Thomas Caute Reynolds. [<em>The Civil Government of the United States and the State of Missouri</em>, 1897]

Elected lieutenant governor of Missouri in 1860, Thomas Caute Reynolds worked diligently to separate Missouri from the Union in 1861, and upon Claiborne Fox Jackson's death maintained a Confederate Missouri government in exile in various places, including Marshall, Texas, until the end of the war. Rather than stay in the United States after the Confederate loss, Reynolds fled to Mexico with General Joseph Orville “Jo” Shelby, returning in 1868. 

Born on October 11, 1821, in South Carolina, Reynolds graduated from the University of Virginia, studied in Germany at Heidelberg University, and served in the diplomatic corps as secretary to the US legation in Madrid, Spain, before settling in St. Louis in 1850. A lawyer and a Democrat, Reynolds received an appointment as US district attorney in St. Louis in 1853. 

Quickly, Reynolds entered the contentious fray of 1850s Missouri politics. Strongly proslavery, he became an anti-Benton Democrat and began exchanging barbed notes in the city’s newspapers with B. Gratz Brown, one of Thomas Hart Benton’s chief supporters. The combatants settled one near-duel amicably, but in 1856, with Reynolds a candidate for Congress and an outspoken opponent of the Bentonites, he and Brown faced each other with pistols at twenty paces. Reynolds wounded Brown in the knee, an injury that caused the future governor to limp for the remainder of his life. Reynolds escaped uninjured. He lost his race for Congress.

As a supporter of Missouri secession, Reynolds probably surpassed even Governor Jackson. Floyd Calvin Shoemaker, historian and longtime head of the State Historical Society of Missouri, called Reynolds the driving force behind the state’s secessionist movement. Both before and after Jackson’s death in December 1862, Reynolds spent time in the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia, legitimating Missouri’s status within the seceding states. Upon Jackson’s death he successfully argued that he should assume the exiled governor’s office. Called brilliant by historian William Parrish, Reynolds apparently liked warfare, becoming involved in military affairs within the Trans-Mississippi Department and advocating for the Confederate invasion that became Sterling Price's disastrous Missouri Expedition in the fall of 1864. Though critical of Price’s leadership, Reynolds traveled with his forces into the state and served on General Shelby’s staff. Reynolds's connection with Shelby helped him make the decision to join the exodus to Mexico after the war.

Reynolds returned to St. Louis in 1868 carrying with him the seal of the state of Missouri, which had been removed when Jackson fled Jefferson City in 1861. Reynolds returned the seal to Governor Joseph Washington McClurg in 1869. In part as a result of the policies of his old antagonist B. Gratz Brown, Reynolds regained his civil rights and won a seat in the state legislature in 1874. Later, President Chester A. Arthur appointed him as a member of a commission to investigate relations with Latin America. Reynolds’s linguistic ability partly recommended him for the post: he spoke Spanish, French, and German fluently. In that decade of the 1880s, he suffered the death of his first wife, Heloise Marie Sprague Reynolds, when her dress caught fire from a spark from the fireplace. His health declined, and he came to fear becoming a burden to his second wife.

On March 30, 1887, Reynolds’s body was found at the bottom of an elevator shaft in the Federal Building in St. Louis. Investigators never established whether his death resulted from accident or suicide, but not long before it occurred, he wrote, “I am troubled by insomnia and frequent nervousness. I suffer from persistent melancholy. My mind is beginning to wander. I have hallucinations and even visions, when I am awake, of materialized spirits of deceased ancestors, urging me to join them in another world. Life has become a burden to me. I am now still sound of mind and I write down this statement so that should I do anything rash, my friends may feel assured it was done in some temporary disorder of mind.” These comments have led most writers to conclude that he committed suicide.

About the most important experience in his life and in the lives of many others in his generation, he observed to a group of former Confederate soldiers: “We have played at the grand game of Civil War, and so ably as to gain the admiration of the world, and the respect of magnanimous opponents. We lost it for want of trumps, but we drew at least our fair share of honor.”

Further Reading

Hunter, Lloyd A. “Missouri’s Confederate Leaders after the War.” Missouri Historical Review 67, no. 3 (April 1973): 371–96.

Kirkpatrick, Arthur R. “Missouri, the Twelfth Confederate State.” PhD diss., University of Missouri, 1954.

Miller, Robert E. “‘One of the Ruling Class': Thomas Caute Reynolds, Second Confederate Governor of Missouri.” Missouri Historical Review 80, no. 4 (July 1986): 422–48.

“Old-Time Editors of Missouri Backed Up Their Editorials.” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, April 16, 1911, 43.

Parrish, William E. A History of Missouri, Volume III: 1860 to 1875. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1973.

Reynolds, Thomas C. Papers. Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis.


Published March 22, 2024

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