Friday, September 09, 2011

150 Years Ago -- Lincoln Writes to David Hunter

On Monday, September 9, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln wrote to Major General David Hunter, requesting that the general go to St. Louis to assist Major General John Frémont in administering the Western Department.

From his vantage point some 800 miles away, Lincoln felt that the situation in Missouri was getting out of hand and that Frémont was in over his head as commander of the department.  Frémont had spent some $12 million to arm and equip his command, and as is usually the case when vast sums are spent in a big hurry, graft and corruption was rampant.  The headquarters was too lavish and Frémont was too isolated within it.  The military situation was unraveling after the defeat at Wilson's Creek; guerrilla warfare was becoming all too common.  On top of everything else, the president was displeased with Frémont's emancipation proclamation.

Many of these negative reports were coming from the Blair family.  One of the leading families in Missouri, the Blairs had urged the general's appointment, but had quickly fallen out with him.

David Hunter had graduated from West Point in 1822 and had been in the U.S. Army some 30+ years.  In early 1861, concerned for Lincoln's safety, he had volunteered to join the party escorting the president-elect to Washington for his inauguration.  Soon after the Civil War began, Hunter had been appointed colonel of the 3rd U.S. Cavalry, but just three days later had been promoted to brigadier general.  Commanding the 2nd Division of General Irvin McDowell's army, Hunter had been severely wounded at the Battle of Bull Run.  On August 13, he was promoted to major general.

Lincoln felt that Hunter could best assist Frémont as his chief of staff, but Hunter's rank was too high for Lincoln to order him to take the position.  On September 9, Lincoln wrote to Hunter:
"Gen. Fremont needs assistance 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, & 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?"

Hunter quickly agreed and set off for St. Louis, arriving there on September 13.  Instead of chief of staff, Frémont would make him a division commander.

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