Former military post to become first Missouri Civil War Museum

Friday, September 24, 2010 | 12:00 p.m. CDT
In this March 4, 2010 photo, this room used to be the gymnasium of the building with basketball hoops and a short oval running track. It will house exhibits as work continues on the Missouri Civil War Museum at Jefferson Barracks, in Lemay, Mo.

LEMAY — If you wanted to build a museum showcasing Missouri's Civil War heritage, you couldn't find a more appropriate spot than Jefferson Barracks in Lemay.

The site was a military post for the U.S. Army for more than a century until it was decommissioned in 1946. It served the Army well during the Mexican-American War and both World Wars.

But it reached the apex of its importance during the Civil War, when it served as a supply base and major military hospital.

Now, in a building that stands on ground where soldiers were treated for battle wounds, a museum will tell their story.

The Missouri Civil War Museum's organizers have spent about $1 million in privately raised money since 2002 to begin building a museum at Jefferson Barracks.

A $500,000 grant received from the St. Louis County Port Authority will provide enough money to finish the job.

Museum spokesman and Civil War buff Gary Stevens said the museum should open by April of next year.

It will be housed in the historic 1905 Post Exchange Building.

The building, which measures more than 16,000 square feet, had fallen into disrepair before museum backers targeted it for development.

"It had been vacant and decaying for six decades," Stevens said. "It was in bad shape."

Stevens said the museum already has hundreds of artifacts in storage.

"We've been collecting items for eight years," he said. "We've got pistols, bayonets, bullets, cannonballs. We have a pair of Mary Todd Lincoln's parlor chairs. We have Civil War currency, coins and stamps."

The museum will have an attached research center stocked with thousands of books.

Mark Trout, chairman of the museum's board of directors, said the museum fills a void.

"That's the unique aspect of this," trout said. "There is no museum devoted to the entire story of Missouri in the Civil War. There are visitor centers and displays at historic sites, but nothing targeted for all the events that happened here."

Stevens said museum directors believe they can draw up to 100,000 visitors in the first year.

"We think it will draw a lot of new people to the area," he said.

Stevens said the museum has yet to devise a fee structure.

Trout said his group identified the Post Exchange Building as a potential home during a 2007 visit to Jefferson Barracks.

"We drove by a boarded-up building that would have been beautiful if renovated and saved," he said.

That the building sat on the former grounds of Civil War hospital wards made it even more appropriate.

Sixteen thousand Civil War veterans are buried at Jefferson Barracks Cemetery.

"I consider it sacred ground," Stevens said.

Trout agrees.

"This was the premier Union Army base in the West," Trout said. "The history and significance of (Jefferson Barracks) is profound."

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