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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

An Old Missouri Town


While Jonesboro was a county seat Missouri's old time militia law was in being and rigidly enforced. The town was where the general muster of the whole county was held, Saline's grand maneuvers. Few men are now living who were old enough to come under that law. General muster was a big time, the biggest kind of a time. There have been no days since that begin to compare with general muster day in people's minds. The militia law was passed by the legislature in 1825 and was in force up to about 1840. Its purpose was to prepare the state for Indian wars or any other emergency that might arise. Those exempt from service were civil officers, preachers, teachers, millers and students in school. The civil standing of ministers prior to the adoption of the constitution of 1865 was curious. They were exempt from military service, but were not allowed to hold any civil office. Under the military law they could be chaplains, a position regarded as an honorable distinction and much sought after.

Under the militia law all able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 45 were required to organize into companies, choose officers and meet at -stated times and places for drill and exercise in military evolutions. Company commissioned officers were a captain and lieutenants; companies were organized into battalions; battalions into regiments with colonels, lieutenant colonels, majors and other field officers; regiments into brigades with a brigadier general in command; brigades into divisions under a major general. The whole was under the governor as the commander-in-chief of the military forces of the State. Commissioned officers from colonel down were elected by the votes of the rank and file; the higher officers by the vote of the subordinate commissioned officers. These officers drew no pay, but the titles gave rank and standing and were eagerly sought. There was much electioneering and log-rolling to secure them.

On the first Saturday of April every year the citizens of each township, or, in thinly populated sections, the citizens of each county, came together to be formed into companies and drilled for soldiers. In May companies met for a battalion drill which lasted several days. In October drills were had by regiments and brigades. In Saline, company musters were held regularly in every township at a town or some convenient public place. Battalion musters were held at Miami, Jonesboro, Marshall, Keyser's bridge on Salt Fork and other places. The general muster, the grand yearly round up of the whole county, was at Jonesboro as long as that town remained the county seat.


There was no getting around the militia law. Militiamen had to attend musters or they were soaked with a fine. They had to provide and bring arms with them and have the weapons in good order. Every individual militia man did not own a gun, however, and those who did not were allowed to attend with any kind of a substitute which would suffice for going through the manual of arms. Poles, sticks, hoe handles and even cornstalks did martial duty in the stern ranks of war at the musters. It was not every officer who could get hold of a sword. No difference. A sword of wood, a rapier made from a lath did just as well.

As to the drilling, it did not go far towards making an efficient and disciplined body of soldiers. The officers as a rule knew nothing of tactics. Few of them knew "about face" from "grand right and left." The soldiers resented all attempts to make them disciplined machines. They were imbued with the same feeling as a Saline county militia company, at the beginning of the war, which was ordered to march to Boonville. The men refused to march because it looked too much like it was going to rain. As a matter of fact the drilling at the musters was a secondary incident to be got through with as quickly as possible. The "fun" and the "frolic" was the main thing and that drew the crowds.

The soldiers were not in uniform. The officers were compelled to uniform themselves at their own expense, but were allowed to use their own taste in the kind of uniform they wore. The result, one may imagine, was a gorgeous collection. The musters produced one certain result—an abundant supply of military titles. Saline had colonels, majors, captains, etc., enough to supply Napoleon's grand army.

General muster day was a day to which everyone in the county looked forward. The wealthy officers made display of magnificent uniforms and popular heroes were cheered and hurrahed. On that day all the people from the surrounding country came in, looked at the drill, and, as a result of getting together, it was a day when debts were paid, new loans negotiated and trading done. No other day in the year was so generally observed or did so much to get the people acquainted with each other. It also was effective in cultivating a fine feeling of pride in the State and her institutions.

But the fun at the musters was not the least attraction. There was the old darky with his stand loaded with cider, spruce beer and ginger cakes; there was horse racing, foot racing, wrestling matches, climbing poles and catching the greased pig. There were fights, too, rough and tumble, fist and skull, where the woolly wolf from the Blackwater had it out with the ringtailed Painter from the Miami bottoms. Then at night there was the dance. The pigeon wing and the double shuffle, winding up with the ranking colonel leading out the grandest dame of the county into the measured maze of the Virginia reel.

The theory underlying the old time militia law was a good one—in time of peace prepare for war; but in practice the law was cumbersome, inconvenient and unsuited to the people and the times. It failed in its main purpose of creating an efficient militia and was finally repealed by the legislature some time before the breaking out of the Mexican war.


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