What would you do? Imagine yourself enslaved in a state that is caught between two hostile forces. On a cold winter’s night in Missouri in January 1863, Archer Alexander overheard his enslaver Richard Pitman holding a secret meeting in the back room of the local Postmaster and storeowner James Naylor, in his mercantile on the Boone’s Lick Road in St. Charles County. Area slave owners were plotting the destruction of a vital rail link for the Union Army at the Peruque Creek Bridge, about five miles away. Without a word to his wife Louisa, who was enslaved by Naylor, he took off in the dark for the Union troop’s guardhouse, to warn them of the impending danger and what he knew.
The German farmers stationed to guard the bridge were Missouri’s Home Guards under the command of Lt. Col. Arnold Krekel. Word was soon leaked of Archer’s bravery and the Union troops could not protect him. A lynch mob was out for Archer, the last fugitive slave in Missouri. Using the network to freedom, known as the underground railroad, Archer made his way to the home of William Greenleaf Eliot in St. Louis. A Unitarian minister and founder of Washington University in St. Louis, he served on the Western Sanitary Commission, a private non-profit charged with establishing hospitals and nurses for Union soldiers, fugitives and contraband, headquartered in St. Louis. Eliot immediately secured a Temporary Order of Protection for Archer from the local Provost Marshall, the military authority.
Eliot could have been imprisoned for breaking the law by harboring a fugitive. He immediately tried to purchase Archer to see him emancipated. Eliot sent messages to Pitman, offering to purchase Archer, through Missouri’s Supreme Court Justice Barton Bates, who was the son of President Abraham Lincoln’s Attorney General Edward Bates. This only served to alert Pitman to Archer’s location, as Barton was a neighbor of Naylor’s. Sending men to Eliot’s residence, Pitman’s men bludgeoned Archer senseless and kidnapped him, leaving him in the City’s Jail at 6th and Chestnut in St. Louis, to be sold south. When Eliot learned what had happened, he once again rescued Archer, gave him clothes, and moved him upriver to Alton, Illinois for safety.
A military trial ensued, and Richard Pitman would be found disloyal and imprisoned, according to Lincoln’s Second Confiscation Act of July 17, 1862. Archer would be declared emancipated for his important services to the United States military forces. Brig. General Strong would sign an Order declaring Archer to be a free man by the Proclamation made by President Lincoln. This would be announced in St. Louis newspapers on September 24, 1863. Soon after, his wife Louisa, and three of their daughters joined him in St. Louis. However, Louisa would mysteriously die in 1865.
When President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in April of 1865, an enslaved woman of Ohio named Charlotte Scott gave her first $5 earned in freedom in hopes of seeing a monument to their fallen hero. The entire funds for the monument were given by the U.S, Colored Troops, freemen, and the formerly enslaved, and held in trust by the Western Sanitary Commission. The monument was entirely funded, approved and dedicated by a committee of prominent African Americans in 1876. The dedication had over 25,000 people, with the majority of those in attendance once formerly enslaved. The Emancipation Monument still stands today in Lincoln Park in Washington, D.C., as President Lincoln gestures to Archer, to rise and behold his new freedom. It was through the efforts of William Greenleaf Eliot that Archer portrayed the formerly enslaved man on the Emancipation Memorial.
Archer Alexander died in December 1880, with his funeral held at what is today’s Washington Metropolitan A.M.E. Zion Church in St. Louis and then buried later that day at St. Peters U.C.C. Cemetery at 2101 Lucas & Hunt Road located in St. Louis County. A memorial to Archer’s life and bravery will be held at 1:00 p.m. in that same cemetery on September 24, 2022, with the descendants of Archer Alexander. Archer was also the great-great-great grandfather of Muhammad Ali and his family. Everyone is invited to join the family in this celebration of life.