In the heart of Clay County, Missouri sits the historic town of Liberty and one of the oldest colleges west of the Mississippi River – William Jewell College. Located near the state’s contentious, bloody Western Border, Liberty sat at the crossroads of both conventional armies and guerrilla fighters during the Civil War, making it a hotspot of activity. Because of its centrality in town, William Jewell was by no means immune from the action of numerous battles and skirmishes in town. In fact, its “primary classroom building,” Jewell Hall, has its own fascinating history of its role in Missouri’s Civil War.
Officially chartered by the State of Missouri in 1849, William Jewell College was named for its first donor, Dr. William Jewell. Dr. Jewell was a prominent Missourian and jack-of-all-trades: physician, Baptist minister, mayor of Columbia, educator, and state senator. Affiliated with the Baptist church, the college became, “the primary institution for the education of Baptist ministers, missionaries and laymen in the state.”
Roughly a year after its charter, construction of the school’s first building – aptly named Jewell Hall – began under the supervision of Jewell himself. In the History of William Jewell College, “the building is of brick, on a permanent foundation of stone, one hundred and twenty feet front, sixty-seven feet deep, and three lofty stories high, surmounted by a belfry and observatory rising from the center of the roof … It is beautifully situated on a hill, at the foot of which lies the City of Liberty.” Two years into construction, however, Dr. Jewell died of sunstroke, and it was not until 1858 that Jewell Hall was complete. A gorgeous example of Classical Revival architecture, Jewell Hall is today one of the earliest and best preserved public buildings in the West.
When the Civil War broke out in April 1861, war came straight to Liberty.
Days after the attack upon Fort Sumter, the Liberty Arsenal (also known as the Missouri Depot), one of the largest Federal arsenals in the west, was seized by secessionists. Over a dozen field guns, hundreds of firearms and swords, thousands of pounds of powder, and more fell into the hands of Rebels. These captured armaments and weaponry were used to arm the pro-secessionist Missouri State Guard, who by the fall of 1861 were victorious at Wilson’s Creek and Lexington.
As Major General Sterling Price’s Missouri State Guard dueled against the Federal fortifications around Lexington in September, about 4,000 more Missouri State Guardsmen under Brigadier General David R. Atchison advanced towards the town in hopes of reinforcing Price. To reach Lexington, they needed to cross the Missouri River at Liberty, but were stalled there by approximately 600 Missouri Home Guard and Federal volunteers on September 17. That day, at the Blue Mills Landing, the heavily outnumbered Union troops opened up on Atchison’s men. Unable to make a stand at the Landing and stop the Southerners, the Federals slowly retreated back toward Liberty. With dozens wounded, they set up a temporary hospital at none other than Jewell Hall, the most prominent building in town.
According to the building’s National Register of Historic Places nomination form, Jewell Hall served as a hospital for six weeks in the wake of the Battle of Blue Mills Landing, also know as the Battle of Liberty. It was the only building in Liberty that could accommodate these men. The war dead, just under 30 of them, were then buried at, or near, Mt. Memorial Cemetery adjacent to campus. They were later reinterred with full military honors at Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery in 1912.
The following year, in the summer of 1862, after Price’s State Guard retreated out of Missouri and the Federal foothold over Missouri tightened, pro-Union Missouri state units moved into Liberty. The Fifth Missouri State Militia Cavalry, under the command of Colonel William Penick, made its headquarters on the campus of William Jewell College. In fact, they used Jewell Hall’s cupola as a lookout, the first floor possibly as a stable, and the rest of the rooms as barracks for the militiamen. Rifle pits were dug around Jewell Hall. Because of the campus’ proximity to Blue Mills Landing, these militiamen were protecting this strategic landing from being used as a crossing point for Confederates.
Standing as a testament to Missouri resiliency in the Civil War, Jewell Hall survived the war and continues to be the landmark of William Jewell College and the town of Liberty. Famed Missouri artist George Caleb Bingham painted Jewell Hall in 1867 as tribute to her service in the war. Additionally, students and administrators at William Jewell proudly showcase Jewell Hall’s Civil War story in articles, on their main website, and even with their Civil War plaque on campus. Even the “Alma Mater” of the college attests to Jewell Hall’s prominence, “High upon a hill she stands and we will fight to keep her fame.” If you are in the Kansas City area and are searching for more Civil War history, go visit Liberty and see this remarkable building firsthand.
- National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form, “Jewell Hall,” United States Department of the Interior, https://dnr.mo.gov/shpo/nps-nr/78001642.pdf.
- James Clark, History of William Jewell College (St. Louis: Central Baptist Print, 1893), 24.
- National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form; The word “possibly” is used, because the story of the stable in Jewell Hall has been passed down primarily by word of mouth. The thirteen-inch brick wall on the first floor dividing rooms was knocked down by militia, but it is difficult to verify for certain that it was used as a stable.