The Missouri governor who was never governor

Capitol gallery of portraits includes Confederate leader with dubious claim to office

By: - October 26, 2020 5:55 am

The 1864 Battle of Westport, depicted in this N.C. Wyeth lunette in the Missouri Capitol, was a defeat for Gen. Sterling Price and the largest cavalry engagement of the Civil War. (Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent)

In early October 1864, Major General Sterling Price was poised to strike at Jefferson City with a force of about 12,000 men who had marched from the Arkansas border through the state in a last-ditch attempt to turn Missouri to the Confederate side.

Accompanying Price was Thomas C. Reynolds, a native of South Carolina who was elected lieutenant governor in 1860. 

Since the December 1862 death of Claiborne Fox Jackson, also elected in 1860, the Confederate government had recognized Reynolds as governor of the state.

Price invaded the state under orders to take St. Louis or, if that proved impossible, to establish Confederate authority over a substantial part of Missouri’s territory. With Reynolds on hand to be inaugurated and call elections, a successful assault would show the Confederacy remained potent despite setbacks in Georgia and stalemate in Virginia.

But on Oct. 7, 1864, Price turned away from Jefferson City. Union defenders of the capital city, outnumbered, had done a good job of making it seem like their force was much larger than it was.

In the years after the war, despite Price’s failure, he became the idol of Missouri’s adherents to fight to preserve human slavery. On Monday night, the Jefferson City Council voted 8-2 to remove a symbol of that idolatry, a monument placed in 1933 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy near the spot where Price’s troops made their closest approach to the city. 

By Tuesday afternoon, the monument was gone, with only a bare spot covered by straw giving evidence it had been there.

The site where a monument to the Confederate Army led by Missouri Gen. Sterling Price was removed Tuesday following a vote by the Jefferson City Council. [Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent]

But in the Missouri Capitol, alongside portraits of Civil War-era governors Jackson, Hamilton Gamble and Willard Hall, there is a portrait of Reynolds. There has been no call to remove it as debate over other Confederate monuments have raged, such as in Kentucky, which removed a statue of native son Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, from its state capitol rotunda in June.

The placement of the portrait is curious because Reynolds had no legal claim to be governor under the original 1820 Missouri Constitution, in effect when the war began. If the governor was outside the state, the lieutenant governor, if in the state, became acting governor. 

And if a governor died, the constitution said the person who became acting governor “shall, as soon as may be, cause an election to be held to fill such vacancy.” 

The constitution allowed three months for campaigning.

Reynolds did not set foot on Missouri soil from mid-1861 until Price’s army returned in 1864. And, by the time Jackson died, neither he nor Reynolds were recognized as legitimate state officials. A State Convention, which had in March 1861 decided against secession, in July of that year declared the offices of Jackson, Reynolds and the entire General Assembly, to be vacant.

The question of whether Reynolds’ portrait belongs with other governors has never been raised at the Missouri State Capitol Commission, said Missouri House Chief Clerk Dana Rademan Miller, a member and former chair.

The commission is charged with preservation, restoration, and renovation of the Missouri State Capitol and the recording of its history, according to its website.

The entire collection of portraits has been discussed, she said.

“And the only reason it has ever been an issue or question is because many of the portraits are in poor condition,” she said. “There are questions about those in storage having maintenance or conservation efforts performed on them.”

The lines of authority aren’t clear, she said, and the space consumed by the portraits is actually part of the Missouri State Museum, operated by the State Parks Division of the Department of Natural Resources.

 “They are housed within the museum and the museum would actually like us to move them elsewhere so they could claim that space for exhibits,” Miller said. “We have talked about having a governor’s gallery somewhere in the building and hanging all the portraits separately.”

Many of the oil-on-canvas portraits of governors were produced under a 1923 directive from the Legislature to commission images uniform in size for placement in the Capitol, according to The Art of the Missouri Capitol, a book by Bob Priddy and Jeffrey Ball published in 2011.

“Although there are arguments that Thomas C. Reynolds should be recognized, others argue he was not a legitimate governor of the state and therefore had no place in the governor’s portrait gallery,” Priddy and Ball wrote.

This N.C. Wyeth lunette at the Missouri Capitol depicts the 1861 Battle of Wilson’s Creek near Springfield. The Confederate victory raised hopes, soon dashed, that the South could maintain control of the state. (Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent)

Priddy, former news director of Missourinet and a former president of the State Historical Society of Missouri Board of Trustees, lives in Jefferson City and supported removal of the stone monument. He had originally thought it should go to the site of the pre-Civil War home where Price made the decision to turn away from attacking the capitol, Priddy said, but he heard testimony at the council about the emotional impact a monument to the Confederacy had on Black residents of the city.

“This kind of thing has exposed something very ugly in our community,” Priddy said. “My point is if it is a problem for some members of our community, it is a problem for all members of our community.”

The Civil War was especially bitter in Missouri. In the early months of the secession crisis and war, Jackson wanted to join the Confederacy but was blocked by Unionists who had the upper hand politically. 

The crisis for the state came in June 1861, when a series of events described by historian Bruce Catton as a “collapse of legality,” included Jackson raising an army to fight the Union alongside but not as part of the Confederacy and a Union general named Nathaniel Lyon enlisting several regiments in St. Louis without any legal authority to do so.

Lyon used the army to attack Jefferson City and that is when Jackson fled.

By the time Price returned with Reynolds, the state had endured three years of unrelenting guerrilla warfare that reached a fever pitch each summer.

While Priddy supported removing the Jefferson City monument, he said the portrait of Reynolds should remain. It points to the historic context of the time, he said.

“That portrait represents Missouri’s duality,” Priddy said. “We had one foot in the Union, maintained by the Union troops in Missouri. Politically, the other foot was in the Confederacy.”

The portrait is one of a few images in the Capitol that remind visitors of Missouri’s place in the Civil War.

“During this confused time, we had a governor who was governor in exile, if you will, and we had a governor who was not ever elected, who was appointed when the Constitutional Convention declared the office vacant,” Priddy said.

The portraits of four men elected governor or who claimed the title during the Civil War period occupy a corner of the state museum in the Missouri Capitol. Robert Stewart, upper left, 1857-61, opposed secession, while Claiborne Fox Jackson, lower left, elected in 1860, supported joining the Confederacy. Hamilton Gamble, upper right, was selected by a State Convention after it voted to remove Jackson. Thomas Reynolds, who claimed the title of governor in the Confederacy at Jackson’s death, is the portrait on the lower right. [Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent]

Alongside his portrait, a brief descriptive card does not describe him as governor. It notes that Reynolds was elected lieutenant governor, “fled south with Governor Claiborne Jackson when Union troops prevailed in Missouri” and was recognized as governor by the Confederacy after Jackson’s death.

“Reynolds maintained his ‘Capitol’ in Arkansas and Texas towns,” the card states. “The exiled government performed minimal military and civil functions.”

The other permanent Capitol imagery of Missouri in the Civil War are lunettes, done by N.C. Wyeth, depicting major battles that took place on Missouri soil, the 1861 Battle of Wilson’s Creek near Springfield and the 1864 Battle of Westport near Kansas City. The Battle of Wilson’s Creek was one of Price’s few victories and the Battle of Westport, the largest cavalry engagement of the war, one of his many defeats.

Those paintings, in a series depicting Missouri history to 1920, focus on the men engaged in combat, not the leadership, and do not glorify the results. 

There are other images of Price and Jackson. Their pictures hang in the Missouri House chamber along with those of others who served as speaker, and a portrait of Price, in Confederate uniform, is in the gallery of governors. Price was elected governor in 1852.

The portrait of Reynolds may be the most respect he received from anyone regarding his position. He was bitter when Price turned away from Jefferson City, complaining that the troops were looting the countryside and he was being ignored.

His calls for assistance in supply “failed to produce anything but studied neglect of my necessities,” Reynolds wrote to Price.

“In fact,” Reynolds wrote, “in an expedition designed to re-establish the rightful government of Missouri, the Governor of the State cannot even purchase a horse or a blanket, while stragglers and camp followers are enriching themselves by plundering the defenseless families of our own soldiers in Confederate service.”

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Rudi Keller
Rudi Keller

Rudi Keller covers the state budget, energy and the legislature. He’s spent 22 of his 30 years in journalism covering Missouri government and politics, most recently as the news editor of the Columbia Daily Tribune. Keller has won awards for spot news and investigative reporting.

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