1894 – The Rainwater Rifles Of Lafayette Square

21 Benton Place in 1960 (HABS)

In researching a recent essay about Augustus Eichele, the match king of Lafayette Square, I read in his obituary that he had been a member of the Rainwater Rifles.  With curiosity roused, I dived into a deep pool of Rainwater. 

21 Benton Place dates to 1870 and is a key address in Lafayette Square. It was designed by noted architect John H. Maurice for Brevet General John S. Cavender (1824 – 1886), commander of the 1st Missouri Volunteer Light Artillery, and a veteran of the battles of Wilson’s Creek, Shiloh and Fort Donelson in the Civil War. 

Principal St Louis booster L.U. Reavis profiled Cavender is his 1876 book about the city. His was a story of a guy in the right places at the right times, beginning in the fur and hides business in the early 1840s, followed by a decade in the manufacture and sale of boots and shoes, enabling him to retire early. He became a member of the Missouri legislature in 1860,  and was a vocal opponent of the state’s secession from the Union.

Bvt. Brigadier General Cavender; 1st MO Light Artillery

When war broke out, he formed a company of volunteers, and was assigned the rank of Captain. Very soon, his unit was given the task of confronting secessionists who had occupied Camp Jackson, on the outskirts of Lafayette Square. After rounding them up, gunfire broke out, and only the quick calm intercession of Cavender between the parties prevented a wider melee among soldiers and civilian onlookers. A bit later, under General Lyon, who was fatally shot at Wilson’s Creek, Cavender suffered three bullet wounds, and was promoted to Major upon his recovery. Off he went to Shiloh, and then home to recruit men for a regiment of infantry. Having accomplished this, he was again promoted to Colonel, and sent to Vicksburg, where he lost two-thirds of his men. He was again promoted to Brigadier General, but gave up his commission and returned home, as his father was ill and his business required tending. 

In 1866, Cavender again was elected to the Missouri State Senate, and served four years, remaining active in Republican politics thereafter. He had married in 1854, and he and his wife raised four sons. Montgomery Blair in  1870 transferred twenty-one lots in what is now Benton Place to banker William Maurice. His brother John Maurice designed Cavender’s home  among others in the area in the early 1870’s. Cavender’s real estate partner was Edward Rowse, who lived in a Peabody and Stearns designed house across the street at 10 Benton Place. They were business partners in Cavender and Rowse Company on Olive Street downtown. Thay must also have been close friends, as one of Cavender’s sons was named Edward Rowse Cavender. They also were two of the original incorporators of the Church of the Unity at 1322 MacKay Place in 1869.

Major CC Rainwater

When Cavender sold his house at 21 Benton Place in 1885, it was either ironic, or a tribute to his ability to let bygones be bygones that the new owner was Major Charles Cicero Rainwater (1838 – 1902) a twice wounded former Confederate officer (and ‘staunch Democrat’) who made his fortune after the war in the wholesaling of hats. He was also instrumental in the building of the Merchants Bridge downtown and was its president for life. In addition, he had business interests in street cleaning and lumber. 

According to his obituary in the St Louis Republic , Rainwater was “said to be the most universally beloved ex-Confederate in Missouri.” and belonged to various clubs, lodges, and charities. In 1876, he was elected St Louis Police Commissioner. C.C Rainwater was also, as earlier indicated, the founder of the Rainwater Rifles. 

The vast majority of forces on both sides in the Civil War were drawn from local volunteer militias, financially supported by their states of origin. For example, C.C. Rainwater was a member of the secessionist Missouri State Guard, and served the Confederate forces as a Major . After the War, interest in the militia dropped off, but began to grow again in the 1870s. As the horrors of war gave way to a certain nostalgia for it, various militias were in demand to provide parade and drill entertainment at civic celebrations. They also entered into competitions and tournaments, on sites like the St Louis Fair Grounds (about two miles from the city at the time) that resembled military encampments. 

In 1885, there were several competing companies; the Lafayette Guards, Morgan Cadets, Tredway Rifles and the Rainwater Rifles, which dated its organization back to at least 1877. Anheuser-Busch even sponsored a contingent, the Busch Zouaves. Drills, drum contests, bugle contests, and band concerts were staged and continued well into the evening. 

Details of an 1885 encampment reveal that there was a game of base-ball played between the Lafayette Guards and the Jacksonville Blues, with the Blues winning 6-1. Private Lightner of  the Lafayette Guards lost his rubber coat and ten dollars. A sham battle would often wind up a tournament. Eating facilities were all that could be desired, and young ladies were numerous and pretty.  

The Post Dispatch in 1886 had a long feature on the “finest looking military company in the National Guard”, the Rainwater Rifles.  And what dandies they were! Company E, First Regiment was cited by the paper for its reputation of “solidity and general excellence”, adding that there is a “noticeable absence of the silk stocking and la-de-dah element, so common among the citizen soldiery.” 

There were national encampments, with interstate competition, and the Rifles acquitted themselves well every year. They also sponsored an annual “hop” or dance at the St Louis Armory Hall, and later at the swanky Lindell Hotel which became a social highlight in the city. 

A conclave at Armory Hall in September of 1886 led to some misbehavior. The St Louis Light Cavalry Company provided the Armory Building free of charge to the Ivanhoe Commandery. They, in turn, hosted the California Knights Templar commanders, and “wines and liquors flowed freely.” The apartments there had been painstakingly decorated by the local groups, and the Rainwater Rifles and Busch Zouaves had papered the walls and carpeted the floors of their rooms, before turning them over to the Knights. In modern parlance, the rooms were then trashed, and one California commandery kept a live bear in theirs. Punch bowls were dumped and sandwiches ground into carpets. The paper dryly noted that at the conclusion of such an event, festivities were to be expected, and that reparations would be made. What really riled everyone was the theft of the champagne by parties unknown. Opinions ranged from quietly dropping the subject to filing charges and initiating court marshal proceedings.  

1886 was a big year for the boys. They had practiced banging along with a very popular song of the time – Giuseppe Verdi’s Anvil Chorus. The song, Coro di Zingari, depicts Spanish Gypsies striking their anvils at dawn and singing the praises of hard work, good wine and Gypsy women. Sounds about right for a group of peacetime soldiers. Here’s a sample; tune in at the 2:25 mark for the part the Rainwater Rifles played – a real crowd pleaser:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WEMMVHAINFM

This became a feature of the group and was repeated several times, even becoming an event unto itself: 

In 1891, there was an encampment on the shores of Lake Contrary, and the guardhouse was said to hold prisoners from nearly every company in the camp; 78 in all. Infractions cited included the inability to offer the proper password to a challenge, and the plundering of a hog from a farmer across the lake, evidenced by the “fragments of fresh pork found around the camp of the Third Regiment”. It seemed all in good fun, except for the costs of engagement. For the Rainwater Rifles, these victims included Captain Warren, overcome by the heat, Private Smith, “laid up with ivy poisoning and in a badly swollen condition”, and Private Sturgis, “picked up for drunk and treated roughly by the police before his friends could interfere.”It was noted that two young guardsmen had jumped in the lake to escape, and after a half hour chase, were pulled from a tangle of moss and water lilies, half-drowned. 

The Rainwater Rifles, though strictly speaking a function of the Army, proved itself adept on the water as well. It took its drill routines to the river in early promotional cruises sponsored by the Post Dispatch: 

P-D Riverboat Excursion Ad, 1891

A yearly feature of St Louis in the later part of the 19th century was the exposition hosted by the Agricultural and Mechanical Association from 1856 through 1902 at Fairgrounds Park. It was, in effect, a giant county fair on a 143 acre site on North Grand Avenue. The fairgrounds featured the largest amphitheater in America at the time, capable of seating 12,000. There was a racetrack, zoo, fine arts pavilion, buildings for showing off mechanical and agricultural advances, and a three story “Chicken Palace” for displaying poultry.

Fairgrounds Park, 1875

In 1894, There was a Rainwater Rifles Day feature at the Expo. They drilled in the evening, between musical events on the Music Hall stage, and “their admirers, of whom there are a very large number, will pack the large auditorium to witness their evolutions.” They also sold souvenir programs, with photos and the history of the unit.  

Sousa And Rifles, 1894

Seriously, can you imagine John Philip Sousa taking second billing to the Rainwater Rifles? True story. As an ad for the 1894 Exposition warns – “To miss seeing it is to be guilty of  an act of uncalled-for self sacrifice.”

The Rainwater Rifles seemed the perfect accompanyment to almost any function. There are

Rainwater Rifles Day, 1894

reports of how “pretty” the contrast of military uniform with ballroom gowns looked at high society balls, and how dashing and dapper the members of the group looked while mixing with St Louis society. And it continued into the new century.

Tableaux vivants, which were static scenes staged featuring living people, were a rage in Europe at the turn of the 20th century. America was generally too impatient for this sort of passive entertainment. We wanted active simulations of great events. Below, a dramatization called the Battle of Shanandoah, featured 165 players, including those ubiquitous Rainwater Rifles. 

C.C. Rainwater, the founder of the group, died at his home at 21 Benton Place in 1902. That, and the re-defining moment of the 1904 Worlds Fair, compounded by the advancing age of most of the original members of the Rainwater Rifles led to its dissolution. Indeed, military drill units everywhere were disbanding, and the Civil War was becoming the province of historians. 

Charles Rainwater regularly attended the Lafayette Park United Methodist Church, now celebrating its 175th year in St Louis. One of the western stained glass panels in the church is a tribute from C.C. to his parents, there for you to see today.

 

Robert E.Lee was quoted as saying, “It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.” World War I, which was soon to follow the Worlds Fair era, had little noble or sentimental to recommend it. Much of the war was fought from trenches in the mud, rising occasionally into the indiscriminate scything of machine gun fire, or poison gas. It was difficult to romanticize, although the perceived need to settle differences with arms persists as part of the human condition.

Drill teams largely devolved into becoming halftime entertainment at high school football games. When I attended a Lindbergh High School game about a decade ago, I was struck by the oddness of girls in sparkly outfits throwing wooden rifles in the air, and to each other. It would have been completely incongruous except for serving as a vestige of a time when it was part of a richer paramilitary past in America.

Maybe the thing best appreciated is the simple gesture of 21 Benton Place transferring peacefully from a highly placed Republican Union officer to a similarly well-regarded Democratic Confederate officer. It became home in the mid-1940’s to John Albury Bryan, who proved to be the initial mover in the eventual restoration of Lafayette Square. The house certainly sits on solid ground.  

Thanks to research sources, including:

Historic American Buildings Survey; Library of Congress; https://www.loc.gov/resource/hhh.mo0270.photos/?sp=1

Photo of John Cavender from Library of Congress, via Picryl, a huge collection of open source photography at https://picryl.com

The Rainwater Collection: A Genealogial Archive, Susan Chance-Rainwater & R. Steven Rainwater; 2018; 

The remarkably useful Find A Grave website, https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/19342/john-smith-cavender

Saint Louis The Future Great City Of The World; L.U. Reavis; C.R. Barns, St Louis; 1876

A good history of militias from the founding of the U.S. through the creation of the National Guard is at https://angrystaffofficer.com/2017/03/20/a-short-history-of-the-militia-in-the-united-states/

Wikipedia entry for The St Louis Exposition at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Louis_Exposition

The Compton Dry Pictorial Map of St Louis is truly unbelievable in its detail of the city in 1875. A wonderful version is in the Library of Congress. The image of Fairgrounds Park extracted for this essay is from plate 85, here: https://www.loc.gov/resource/g4164sm.gpm00001/?sp=85&r=-0.047,0.152,0.966,0.56,0

Rainwater obituary from St Louis Republic; November 11, 1902; page 9 and St Louis Post-Dispatch of the same date; page 6.

Thanks to long time residents and parishioners Tom and Lynne Keay for the tour of the Methodist Church, and for pointing out the Rainwater window.

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