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Behind the big themes, celebrated figures, and dry dates of history are the interesting stories of life in the past and ordinary people. Southeast Missouri has a varied and rich history that you often don’t hear about in history classes. Join Bill Eddleman of the State Historical Society of Missouri to hear about these stories with “Tales from Days Gone By.” Listen in on the second and fourth Thursday of the month during Morning Edition (7:45 a.m.) and All Things Considered (4:44 p.m.)

A Wisconsin Soldier Describes Cape Girardeau During the Civil War

Library of Congress, Liljenquist Family collection.
Envelope for soldier’s letter during the Civil War.

We learn a lot from letters written home during war time. Often these were summarized or printed in hometown newspapers. The 1st Wisconsin Cavalry spent much time in Cape Girardeau during the Civil War. One cavalry soldier wrote a friend, and the recipient shared the letter with the Watertown News, a Wisconsin newspaper. The letter is dated May 17, 1862, and provides an overview of Cape Girardeau. The description begins:

“[Cape is] quite a flourishing little city even now. It must have been very lively before the present troubles… It is the gateway to the Mississippi of an immense region of country, trade centering here from 200 miles back. It is a country rich in natural resources and needs but the breath of freedom to call into life one of the most fertile sections of the Miss issippi valley…Fruit of all kinds abound. Peaches particularly will be very plenty this fall. Even now their pink tinged cheecks cause a pleasant emotion... They get peaches here in three years from the seed.

While I write I am sitting by a singularly built tomb in the Catholic cemetery. There is a wall of limestone cut, surrounding two graves; these are built up of red brick, side by side, some two feet, while on their top is a carved granite slab…” The soldier goes on to include the inscription on Louis Lorimier’s grave and mentions the adjacent grave is that of Lorimier’s wife.

“The walls are tumbling to pieces, while between the graves stands sentinel a huge elm, grown through the long years from a young sprig at the burial…”

This tree, now gone, was named the Lorimier elm.

“The cemetery is in a quiet, pretty grove of oaks and elms, overlooking the river and giving a view up and down its muddy waters miles each way. Close by is the Hospital occupied by our sick, the marble slabs and green mounds quite suggestive to the poor fellows, though I point them over the river to a “fine prospect beyond the grave” in the green woods and hills of Illinois.---

Our hospital was the home of a secesh lawyer; it is now confiscated (the word steal has played out). Uncle Samuel claiming all right and title to it. It affords a good asylum for our sick. It has been a fine residence and the grounds have been beautiful, but now all is going to decay.---

The fences have built camp fires, the furniture is scattered here and there among the refugees of the city, while the grounds are over-run with cattle and mules. The boys are trying to save the peach trees until they can have one crop but with ill success.”

The hospital building still stands on Washington Street—the Sherwood-Minton House.

“To the south is Fort A with the stars and stripes flying from its flag staff. It is an earth work, thrown up last summer by the Home Guards. It is so arranged with angles as to cover the ditches surrounding it, raking them the whole length. It has 3, 24 pounds of land range besides 2 pivot 24 pounds and one 12 pounder captured from Jeff Thompson. To the west is fort B while to the S. W. fort C covers the approach from the Bloomfield road, beyond which, a mile distant perhaps, are the white tents of the 1st Wis., in a beautiful piece of woods…”

The soldier goes on to describe the current whereabouts and activities of the 1st Wisconsin Cavalry. The letter is signed with the nom de plume, “Peleg.”

Bill Eddleman was born in Cape Girardeau, and is an 8th-generation Cape Countian. His first Missouri ancestor came to the state in 1802. He attended SEMO for two years before transferring to the University of Missouri to study Fisheries and Wildlife Biology. He stayed at Mizzou to earn a master of science in Fisheries and Wildlife, and continued studies in Wildlife Ecology at Oklahoma State University.