Lincoln Saves Harney… For Now; Missouri’s New Rebel; Butler to Monroe

Saturday, May 18, 1861

Colonel Frank Blair, Jr. had been given what he wanted: a dispatch from Washington relieving General Harney, commander of the Department of the West, from command (again). A condition of the order was that Blair was to use it at his discretion, but since the whole thing was his idea, that hardly mattered.

On this day, two days after the order was issued, President Lincoln, perhaps knowing the whole thing was politically-driven, wrote to Blair ordering him to hold off on giving Harney the dispatch, for now, anyway. That is, unless Blair really, really thought it was necessary.

“I was not quite satisfied with the order when it was made,” wrote Lincoln to Blair, “though on the whole I thought it best to make it; but since then I have become more doubtful of its propriety.” While Lincoln did not wish “to countermand it,” he wanted for Blair to withhold it, “unless in your judgment the necessity to the contrary is very urgent.”

Lincoln wasn’t just unsure of the order to relieve Harney, but was also unsure of Harney, reasoning that it would be better to “have him a friend than an enemy.” The President was also concerned about how this second firing would appear: “More than all, we first relieve him, then restore him; and now if we relieve him again the public will ask, ‘Why all this vacillation?'”

“Still,” Lincoln closed, leaving a light on for Blair, “if in your judgment it is indispensable, let it be so.”1



The Confederacy continued to grow, adding recently-seceded Arkansas as its 9th state “upon an equal footing with the other States.” Their eyes were now turned to North Carolina, who would, in all likelihood, be out of the Union by Monday.2


The Missouri State Guard is Born

The day after the riots in St. Louis, the Missouri legislature organized a new state militia force, The Missouri State Guard. They also outlawed any other armed group (meaning pro-Union, as opposed to pro-Missouri, militia units).

On this date, Major-General of the Missouri State Guard Sterling Price assumed command of all state forces.3

Price was born and raised in Virginia. He moved with his family to Missouri in his early 20s. When the Mexican War began, he had already been Missouri’s Speaker of the House and a US Representative. He returned to Missouri, raised a volunteer regiment and served in New Mexico.

After the war, he was Missouri’s Governor and a Unionist. At the state’s secession convention, held in February and March of 1861, he opposed secession unless Lincoln attempted to coerce the Southern states back into the Union. In that case, Missouri should side with the South.4


Butler Sent to Fortress Monroe

In Washington, newly-promoted General Benjamin Butler was ordered by General-in-Chief Scott to take command of Fortress Monroe near Norfolk, Virginia. Though Butler had probably known of this reassignment since being promoted to Major-General on the 16th, he fired off an angry letter to Secretary of War Simon Cameron asking if he was officially being censured and asked to see the President.

Later that day, Butler met with Lincoln and told him that he thought it best if he [Butler] resigned. According to Butler, Lincoln disagreed and personally asked him to accept the new position. After talking it over with Mrs. Butler, General Butler returned to the President.

In his memoirs, Butler wrote that he accepted the commission, but added a condition. “As a Democrat I opposed your election, and did all I could for your opponent,” said Butler to Lincoln, “but I shall do no political act, and loyally support your administration as long as I hold your commission; and when I find any act that I cannot support I shall bring the commission back at once, and return it to you.”

Lincoln agreed that that was frank and fair, adding that when Butler saw him “doing anything that for the good of the country ought not to be done, come and tell me so, and why you think so, and then perhaps you won’t have any chance to resign your commission.”5

  1. This letter from Lincoln to Blair appears in The Life and Military Services of Gen. William Selby Harney by L. U. Reavis, Bryan, Brand & co., 1878. []
  2. Official Records, Series 4, Vol. 1, p335. []
  3. Organization and Status of Missouri troops, Union and Confederate, in Service During the Civil War, p251-256, United States Record and Pension Office, 1902. []
  4. Wilson’s Cree by Piston & Hatcher. []
  5. Autobiography and Personal Reminiscences of Major-General Benj. F. Butler []
Creative Commons License
Lincoln Saves Harney… For Now; Missouri’s New Rebel; Butler to Monroe by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


View all posts by