In the summer of 1861, with the Civil War rapidly spreading from the first volley at Fort Sumter that spring, recruits from all over the upper Midwest began arriving in St Louis. Originally housed and trained at a small encampment five miles north of the city, they soon outgrew the space provided. Colonel John O’Fallon offered a hundred and fifty acres at a nominal rent, and very quickly barracks, warehouses, stables, and more were erected. The complex was named for our late senator Thomas Hart Benton.
By April 1862 some twenty-three thousand recruits and soldiers were stationed at Benton Barracks. Several Missouri regiments were organized and mustered in there, including regiments of the United States Colored Troops. For many of these soldiers, coming from slavery, Benton Barracks became their schoolroom; reading and writing classes were organized, offering skills previously forbidden to slaves. For a time Confederate prisoners were housed there, and the hospital on the grounds achieved a reputation for decent treatment of all the sick and wounded who arrived there.
After the war, the camp was returned to Colonel O’Fallon and eventually became part of Fairground Park.
There’s nothing left of Benton Barracks now. Walk around Fairground’s circular lake and past the tennis courts. You will find no footprints of Civil War soldiers, no remnants of blue or gray uniforms. But the stories are still there, always ready for re-telling.
(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)
Bob Archibald is the President of the Missouri Historical Society