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Chapter 17.

  • General Scott's plans
  • -- criticized as the “Anaconda” -- the three fields of conflict -- Fremont appointed Major -- General -- his military failures- -- battle of Wilson's Creek -- Hunter ordered to Fremont -- Fremont's proclamation -- President Revokes Fremont's proclamation -- Lincoln's letter to Browning- -- surrender of Lexington -- Fremont takes the field -- Cameron's visit to Fremont -- Fremont's removal
    The military genius and experience of General Scott, from the first, pretty correctly divined the grand outline of military operations which would become necessary in reducing the revolted Southern States to renewed allegiance. Long before the battle of Bull Run was planned, he urged that the first seventy-five regiments of three months militia could not be relied on for extensive campaigns, because their term of service would expire before they could be well organized. His outline suggestion, therefore, was that the new three years volunteer army be placed in ten or fifteen healthy camps and given at least four months of drill and tactical instruction; and when the navy had, by a rigid blockade, closed all the harbors along the seaboard of the Southern States, the fully prepared army should, by invincible columns, move down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, leaving a strong cordon of military posts behind it to keep open the stream, join hands with the blockade, and thus envelop the principal [232] area of rebellion in a powerful military grasp which would paralyze and effectually kill the insurrection. Even while suggesting this plan, however, the general admitted that the great obstacle to its adoption would be the impatience of the patriotic and loyal Union people and leaders, who would refuse to wait the necessary length of time.

    The general was correct in his apprehension. The newspapers criticized his plan in caustic editorials and ridiculous cartoons as “Scott's Anaconda,” and public opinion rejected it in an overwhelming demand for a prompt and energetic advance. Scott was correct in military theory, while the people and the administration were right in practice, under existing political conditions. Although Bull Run seemed to justify the general, West Virginia and Missouri vindicated the President and the people.

    It can now be seen that still a third element-geography-intervened to give shape and sequence to the main outlines of the Civil War. When, at the beginning of May, General Scott gave his advice, the seat of government of the first seven Confederate States was still at Montgomery, Alabama. By the adhesion of the four interior border States to the insurrection, and the removal of the archives and administration of Jefferson Davis to Richmond, Virginia, toward the end of June, as the capital of the now eleven Confederate States, Washington necessarily became the center of Union attack, and Richmond the center of Confederate defense. From the day when McDowell began his march to Bull Run, to that when Lee evacuated Richmond in his final hopeless flight, the route between these two opposing capitals remained the principal and dominating line of military operations, and the region between Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River on the [233] east, and the chain of the Alleghanies on the west, the primary field of strategy.

    According to geographical features, the second great field of strategy lay between the Alleghany Mountains and the Mississippi River, and the third between the Mississippi River, the Rocky Mountains, and the Rio Grande. Except in Western Virginia, the attitude of neutrality assumed by Kentucky for a considerable time delayed the definition of the military frontier and the beginning of active hostilities in the second field, thus giving greater momentary importance to conditions existing and events transpiring in Missouri, with the city of St. Louis as the principal center of the third great military field.

    The same necessity which dictated the promotion of General McClellan at one bound from captain to major-general compelled a similar phenomenal promotion, not alone of officers of the regular army, but also of eminent civilians to high command and military responsibility in the immense volunteer force authorized by Congress. Events, rather than original purpose, had brought McClellan into prominence and ranking duty; but now, by design, the President gave John C. Fremont a commission of major-general, and placed him in command of the third great military field, with headquarters at St. Louis, with the leading idea that he should organize the military strength of the Northwest, first, to hold Missouri to the Union, and, second, by a carefully prepared military expedition open the Mississippi River. By so doing, he would sever the Confederate States, reclaim or conquer the region lying west of the great stream, and thus reduce by more than one half the territorial area of the insurrection. Though he had been an army lieutenant, he had no experience in active war; yet the talent and energy [234] he had displayed in Western military exploration, and the political prominence he had reached as candidate of the Republican party for President in 1856, seemed to fit him preeminently for such a duty.

    While most of the volunteers from New England and the Middle States were concentrated at Washington and dependent points, the bulk of the Western regiments was, for the time being, put under the command of Fremont for present and prospective duty. But the high hopes which the administration placed in the general were not realized. The genius which could lead a few dozen or a few hundred Indian scouts and mountain trappers over desert plains and through the fastnesses of the Sierra Nevada, that could defy savage hostilities and outlive starvation amid imprisoning snows, failed signally before the task of animating and combining the patriotic enthusiasm of eight or ten great northwestern States, and organizing and leading an army of one hundred thousand eager volunteers in a comprehensive and decisive campaign to recover a great national highway. From the first, Fremont failed in promptness, in foresight, in intelligent supervision; and, above all, in inspiring confidence and attracting assistance and devotion. His military administration created serious extravagance and confusion, and his personal intercourse excited the distrust and resentment of the governors and civilian officials, whose counsel and cooperation were essential to his usefulness and success.

    While his resources were limited, and while he fortified St. Louis and reinforced Cairo, a yet more important point needed his attention and help. Lyon, who had followed Governor Jackson and General Price in their flight from Boonville to Springfield in southern Missouri, found his forces diminished beyond his expectation [235] by the expiration of the term of service of his three months regiments, and began to be threatened by a northward concentration of Confederate detachments from the Arkansas line and the Indian Territory. The neglect of his appeals for help placed him in the situation where he could neither, safely remain inactive, nor safely retreat. He therefore took the chances of scattering the enemy before him by a sudden, daring attack with his five thousand effectives, against nearly treble numbers, in the battle of Wilson's Creek, at daylight on August 10. The casualties on the two sides were nearly equal, and the enemy was checked and crippled; but the Union army sustained a fatal loss in the death of General Lyon, who was instantly killed while leading a desperate bayonet charge. His skill and activity had, so far, been the strength of the Union cause in Missouri. The absence of his counsel and personal example rendered a retreat to the railroad terminus at Rolla necessary. This discouraging event turned public criticism sharply upon Fremont. Loath to yield to mere public clamor, and averse to hasty changes in military command, Mr. Lincoln sought to improve the situation by sending General David Hunter to take a place on Fremont's staff.

    General Fremont needs assistance,” said his note to Hunter, “which it is difficult to give him. He is losing the confidence of men near him, whose support any man in his position must have to be successful. His cardinal mistake is that he isolates himself, and allows nobody to see him; and by which he does not know what is going on in the very matter he is dealing with, He needs to have by his side a man of large experience. Will you not, for me, take that place? Your rank is one grade too high to be ordered to it; but will you not serve the country and oblige me by taking it voluntarily?” [236]

    This note indicates, better than pages of description, the kind, helpful, and forbearing spirit with which the President, through the long four years war, treated his military commanders and subordinates; and which, in several instances, met such ungenerous return. But even while Mr. Lincoln was attempting to smooth this difficulty, Fremont had already burdened him with two additional embarrassments. One was a perplexing personal quarrel the general had begun with the influential Blair family, represented by Colonel Frank Blair, the indefatigable Unionist leader in Missouri, and Montgomery Blair, the postmaster-general in Lincoln's cabinet, who had hitherto been Fremont's most influential friends and supporters; and, in addition, the father of these, Francis P. Blair, Sr., a veteran politician whose influence dated from Jackson's administration, and through whose assistance Fremont had been nominated as presidential candidate in 1856.

    The other embarrassment was of a more serious and far-reaching nature. Conscious that he was losing the esteem and confidence of both civil and military leaders in the West, Fremont's adventurous fancy caught at the idea of rehabilitating himself before the public by a bold political manoeuver. Day by day the relation of slavery to the Civil War was becoming a more troublesome question, and exciting impatient and angry discussion. Without previous consultation with the President or any of his advisers or friends, Fremont, on August 30, wrote and printed, as commander of the Department of the West, a proclamation establishing martial law throughout the State of Missouri, and announcing that:

    All persons who shall be taken with arms in their hands within these lines shall be tried by court-martial, and if found guilty will be shot. The property, real [237] and personal, of all persons in the State of Missouri who shall take up arms against the United States, or who shall be directly proven to have taken an active part with their enemies in the field, is declared to be confiscated to the public use; and their slaves, if any they have, are hereby declared freemen.

    The reason given in the proclamation for this drastic and dictatorial measure was to suppress disorder, maintain the public peace, and protect persons and property of loyal citizens-all simple police duties. For issuing his proclamation without consultation with the President, he could offer only the flimsy excuse that it involved two days of time to communicate with Washington, while he well knew that no battle was pending and no invasion in progress. This reckless misuse of power President Lincoln also corrected with his dispassionate prudence and habitual courtesy. He immediately wrote to the general:

    My Dear Sir: Two points in your proclamation of August 30 give me some anxiety:

    First. Should you shoot a man, according to the proclamation, the Confederates would very certainly shoot our best men in their hands, in retaliation; and so, man for man, indefinitely. It is, therefore, my order that you allow no man to be shot under the proclamation, without first having my approbation or consent.

    Second. I think there is great danger that the closing paragraph, in relation to the confiscation of property and the liberating slaves of traitorous owners, will alarm our Southern Union friends and turn them against us; perhaps ruin our rather fair prospect for Kentucky. Allow me, therefore, to ask that you will, as of your own motion, modify that paragraph so as to conform to the first and fourth sections of the act [238] of Congress entitled, “An act to confiscate property used for insurrectionary purposes,” approved August 6, 1861, and a copy of which act I herewith send you.

    This letter is written in a spirit of caution, and not of censure. I send it by a special messenger, in order that it may certainly and speedily reach you.

    But the headstrong general was too blind and selfish to accept this mild redress of a fault that would have justified instant displacement from command. He preferred that the President should openly direct him to make the correction. Admitting that he decided in one night upon the measure, he added: “If I were to retract it of my own accord, it would imply that I myself thought it wrong, and that I had acted without the reflection which the gravity of the point demanded.” The inference is plain that Fremont was unwilling to lose the influence of his hasty step upon public opinion. But by this course he deliberately placed himself in an attitude of political hostility to the administration.

    The incident produced something of the agitation which the general had evidently counted upon. Radical antislavery men throughout the free States applauded his act and condemned the President, and military emancipation at once became a subject of excited discussion. Even strong conservatives were carried away by the feeling that rebels would be but properly punished by the loss of their slaves. To Senator Browning, the President's intimate personal friend, who entertained this feeling, Mr. Lincoln wrote a searching analysis of Fremont's proclamation and its dangers:

    Yours of the seventeenth is just received; and, coming from you, I confess it astonishes me. That you should object to my adhering to a law which you had assisted in making and presenting to me, less than a month before, is odd enough. But this is a very small [239] part. General Fremont's proclamation as to confiscation of property and the liberation of slaves is purely political, and not within the range of military law or necessity. If a commanding general finds a necessity to seize the farm of a private owner, for a pasture, an encampment, or a fortification, he has the right to do so, and to so hold it as long as the necessity lasts; and this is within military law, because within military necessity. But to say the farm shall no longer belong to the owner or his heirs forever, and this as well when the farm is not needed for military purposes as when it is, is purely political, without the savor of military law about it. And the same is true of slaves. If the general needs them he can seize them and use them, but when the need is past, it is not for him to fix their permanent future condition. That must be settled according to laws made by law-makers, and not by military proclamations. The proclamation in the point in question is simply “dictatorship.” It assumes that the general may do anything he pleases-confiscate the lands and free the slaves of loyal people, as well as of disloyal ones. And going the whole figure, I have no doubt, would be more popular, with some thoughtless people, than that which has been done! But I cannot assume this reckless position, nor allow others to assume it on my responsibility.

    You speak of it as being the only means of saving the government. On the contrary, it is itself the surrender of the government. Can it be pretended that it is any longer the government of the United States-any government of constitution and laws-wherein a general or a president may make permanent rules of property by proclamation? I do not say Congress might not, with propriety, pass a law on the point, just such as General Fremont proclaimed. I do not say I [240] might not, as a member of Congress, vote for it. What I object to is, that I, as President, shall expressly or impliedly seize and exercize the permanent legislative functions of the government.

    So much as to principle. Now as to policy. No doubt the thing was popular in some quarters, and would have been more so if it had been a general declaration of emancipation. The Kentucky legislature would not budge till that proclamation was modified; and General Anderson telegraphed me that on the news of General Fremont having actually issued deeds of manumission, a whole company of our volunteers threw down their arms and disbanded. I was so assured. as to think it probable that the very arms we had furnished Kentucky would be turned against us. I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game. Kentucky gone, we cannot hold Missouri, nor, as I think, Maryland. These all against us, and the job on our hands is too large for us. We would as well consent to separation at once, including the surrender of this capital.

    If it be objected that the President himself decreed military emancipation a year later, then it must be remembered that Fremont's proclamation differed in many essential particulars from the President's edict of January I, 1863. By that time, also, the entirely changed conditions justified a complete change of policy; but, above all, the supreme reason of military necessity, upon which alone Mr. Lincoln based the constitutionality of his edict of freedom, was entirely wanting in the case of Fremont.

    The harvest of popularity which Fremont evidently hoped to secure by his proclamation was soon blighted by a new military disaster. The Confederate forces which had been united in the battle of Wilson's Creek [241] quickly became disorganized through the disagreement of their leaders and the want of provisions and other military supplies, and mainly returned to Arkansas and the Indian Territory, whence they had come. But General Price, with his Missouri contingent, gradually increased his followers, and as the Union retreat from Springfield to Rolla left the way open, began a northward march through the western part of the State to attack Colonel Mulligan, who, with about twenty-eight hundred Federal troops, intrenched himself at Lexington on the Missouri River. Secession sympathy was strong along the line of his march, and Price gained adherents so rapidly that on September 18 he was able to invest Mulligan's position with a somewhat irregular army numbering about twenty thousand. After a two days siege, the garrison was compelled to surrender, through the exhaustion of the supply of water in their cisterns. The victory won, Price again immediately retreated southward, losing his army almost as fast as he had collected it, made up, as it was, more in the spirit and quality of a sudden border foray than an organized campaign.

    For this new loss, Fremont was subjected to a shower of fierce criticism, which this time he sought to disarm by ostentatious announcements of immediate activity. “I am taking the field myself,” he telegraphed, “and hope to destroy the enemy either before or after the junction of forces under McCulloch.” Four days after the surrender, the St. Louis newspapers printed his order organizing an army of five divisions. The document made a respectable show of force on paper, claiming an aggregate of nearly thirty-nine thousand. In reality, however, being scattered and totally unprepared for the field, it possessed no such effective strength. For, a month longer extravagant [242] newspaper reports stimulated the public with the hope of substantial results from Fremont's intended campaign. Before the end of that time, however, President Lincoln, under growing apprehension, sent Secretary of War Cameron and the adjutant-general of the army to Missouri to make a personal investigation. Reaching Fremont's camp on October 13, they found the movement to be a mere forced, spasmodic display, without substantial strength, transportation, or coherent and feasible plan; and that at least two of the division commanders were without means to execute the orders they had received, and utterly without confidence in their leader, or knowledge of his intentions.

    To give Fremont yet another chance, the Secretary of War withheld the President's order to relieve the general from command, which he had brought with him, on Fremont's insistence that a victory was really within his reach. When this hope also proved delusive, and suspicion was aroused that the general might be intending not only to deceive, but to defy the administration, President Lincoln sent the following letter by a special friend to General Curtis, commanding at St. Louis:

    Dear Sir: On receipt of this, with the accompanying inclosures, you will take safe, certain, and suitable measures to have the inclosure addressed to Major-General Fremont delivered to him with all reasonable dispatch, subject to these conditions only, that if, when General Fremont shall be reached by the messenger-yourself, or any one sent by you-he shall then have, in personal command, fought and won a battle, or shall then be actually in a battle, or shall then be in the immediate presence of the enemy in expectation of a battle, it is not to be delivered, but held for [243] further orders. After, and not till after, the delivery to General Fremont, let the inclosure addressed to General Hunter be delivered to him.

    The order of removal was delivered to Fremont on November 2. By that date he had reached Springfield, but had won no victory, fought no battle, and was not in the presence of the enemy. Two of his divisions were not yet even with him. Still laboring under the delusion, perhaps imposed on him by his scouts, his orders stated that the enemy was only a day's march distant, and advancing to attack him. The inclosure mentioned in the President's letter to Curtis was an order to General David Hunter to relieve Fremont. When he arrived and assumed command the scouts he sent forward found no enemy within reach, and no such contingency of battle or hope of victory as had been rumored and assumed.

    Fremont's personal conduct in these disagreeable circumstances was entirely commendable. He took leave of the army in a short farewell order, couched in terms of perfect obedience to authority and courtesy to his successor, asking for him the same cordial support he had himself received. Nor did he by word or act justify the suspicions of insubordination for which some of his indiscreet adherents had given cause. Under the instructions President Lincoln had outlined in his order to Hunter, that general gave up the idea of indefinitely pursuing Price, and divided the army into two corps of observation, which were drawn back and posted, for the time being, at the two railroad termini of Rolla and Sedalia, to be recruited and prepared for further service.

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