As Adam Arenson has written about lately in Disunion in the New York Times, Missouri was on edge in Spring 1861, as a secessionist governor tangled with the state’s Unionist majority. Missouri was already a violent place, as the scene of a nasty war in the late 1830s with the Mormons and even bloodier strife over slavery with neighboring Kansas in the 1850s. This irregular warfare would carry on into the Civil War, becoming legendary for its viciousness and brutality.
Hence, it is not surprising in Spring 1861 that Missouri’s slaveholders were especially nervous. While it is possible to dismiss the slave insurrection fear in other slave states as racist paranoia, because of its history, the possibility of violence at that moment involving slavery in Missouri was all too real. Kansas and its freesoil Jayhawkers, in particular, having been the target of pro-slavery forces based in Missouri in the late 1850s, could be creditably suspected as the agents who would seek to unleash Missouri’s slaves against their owners. So in need of federal protection more than other border states, the federal government’s stance toward slavery in Missouri was particularly critical to the state’s slaveholders and would do much to decide whether they stayed loyal to the Union or listened to the arguments of secessionist governor, Claiborne Fox Jackson.
The leading representative of the federal government in Missouri in Spring 1861 was Brigadier General William S. Harney, who commanded the U.S. Army’s Department of the West from Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis. Born in Tennessee, by the time of the Civil War he had been an army officer for over four decades and was a stalwart Unionist, who considered Missouri his home. Hence, he was horrified by the violence breaking out within Missouri that spring between the state’s pro-Union majority and aggressive pro-Confederate minority. Harney tried to keep the peace between the two factions, negotiating a questionable compromise that while it brought a temporary truce soon would get him recalled to Washington, D.C. and relieved of his command.
But his determination to keep Missouri in the Union and avoid violence with pro-secession elements explains his quick response when confronted with a letter from Thomas T. Gantt, Provost Marshall General of the District of Missouri. On May 14, 1861, Gantt wrote Harney:
SIR: … Last evening a gentleman of the highest respectability and intelligence from Greene County, Mo., asked me whether I supposed it was the intention of the United States Government to interfere with the institution of negro slavery in Missouri or any slave State or impair the security of that description of property. Of course my answer was most unqualifiedly and almost indignantly in the negative. I told him that I had no means of forming an opinion which was not open to every other private citizen but that I felt certain that the force of the United States would if necessary be diverted for the protection of this as well as any other kind of property. Will you be good enough to spare from your engrossing military duties so much time as may be required to say whether I answered correctly?
The same day, Harney rushed a reply to Gantt, stating:
SIR: I have just received your note of this date inquiring whether in my opinion you were correct in replying to a citizen of Southwestern Missouri as to the purpose of the United States Government respecting the protection of negro property. I must premise by saying that I have no special instructions on this head from the War Department but I should as soon expect to hear that the orders of the Government were directed toward the overthrow of any other kind of property as of this in negro slaves.
I entertain no doubt whatever that you answered the question you mentioned correctly. I should certainly have answered it in the same manner, and I think with the very feelings you describe. I am not a little astonished that such a question could be seriously put. Already since the commencement of these unhappy disturbances slaves have escaped from their owners and have sought refuge in the camps of U. S. troops from Northern States and commanded by a Northern general. They were carefully sent back to their owners. An insurrection of slaves was reported to have taken place in Maryland. A Northern general offered to the executive of that State the aid of Northern troops under his own command to suppress it. Incendiaries have asked of the President permission to invade the Southern States and have been warned that any attempt to do this will be punished as a crime I repeat it I have no special means of knowledge on this subject but what I have cited, and my general acquaintance with the statesmanlike views of the President makes me confident in expressing the opinion above given.
William S. Harney’s representation of President Lincoln’s position at that point was substantially correct, as was his allusion to General Benjamin Butler’s reaction to the slave insurrection scare in Maryland. However, General Butler was soon to prove not so sympathetic to disloyal slaveholders in Virginia and Harney’s replacement, John C. Fremont, actually would proclaim slave emancipation in Missouri, greatly angering white public opinion in Missouri even though his proclamation was quickly overturned by the Lincoln administration. So while Harney’s letter was prudent and proper, it was blissfully unaware of the social revolution soon to be unleashed by the civil war then gaining momentum in the nation.