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What Happened in September 1861 ©

The Situation in Kentucky


By September 1861. Grant obtained promotion to the rank of brigadier-general and was assigned command of a force stationed at Cairo, Illinois. From this base, Grant operated a fleet of river boats to take possession of Paducah, Kentucky. A week later he had placed detachments of Union troops at the mouths of the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. The State government of Kentucky at this time was rebel in sentiment and asserted the position that the State was in a neutral position between the Union and Confederacy, though there were 5,000 Confederate troops in the state, operating under Polk, who occupied the towns of Columbus and Hickman on the Mississippi, and other troops were approaching Bowling Green.

While Grant was occupying Paducah, Sherman was at Louisville, having been summoned there from St. Louis by Robert Anderson, who ostensibly was in command of the Department of Kentucky.

 

Albert Sidney Johnston had crossed the Kentucky line and with a strong force had occupied Bowling Green, sending forward toward Louisville a division under Simon Buckner. In reaction to this, Sherman, with a small force, advanced from Louisville to Green River. There he found that Buckner had burned the railroad bridge across that stream and had retired southward.


The Situation in Missouri

Fremont, now in command of the Department of the West, with headquarters at St. Louis, had Lyon at Springfield, with 8,000 troops, dwindling to 5,000, confronting two columns of Confederate troops, under Ben McCulloch and Pillow; the aggregate numbering 13,000. On August 10, Lyon had foolishly assumed the initiative and attacked McCulloch's force at Wilson's Creek. Shortly after the battle commenced Lyon was mortally wounded and his forces fell into disarray and began a retreat across Missouri to Rolla.

In response to this, Fremont issued, on September 1, a proclamation declaring Missouri under martial law and that the "the property, real and personal, of persons taking an active part with the rebels in the field, be confiscated and that their slaves be free." This act resulted in Fremont receiving a letter from Lincoln.


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

 

First, Should you shoot a man, according to your proclamation, the Confederates would very certainly shoot our best men in their hands in retaliation.

 

Second, I think there is great danger in relation to the confiscation of property and the liberating of slaves. It 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 modify your proclamation to conform it with the congressional act to confiscate property approved August 6, 1861.

 

Fremont refused, writing Lincoln that, if Lincoln wanted it changed, he would have to publicly order it.  On receipt of Fremont's letter, Lincoln issued a public statement rescinding the order as written. Fremont's refusal, along with his increasingly public quarrel with the powerful Blair family brought a quick end to his career as commander of the Department of the West. Frank Blair was chief of the Missouri politicians and expected to gain considerable financial wealth from profiting in deal-making; selling horses etc to the Union army. Fremont, despite the fact that he had been the "pet and protégé" of the Blairs, obstructed Frank Blair's efforts in this regard and Blair began pressuring Lincoln to dump Fremont.

 

 

 

On September 12, Montgomery Blair, the Postmaster General, arrived in St. Louis to investigate the situation. At the same time Fremont's wife, the daughter of Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, took a train to Washington and presented Lincoln with a letter from her husband. Gaining an audience with Lincoln, Mrs. Fremont told him that if he did not support Fremont in his battle with the Blairs "he would set up for himself."

 

As Jesse Fremont tells the story she entered the Blue Room and approached the President: "His manner was hard and the sound of his voice when he said `well?'  was repelling. Nor did he offer me a seat. He talked standing and made the impression that I was to be got rid of quickly. He told me that `the war was for a great national idea, the Union, and that General Fremont should not have dragged the Negro into it.'"

 

As Mrs. Fremont was returning to St. Louis, her husband arrested Francis Blair on a charge of insubordination; in essence, Fremont charged, Blair had acted in a manner designed to bring him into contempt in the eyes of Lincoln which undermined his authority. At the same time, a 3,500 man Union force at Lexington, Missouri—160 miles from St. Louis—was attacked by a rebel force under Sterling Price and forced to surrender.

 

On September 26, Frank Blair, now released from arrest, filed formal charges against Fremont, which were laid before Lincoln. They included neglect of duty and "despotic and tyrannical conduct."

 

The Situation in Washington

By early September, McClellan had in hand approximately 85,000 troops. He continued to form these troops into brigades of four regiments each; and, as their instruction became perfected, the brigades were assigned to divisions of three brigades each. In replying to an inquiry of his intentions, made by Secretary of War Cameron on September 7th, McClellan replied that he wished his army be reinforced by "all the effective troops that the West can furnish," repeating his opinion that the Army of the Potomac should number three hundred thousand men in order to ensure success in the war.

 

By the end of the month, McClellan had taken possession of Falls Church, Ball's Crossroads, and Munson's, Upton's, and Taylor's hills, with the Confederate forces falling back to occupy Fairfax Courthouse, Vienna, and Burke's Station on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad.

 

 

The Situation in Virginia

 

To the eyes of anyone that could see, the inaction of the Confederate army at Centreville to move on the offensive against Washington demonstrated the fatal weakness of the Confederacy in its endeavor to make itself an independent nation. As McClellan was hurrying to organize and train 85,000 men into an efficient army, Jefferson Davis, though he had men, had not the physical means of bringing them across the Potomac.

 

On September 7th, writing to Tennessee Governor Ira Harris, Davis said: "A defensive plan will be followed for the present—at least until we know more of the position of the English government. I have assurances of material assistance from that quarter, but they request a few months delay to shape the sentiment of the English people. Seward has exhibited powers during this struggle which I had not expected and we must look out for him." Soon Davis was dispatched as ambassadors to Britain, Mason and Sidell who the U.S. Navy would take by force from a British ship on the high seas.

 

At this time General Lee was in western Virginia, managing the friction that existed between the political generals, past Virginia Governor Henry Wise and past U.S. Secretary of war John Floyd. Bringing Wise's and Floyd's forces together near Sewell Mountain where McClellan's replacement, William Rosecrans, was entrenched, Lee attempted to mount a two pronged attack on Rosecrans's position but the effort foundered. In the course of this effort, President Davis relieved Wise of duty, recalling him to Richmond, and send Loring with 9,000 to the sector to join with Floyd. But nothing could be done, because, as Lee wrote to his wife, Mary, "All these drawbacks—the sickness of the men, the constant cold rains, the mud, no shelter aggravating it, plus the impassable roads, the exhausted condition of the horses—have paralyzed our efforts."

 

General Lee's Campsite at Sewell Mountain

 

 

Joe Ryan

 

 

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Joe Ryan

Joe Ryan Original Works

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About the author:
Joe Ryan is a Los Angeles trial lawyer who has traveled the route of the Army of Northern Virginia, from Richmond to Gettysburg several times.
 

October 1861

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