Tag Archives: Francis P. Blair Sr.

The Fremont Controversy: Fremont’s Retort

September 8, 1861 – After six days, Major General John C. Fremont finally responded to President Lincoln’s request to modify clauses in his controversial proclamation.

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

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

Fremont, commanding the Federal Department of the West, admitted that he had consulted with nobody, including his superiors, before issuing his decree, which imposed martial law in Missouri and freed all slaves belonging to disloyal masters. Fremont took full responsibility for the order, which he called “as much a movement in the war as a battle,” and like a battle, he would “have to act according to my judgment of the ground before me.”

Regarding Lincoln’s request to change the slave emancipation order, Fremont wrote: “If upon reflection your better judgment still decides that I am wrong in the article respecting the liberation of slaves, I have to ask that you will openly direct me to make the correction,” otherwise, “to retract 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.” He asserted that he acted “upon the certain conviction that it was a measure right and necessary, and I think so still.”

Fremont also defended his order to execute armed Missourians suspected of disloyalty: “The shooting of men who shall rise in arms against an army in the military occupation of a country is merely a necessary measure of defense,” and according to Fremont, it was valid “according to the usages of civilized warfare.” Since Lincoln had defined this conflict as an insurrection and not a war against an independent nation, the rebels “have no ground for requiring that we should waive in their benefit any of the ordinary advantages which the usages of war allow to us.”

Mrs. Jessie B. Fremont | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Mrs. Jessie B. Fremont | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Fremont then asked for Lincoln’s permission to enforce the proclamation, “hoping that my views may have the honor to meet your approval.”

In an unprecedented move, Fremont assigned his wife, Jessie Benton Fremont, daughter of the legendary Senator Thomas Hart Benton, to personally deliver this response from his St. Louis headquarters to the president at Washington. Mrs. Fremont arrived on the 10th not only to deliver her husband’s letter, but to persuade Lincoln to withdraw his objections to Fremont’s proclamation. Radical Republicans had emboldened the Fremonts, ardent abolitionists, by advising them that turning this conflict into a war against slavery would prevent Great Britain from recognizing Confederate independence.

Lincoln, a moderate Republican, sought to not only maintain harmony within the party but also maintain the delicate wartime alliance between the Republicans and Unionist Democrats. As such, Fremont’s proclamation had gone too far, and while Fremont’s defiance had amused the Radicals, Lincoln did not share their amusement when he met with Mrs. Fremont in the Red Room at 9 p.m. on September 10.

Without offering the lady a seat, Lincoln took Fremont’s letter from her and read it, dissatisfied that the general had refused to modify his order. Mrs. Fremont told Lincoln that he needed to consider liberating slaves to garner European support. Interrupting her, Lincoln said, “You are quite a female politician. It was a war for a great national idea, the Union, and… General Fremont should not have dragged the Negro into it.”

16th U.S. President Abraham Lincoln | Image Credit: Bing public domain

16th U.S. President Abraham Lincoln | Image Credit: Bing public domain

Lincoln said that he would write a reply and let Mrs. Fremont know when it was ready for delivery. Irritated, Mrs. Fremont defended her husband’s wisdom and prestige, which she contended were “above and beyond” most military officers. Lincoln later said that she “left in anger, flaunting her handkerchief before my face.”

The next day, Lincoln gave Mrs. Fremont his reply. He explained that although he “perceived in general no objection” to Fremont’s proclamation, he could not allow military commanders to override official policies mandated by Congress. Lincoln stated that the order regarding freeing slaves exceeded the Confiscation Act. Therefore, Lincoln expressed his “wish that that clause should be modified.”

Lincoln would take responsibility for removing those non-conforming portions of the decree so that Fremont would not have to admit to any mistake. Lincoln wrote:

“Your answer, just received, expresses the preference on your part that I should make an open order for the modification, which I very cheerfully do. It is therefore ordered that the said clause of said proclamation be so modified, held, and construed, as to conform to, and not to transcend, the provisions on the same subject contained in the act of Congress entitled ‘An Act to confiscate property used for insurrectionary purposes’ Approved, August 6. 1861; and that said act be published at length with this order.”

While Mrs. Fremont awaited Lincoln’s response, she was visited by Francis P. Blair, Sr., whose family was old friends with the Fremonts. However, that friendship quickly dissolved when Blair informed her that his son, Frank Jr., had written to his other son, Montgomery, recommending that General Fremont be removed from command. This prompted Mrs. Fremont to angrily declare that her husband could kill Frank Jr. in a duel.

Lincoln’s letter arrived shortly afterward, and Mrs. Fremont promptly returned to St. Louis to deliver it to the general. In addition, Lincoln granted Fremont’s request to issue an “open order” to change the proclamation by submitting the letter’s contents to the press for publication throughout the country.

While Fremont’s emancipation proclamation may have been morally just, it threatened to divide the U.S. since most politicians and soldiers were fighting to preserve the Union, not to end slavery. It also threatened to undermine Lincoln’s policies as well as those of Congress. Nevertheless, Fremont remained firm that he would not “change or shade” his proclamation because it “was worth a victory in the field.”

After sending Mrs. Fremont on her way, Lincoln wrote to her denying “being understood as acting in any hostility” toward her husband. Lincoln then addressed the increasing complaints about Fremont’s leadership by dispatching Postmaster General Montgomery Blair (Frank Sr.’s son and Frank Jr.’s brother) to assess Fremont’s command at St. Louis. Blair traveled with Major General David Hunter and Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs, arriving at Fremont’s headquarters early on the 12th.

Two days later, both Blair and Meigs agreed in recommending Fremont’s removal. Meigs reported that “great distress and alarm prevail,” and Fremont “does not encourage the men to form regiments for defense.” Blair stated that Fremont seemed “stupefied and almost unconscious and is doing absolutely nothing.” Both men left St. Louis that day, but the Fremont controversy would continue.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 74-75; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6618-30; Faust, Patricia L, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 291-92; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 96-97; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 64; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 389-90; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 117-18; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 353; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q361

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Robert E. Lee Goes South

April 18, 1861 – U.S. Colonel Robert E. Lee met with influential statesman Francis P. Blair and received an offer to command the Federal army.

Blair, former editor of The Congressional Globe, traveled from his plantation at Silver Spring, Maryland to Washington on the 16th to meet with President Abraham Lincoln. According to Lincoln’s secretary, the men discussed potential commanders for the Federal forces.

U.S. General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, a veteran of the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, was too old for active field command, and his strategy for defeating the Confederacy lacked aggression. Lincoln agreed with Blair’s idea to promote Colonel Lee, whom Scott called “the very best soldier I ever saw in the field.”

Through Secretary of War Simon Cameron, Lincoln directed Blair to “ascertain Lee’s intentions and feelings,” and make him an offer. Scott sent Lee a letter requesting an interview on the 18th. The letter included a message from Lee’s cousin, John Lee, stating that Blair also requested a meeting with Lee on the same day.

U.S. Colonel Robert E. Lee | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

U.S. Colonel Robert E. Lee | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

On the afternoon of the 18th, Lee left his home at Arlington to meet with Blair at the statesman’s townhouse across the street from the White House. Blair explained that the Lincoln administration would field an army of 75 to 100,000 troops, and he had been authorized by Lincoln to offer Lee overall command. This was the highest rank a president could bestow upon a military officer.

Lee told Blair, “I look upon secession as anarchy,” and if he had power over every slave, he would “sacrifice them all to the Union.” However, Lee later recalled telling Blair “as candidly and courteously as I could that though opposed to secession and deprecating war, I could take no part in an invasion of the Southern states.” Moreover, considering that the Virginia Convention had just voted to secede (pending a popular vote), Lee asked, “How can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native state?”

After the meeting, Lee went to Scott’s office to visit with the general-in-chief. Lee described his meeting with Blair and Lee’s decision. Scott said, “Lee, you have made the greatest mistake of your life; but I feared it would be so.” Lee hoped to stay in the army until the referendum on Virginia’s secession took place on May 23, but Scott advised, “If you propose to resign, it is proper that you should do so at once; your present attitude is equivocal.”

With that, Lee returned to Arlington House, where he would “share the miseries of my people and save in defense will draw my sword on none.”

The next day, delegates to the Virginia Convention approved authorizing appointment of a “commander of the military and naval forces of Virginia.” The commander would have the rank of major-general and authority to lead military operations and troop organization under the governor’s overall authority. The convention committee in charge of the decision recommended Colonel Robert E. Lee for the position.

Meanwhile Lee learned of Virginia’s secession, and while friends and family gathered at the Arlington House to discuss the matter, Lee retired alone to the garden to consider what he would do. He later returned home and paced in his room for several hours. Early next morning, Lee wrote his letter of resignation to General-in-Chief Scott, after 32 years of service in the U.S. army: “Sir–I have the honour to tender the resignation of my Commission as Colonel of the 1st Regt of Cavalry.” Lee explained:

“Since my interview with you on the 18th instant I have felt that I ought not longer retain my commission in the Army. I therefore tender my resignation, which I request you will recommend for acceptance. It would have been presented at once, but for the struggle it has cost me to separate myself from a service to which I have devoted all the best years of my life & all the ability I possessed…”

The decision had to be made quickly before Lee received orders from his superiors in the Federal government to act against the Confederacy. Lee’s decision was made not because he supported either slavery or secession, but because he believed his first duty was to his home state of Virginia, which had opted for secession.

Virginia Governor John Letcher dispatched Judge John Robertson to formally offer a major-general commission to Robert E. Lee in accordance with the ordinance passed on the 19th. Lee accepted and left Arlington on the morning of April 22. He took a train from Alexandria to Gordonsville and then completed his journey to the state capital on the Virginia Central Railroad.

After checking into the Spotswood Hotel, Lee met with Letcher and officially accepted the governor’s appointment. That evening, delegates to the Virginia Convention unanimously approved Letcher’s choice of Lee as “Commander-in-Chief of the military and naval forces of the Commonwealth” of Virginia.

Major General Lee opened a temporary office in Richmond on the 23rd. Before he could assemble a staff, he issued General Order No. 1 announcing that he now commanded all Virginia forces. A committee from the Virginia Convention escorted Lee to the convention hall, where Marmaduke Johnson introduced him: “Mr. President, I have the honor to present to you, and to the Convention, Major General Lee.”

Lee was welcomed into the hall, “in which we may almost yet hear the echo of the voices of the statesmen, the soldiers and sages of by-gone days, who have borne your name, and whose blood now flows in your veins.” Convention President John Janney delivered a speech:

“Sir, we have, by this unanimous vote, expressed our conviction that you are at this day, among the living citizens of Virginia, ‘first in war.’ We pray God most fervently that you may so conduct the operations committed to your charge, that it will soon be said of you, that you are ‘first in peace,’ and when that time comes you will have earned the still prouder distinction of being ‘first in the hearts of your countrymen…'”

Lee rose and addressed the delegation: “Profoundly impressed with the solemnity of the occasion, for which I must say I was not prepared, I accept the position assigned me by your partiality… Trusting in Almighty God, an approving conscience, and the aid of my fellow-citizens, I devote myself to the service of my native State, in whose behalf alone will I ever again draw my sword.”

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Sources

  • Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 224-25, 231-32
  • Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Kindle Edition 2008, 1889), Loc 5759
  • Davis, William C., First Blood: Fort Sumter to Bull Run (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 27-28
  • Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 36-37
  • Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 2214-38, 2282, 2367-78, 2390
  • Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 349-50
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 61, 63-65
  • Time-Life Editors, Lee Takes Command: From Seven Days to Second Bull Run (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 20
  • Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 50-52, 283
  • White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q261

Lincoln Inherits the Fort Sumter Dispute

March 5, 1861 – Arriving at his office on his first full day as president, Abraham Lincoln found an ominous dispatch on his desk from Major Robert Anderson at Fort Sumter, South Carolina.

Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor | Image Credit: Learnnc.org

Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor | Image Credit: Learnnc.org

On March 1, the Confederate government assumed authority over military matters at Charleston, including the harbor where Fort Sumter was located. President Jefferson Davis commissioned P.G.T. Beauregard as a brigadier general and placed him in command of the vicinity. Davis instructed Beauregard to assemble militia for a potential attack on Major Anderson’s Federal garrison at Sumter.

Meanwhile, Anderson informed his superiors at Washington that Sumter would soon need to be either reinforced or abandoned. Relations between Anderson’s men and the South Carolinians had been amiable, but state militia were assembling, training, drilling, and building defensive works in the harbor. The supplies that South Carolinians had allowed the Federals to receive from Charleston were quickly running out.

The day before Lincoln’s inauguration, General-in-Chief Winfield Scott informed Secretary of State-designate William H. Seward that a major effort to relieve Fort Sumter was impracticable. The next day, outgoing Secretary of War Joseph Holt announced he would relay the message from Anderson about the situation at Sumter to incoming President Lincoln.

Lincoln read the message on the 5th. Anderson stated that Sumter could not be held without at least 20,000 reinforcements, and even then his garrison could starve before the reinforcements arrived because he and his men would run out of supplies within weeks. Confederate defenders in Charleston prevented the Federals from leaving Fort Sumter, and several ships had been sunk in Charleston Harbor to prevent Federal vessels from delivering provisions.

Lincoln, who knew of this crisis from outgoing President James Buchanan, did not know its extent until the 5th. Lincoln did not even have his full complement of advisors and cabinet officers yet; William H. Seward had not yet agreed to withdraw his resignation from the 2nd, and Salmon P. Chase had not yet been notified that Lincoln nominated him as treasury secretary.

Scott advised the president that Sumter could not be reinforced before Anderson’s garrison starved. And even if they could, a battle over Fort Sumter would result in heavy casualties. Moreover, the regular army did not even have 20,000 effectives at this time, and the navy did not have the vessels to transport them. Scott met with army and navy leaders on the 6th and informed them that the navy would have to deal with Sumter because the army could do nothing to relieve the garrison.

Lincoln, who had no executive experience or knowledge of his presidential duties, spent several days contemplating what to do about Fort Sumter until his advisors could assume their roles. He held his first in-depth cabinet meeting about the situation on the 9th. He explained to his cabinet officers how dire the situation was, and the men debated whether to resupply or evacuate the fort.

Both Navy Secretary Gideon Welles and Secretary of War Simon Cameron adopted Scott’s advice to evacuate. Seward also advised evacuation, asserting that such a move could appease the border states and embolden unionists in the Confederacy. Only Postmaster General Montgomery Blair advised holding on. His father, influential statesman Francis P. Blair, Sr., stormed into Lincoln’s office and declared that surrendering Fort Sumter was “virtually a surrender of the union,” which was treasonous. The next day Blair apologized for saying “things that were impertinent.”

Although outnumbered, Lincoln was not yet ready to give up Sumter. He wrote to Scott asking how long the Federal garrison could stay in the fort without reinforcements, and whether the army could resupply the fort. But it seemed unlikely that a mission requiring at least 20,000 men could be accomplished by an army numbering only 16,000 total effectives.

Responding to Lincoln’s query on the 11th, Scott stated he did not know how long the Federals could survive in the fort, and the fort could not be reinforced by the army for several months because it would require warships, transports, and 25,000 troops (5,000 regulars and 20,000 volunteers).

Two days later, Lincoln met with former naval officer Gustavus V. Fox at Montgomery Blair’s behest. Fox had proposed a plan to former President Buchanan to resupply Fort Sumter, and Blair wanted Fox to share that plan with Lincoln and refute Scott’s claim that the fort could not be resupplied.

After Lincoln heard Fox out, the men called on Scott and explained the plan to him. Scott replied that such a plan would have been effective last month, but by this time the Confederates had built defenses strong enough to make it impracticable. Fox offered to go to Charleston to inspect the defenses himself, and when Scott and Cameron did not object, Lincoln agreed.

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Sources

  • Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 35-36
  • Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Kindle Edition 2008, 1889), Loc 4764-76
  • Davis, William C., Brother Against Brother: The War Begins (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 132-33
  • Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 5975-85, 6008
  • Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 16-18
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 43-49
  • McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 264
  • White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q161
  • Wikipedia: Timeline of Events Leading to the American Civil War

The Incoming Lincoln Administration

December 5, 1860 – President-elect Abraham Lincoln expressed great dissatisfaction with President Buchanan’s message released yesterday. Lincoln disagreed with Buchanan placing responsibility for the sectional crisis on the northern free states.

Abraham Lincoln in 1860 | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Abraham Lincoln in 1860 | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Lincoln spent this month considering cabinet appointments and political patronage, and clarifying his position on the sectional crisis. But he offered no specifics on what he planned to do once he would become president in March of next year. Lincoln explained to his private secretary that the very existence of government “implies the legal power, right, and duty… of a President to execute the laws and maintain the existing government.”

On December 8, President-elect Lincoln offered a political rival, Senator William H. Seward of New York, the post of secretary of state. Lincoln later met with another rival, Edward Bates, in Springfield and told him that his presence in Lincoln’s administration was “necessary to its complete success.” Lincoln offered Bates the post of attorney general, explaining he had to offer Seward the secretary of state job for political reasons. Lincoln intimated a hope that Seward would decline; in the meantime, Bates accepted the attorney general spot.

Near month’s end, Seward accepted Lincoln’s offer “after due reflection and much self distrust.” Some speculated that Lincoln’s slowness in offering the post to Seward indicated a reluctance to bring such a powerful rival into his cabinet. Lincoln had explained this to Seward, who took it into consideration before accepting. Seward took the job mainly because he believed Lincoln to be “incompetent,” especially on foreign affairs, and he needed an experienced politician such as Seward to be his de facto “prime minister.”

Lincoln expressed his views in a letter to Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois on the 10th: “Let there be no compromise on the question of extending slavery. If there be, all our labor is lost, and, ere long, must be done again… The tug has to come & better now, than any time hereafter.” Lincoln wrote several letters this month urging a rejection of any compromise on extending slavery beyond where it already existed.

On the 15th, President-elect Lincoln wrote a confidential letter to Congressman John A. Gilmer of North Carolina, repeating his reluctance to make any public statements out of fear they would be misinterpreted. Lincoln wrote, “I never have been, am not now, and probably never shall be, in a mood of harassing the people, either North or South.” But regarding slavery, Lincoln asserted, “You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. For this, neither has any just occasion to be angry with the other.”

Lincoln also wrote to Congressman Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia, attempting assurances that his administration would not interfere with slavery in any way where it already existed: “The South would be in no more danger in this respect, than it was in the days of Washington. I suppose, however, this does not meet the case. You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. That I suppose is the rub.”

Lincoln offered on opinion on the dispute taking place in Charleston Harbor between South Carolina officials and the Federal troops garrisoning the forts. He wrote to influential Democrat Francis P. Blair, Sr on the 21st.: “According to my present view if the forts (at Charleston) shall be given up before the inaugeration (sic), then General (Winfield Scott) must retake them afterwards.” Lincoln wrote a similar letter to Congressman Elihu B. Washburne of Illinois.

Lincoln met with Senator Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania in Cameron’s hotel room at Springfield on the 28th. The men had a friendly meeting, but Lincoln was still unsure whether to offer Cameron a cabinet post due to charges of corruption, fraud, and influence peddling against him. Nevertheless, Lincoln leaned more toward appointing Cameron because of this meeting and the many letters of recommendation from Cameron’s colleagues.

The next day, President-elect Lincoln wrote to Cameron, promising to nominate him for either secretary of war or the treasury. However, Cameron’s political enemy, A.K. McClure, met with Lincoln at Springfield and revealed documentation showing that Cameron’s moral deficiencies made him unfit for a cabinet post.

Lincoln conferred with Cameron again in Springfield on the 30th. Cameron alleged that Lincoln’s campaign managers had assured him control of the treasury, but critics objected to Lincoln putting such a corrupt man in that post. Cameron had been nicknamed “Winnebago Chief” for allegedly swindling Native Americans years ago, and opponents called him “a man destitute of honor and integrity.” Criticism prompted Lincoln to drop Cameron from consideration, but Cameron’s backers continued pushing to get him into the cabinet.

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Sources

  • Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 5491, 5525-35, 5557-68
  • Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 4-6
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 9-11, 14, 17
  • McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 246-49, 259-60