by Bill Gottlieb
Moniteau, Missouri farmers are made of hard material. They fasten on a few practices and beliefs and hold to them exclusively. No one can outdo them in their kind of Christian virtue. They are for a narrow compass of activity even in what their children are allowed to accomplish. More miserable in success than failure, they discourage undo enterprise as boastful before God. From God’s grace alone, not man’s works, comes salvation. Man is a weak vessel, they say, bent down by rain and heat and the turn of the seasons. Yet God grants bread for the table. All glory goes to Him. These farmers are hard as nails, yet their point of view is accounted as pliant and acquiescent and conducive to a mild and blameless life.
Dr. Morrison thought differently. He believed in the gift of reason: our ability to think is God given. Aren’t we bound to use it for our benefit? God doesn’t want us to pray for new dispensations — He wants us to act with the powers we have. The doctor had a prudent advocate in Mr. Eberhardt, a druggist, who filled his prescriptions and sat with patients for him when sickness swept the town. In his own evangelical church, Eberhardt praised Dr. Morrison and said learning brought hope for the future, allowing that “why some of the sickest live and the healthiest die is beyond our present understanding.”
The doctor had twin girls Mae and Jen, but it wasn’t for another 10 years after their birth that there was a third child, Lacey Morrison, named for the town’s Presbyterian minister. The boy’s mother had survived his birth but couldn’t recover her health. She died when the child was two. Mae and Jen, barely 13 years old, discharged the housekeeper, took over cooking, cleaning and laundry and started a business for cash: ladies societies and church groups, of any denomination, held their meetings at the Morrison’s with tea, sweets and sometimes lunch.
In May 1861, the doctor was called to join the medical service of the Second Iowa infantry. He was made a captain and charged with performing battlefield surgeries. His colleagues were other small-town doctors and backwoods surgeons from lumber camps and riverboats. Farms boys recovering from wounds were the nurses.
The Second Iowa had joined General Nathaniel Lyon’s Army of the West in defending Springfield MO against rebel attack. Rebel volunteers backed by regular troops from Arkansas wanted to use the city as headquarters for a secessionist Missouri state government.
The day before the battle was to begin, Captain Morrison received a visitor: an old farmer from Moniteau who had ridden 60 miles through disputed territory, deducing the location of the captain’s camp from the lay of army requisitions and the diversion of regular traffic on the Missouri Central line south from St. Louis toward the rail head above Springfield. He brought a message from Eberhardt: Lacey had smallpox. When the captain read the message, he informed his colleagues that his son was ill, left written word with his superior officer, and rode off to Moniteau, covering the 60-mile trip in 15 hours.
He arrived at night to a dimly lit house. The child lay in the big bed in his father’s room on the second floor. Open windows flanked the bed. Mae and Jen, who had nursed the child, who were there when the captain arrived, and who knew the power of divine intervention, testified later that the minute Captain Morrison entered the sickroom, bent his knee by the bed and begged God to have mercy on his son, though it was near midnight, a light appeared inside the room as though the very air was on fire, and the boy, who had not moved for days, and for whose life they feared, rose and embraced his father. In a matter of minutes, the disease had left him.
When Doctor Morrison returned to military camp, he was given a drumhead court martial. He was not technically a deserter because he had returned to service quickly, but he had left at the time of engagement with the enemy. Before the Company, he was stripped of his rank, demoted to private and given hard labor duty for the rest of his service term.
On June 25, 1865, Private Morrison received an Honorable Discharge from the Second Iowa and returned home, where the Moniteau farmers welcomed him with gifts of corn, squash, milk and wood.
Bill Gottlieb formerly represented intelectually challenged people in government benefit cases. Before that, he was a rank-and-file union organizer and a New York City bus driver.