On the Eve of War: The Missouri Bootheel
Located in the extreme southeastern corner of Missouri is the “Bootheel,” a region named for its unique shape as it protrudes into Arkansas from the famous 36,30’ latitude line. The counties of Dunklin, Pemiscot, New Madrid and portions of Mississippi, Stoddard, and Butler make it up. On its eastern side is the mighty Mississippi and on the western side the St. Francis (or, Francois) River, making it notoriously prone to flooding and nourishes its fertile and distinctive soils. These conditions, along with its very flat topography, make the Bootheel a swampland. Additionally, the region was plagued by earthquakes from the infamous New Madrid fault line. Its geographical location and unique topography placed the Bootheel in a prime, strategic position both armies would utilize in their operations in the west.
By early 1861, the Bootheel Region consisted of approximately 30,000 people, both free and enslaved. Mississippi and New Madrid counties had the highest proportion of enslaved in the region, both exceeding 25% of their overall populations. Cotton, wheat, and corn were grown in the alluvial soil.
Reflective of many Missourians, who both supported the protection of slavery and the Constitution, as well as the preservation of the Union, residents of the Bootheel largely supported Constitutional Unionist John Bell for president and either Democrat Claiborne Jackson or Constitutional Unionist Sample Orr for governor. Ultimately, Jackson was elected governor of Missouri; quietly pro-secessionist during the campaign, Jackson became a fierce fighter to try to bring his state into the Confederacy. As many of the other slave states seceded from the Union in the wake of the election, Missouri held its convention to vote on that very issue.
That March, when Missouri held its State Convention, delegates from across the 24th state voted overwhelmingly to remain with the Union. The two delegates from the Bootheel were Robert A. Hatcher (New Madrid) and Orson Bartlett (Stoddard); all but one delegate in the State Convention voted to reject secession. Notably, secession by many Southern-born Missouri delegates was rejected on the grounds that there was no reason to secede.
For some states, like Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina, Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861 and Lincoln’s subsequent call for troops induced their secession from the Union. For Missourians, however, it was not until May 10, 1861, when Federal volunteers under the command of Capt. Nathaniel Lyon captured Missouri State Militia at Camp Jackson. Parading the prisoners through St. Louis, Lyon’s troops opened fire on a crowd of rowdy civilians in the streets of St. Louis – forever known as the Camp Jackson Affair. The state erupted into war, triggering the formation of the pro-secessionist Missouri State Guard by the governor and sparking Unionists to join the Federal Army.
The region quickly plummeted into war. Shortly thereafter, pro-secessionist men from the Bootheel quickly volunteered for the Missouri State Guard’s First Division, eventually under the command of the “Swamp Fox of the Confederacy,” M. Jeff Thompson. Becoming a band of irregular “swamp” guerrillas, Thompson and his men were known to elude the ever-growing Federal presence in southern Illinois and Missouri. The Bootheel’s swamplands became notorious in the eyes of Federal commanders wanting to eliminate the elusive Thompson.
In the annals of Civil War history, the Missouri Bootheel may not be an historian’s first choice to analyze the early stages of the conflict; but, it nonetheless played a role in Union victory. Famous Western battles, such as Belmont and Island No. 10, were all fought throughout the Bootheel during the early operations in the Western theater. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant arguably learned to lead troops into combat here, as his first engagement as a field commander at the Battle of Belmont in Mississippi County. The war, though, left the region “in a very deplorable condition” – all started in the spring of 1861, 160 years ago. 
- Davis, Mary, History of Dunklin County, Mo., 1845-1895 (St. Louis, MO: Nixon-Jones Printing Co., 1896), 13.
- Journal and Proceedings of the Missouri State Convention (St. Louis, MO: George Knapp & Co., 1861).
- Douglass, Robert S., History of Southeast Missouri (Chicago, IL: The Lewis Pub. Co., 1912), 339-340.
2 Responses to On the Eve of War: The Missouri Bootheel
I knew of the propensity of the region to tremblers, but I never appreciated its historical significance in the early phases of the Civil War. Thanks for posting
My family hails from the Missouri Ozarks (I was born/raised in St. Louis). A family Civil War oral tradition stems from Texas County, up on the Ozark plateau. To my GGG Grandfather and his neighbors, “the war was a fight between the Germans in St. Louis, and the cotton growers in the Boot Heel”. Texas County unionists only took up arms when a CSA raiding party came through, stealing folks’ mules. That seems to have made it a persona affair for them…