Railroad, and the steamboats that plied the waters of the Mississippi River, he said.


St. Louis Circuit Clerk Mariano Favazza called the court filings a “second Civil War” that was fought in the civil courts, where “people looked to get even” for wrongs during and just after the war.

Among the litigants was a slave owner who sued a ship captain for transporting a runaway slave girl on a ship called Hope. Some were spouses seeking to divorce their prewar husbands and wives over adultery, venereal disease, desertion or “visiting a beer jerking saloon of ill-repute.”

They included American showman Phineas Taylor “P.T.” Barnum, who was unhappy with a St. Louis company’s fire insurance coverage of a building that held one of his menageries.

Carnahan said the Civil War project was part of the greater St. Louis Circuit Court Historical Records Project, started in 1999 to preserve and make available more than 4 million pages of original court documents from 1787 to 1875.


The 10-year project has made public several nationally significant historical records, including the original petition in Dred Scott’s court case seeking his freedom and a series of cases related to the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Favazza said when he took over as clerk 10 years ago, he found the records not well protected or organized; the Dred Scott records, for example, were in an envelope someone had marked “Keep Forever.” When the State Archives offered to help him a decade ago, he seized the opportunity.

The records had been folded three times, wrapped in red ribbons, and filed in metal drawers, dog-eared and dirty from decades of coal ash and grit, said Lisa Fox, senior conservator for the State Archives. In the days before staples, pages were held together by starch wafers, or by an adhesive made from animal hides.

The documents got an initial surface cleaning, and a bath if needed, before being brushed and flattened.

Carnahan said the court project was made possible through a $330,000 grant to the Missouri State Archives from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The records are available at the Missouri State Archives’ St. Louis branch office and eventually will be accessible online. Eventually they will be part of Missouri Digital Heritage website, a recently launched portal to the state’s historical manuscripts, records, photographs and maps.