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Diary offers first-person account of Hannibal during the Civil War

Morley Brothers Wholesale Grocers is pictured at left, on the northwest corner of what is now known as Main and Bird streets, Hannibal, Mo., circa 1859. In the distance is Cardiff Hill. T.R. Selmes’ store was located one block to the north, on the northeast corner of Main and Hill streets, out of range of this photo. The Planters House is visible on the west side of the street, most likely the building with the overhead porch. This neighborhood was a source of much traffic during the early Civil War years, when Hannibal was occupied by federal troops and rebel forces created much havoc.


Sarah Patterson Benton (1823-1918) of Vergennes, Vt., first came to Hannibal, Mo., in the autumn of 1849, in order to teach French to students of the Rev. F.B. McElroy’s school, located in the basement of the Second Presbyterian Church, southeast corner of Fifth and Church streets.

The following year, she was united in marriage to Hannibal businessman Tilden R. Selmes, nearly two decades her senior.

After a decade of business success, family expansion and eventual settlement into a house on the northeast corner of North and Sixth streets, the climate of the community underwent change, as a divided nation braced for the hardships of civil war.

During the mid 1860s, the Selmes family would leave Hannibal; Mr. Selmes on the staff of Gen. xxx Sherman; and Mrs. Selmes and her children moving back east near her family’s roots.

What they left behind was a collection of letters, penned both before and during the Civil War, containing first-person accounts of the daily routine of the people of Hannibal, who conducted their lives amidst the rioting, violence, death and destruction that took place on American soil.

The Selmes Family Papers are housed at The Arizona Historical Society-Tuscon. Isabella Dinsmore Selmes Ferguson Greenway King (March 22, 1886 – December 18, 1953) was the granddaughter of Tilden R. and Sarah Benton Selmes. In 1933, Isabella was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, becoming Arizona’s first Congresswoman.

Sarah Benton Selmes had two younger sisters, Ellen Lydia Benton, born in 1840, and Eliza C. Benton, born in 1836. In a letter to Eliza written on Tuesday, April 5, 1853, Sarah Benton Selmes expressed her desire for her sisters to come to Hannibal and help her with the young Selmes children.

Sarah wrote to Eliza, who was about 17 at the time: “I will not be too selfish but I must have you and Ellen alternately with me. I think that Father and Mother (in Vermont) must have one at a time always. If your health will admit, I think you had better study as much as you can for a year and then I will give you a year’s change with me. I wish Ellen to come back with me this summer and stay until I go on again, and then I want you to come home with me.”

Sarah Selmes’ first child, Mary Selmes, was born circa 1852, and her second child, Tilden R. Selmes Jr., was born in 1853.

On a subsequent visit to Hannibal, either Ellen or Eliza Benton wrote a series of diary entries describing the street scenes in Hannibal during the early years of the Civil War. This collection is contained within the Selmes Family Papers.

Selmes family

Tilden R. Selmes 54, born 1806

Sarah B. Selmes 36, born 1823

Mary E. Selmes, 1852-1939

Tilden Selmes Jr. 1853-1895

Lily Selmes (Garrett) 1856-1930

Franklin Benton 1856-1857

Spencer Selmes ca 1861-1865

Diary entries

June 20, 1861

[The first inauguration of Abraham Lincoln was held on March 4, 1861.]

Last week the hearts of Union people here in Hannibal were gladdened by the arrival of two companies of Illinois troops, which were followed immediately by two regiments from Iowa. The troops went into camp on Lovers Leap and planted the cannon there and the next morning fired a salute.

Diary June 21, 1861

Yesterday Jimmerson Hawkins and Josh Gore were arrested. Mr. H. took the oath of allegiance and signed a paper saying he would not take up arms against the U.S., but Mr. Gore would not take it and will be sent to St. Louis for trial for treason. (Mr. Gore took the oath the next day.)

June 24, 1861

Though we have been quiet and still as usual up here on the hill today, yet there has been the greatest excitement downtown. A prominent Secession lawyer, Joel Richmond, who has been very insulting to Union people all winter, was arrested today. One of the soldiers from Quincy, who was acquainted with him, spoke to him and offered his hand. Mr. Richmond said he “didn’t shake hands with any damned abolitionists or black Republicans.” Mr. R. drew his bowie knife and stabbed him in the neck and drew back to strike again, but a gentleman caught his arm and stopped him. Mr. Richmond was arrested for assault and not for treason and was released.

July 2, 1861

Harry Mills entered the Home Guards as a drummer. Some fear that Major Harris is intending to attack this place and I should not wonder, since he has boasted all winter that he would equip a regiment from Mr. Selmes’ store and take the money from his bank vault.

July 4, 1861

Two of the Home Guards had their arms, one his right and the other his left, blown off by the premature discharge of a cannon when firing the salute on the Fourth.

July 10, 1861

Secessionists seem much pleased tonight and those who have professed to be Union are chuckling suspiciously. Night before last, in the terrible storm, they cut down the liberty pole on the public square and the flag was not to be found.

The Black Hawk has gone up for assistance to Quincy for troops and ammunition. They have the ferry boat at the depot with steam up all night tonight fearing that an attack will be made here. May God be with us and our gallant band in their fight.

July 21, 1861

As I look back at the pages I have written here, I wonder why I write them. Will they ever be of interest to me or to anyone? And besides, what pleasure is there in detailing the horrors we see and hear of being enacted around.

July 25, 1861

There is a rebel camp only four miles from here and it is said that Gen. Harris intends an attack on this place before long and Mr. Selmes fears this the place will be burned before many weeks, but I do not share his fears.

We have attended the funeral of Mrs. Hunt, wife of Major Hunt, today. There is no doubt that she is a victim of the war; the excitement being too much for her nervous temperament producing congestion of the brain. Also for her two little girls left motherless.

August 2, 1861

Wednesday night a party of about 25 Secessionists went to the house of Col. Joshua Gentry, president of the Hannibal and St. Joe Railroad, and took him prisoner and would have taken his son also but for the earnest remonstrances of his wife, who said she must have one of them.

Aug. 7, 1861

All the prisoners we had taken here are released by the order of Gen. Fremont, as the rebels have released Col. Gentry as agreed. Col G. told Mr. Selmes today that he was insulted in every way possible. He did not tell particulars but said he would never be taken by them again but would fight it out to the death first.

Troops, infantry, cavalry and artillery came to town this morning, having marched from Mexico right through where the Secessionists are said to be most rampant, but they filed at the approach of the U.S. troops and not a shot was fired. They were met here by a Government boat and went at once down the river.

August 14, 1861

I went downtown today to do a few errands on Main Street, and though the corners of the streets are crowded with men and many on the sidewalk, I kept on my way nearly half through the street. I found out that the excitement was caused by a company of soldiers being sent down from Palmyra to get the provisions levied for them in this place, and they were taking a quote from a store, then they returned to Palmyra.

Aug. 31, 1861

The state is actually in the hands of the Secessionists and the Confederate laws are being enforced almost everywhere, this railroad is in their hands from St. Joseph to Palmyra and this town threatened constantly and I see no reason why they can’t take it if they try. The cars are constantly and regularly fired into and yesterday the newsboy was killed and several passengers wounded.

Sept. 12, 1861

I went downtown today and met the soldiers at every turn, how glad I am to have them here. I have a peculiar feeling I may say, an affection for the soldiers who are so willing to shed their blood for our safety and that of the government and it quickens my pulse, sends the blood in a peculiar tide through my veins, to meet them, indeed I have a desire to go out and speak to the picket guard who is stationed just under my window, poor fellow he looks so lonely standing there and it must be so tiresome. I would like to give him “aid and comfort.”

Source: Selmes family papers, MS 1021, Arizona Historical Society-Tucson

Mary Lou Montgomery, retired as editor of the Hannibal (Mo.) Courier-Post in 2014. She researches and writes narrative-style stories about the people who served as building blocks for this region’s foundation. Books available on by this author include but are not limited to: "The Notorious Madam Shaw," "Pioneers in Medicine from Northeast Missouri," and "The Historic Murphy House, Hannibal, Mo., Circa 1870." She can be reached at Her collective works can be found at


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