It was in the summer of 1861 that an appointment in the army was sent me, with an order to report immediately at St. Louis, then the headquarters of what was known as the "Western Department," where troops from the loyal States were being rapidly concentrated to save the great central State of Missouri from the folly and madness of following the cotton States into the rebel Confederacy.
I found Major-General John C. Fremont in command of the department, with headquarters located in a large house, the property of a rebel who had fled to his friends further south. The block in the center of which this house was situated was surrounded by barracks for a battalion of mounted men under the command of Major Zagonyi, called "Fremont's Body Guard."
Having some previous acquaintance with the commanding General and his accomplished wife, and being on terms of intimacy with his Judge-Advocate, an attorney from Cincinnati, I was cordially received and hospitably entertained. Martial law had already been proclaimed and the city surrounded with a cordon of twelve forts, with cannon mounted ready for action.
The city was a military camp which one might enter but could not leave without a pass from the Provost Marshal, nor could I go from my office to my hotel after a certain hour without exhibiting my authority from that officer.
To one who had resided all his life among the Quakers, where peace, order and quiet prevailed, this was a novel experience. Civil war in its worst form prevailed throughout the State. The people were divided into two elements, the loyal and the disloyal. The Governor and State officers left the capitol and fled to their friends in the South, destroying railroad bridges and cutting telegraph wires in their flight. There was no pretense at civil government. Neighbor was arrayed against neighbor, each prepared to kill or destroy the property of the other. The bonds of civil society were dissolved and anarchy reigned supreme.
At length the law-abiding citizens met in convention and chose a Governor, but he could not exercise the functions of his office outside the city and away from the army, and for months did not open an office at the State Capitol. In addition to fortifying the city and proclaiming martial law, Fremont emancipated the slave so of the rebels by proclamation. The terms of emancipation, however, were afterward modified by the President to conform to a previous act of Congress. A few months later the President issued a proclamation far more sweeping in terms than that of his General, which he evidential considered premature.
Against the whole policy of emancipating and arming the colored men the rebels and copperheads hurled their fiercest denunciations, and the clamor of the so-called Unionists was still more terrific because of the President's disposition to conciliate Them. They were offered compensation for their slaves if they would emancipate them, but this they indignantly refused to do. When the climax came, however, the slaves were liberated without compensation. And now, after the lapse of more than a quarter of a century, the policy of the President in freeing and arming the slaves seems so wise, as a military measure, that we wonder how any real friend to the Union could have opposed or doubted its propriety.
There is the highest military authority for saying that after the battle of Gettysburg and the capture of Vicksburg, in July, 1863, the rebels should have laid down their arms and sued for peace, for their ultimate success was impossible. Suppose at this time they had emancipated and armed their slaves, might they not have made the success of the Union cause still doubtful? This they did, under the advice of General Lee, a few months before the surrender, but it was then too late -- the great Captain had them in his toils. Put to return to the subject under discussion: The President, it will be remembered, about the 1st of November, 1861, removed General Fremont from the command of the army, while he was advancing on the rebel army in Southwest Missouri, and temporarily gave it to General Hunter, who retreated to St. Louis, where General Halleck took command; and from that time for months the rebel authority was supreme in the State.
As a consequence Union people in the interior were driven from their homes, their property, confiscated and they were compelled to seek refuge and subsistence in St. Louis. I myself, have seen many hundreds of them on the streets of that city in the month of December, poorly clad, without means and dependent upon charity.
About, this time the commanding General, to his credit be it said, made a levy of ten thousand dollar, on the rich rebel sympathizers of St. Louis, for the relief of these poor refugees, which was collected and applied accordingly. When any one declined to pay, their most salable property was seized and sold at auction to satisfy the demand.
On the 25th of October, 1861, while General Fremont was advancing on the rebel army at Springfield, but still many miles away, Major Zagonyi, in command of the "Body Guard," comprising only 160 mounted men, charged upon and routed the entire rebel army, embracing more than 2,000 men, infantry, cavalry and artillery, driving the out of the city of Springfield and up the hill, with the insufficient force at his command, and strange to say, with a loss much less thin that of the enemy. After having accomplished this, he retreated and joined the main body of the army.
The rebels were not surprised by this attack of Major Zagonyi, but were drawn up in line of battle prepared to receive him. It seems probable, however, that they were expecting an attack by the entire army under Fremont.
Whatever may be thought of the wisdom of it, there can be but one opinion is to the courage displayed, for no more daring feat was performed during the war. In fact, the story sounds more like fiction than an actual occurrence, and deserves to rank with the "Charge of the Light Brigade" immortalized by Tennyson.
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Indiana Commandery, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States
Bundy, M.L. 1898. MISSOURI IN 1861, War Papers Read before the Commandery of the State of Indiana, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States. Volume 1, pp.207-211.
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