A Historical Vignette
by Tom Parquette
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The following is a postscript to the article "Who (or What) Really Dunnit?" That article addressed the possible coverup or incomplete investigation of the circumstances surrounding the explosion and fire of the steamboat SS Sultana on April 27, 1865 which took the lives of over 1700 citizens and returning Union Army former pow's following the supposed end of the Civil War. You can review that article. Parts One through Four are (1)here, (2)here, (3)here and (4)here.
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Part Four of Five
(Part One is HERE , Part Two is HERE
Part Three is HERE )
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3rd Street, St. Louis 1854
One of John Wimer's first acts upon entering the mayor's office for the second term in 1857 was the renewed updating of fire protection in St. Louis. Wimer must have had great misgivings about his decision to abolish the volunteer fire service and institute a full time paid fire service. Having organized Liberty Fire Company himself some sixteen years prior, Wimer had no choice but to accede to the political and public pressure which was mounting. The volunteers had become too rowdy, too unlawful and too much of a blemish on the populace which was rapidly becoming more proper and dignified. Wimer announced his intention to disband the volunteer system, acquire all of the volunteer property and start the St. Louis Fire Department and that's just what he did. However, the members of Liberty Fire Company did not take kindly to John or the idea at this point. In February of 1858 on the eve of the assignment of the Liberty Fire Company #6 firehouse and equipment to the City of St. Louis, the Liberty 6 firehouse and all of it's equipment burned to the ground, rendering it all useless and returning the vacant lot back to it's original grantor, the City of St. Louis. Arson was the cause with the intent to prevent the paid regulars from ever using the Liberty property. No one was ever caught or directly accused of this arson.
The paid full-time St. Louis Department was organized into, initially, three companies with H. Clay Sexton as the 'Engineer' (Chief at that time). As the department expanded under Sexton with city resources, the fourth engine company was named John M. Wimer Engine Company and of course, as years went on, simply to Engine Company 4.
During this very difficult period, President Lincoln was struggling with the secessionist movement taking place throughout the country and particularly in Missouri, as Missouri was a 'border state' of the issue. Ultimately, history states Missouri did not secede from the Union, at least in any officially recognized sense. A newly formed Missouri government at one point did vote to secede though. The Union has never acknowledged that vote. Lincoln allowed General John C. Fremont to declare martial law in August of 1861, first in St. Louis, then statewide. The appointment of the Provost Martial was to enforce military law on the citizenry and to ensure loyalty. The Provost Martial essentially had the unlimited power to issue orders, passes, paroles, oaths of allegiance to the United States, transportation permits, and claims for compensation for property used or destroyed by military forces. Citizens could be arrested simply on suspicion; charges could be initiated by anyone, civilian or military. Statements by accusers or witnesses were taken down as evidence.
Not long after martial law was imposed, John Wimer and, separately, H. Clay Sexton were arrested for their southern leanings and imprisoned in the Gratiot Prison. Wimer, because of his long public record of supporting secession and the southern mandate (except slavery) and Sexton, because of recorded complaints to the Provost Martial by disgruntled fire personnel in St. Louis who claimed he had used the southern cause as intimidation. This was never proven and Sexton was later freed from Gratiot on a $5,000 bond and upon signing a loyalty oath to the Union. He return to and retained his position with the City of St. Louis for many years.
Henry Clay Sexton
John Wimer was transferred to Alton Penitentiary in Illinois though, also on the river. In December of 1862, Wimer managed to escape from Alton by hiding in a water tanker as it was moved from the prison grounds.
Alton Penitentiary 1862-1865
Certain historians have suggested over time that Wimer headed for Canada for a time following his escape from Alton. While this would be a technical possibility due to the existence of the Underground Railroad operated secretly by abolitionists which moved thousands of slaves north, the timing dictates it would be extremely unlikely Wimer ever made that trip. Wimer next appears in history organizing a Confederate troop in northwest Arkansas in very early January of 1863.
John Wimer made his way to northwest Arkansas where he quickly joined forces, formally, with the Confederate effort under Maj. General Thomas C. Hindman, commander of the Confederate force in northwest Arkansas. Hindman issued orders to Brigadier General John Sappington Marmaduke to head off the Union forces approaching northwest Arkansas under direction of Union Brigadier General James G. Blunt. Blunt was known to be approaching Arkansas with 8,000 troops and 30 pieces of artillery. Marmaduke assembled his command into two columns. One led by himself, one under the command of Col. Joseph C. Porter. Marmaduke would head north, ultimately losing a battle at Springfield, Missouri, before turning east toward Hartville, the original destination, to rejoin Porter. Porter left Pocahontas, Arkansas on January 2, 1863 and reached Hartville January 9. Porter's column captured Hartville without firing a shot and captured 40 militiamen and 200 weapons.
Battle of Hartville Monument
Porter sent his vanguard detail of Lt. Col. John M. Wimer further north to clear the way for Marmaduke and at Hazelwood, Wimer captured and burned all fortifications there. Marmaduke had ordered Porter to return to Hartville to await his arrival. In doing so, a battle ensued with additional Union forces. In the lengthy Union ambush St. Louis native Col. Emmet McDonald and Lt. Col. John M. Wimer were killed on January 11, 1863. McDonald's history was one of outstanding commitment and valor. You now know much of John M. Wimer's history.
Marmaduke, who following the war in 1884, would be elected Governor of Missouri, ordered McDonald and Wimer's bodies to be transported to St. Louis and turned over to their respective families for proper funeral arrangements befitting the heroes they were. Later, while the families conducted final services in their respective homes for each dead hero, the Union Provost Martial, one Franklin Dick (no,…really) broke into each home with an armed contingent and stole the bodies. Dick had them spirited away and buried in unmarked graves the whereabouts of which were unknown to the families. Dick allegedly did this to prevent public sentiment from boiling over and making the dead men the martyrs they were. The families later learned of the locations and exhumed the bodies for proper burial. John Wimer is appropriately buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis.
Grave of John Wimer
Tomorrow in our conclusion, we'll assemble the likely connections of John Wimer to the possible sabotage of the SS Sultana. Though, as shown, he died valiantly over two years before the Sultana incident, the groundwork had already been laid in place either knowingly or unknowingly, for the murder of hundreds.
Friday – Conclusion
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