The Civil War in Missouri

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The Artifact Gallery was made possible by a generous gift from the William T. Kemper Foundation – Commerce Bank, Trustee.

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Banjo of Ralph W. Mills

ca. 1861
MHM Collections

Ralph W. Mills’s son Edwin claimed that his father made this banjo during the Civil War in his spare time as a weigher (one who weighs commodities or tests weights) in St. Louis. Edwin also maintained that his father was commissioned a corporal during the war but was released from service because of deafness. Records show that Mills did serve as a corporal with the 8th Enrolled Missouri Militia, a Union regiment, but the reason for his discharge is not stated. He is identified as city weigher on the oath of loyalty to the United States that he signed in December 1861, but whether he made the banjo during his downtime in that position cannot be known. What is certain is that Mills crafted a fine instrument using materials that would have been readily available to him—a billet of rosewood for the neck with mother of pearl inlay, and a common peck measure (a two-gallon wooden container) for the drum. Following the war, Mills worked for years as a clerk with the Laclede Iron Works and with U.S. Customs.