In 1901, a man by the name of Winston Churchill released his third novel. This man was not the future prime minister of Great Britain. This Winston Churchill was born in St. Louis in 1871. His third novel, entitled The Crisis, sold out its first print run (100,000 volumes) in a matter of six days. It would prove to be America’s best-selling work of fiction that year, and Winston Churchill’s best seller of all time. Our Churchill is credited the most popular American novelist of the first quarter of the twentieth century. His novels were in the top 10 list for fiction in each of the years 1900, 1901, 1904, 1906, 1908, 1910, 1913, 1914 and 1915, and were the best-sellers in four of those years. He corresponded with, and purportedly once met, the British Winston Churchill, whose own literary career was budding in 1900. Out of deference to the more popular American writer, the British Churchill thereafter signed his works “Winston S. Churchill.”
Our Winston Churchill left St. Louis to attend the U.S. Naval Academy, graduating in 1894. Instead of going to sea, Churchill became an editor of the Army and Navy Journal. He soon resigned his commission, taking a job with Cosmopolitan Magazine in New York. He met and married a wealthy St. Louis girl, whose fortune permitted Churchill to turn his full attention to writing. With the proceeds of his second novel, 1899’s Richard Carvel, he built a magnificent home in the artist colony of Cornish, New Hampshire. Among his neighbors there were sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and illustrator Maxfield Parrish. Churchill’s Cornish estate was rented by President and Mrs. Woodrow Wilson to serve as the summer White House in 1913-1915.
So the world has forgotten this very famous man. The world, including St. Louis, has also largely forgotten the subject of his most popular work. The incident at the heart of The Crisis, which was drawn accurately from the historical record and from the reminiscences of Churchill’s St. Louis friends, was the Camp Jackson Affair, also known as the Camp Jackson Massacre. This is what touched off the Civil War in Missouri. The date was May 10, 1861, less than a month after Fort Sumter. In St. Louis that day, units of armed infantry confronted each other was the first time in the American Civil War.
As clouds of war gathered across the nation, the Missouri State Militia established camp in St. Louis for their spring maneuvers, in a field two miles west of downtown. The militiamen were primarily sons of Southern pioneer families. Politically they reflected the predominant agrarian and Southern sympathies of the Missouri government of the time. St. Louis on the other hand was a stew-pot of foreign cultures. In 1861, St. Louis had more people of foreign birth in its population, proportionately, than any other city in the United States. Many of these people immigrated a decade earlier, after pro-democratic uprisings consumed much of western Europe in 1848-1849. Particularly in St. Louis, prominent German-Americans who left Europe (and Hungarians and Czechs and Poles) tended to the radical left. It was the left that lost the struggle in Europe.
Motives are still debated. The state government’s decision to assemble the militia in St. Louis was doubtlessly intended as a provocation. Most historians agree that the state militia was receiving arms captured from a federal arsenal in the South. St. Louis was the site of the largest arsenal in the western United States. At first, it was protected by a tiny force of regular Army troops. In the weeks leading up to May 10, with the active support of the Lincoln Administration, German-Americans mobilized in social and athletic clubs that dotted the city (their turnvereins). These troops were accepted into federal service by a process that skirted legality. Thee were commanded by a Connecticut regular army captain named Nathaniel Lyon.
Now swelled to 6,000 to 7,000 in all, Lyon’s regulars and specially enrolled German regiments surrounded the militia at Camp Jackson. The militia quickly surrendered. A crowd of onlookers gathered all morning. Then, with the captives lined up to be marched to the Arsenal, one of the German regiments fired into the crowd. Several men of the militia and several of the federal troops died or were wounded. Nearly a hundred civilian casualties ensued, many of them women and children. Twenty eight people died. No one to this day knows why Lyon’s men fired.
In 1901, a New York critic went out in the streets of Manhattan to gauge the public’s reaction to The Crisis. He reported that every person he approached had read the book, or had bought it to read. The critic, not enamored with the book, thought that it was the “psychology of the mob” that fueled the book’s popularity. In 1901, St. Louis was the center of New York’s attention, as it was the epicenter, forty years before, of the nation’s greatest crisis.