The Confused Missouri Situation

September 23, 1861 – Despite the recent loss of Lexington and the scattering of his forces, Major General John C. Fremont notified his superiors that his troops were somehow “gathering around the enemy” in Missouri.

Major General John C. Fremont | Image Credit:
Major General John C. Fremont | Image Credit:

Fremont’s Department of the West consisted of nearly 40,000 Federal officers and men in Missouri. However, they were scattered among various posts, and as President Lincoln predicted, Fremont’s declaration of martial law and emancipation proclamation had incited Missouri State Guards and partisans into stepping up their attacks on the Federals.

Fremont commanded several major Federal forces in northern and western Missouri, as well as a force under Brigadier-General Ulysses S. Grant that operated in the southeastern Missouri-southern Illinois-western Kentucky sector. Grant learned from “a negro man (who) tells a very straight story” that partisans were gathering at New Madrid, Missouri, and prepared to confront them. However, Fremont pulled two regiments from his command in response to an urgent call from Washington to send reinforcements east. This temporarily halted Grant’s offensive.

In western Missouri, Unionist Kansans led by James H. Lane operated along the Kansas-Missouri border. Lane’s Jayhawkers burned the Missouri town of Osceola and committed other depredations that gained no military advantage. They only continued the brutal combat that had taken place along the border before the war began, when Missourians and southerners fought to make Kansas a slave state and northern abolitionists fought to make it free.

In northern Missouri, Federals under Colonel Jefferson C. Davis (no relation to the Confederate president) clashed with Missourians in the Boonville area, while a force under Brigadier-General Samuel D. Sturgis pulled back from Rolla to St. Charles. Fremont sent Brigadier-General John Pope, commanding another Federal force in the region, to Iowa to recruit more volunteers.

Brig-Gen John Pope | Image Credit:
General John Pope | Image Credit:

Fremont’s failure to effectively coordinate the movements of Davis, Sturgis, and Pope allowed a large Missouri partisan force under Martin Green to operate around Florida and then escape pursuit. It also helped lead to the fall of Lexington. Pope learned of the dire situation at Lexington while en route to Iowa and informed Fremont that he would send reinforcements there, “presuming from General Sturgis’ dispatches that there is imminent want of troops in Lexington.” However, Fremont instructed Pope to continue recruiting efforts in Iowa, and none of the other nearby Federal forces could reach the town in time.

Despite all this, Fremont sent a favorable message to Washington on September 23, to which Lieutenant-General Winfield Scott replied: “The President is glad that you are hastening to the scene of action. His words are, ‘He expects you to repair the disaster at Lexington without loss of time.’”

Fremont set about reorganizing his army into five divisions, with Pope commanding the right wing. Major General David Hunter would command the left, but his forces were dispersed throughout various points. Fremont initially planned to have Hunter concentrate at Jefferson City, but that would leave the region west of Rolla open for Missouri State Guards to operate with impunity. Repositioning all the elements of the Army of the West caused many logistical problems for Fremont.

Meanwhile, General Sterling Price, whose State Guards had captured Lexington, received word that Confederates under Generals Gideon Pillow and William Hardee had withdrawn from southeastern Missouri, and General Ben McCulloch’s Confederates had fallen back into Arkansas. This left Price alone while a force led by Fremont himself advanced from St. Louis to take back Lexington. Price resolved to abandon the town.

General Albert Sidney Johnston, the new commander of Confederate Department No. 2 (i.e., the Western Theater), had his sights set on Missouri as part of a bigger picture that also included Arkansas and Kentucky. Johnston ordered McCulloch “to muster into service as many armed regiments of Arkansas and Missouri troops” as possible. Johnston also ordered M. Jeff Thompson to lead his Missouri State Guards to the “vicinity of Farmington, on the route to Saint Louis” to “relieve the pressure of the Federal forces on General Price… and if possible to embarrass their movements by cutting their Ironton Railroad.” Thompson quickly dispatched troops to destroy railroad bridges around Charleston and Birds Point by month’s end.


References; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Kindle Edition 2008, 1889), Loc 6873; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 72-74, 78; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 61-64, 67; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 113, 120-21; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 156-57


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