This is the second of two essays I wrote for The Glasgow Missourian in observance of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Glasgow, which was fought on October 15, 1864. Click here for the first of the essays, "Price's Small Victory on the Way to Defeat."
Click here for description and photos of some of the holdings of Lewis Library. Note especially the United States flag handmade by townswomen and presented in 1860, to former Governor Sterling Price, with a plea to save the Union. In the Battle of Glasgow four years later, Glasgow's Home Guard fought under this flag against Confederate attackers commanded by the same Sterling Price. It is hard to imagine a more poignant relic of that terrible time.
The Battle of Glasgow's Best Legacy
Article reprinted from The Glasgow Missourian, October 10, 2014.
In human affairs, bad events often have good outcomes. On October 21, 1864, there occurred in Glasgow a crime that led to benefit for all generations since. The 150th anniversary of that vile deed deserves to be remembered, with wonder at the ways of Providence.
The dark October of 1864
The Battle of Glasgow on October 15 was bad enough. About 100 men died in it. Yet both the Union and Confederate sides kept rules of war. Torture and mutilation were taboo. So was rape. So was harming an enemy who had surrendered or been wounded, and was therefore out of the game.
The bushwhackers who invaded the town after the battle followed no such rules. They were self-organized gangs of angry young men on horseback, armed with multiple revolvers and doing as they pleased. They roamed the backwoods, robbing and looting for provisions not voluntarily supplied by Southern sympathizers. They would emerge from hiding to kill Union troops or civilians opposed to secession, then fade back into the woods.
Today they would be called terrorists. They were the same kind of lawless, grass-roots guerrillas now active in Iraq, Syria, Libya, anywhere social order has broken down. Brutality and plunder were their stock in trade. Some adorned themselves with scalps of their victims.
The man bushwhackers hated most
Bill Anderson, the Huntsville-born chieftain of an especially fearsome band of bushwhackers, felt special hatred for Benjamin W. Lewis, Glasgow’s richest man. Lewis had made a fortune in tobacco and lived in a palatial estate, Glen Eden, on a hill north of town. He owned 150 slaves and employed hundreds more wage laborers.
Anderson saw Lewis as a traitor to his class and to the Southern cause. This was because unlike other plantation owners, Lewis actively supported the government in Washington. He and Abraham Lincoln were personal friends. Lewis voluntarily freed his slaves in 1863, paying travel costs to Kansas for those who wished to leave, retaining as wage laborers those who preferred to stay. He told them they should no longer call him Master, but Mr. Lewis.
Confederate leaders knew Lewis was at risk of harm from Anderson, once Union troops no longer occupied Glasgow. They could not wish such harm on anyone, even a political adversary. Hence after the battle, the mother of General John B. Clark, Jr., the victorious Confederate commander, left her home in Fayette and personally moved into Glen Eden. Surely her presence would guarantee the safety of Ben Lewis and his family.
The night Glen Eden became Glen Hell
After dark on October 21, Anderson and a couple of lackeys invaded the mansion, threatening to burn it down unless Ben Lewis were given up to them. The presence of Mrs. Clark and of Lewis’s wife Eleanor, did not deter them.
The New York Times published a graphic account of the attack on November 2, 1864, calling it a “horrible chapter of guerrilla atrocities.” Anybody with a strong stomach can access the article free of charge in the Times’s online archives.
In the course of gathering money for ransom, Mrs. James Thomson, the wife of a prominent banker, helped Lewis escape. Anderson tried and failed to track him down. Ben and Eleanor Lewis fled the town before dawn.
Anderson was killed five days later. By mid-1865, the war itself was over. The Union was saved. Lewis’s life was not. He never recovered from Anderson’s torture. He signed his last will on January 20, 1866, and died on February 1.
Ben and Eleanor’s Legacy
As Lewis lay dying, grieving at the sad end to which his 54 years of life had come, he saw promise of a brighter day in education, the cultivation of science and learning. Accordingly, he left $10,000 in his will for the founding of a public library in Glasgow. Eleanor, along with his brother James and son Benjamin, gave a further $26.000 for a building to house the books.
Lewis Library opened in 1866, across the street from the Methodist church Lewis had helped finance, the church where he and his family worshipped.
Thanks to the wise stewardship of successive generations of members of the governing board, thanks also to later donations from Hazel Price (the Confederate general’s great grand-daughter) and many others, Lewis Library has survived as a precious community resource.
Not another Carnegie Library
For us now, it is hard to grasp what a rare treasure Lewis Library was during the nineteenth century. The reason is that similar public libraries exist in most cities and towns across America. Most of them, almost 2000, were built with money from Andrew Carnegie, the Pittsburgh steel magnate. Like Lewis, Carnegie saw knowledge as the key to human betterment and considered libraries worthwhile philanthropy.
The difference is that the Carnegie libraries came later. Most were built after the turn of the twentieth century. Jefferson City got one in 1900. Several opened in St. Louis in 1901. The one in Moberly dates from 1902, in Fayette 1913, and in Huntsville 1914. Lewis Library was already decades old by then.
Suppose today’s internet had been available in one Missouri town thirty years ahead of elsewhere. What an advantage for children growing up in that town! Glasgow’s privilege in the last third of the nineteenth century was something like that. Free access to books was the sine qua non of gaining an education. Citizens of Glasgow had that access much earlier than most Americans.
Lewis Library’s practical effects
No one can know for how many young men and women reading a book from Lewis Library has been a life-changing event, or how many have found in the stacks the keys to success in some career. For many, the library has likely been as important as school. The endless shelves allow self-directed study, freedom to pursue any subject of interest. Reports and recollections of Lewis Library’s impact on patrons’ lives could no doubt fill a book.
A stellar example was Henry Pritchett (1857-1939), who grew up in Glasgow and earned his first degree from his father’s school, the Pritchett Institute. Henry became a respected astronomer, but achieved fame mainly as an educational administrator. He was president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1900 to 1906. From then until his retirement in 1930, he headed Andrew Carnegie’s Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Pritchett was friends with most of the movers and shakers of that era, from President Theodore Roosevelt on down.
By selective doling out of Carnegie’s money, Pritchett shaped colleges and universities from coast to coast. So great was his influence that the socialist critic Upton Sinclair, in his 1923 book on higher education, portrayed Pritchett as the academic face of America’s ruling class.
In a biography published in 1943, another prominent educator, Abraham Flexner, offered an explanation for Pritchett’s rise from humble beginnings to the national elite. Flexner cited Pritchett’s unusual native ability and the influence of his parents, but most of all, “the existence in Glasgow of a public library containing some 4,000 volumes of which he made the best possible use.” In particular, Pritchett found in Lewis Library a copy of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, which opened the boy’s eyes to the power of scientific inquiry.
Years later, another boy named Henry found Lewis Library a similar springboard to professional success. Henry Westhues, my uncle, was of humbler origin than Pritchett, having arrived in Glasgow at the age of four in 1892, in a family of German Catholic immigrant farmers. In his teens, Uncle Henry persuaded his father to let him take a job at Grove’s Drug Store. While in town, so his grandson Otto Rieke reports, Henry “was a regular at the Glasgow library, and read voraciously.”
Henry had little schooling, but acquired sufficient learning on his own to gain admission to St. Louis University Law School. He graduated in 1912, moved to Jefferson City to practice law, then entered politics and became a judge. He retired in 1963, as Chief Justice of the Missouri Supreme Court.
Precious legacies of a terrible time
Lewis Library is not the only enduring civic good that resulted from the horror in Glasgow 150 years ago. The town got a new city hall out of it. Union forces burned the old one during the battle on October 15, to keep munitions stored there out of Confederate hands. After the war, the federal government felt obliged to build a new city hall. Completed in 1868, it is a Romanesque Revival jewel, and it has served the town well.