Chained Down by a Merciless Tyranny

The Lincoln administration worked hard to keep the border state of Missouri in the Union, despite Governor Claiborne F. Jackson’s support for secession. Jackson declared that President Abraham Lincoln had provoked civil war and tended toward despotism by issuing his militia proclamation on April 15. Jackson asserted that Missourians sympathized with the Confederacy, and state forces seized Federal ordnance in Kansas City.

While Brigadier General William S. Harney was in Washington to discuss strategy, his second in command, Captain Nathaniel Lyon, seized the allegedly pro-secessionist Camp Jackson, sparking riots in St. Louis. Harney returned and helped restore order, despite Lyon’s protest that “the authority of General Harney under these circumstances embarrasses, in the most painful manner, the execution of the plans I had contemplated, and upon which the safety and welfare of the Government, as I conceive, so much depend, and which must be decided in a very short period.”

The Missouri legislature, which had been mostly Unionist until the St. Louis riots, hurriedly assembled at Jefferson City. Fearing that Lyon’s Federals would soon drive west from St. Louis to attack the town, they quickly approved a measure giving the state government absolute power to raise an army and defend Missouri against Federal aggression.

General Harney, still trying to keep the tenuous peace in St. Louis, issued a proclamation the next day stating that the measure could not be “regarded in any other light than an indirect secession order.” He called on Missourians to ignore it. An editorial in the St. Louis Republican denounced Harney for encouraging the people to disregard their popularly elected legislators: “We are bound hand and foot; chained down by a merciless tyranny; are subjugated and shackled.” Federal troops soon closed the newspaper down.

While Harney was condemned by Missourians for overriding their state government, Lincoln administration officials began souring on him because he seemed reluctant to back his proclamations with action. Lyon showed no such reluctance as he deployed Federal troops to protect Unionists and seize a lead mine at Potosi, 70 miles south of St. Louis. Several civilians were arrested for refusing to swear an oath of allegiance to the United States.

Lyon was in good standing with the Lincoln administration because he was backed by Francis P. Blair, Jr., an influential congressman whose brother Montgomery was Lincoln’s postmaster general. Both Blair and Lyon believed that Harney lacked the proper aggression and wanted him removed as commander of the Department of the West. Blair sent his brother-in-law, Franklin Dick, to Washington to persuade Lincoln that he should replace Harney with Lyon. Dick noted that Harney had a southern background, and “a number of his St. Louis relatives had become avowed secessionists.”

Secretary of War Simon Cameron resisted the idea due to Lyon’s botched handling of the Camp Jackson affair. Lincoln initially overrode Cameron by promoting Lyon to brigadier general and giving Blair the authority to replace Harney with Lyon. But then Lincoln reconsidered and wrote Blair: “I was not quite satisfied with the order when it was made, though on the whole I thought it best to make it; but since then I have become more doubtful of its propriety.”

The president asked Blair not to exercise his authority to remove Harney “unless in your judgment the necessity to the contrary is very urgent.” Lincoln noted the fact that Harney had already been removed from command in late April and then reinstated: “More than all, we first relieve him, then restore him; and now if we relieve him again the public will ask, ‘Why all this vacillation?’ Still, if in your judgment it is indispensable, let it be so.” Blair bided his time.

Meanwhile, Montgomery Blair stoked the fire against Harney by writing to an acquaintance at Harney’s St. Louis headquarters that if the general “had about him some resolute, sensible men, he would be alright all the time. It is only because he falls into the hands of our opponents that he is dangerous; his intention being good, but his judgement being weak.” Montgomery felt it was “better to mortify him than to endanger the lives of many men, and the position of Missouri in the present conflict.”

On the 18th, former Missouri Governor Sterling Price became major-general of the new Missouri State Guard. By that day, “more than 1,000 volunteers had gathered at Jefferson City” to oppose the Federal occupiers. Price contacted Harney and asked if they could negotiate a peace. Three days later, Harney and Price met and signed an agreement intended to end the animosity between the Federal troops and the Missouri militia:

“The undersigned, officers of the United States Government and of the government of the State of Missouri, for the purpose of removing misapprehension and of allaying public excitement, deem it proper to declare publicly that they have this day had a personal interview in this city, in which it has been mutually understood, without the semblance of dissent on either part, that each of them has no other than a common object, equally interesting and important to every citizen of Missouri–that of restoring peace and good order to the people of the State in subordination to the laws of the General and State governments.”

Sterling Price and William S. Harney | Image Credit: Wikipedia

Harney agreed that he would not bring any more Federal troops into Missouri as long as Price’s State Guard maintained law and order. This agreement enraged Blair and Lyon, who considered it a treasonous surrender of Missouri to the secessionists. The St. Louis Republican Committee sent a message to Lincoln strongly condemning the Harney-Price agreement. Members urged Lincoln to place Missouri under military rule and assured the president that they had the manpower to enforce it.

When Governor Jackson and General Price refused to disband the Missouri State Guard, Blair wrote to Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, a political ally, calling Jackson a “traitor.” Unionists began sending letters to Washington describing alleged “outrages” committed by the secessionists to justify Federal military rule over Missouri.

In response, Lincoln wrote Harney that despite a “pledge of the State authorities to cooperate in preserving peace in Missouri, loyal citizens in great numbers continue to be driven from their homes… It is immaterial whether these outrages continue from inability or indisposition on the part of the State authorities to prevent them. It is enough that they devolve on you the duty of putting a stop to them summarily by the force under your command.”

Lincoln also warned Harney that state officials claiming to be loyal to the U.S. could not be trusted because they had “already falsified their professions too often, and are too far committed to secession to be entitled to your confidence. The authority of the United States is paramount, and whenever it is apparent that a movement, whether by color of State authority or not, is hostile, you will not hesitate to put it down.”

By month’s end, Governor Jackson had urged Arkansas to send troops into Missouri, and Confederates were recruiting Missourians into their ranks. This finally prompted Blair, “feeling that the progress of events and the condition of affairs in this State make it incumbent upon me to assume the grave responsibility of this act,” to summon General Harney and remove him from command of the Department of the West. Lyon issued General Orders No. 5 declaring himself the new department commander.

Both Blair and Lyon believed that Harney’s removal was necessary to annul the hated Harney-Price agreement. Harney had also faced criticism from administration officials for not dealing decisively enough with allegations that Unionists were being persecuted. The tentative peace that Harney and Price had negotiated soon dissolved, as Lyon and Blair prepared to make war on Jackson and Price.


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