County Executive's Blog

Oct 19

[ARCHIVED] A Look Back with the County Executive: Archer Alexander

The original item was published from October 19, 2017 4:01 PM to October 19, 2017 6:05 PM

The recent dismantling of a statue in St. Louis intended to honor the Confederacy and another in Charlottesville to honor one of its generals has stimulated discussion about the future of statues from the Civil War era. A former resident of St. Charles County played a role in the sculpting of a Civil War statue in St. Louis, and when you read his story I think you will agree with me that no one will be protesting it.  

Archer Alexander was an African-American slave living in St. Charles County during the Civil War. He learned in February 1863 that men sawed the timbers of a railroad bridge. He informed a Union man, who conveyed the message to Union troops who fixed the bridge before any train crossed. After he also informed Union officials that arms were hidden in an ice-house, rebel sympathizers came to suspect him and, fearing for his safety, he ran away to St. Louis.  

Alexander was given refuge by William Eliot, a prominent abolitionist who would later found Washington University in St. Louis. Alexander argued he should be free since his master, Richard Pitman, assisted two men bound for the rebel service by giving one a horse and the other a gun and clothes. When a slave catcher apprehended Alexander, federal officials, at the request of Eliot, recovered him and returned him to freedom. Provost Marshal Dick gave Alexander an order of protection, allowing him to remain in the service of William Eliot until, “legal right to his services shall be established by such party, if any, as may claim them.” Eliot asked Missouri Supreme Court Justice Barton Bates, who resided in St. Charles County and was the son of Lincoln’s Attorney General Edward Bates, to relay to Richard Pitman his offer to purchase Alexander’s freedom. Pitman responded that, “he didn't mean to play into the hands of any Yankee Abolitionist; that he'd have (him) yet, and take it out of his black hide.”1  

Alexander sent a message to his wife, Louisa, in November, inquiring whether her master, James Naylor, would sell her. She replied:  

My Dear Husband, I received your letter yesterday, and lost no time in asking Mr. Jim if he would sell me, and what he would take for me. He flew at me, and said I would never get free only at the point of the Baynot (sic), and there was no use in my ever speaking to him any more about it. I don't see how I can ever get away except you get soldiers to take me from the house, as he is watching me night and day.  If I can get away I will, but the people here are all afraid to take me away. He is always abusing Lincoln, and calls him an old Rascoll (sic). He is the greatest rebel under heaven. It is a sin to have him loose.  He says if he had hold of Lincoln he would chop him up into mincemeat.  I had good courage all along until now, but now I am almost heart-broken. Answer this letter as soon as possible. I am your affectionate wife, Louisa Alexander.2

After a German farmer helped Louisa and her children escape, they joined Alexander in St. Louis. Eliot wrote the commander of the St. Louis District in December requesting a provisional order of protection “to prevent anyone from disturbing them until he shall have first proved his legal claim and his loyalty before a competent tribunal.”3 When Pitman attempted through the civil courts to establish his right to Archer Alexander, William Eliot moved Alexander to the safety of Alton, Illinois, where he worked as a farm hand.  In December 1864, the provost marshal began the enlistment of black troops in St. Charles County.  Tom Alexander, the son of Archer Alexander, was among the first black recruits.4 After he was killed in action, Tom’s back pay and bounty-money were paid to Archer, who expressed pride that his son had served, stating, “I couldn't do it myself,” he said, “but I thank the Lord my boy did it.”5   

Archer Alexander made a contribution to memorializing the Civil War. In the summer of 1869, William Eliot served on a commission to erect a suitable monument to Abraham Lincoln in Washington D.C. It was decided “the representative form of a negro (sic) should be introduced, helping to break the chain that had bound him.” William Elliot explained “Photographic pictures of Archer Alexander, a fugitive slave, were sent to him; and in the present group his likeness, both face and figure, is as correct as that of Mr. Lincoln himself.”6 

Archer Alexander

Left: Archer Alexander, courtesy of Washington University in St. Louis Archives.
Right: Emancipation statue in Washington D.C.

[1]  Archer Alexander to the provost marshal, 4-15-63, F1218, Missouri’s Union Provost Marshal Papers, MSA.

[2] Ibid., 79.

[3] James Naylor, W.G. Eliot want provisional order of protection. 12-03-63, F1403, Missouri’s Union Provost Marshal Papers, MSA.

[4] Greene, Missouri’s Black Heritage, 80; Muench list of prominent citizens, 04-10-1864, 1612, Missouri’s Union Provost Marshal Papers, MSA; Blassingame, “The Recruitment of Negro Troops,” 336-337.

[5] Eliot, The Story of Archer Alexander, 79.  On May 8, 1865, Charles Hug replaced County Court Judge John Hansam who had resigned.

[6] Eliot, The Story of Archer Alexander, 14.