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Chapter 22: some Abolition leaders

The references that have been made to General Frank P. Blair of Missouri have not been complimentary to that individual. They would indicate on the part of the writer no very exalted admiration for or estimate of the man. In that particular they are not altogether just. The stormy period of the Rebellion brought out few more picturesque figures than his, or in some respects more admirable characters. There is no question that, but for the efforts of Blair, the Rebels would have effected the capture of St. Louis at the beginning of the war, to be followed by the at least temporary control of the entire State of Missouri, and possibly of Kansas as well. To that end preparations had been carefully and skillfully made. The leader in the movement was none other than Missouri's Governor, Claiborne F. Jackson, who was justly looked upon as one of the most consummate and accomplished schemers of the time. He was a Rebel from head to foot. He had taken office with the deliberate purpose of swinging his State into the Confederate column, and without regard to the wishes of the majority of the people whom he officially represented. He was supported by a sympathetic corps [187] of official assistants, including a majority of the Legislature of his State, who gave him whatever legislation he wanted. Every advantage seemed to be on his side. He would undoubtedly have succeeded but for the opposition of Blair. In him he encountered an equal in cunning, and more than a match in courage and energy.

When the Governor and his helpers were busy raising an army pursuant to the conditions of a law that had been enacted for the purpose, and which hampered their operations, Blair went ahead in raising and equipping an army on the other side without the slightest regard to law. The presence or absence of a statute did not trouble him in the least. He called on the Unionists to organize and arm, and when a sufficient force, composed in greater part of loyal Germans, had responded he struck the first blow. In a legal aspect the whole proceeding was irregular, but it was none the less effective.

When the Governor's army was quietly encamped on the outskirts of St. Louis, for the capture and occupancy of which it was getting ready, it found itself unexpectedly surrounded by a superior force, and its surrender was demanded in a way that admitted of no denial. The writer was present on the occasion. From a convenient eminence he witnessed the whole proceeding. When Jackson's men-the rendezvous had in honor of his Excellency the Governor been named Camp Jackson — were enjoying themselves on a pleasant summer's day, sleeping on the grass, playing cards, or escorting their lady friends and other visitors about the grounds, suddenly they realized that their position was [188] commanded by hostile guns. Pointing downward from higher ground not far off were nearly a score of frowning cannons, behind which stood men with burning fuses. I had watched the Union forces as they approached. At the foot of the hill that hid them from the camp they paused for a few moments, and then up the hill went the horses that were dragging the cannons at a run. They were wheeled when the summit was reached, and the guns thrown into position. Everything was ready for action. At the same time large bodies of armed men, their arms glittering in the sunlight, were seen approaching from all sides on the double quick. The Rebels were completely entrapped, and their immediate capitulation was a thing of course. The credit for the maneuvers of the day was given to Captain-afterwards General-Nathaniel Lyon, who was in immediate command of the Unionists, but everybody understood that the real leader, as well as instigator, of the movement was Blair.

Blair had been the admitted leader of the Missouri Abolitionists. He was as radical as any man among them. One day he stopped me on the street for the purpose of thanking me for a paper I had contributed to the Missouri Democrat, in which I had favored what was practically immediate emancipation in Missouri. He said that was the right kind of talk, and what we had to come to. I felt greatly flattered, because there was nothing in the article that disclosed its authorship, and Mr. Blair had taken the trouble to inquire about it.

Blair turned against the Missouri Abolitionists when a decided majority of them turned against [189] him in his quarrel with Fremont. They indorsed Fremont's emancipation proclamation, which the President, at Blair's instigation, it was charged at the time, revoked.

Blair was a man not only of strong ambition but of arbitrary temperament. He could not tolerate the idea of a newcomer pre-empting what he had considered his premises. If he could not rule he was ready to ruin. That disposition accorded with both his mental and physical make-up. Bodily he was a bundle of bones and nerves without a particle of surplus flesh. His hair was red, his complexion was sandy, and his eyes, when he was excited and angry, had a baleful expression that led some one in my presence on a certain occasion to speak of them as “brush-heaps afire.”

He was not an eloquent man, although a ready and frequent public speaker. His voice was not musical. His strong forte was invective. He was nearly always denouncing somebody. Apparently, he was never so happy as when making another miserable. Sometimes his personal allusions were very broad. He was accustomed in his speeches to refer to one of Missouri's United States Senators as “that lop-eared vulgarian.” That he was not almost all the time in personal difficulties was due to the fact that he was known to be a man of exceptional courage. He was a born fighter. Physically I think he was the bravest man I ever knew. I witnessed several manifestations of his fearlessness, but one particularly impressed me.

I have spoken of the Camp Jackson affair. Although the people in the Rebel encampment surrendered [190] without a blow, the incident was attended with considerable bloodshed. A mob of Rebel sympathizers, consisting largely of half-grown boys-I was in the midst of the throng at the time-with their pistols opened fire on a German Union regiment and killed several of its men. The troops, in return, poured a volley into the crowd of spectators from which the shots had come, killing or wounding over forty persons, the most of them, as is usual in such cases, being inoffensive onlookers. A man standing beside me and, like myself, a spectator, had the top of one ear clipped off by a Mini6 ball as cleanly as if it had been done with a knife. I found when, soon afterwards, I reached the business center of the city, where the Rebel element then largely predominated, that the story of the tragedy had swelled the number of the victims to one thousand. Intense excitement and the most furious indignation prevailed. Hundreds of men, with flaming faces, were swearing the most dreadful oaths that they would shoot Frank Blair, whom they seemed to regard as wholly responsible, on sight. Many of them were flourishing pistols in confirmation of their bloody purpose. Just then the attention of the crowd was drawn to an unusual spectacle. Down Fourth Street, which was then the leading business avenue of St. Louis, and at that time densely packed with the excited people, came the Union soldiers with the prisoners from Camp Jackson on their way to the United States Arsenal grounds. At the head of the procession marched the men of the First Missouri volunteer regiment, their guns “aport” and ready for immediate service, and at their head-the [191] only mounted man in the regiment, according to my recollection-rode their Colonel, who was Frank Blair. He was in full uniform, which made him still more conspicuous. No better target could have been offered. I watched the audacious man, expecting to hear a shot at any moment from the sidewalk, or from a window of one of the high buildings lining the street, and to see him topple from his saddle. He understood very well the danger he was braving. He knew that in that throng, where everybody was armed, there were hundreds toying with the triggers of their guns, and trying to muster sufficient courage to shoot him down. Slowly, and as calmly as if on ordinary dress parade, he led the way until he passed out of sight. I thought then, and still think, it was the pluckiest thing I ever witnessed.

The effect of the breaking up and capture of Camp Jackson was something wonderful. Up to that time, the Rebels of St. Louis and their sympathizers had been very demonstrative. In portions of the city the Rebel cockade, which was a red rosette pinned to the side of the hat, was conspicuous, and any one not displaying that decoration was in danger of having his hat smashed upon his head. After Camp Jackson's surrender, I never saw a Rebel cockade openly worn in St. Louis.

At the same time there was an extensive shifting of positions. A good many men of prominence and wealth, who had been leaning over towards the South, suddenly straightened up, and not a few of them showed a strong inclination the other way. Some of the evolutions they executed were amusing. [192] One of the first to discuss with the writer the Union defeat at Bull Run was a former United States Government official. He was tremendously excited and correspondingly exultant. After describing how the Southerners had vanquished the Government's men, and particularly how the South Carolina “black horse” had ridden them down in deadly slaughter, he cried out, “That's the way we will give it to you fellows all the time.”

Not very long afterwards General Grant, having entered Tennessee, and captured Fort Donelson, and many prisoners, was about to visit St. Louis, and the leading Unionists there decided to give him a grand reception and an elaborate dinner. Money had to be raised, and among those I met who were soliciting it was my ex-Government-official friend. He was fully as happy as he had been before, when the Fort Donelson affair was alluded to. “Did n't we give it to those fellows down there?” he exclaimed.

Out in western Missouri was a young lawyer of great ambition and considerable promise. He was afterwards a member of Congress. Like a good many others he was at first puzzled to know what course to take. In his dilemma he concluded to consult an old politician in that section who was much famed for his sagacity, and who bore the military title of General.

“If you contemplate remaining in Missouri,” said the older man to the junior, “you should take the Southern side. Missouri is a slave State and a Southern State, and she will naturally go with her section.” [193]

The young man availed himself of an opportunity to make a public address, in which he aligned himself in the strongest terms with those who had gone into rebellion. But scarcely had this been done when Lincoln issued his first call for troops, and among those nominated to command them was the old Missouri General. It was announced that he had accepted the appointment. The younger man was amazed. He went in hot haste for an explanation.

“It's all true,” said the General. “The fact is, when I talked with you before, I did not think the Northern people would fight for the Union, but I now see that I was mistaken; and when the Northern people, being the stronger and richer, do decide to go to war, they are almost certain to win. You had better take the Northern side.”

“ But it is too late,” said the youngster. “I have committed myself in that speech I made.”

“Oh! As for that matter,” was the reply, “it's of very little consequence if you have committed yourself. It's easy to make a speech on the other side and take the first one back. Nobody looks for consistency in times like these.”

Many Missourians, as well as many citizens of other border slave States, at the beginning of the trouble advocated a policy of neutrality. They saw no necessity for taking sides. I was at a meeting out in the interior of Missouri, where many citizens had come together to consult as to the policy they had better pursue. Among them was an old gentleman who seemed to be looked upon by his neighbors as a regular Nestor. He was called upon for his [194] views. “Gentlemen,” said he, “we have got to take sides and maintain our neutrality.”

In that section of the country was another distinguished and unique personage who conspicuously figured in the events that are here being dealt with.

I knew him intimately. I now refer to James H. Lane, who was better known as “Jim Lane,” of Kansas. Like Blair, Lane was a born leader of men, and a leader under exceptional conditions. He was generally credited with being a fighter-a dare-devil, in fact-and a desperado; but in the writer's opinion he was by no means Blair's equal in personal courage. He had a great deal to do in raising troops and organizing military movements, but he did not go to the front. His fighting was chiefly in “private scraps,” in one of which he killed his adversary.

His paramount ability was as a talker rather than as a fighter. He was an orator, and his oratory was of a kind that was exactly suited to his surroundings. No man could more readily adapt himself to the humor of his hearers. He knew precisely how to put himself on their level. I have seen him face an audience that was distinctly unfriendly, that would scarcely give him a hearing; and in less than half an hour every man in the crowd would be shouting his approval. He could go to his hearers if he could not bring them to him. I witnessed one of his performances in that line.

He was a candidate for re-election to the United States Senate. There was one rival that he particularly feared. The man was the late General Thomas Ewing, then a resident of Kansas. At that particular [195] time he was in the Army and the commandant of the St. Louis District in Missouri. Lane came to St. Louis and had a talk with the writer, freely admitting his dread of Ewing and asking for the Missouri Democrat's support. Having a considerable admiration for Lane as well as a liking for the man, I promised him such assistance as I could reasonably give. It happened to be at the time when General Sterling Price, in making his last raid into Missouri, was threatening St. Louis with an army of nearly twenty thousand men, and there was no adequate opposing force at hand. Ewing, with barely a tenth as many troops, went to the front and heroically engaged the enemy. With no protection but the walls of a little mud fort he succeeded in repelling the attack of his powerful adversary. That timely action probably saved St. Louis.

At this particular time it was arranged that there should be a meeting of the Republicans of St. Louis --it was in the midst of an exciting presidential campaign-at which Lane was to be the principal speaker. The meeting was held and Lane was addressing a large audience with great acceptance when the news of Ewing's achievement was received.

It was then customary, when war intelligence arrived in the course of any political gathering, and sometimes of religious gatherings, to suspend all other proceedings until it had been announced and the audience had time enough to manifest its feeling on the subject.

Lane was in the midst of an eloquent passage when he was interrupted by the arrival of the news referred to. He stepped back, and the news-bearer, [196] taking his place, proceeded to give a graphic description of Ewing's performance, concluding with a glowing eulogy on that personage, and which was received with tremendous cheering. Understanding Lane's feelings towards Ewing, I watched his face while these events were passing. It plainly showed his vexation. It was almost livid with suppressed emotion. But the time for him to resume his address had come. What would he do was the question I asked myself. He answered it very promptly. Jauntily stepping forward with his countenance fairly wreathed in smiles, he exclaimed, “Ladies and gentlemen, that is glo-o-orious news for us, but it's ter-r-r-ible for the other fellows.”

Lane's enemies were confident they had him beaten as a candidate for the Senate. He had done certain things that rendered him unpopular with his constituents. So certain were they that they did not think it necessary to make an effort, and, in consequence, remained inactive. Not so with Lane. He quietly waited until a few days before the choosing of the Legislature that was to decide on his case, and then he entered on a lightning canvass. Arranging for relays of fast horses — it was before the days of railroads in Kansas-he began a tour that would bring him practically face to face with every voter in the State. He traveled and spoke both by day and by night. Sometimes he addressed as many as a dozen audiences in twenty-four hours. The excitement attending his progress was great. Men came many miles to hear him, sometimes bringing their families with them. He succeeded in completely revolutionizing public opinion. It was [197] too late for his adversaries to attempt a countermovement, and the result was that Lane was reelected by an almost unanimous vote.

There was no doubt about Lane's attitude on the slavery question. He was not only a radical Abolitionist, but the acknowledged leader of the Free-State men of Kansas. He recognized no right of property in man, as many Missouri slaveholders learned to their sorrow. I was present when he congratulated a Kansas regiment that had just returned from a raid into Missouri, bringing many black people with it. “Fellow soldiers,” he shouted, “you entered Missouri a white body, but you have returned surrounded by a great black cloud. It is the work of the Lord.”

There was another man whose name, the author thinks, properly belongs under the heading of this chapter, and to whom, on account of pleasant personal recollections, he would like to refer. He was not a fighter like Blair and Lane, with whom his life was in striking contrast. He was essentially a man of peace. He was a Quaker. Although born in Kentucky he was an Abolitionist. I now refer to Levi Coffin of Cincinnati, who was credited with successfully assisting over three thousand runaway slaves on their way to freedom, and, in consequence, became distinguished among both friends and foes as the “President of ‘the Underground railroad.’ ” The most remarkable thing in his case was his immunity from legal punishment. The slaveholders knew very well what he was doing, but so expert was he in hiding his tracks that they could never get their clutches upon him. [198]

I had rather an amusing experience with Coffin. Having when a boy heard so much about him, I was anxious to see him and make his acquaintance. On the occasion of a visit to Cincinnati, with a letter of introduction from an acquaintance of Coffin, I went to his office, but not without trepidation. I found the great man engaged in a conversation with some one, his back being toward me, as I took my stand just inside of his door. How he became aware of my presence I don't know — I certainly made no noise to attract him-but he certainly knew I was there. Suspending the conversation in which he was engaged-he was seated in a revolving chair-he suddenly turned so as to confront me, and silently looked me over. At last he arose, and, stepping up to me, lifted my hat with one hand, and laid the other upon my head. I understood very well what his movements meant. He was looking for outward evidences of negro blood. So far as my complexion went a suspicion of African taint might very well have been entertained. I had been assisting my father in harvesting his wheat crop, and my face and hands had a heavy coating of tan, but my hair was straight and stiff. I could see that the old gentleman was puzzled. Not a word, so far, had been spoken on either side.

“Where is thee from?” was the question that broke the silence.

I answered that I was from Clark County, meaning Clark County, Ohio.

Coffin, however, evidently thought I referred to Clark County, Kentucky, from which there had been many fugitives, and that settled the matter in his mind. [199]

“But, my boy, thee seems to have had a good home,” continued the old gentleman as he looked over my clothes and general appearance. “Why is thee running away?”

Then came the explanation and the solemn Quaker indulged in a hearty laugh. He remarked that he knew my family very well by reputation, and that he had met my father in Abolitionist conventions --meetings he called them.

Then he invited me to go to his home and break bread with him. I vainly tried to decline. The old man would accept no excuse.

“Thy father would not refuse my hospitality.”

That settled the matter, and I accompanied my entertainer to his domicile. I was glad that I did so, as it gave me the opportunity to see and greet Coffin's wife, who was a charming elderly Quaker lady. She had gained a reputation as a helper of the slave almost equal to that of her husband.

When runaways set out on their venturesome journeys, they were generally very indifferently equipped. Ordinarily they had only the working garments they wore on the plantations, and these furnished but slight relief for a condition very near to nudity. Mrs. Coffin set apart a working room in her house, and there sympathizers of both races joined her in garment-making, the result being that very few fugitives left Cincinnati without being decently clothed.

At the Coffin table were several guests beside myself. One was a colored man. He had been a slave, I learned, but his freedom had been purchased, largely through the Coffins' efforts. [200]

After I left the Coffin mansion, I remembered my unused letter of introduction, which I had altogether forgotten. It was no longer called for.

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