General Fremont and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day; Mutiny and Death; The Cold War in Western Virginia
Wednesday, August 14, 1861
The last thing Washington needed to hear was the news of yet another defeat. Clacking its way over the telegraph lines from St. Louis, however, was exactly that. The previous day, General Ulysses S. Grant reported to General Fremont, commander of the Western Department, that there were rumors of 3,000 Rebel cavaliers nearby and that 5,000 soldiers were marching upon his command at Ironton. There, Grant, with around 4,000 of his own men, was prepared to do the needful if the rumors proved true.
The rumors turned out to be nothing of the sort. Fremont, however, ran with it, telegraphing President Lincoln himself: “General Grant, commanding at Ironton, attacked yesterday at 6 by a force reported at 13,000.” Where he received this knowledge is a mystery and how he arrived at this figure is even more of a mystery.
In response to this “attack,” Fremont sent the 7th Iowa and 1st Nebraska, along with a battery of artillery to Grant’s aid.
Grant, who was expecting an attack, wrote Fremont that the position of the Rebels was the same as the previous day. Clearly no attack had been made. Perhaps Fremont was of the “better safe than sorry” school, especially after his complete lack of support of General Lyon before the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. He could have retracted the terrifying telegraph portraying a battle and probable defeat (13,000 against 4,000), but did not.
Instead, he received a reply from Secretary of War Simon Cameron that help from Ohio and Indiana was on its way.
Also on this day, Fremont declared martial law within the city and county of St. Louis. In a very short message to the citizenry, he chose a provost marshal and required everyone to respect and obey his orders. This day could mark the day when things really started to go wrong for Fremont. Of course, that day could also have been July 25, his arrival in St. Louis.1
The Mutiny Grows
Colonel Isaac Stevens’s hope that the mutiny of his 79th New York Highlanders would subside after the sacking of some hot-headed officers was quickly fading. The previous day, he had told the regiment that they would be moving to a new camp. Now, fully believing that they would be stuck in the army for three years rather than three months, they spent the night getting drunk on whiskey smuggled in under the uncaring noses of regimental officers who also wanted to go home.
On the morning of this date, Stevens ordered that the tents be struck and the men prepared to move out. The soldiers, however, refused to obey the order. Wanting to keep this a family affair, Stevens personally spoke to nearly every man in the regiment, explaining what the articles of war had to say about mutiny and that it was punishable by death. Still drunk, the men refused to strike their tents.
Stevens then ordered the officers to strike the tents for them. They obeyed, but only to the taunts, jeers and threats off the privates who eventually threatened to shoot any officer attempting to strike their tents. To make matters worse, the Scotsmen, many fresh of the boat from the old country, began to fight amongst themselves over the age-old problem of protestantism vs. catholicism.
Things were pretty well at a stand-still when General Daniel Sickles, their new brigade commander, strolled into camp. Due to his questionable past, the Highlanders were extremely unhappy to be serving under him. Taking note of the situation, Sickles went to General McClellan who immediately ordered Regular cavalry, infantry and artillery to the Highlanders’ camp.
In the evening, the Regulars arrived, surrounded the camp, loaded their weapons and drew their sabers while Colonel Isaac Stevens ordered his men to fall in, assuring them that if they did not, he would then order the Regulars to open fire.
Thankfully, they capitulated and were marched to General McClellan’s headquarters, where he sentenced the ringleaders to hard labor at the Dry Tortugas, off the Florida coast. He also ordered that their regimental colors be confiscated until they could prove that they were worthy of fighting under such a banner.
This episode was defused, but the 79th New York was not alone in their frustration.2
Floyd and Wise Still Not Getting Along
The past few days in western Virginia found feuding Generals Floyd and Wise still feuding. General Floyd had assumed command of the Army of the Kanawha and General Wise wasn’t exactly thrilled. The previous day, he wrote to General Lee asking him to order Wise to only pass commands to his (Wise’s) troops via Wise and to allow his brigade to remain whole, not being detached and sent elsewhere.
Lee refused to give such an order. Firstly, according to military protocol, any orders that a commanding General had to give to a body of troops under him would traditionally go through their own commanding officer. Lee felt that Floyd was smart enough to know this and required no order. Secondly, Lee saw no way that he could order Floyd to not do as he saw fit with troops under his command. If the general commanding wished to keep things as they were or wished to move regiments from one brigade to another, he was well within his rights to do so.
Early that morning, General Floyd ordered Wise to move his entire brigade fourteen miles west to join Floyd near Lewisburg. Floyd, receiving no reply from Wise, wrote again a couple of hours later informing Wise that the company of cavalry he sent arrived without being issued ammunition. The bearer of the message was to retrieve it.
Finally, in mid-morning, Wise replied that he would move his Legion as soon as possible. An hour and a half later, he wrote again, telling Floyd that he wished he could move his men, but could not due to lack of wagons. Wise wondered if General Floyd might not be able to part with some of his.
Also that morning, Wise received a strange message from one of his regimental officers lodging an official protest over being ordered to move out. This officer reminded Wise that “these troops are now decimated by disease and casualties occurred by weeks of exposure.” This was true. By mid-August, it had been raining for weeks. The nights were as cold as December, frosting the ground each morning. Typhoid fever and measles were rampant all along the Rebel lines. The officer reported that none of his men were fit for duty.
While all that may have been true, the letter came at a very opportune time for Wise and he forwarded it on to Floyd.
To General Lee, Wise relayed that he was about to move his entire command to join up with Floyd. Once combined, which, Wise admitted, might take a few days, the entire force would number 3,800. Lee was left with the impression that Wise and Floyd were at least trying to get along. That was not quite true.3
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p441-442. [↩]
- Army of the Potomac; Birth of Command by Russel Beatie. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p784-787. [↩]