- Incident at the Otterville Station: A Civil War Story of Slavery and Rescue by John Christgau
John Christgau is the author of numerous works of nonfiction. In this brief volume, he endeavors to plumb the meanings of an obscure but intriguing incident in Missouri during the Civil War. To some extent he succeeds, particularly when he fleshes out the official reports with biographical information about the individuals involved. But historians will be frustrated with his vague citations and by his incomplete grasp of the complex history of military authority and emancipation in Missouri.
In his quest to tell an exciting story, Christgau eschews detailed notes and relies on his imagination to recover human sensations and sentiments. Exact dates are hard to find in the book, but a quick check of one of his principal sources—at least one volume from the Freedmen and Southern Society Project—reveals the basic facts. [End Page 717]
On November 11, 1863, Charles W. Walker of Pettis County drove two miles by wagon with his brother and thirteen slaves from his farm to the railhead at Sedalia, the western terminus of the Pacific Railroad in central Missouri. In Sedalia, Walker obtained from an assistant provost marshal a permit to transport the slaves to St. Louis and then to Kentucky. Despite this authorization, Federal troops stationed at Sedalia refused to allow Walker to board the train with his slaves. Frustrated, Walker and his brother drove their wagonload of slaves a few miles east to Smithton, the next stop on the rail line. Here there were no Federal troops. While Walker waited for the arrival of the train from Sedalia, one of the slaves (a twenty-three-year-old man named John) ran off. John returned to Sedalia to seek the assistance of the Federal troops there. The soldiers told John to make his way as quickly as he could to Otterville, the next stop east of Smithton. Near Otterville, a Federal garrison (a detachment of the Ninth Minnesota Volunteers) guarded the railroad bridge at the Lamine River. The commander of the Federal detachment, a captain, allowed a group of thirty-six soldiers to accompany John back to Otterville, where they stopped the train and allowed Walker's slaves to flee.
When the Minnesota soldiers, led by a sergeant, intervened to free the slaves, they were confronted by two members of the Missouri State Militia, a pro-Union force under the command of the state's provisional governor. Both of the militiamen were captains. The Minnesota soldiers refused to recognize the authority of the militiamen. After Walker's slaves were allowed to run off, the militiamen complained to the commander of U.S. volunteers in central Missouri, General Egbert Benson Brown. Brown insisted that the Missouri militia officers had authority over the Minnesota troops, and he had the offending soldiers arrested on charges of mutiny.
On January 17, 1864, responding to an inquiry from the United States Senate, the Federal commander in Missouri, John M. Schofield, submitted the documents in the case to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. On January 21, after public outcries condemned the charges of mutiny, General Brown returned the arrested soldiers to their regiment. Brown requested that Schofield convene a board of inquiry to sort through the matter. On February 1, 1864, William S. Rosecrans assumed command in Missouri and submitted Brown's report to Stanton with the observation that no further action was needed in the case. On February 27, Stanton transmitted the papers to the Senate, also with the observation that no further action was needed.
Soldiers from the Ninth Minnesota went on to fight at Brice's Crossroads (where they were badly defeated by Nathan Bedford Forrest) and at [End Page 718] Nashville (where they contributed to the devastating defeat of John Hood's Confederate army). What became of Walker's thirteen slaves is not known.
Christgau's effectiveness in exploring the meanings of this incident is limited by his confusion about the process of emancipation in...