Friday, October 11, 1861
Secretary of War Simon Cameron and Adjutant-General Lorenzo Thomas arrived in St. Louis, after a four-day journey by rail from Washington. Their mission, as spelled out by President Lincoln, was to see for themselves the condition of General John C. Fremont’s command in Missouri. An order firing him from command also accompanied the party, but they were only to present it to him if they found it necessary to replace him.
The Secretary and Adjutant-General arrived before dawn, took an early breakfast and headed first to see Benton Barracks, north of the city. They were impressed with how nice the buildings were, but were suspicious when told it only cost $15,000. “The actual cost should be ascertained,” wrote Cameron a week later.
Lincoln had penned a letter to General Samuel R. Curtis, commander of Benton Barracks, asking him his thoughts on Fremont and whether or not he should be kept in command of the department. While Curtis admitted that Fremont was accessible, he also related that Fremont never consulted him on military matters or informed him of his plans. He also remarked that while he had no fear of giving his opinions to even General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, he would not dare do so to Fremont. It’s no wonder that Frank Blair, Jr. was twice arrested for speaking out against the General. Curtis concluded that Fremont was “unequal to the command of an army.”
That evening, they visited a camp south of the city, and found it lacking ammunition, inexplicably stocked with naval artillery, and commanded by a Cavalry Major who was openly worried that money earmarked for his garrison would be diverted to another project.
After visiting a hospital, which they found in considerably great shape, (“God bless these pure and disinterested women!,” exclaimed Cameron of the Sisters of Charity nurses.) chief paymaster, Col. Andrews, met up with Cameron and Thomas to discuss “irregularities in the Pay Department.”
Andrews complained that he was “required to make payment and transfers of money contrary to law and regulations. Once, related Andrews, when he refused to make what he believed to be an improper payment, he was met by a “file of soldiers” under orders from Fremont to arrest him if the payment was not made.
Also of note were the strange appointments and promotions that Fremont gave to members of his staff and even citizens. Apparently appreciating the abilities of a musician in a St. Louis theater, Fremont commissioned him a “captain of engineers” and a “director of music.” The musician had twice showed up at Andrew’s office demanding his pay. Cameron instructed Andrew not to pay him.
Fremont’s quartermaster also caught up with Cameron and Thomas, explaining that many on Fremont’s staff were contractors. They would make sure that their businesses were used by the Army, and charged high prices, even if the goods, forage, horses, etc. were unneeded. There was also no competitive bidding upon the contracts in order to secure a lower price. They were simply awarded to members of Fremont’s staff, creating a huge conflict of interest.
Fremont’s expenditures in general were outrageous, thought Cameron. From the General’s headquarters to a pontoon bridge built where a ferry would suffice, it seemed that Fremont believed no expense should be spared for his Army of the West.
They next day, they planned to leave St. Louis to meet up with Fremont himself.1
Fremont Makes a Plan to Concentrate His Scattered Army
The 40,000 men of General Fremont’s Army of the West were still scattered across central Missouri. After the defeat at Lexington, over three weeks past, the victorious General Sterling Price had moved south towards the Arkansas border, hoping to link up with a Confederate army. Fremont had made an attempt to give chase, but little had materialized, aside from reorganizing his Army and marching them somewhat southwestward.
Knowing that Cameron and Thomas were en route, Fremont made sure that he looked busy. According to a report submitted by Fremont, these were the forces he had under his command:
On this date, he scripted a plan to advance upon the retiring Price, who was, by this time, moving closer to Neosho in the southwestern corner of the state. Each of the five Divisions were given specific marching orders which would concentrate them around Leesville and Warsaw. Additionally, the troops in Kansas City would fall in on the right flank of the nearly-assembled Army of the West, at Clinton.
Fremont’s thin line, stretched along a seventy mile front from Georgetown to Jefferson City, would soon occupy a ten mile line from Leesville to Warsaw, complete with both flanks guarded at Clinton and Duroc Ferry.2
However, as Generals Pope and Hunter, both commanding wings of Fremont’s Army, knew, the troops were in no condition to fight. The men were poorly trained, rations were scarce, none of the five divisions had enough wagons, organization was nearly impossible and many troops were inadequately armed. Little could change by the time Secretary Cameron and Adjutant-General Thomas caught up with Fremont at Tipton, just two days away, by rail.3