What Makes a Hero

In January of 1863, each and every black person enslaved in the United States is free due to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. That is, except for those enslaved in slave states bordering the south, like Missouri. Saint Charles had begun way before Missouri even became a state, it was made up of slave owners from Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. And then came the Germans. Beginning in 1830, a tidal wave of emigrants had turned the state into the very essence of what the Civil War was about – Slavery. In the center of it all, a hero was made.

On a cold winter night, Archer was visiting his wife of thirty years, Louisa. Her enslaver, James Naylor was a wealthy merchant who ran the Dardenne Post Office, where letters to families named Bates, McCluer, and Pitman arrived daily. Archer was enslaved by Richard Hickman Pitman, who lived just down the Booneslick road, past the home of Captain James Campbell. Archer overheard the area men talking about how the work was going on the railroad bridge. Any day now, with the weight of the next Northern Missouri engine bearing down and over that steep gorge filled by Peruque Creek, their mission would be accomplished. They had been stealthily working at sawing the wooden timbers. And, they had stored arms and ammunition for when the great event happened! Any day now…

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If left unchecked hundreds of Union troops and vital supplies being shipped to the State’s Capitol would be lost! With a cost of several hundred lives as well! Perhaps even the stability of the state would be jeopardized with this act.  German born Lt. Col. Arnold Krekel’s troops had built a wooden blockhouse at the bridge, where hundreds of black men and their families had established a contraband camp. As fugitives their safety and lives depended on the Union troops’ protection. Area slave owners had begged Governor Gamble to make the troops return them. A lot was riding on this.

Archer Alexander understood the gravity of the situation and made his decision. Without a word to his wife, he took off at a run for the camp. There he told the Captain in charge that night what he had just heard. That was a moment that would change his life forever. It would not be long before it was realized that the informant was none other than Pitman’s man and an angry mob was after him. If caught he would certainly be lynched, and his only chance would be the network for freedom called the underground railroad. Making his way carefully to St. Louis, he was taken in by a Unitarian minister named William Greenleaf Eliot.

Eliot, the founder of Washington University, was a member of the Western Sanitary Commission, organized at the beginning of the war by Col. John C. Fremont, who was in charge of the Union’s Army of the West. A private benevolent organization, its purpose was to provide hospitals, nurses and aid, to Union troops both black and white. Authorized by Lincoln to work in any camp, Eliot knew the officers well. He went straight to the Provost Marshall’s office to obtain an order for the protection of Archer. He then sent a message to Pitman, through Barton Bates who was the son of Lincoln’s Attorney General Edward Bates. In return, Pitman sent slave catchers to Eliot’s home, to attack and retrieve Archer. Eliot would once again rescue Archer, and Pitman would be thrown into the Myrtle Street Prison.

Archer would be granted freedom on September 24, 1863, by Lincoln through the Provost Marshal due to his heroic actions. Freedom, for “important services to the United State military forces”. Freedom under the provisions of the Act of Congress of July 17, 1862, and “disloyalty of master” by orders of Brig. General Strong. Freedom was this hero’s reward. Through the work once again of William G. Eliot, the Emancipation Memorial, the first and only monument to Lincoln in Washington, D.C., prior to 1922, will share both heroes.  Today, President Abraham Lincoln, “the best friend the colored people had” shares the world stage with Archer Alexander. Two men, both of whom are truly an American hero.

Re-posted from my blog ArcherAlexander.blog https://archeralexander.wordpress.com/2022/04/09/what-makes-a-hero/

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