Clay County Grapples With How To Remember Its Civil War History

Feb 22, 2017

Clay County Confederate war hero, Alonzo Houston Shelton adorns the cover of the local Historical Society's new book.
Credit Clay County Museum & Historical Society

The American Civil War ended more than 150 years ago, but those old divisions still affect us today. There’s perhaps no better example of this than Missouri, a border state claimed by both the Union and the Confederacy. The ongoing struggle to deal with this history recently came to light when the Clay County Museum and Historical Society in the town of Liberty, published an old diary.

Excerpts from the Diary of Judge A. H. Shelton was put together by Jana Jesse Becker, a past president of the Society. Becker found the first person descriptions of battles and local people so vivid, she decided to type them up and, through the museum, release a book. 

Shelton was from Clay County and his Civil War experience included surviving the Battle of Lexington, the siege of Atlanta, a prisoner of war camp and losing an arm. During that time, he also met the sweetheart he’d later marry.

An antique canon in the entrance of the Clay County Museum. The book launch party is getting underway in the background.
Credit Danny Wood / KCUR 89.3

“He sold real estate for a long time after the war,” Becker said at a book launch for Shelton's diary at the Clay County Museum and Historical Society. “And then he became the police judge in Excelsior,” she adds.

Becker summarized what Shelton was like by reading a quote taken from the diary and highlighted on the book’s back cover:

“No nation, no state, no county on top of God’s green earth, ever furnished any better, any braver, any more gallant defenders of the old constitution and for the rights of the South, than noble, old Clay County, Missouri.”

A small stone pyramid on the William Jewell College campus in Liberty dedicated to the Civil War efforts of Union soldiers was demolished in the mid-1990s.
Credit Clay County Archives and Historical Library

This is Shelton the idealist fighting for a cause. But a few hundred feet from where we’re talking there are old houses with their slave quarters intact, where African Americans were chained to the walls. Becker is aware that the stories in Shelton's diary happened in a slave state.

“I think we have to remember that times were different,” she said. “It was just a whole different world. It wasn’t right of course, but it was what they needed to survive.”

Becker added that her book contains the war entries from Shelton’s diary. Anything controversial, like opinions about slavery and derogatory comments about African Americans, including any mentions of the ‘n’ word, are left out. She admitted that this is sanitizing the history but says that as a museum board they decided that was what they needed to do.

“We didn’t want to create any controversy or take any stand about that issue” she said. “We didn’t want anybody to think that represented what we thought, because it doesn’t of course.”

Not everybody at the book launch agreed with this view. “I think that’s part of your past, this area’s past," said Liberty resident Angie Borgedalan. "And so I think warts and all, you should show it.”

The museum’s curator Jay Thorn wasn’t involved with the publishing of the book and also says he doesn’t agree with the board’s decision to leave out controversial material. In the original memoir, Thorn says Shelton uses the ‘n’ word while expressing hatred for the anti-slavery activist John Brown. Thorn says this passage is historically important because it demonstrates that support for slavery was a key factor motivating Shelton’s fight for the Confederacy.

He’s also concerned that the excerpted diary serves revisionist historians who could use it to portray the Confederate cause as a battle for state’s rights rather than a defense of slavery.

But he says the diary’s content is important -- and a great read.

“It’s a fantastic journal of the Civil War to give insight into the thinking of that culture,” Thorn says.

But in Becker’s excerpted version there are no spaces in the text or any indication on the pages that words are omitted. An acknowledgement only mentions editing and doesn’t explain further. 

At a cafe a couple of doors down from the museum, Cecelia Robinson, a volunteer historian for the Clay

In the foreground, the Clay County Archives building in Liberty where photographic evidence shows that a Union Civil War monument on William Jewell College campus was demolished in the mid-1990s. The College can be seen on the hillside in the distance.
Credit Danny Wood / KCUR 89.3

County African American Heritage organization, has a look at the new book. Robinson says she hasn’t seen this new publication or the original diary but says history books should present the facts without distortion.  

“[Shelton] is a complete character so you should present him holistically,” she says. “You know character is who you are in the dark!”

Then she tells a story. When Robinson was a professor of English literature, just up the hill, at William Jewell College, some campus landscapers came across an obstacle: a small pyramid of rocks with a marker on it. It was monument remembering the efforts of Union soldiers, who built a trench on the site. Robinson says the monument was demolished.

“So now, is that a distortion of history?” she asks.

A William Jewell College spokesperson said they’ve only ever had three Civil War memorials on campus and all of them can still be found near the chapel. She didn’t know of any that were demolished.

But a book in the Clay County archives confirms Cecelia Robinson’s story. A photograph shows a pyramid of rocks dedicated as a Civil War memorial by a class of William Jewell’s own students in 1931. The monument was dismantled in the mid-1990s. Only its marker was moved to the chapel area.

So what some local historians say was very likely the only monument dedicated to Union soldiers in Clay County disappeared.

Like the excerpted diary of the Confederate war hero, it says a lot about the decision making, intentional and unintentional, that contributes to our historical record.

Danny Wood is a freelance reporter for KCUR 89.3.