- Historic Sites
The Tour Of Prince Napoleon
A FRENCH VISIT TO CIVIL WAR AMERICA Selections from the letters of Lieutenant Colonel Camille Ferri Pisani, who accompanied Prince Napoleon on his state visit, touring the fronts, both North and South, visiting the West and meeting Lincoln and the men around him during the Union’s darkest days
August 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 5
Missouri, half the size of France, and the oldest of the States founded by the Union on the right bank of the Mississippi, is part of the South. It is so not because of its geographical position (as septentrional as Illinois), nor because of slavery (since this institution plays a rather unimportant role in the domestic and agricultural life of the inhabitants), but because of the affinities of race, mores and interests, which tie it closely to the populations of the lower Mississippi.
Saint Louis is the warehouse of the huge water trade of the Mississippi and the center of the commercial, political, industrial and religious operations which concern the midcontinent, as far as California. Last May, when President Lincoln decreed the mobilization of the States’ militias to answer the attack on Fort Sumter and reduce the rebels by force, the Missouri legislature, through the voice of Governor Jackson, declared that the Federal order was unconstitutional, illegal and diabolical . Civil War soon followed.
Part of the Saint Louis militia had gathered in a camp near Saint Louis, not to defend the Union, but rather to drive Federal troops away from the territory of the State on the pretext of neutrality. Captain Lyon, in charge of the [Federal] arsenal, marched on the camp with a few regular companies, caught it by surprise and disarmed the militia. When they returned, they were stoned by the population. Shots were fired. About 30 persons were killed. From that time Saint Louis was treated as a besieged town.
The military partisans of the South left town and joined the insurgent bands gathering around the city. On the other hand, the Federal government decreed the formation of an army of the West, with headquarters in Saint Louis and organized along the same lines as the volunteer army of the Potomac. From street skirmishes, the situation worsened to guerrilla warfare in the country, soon followed by regular battles. The army of volunteers, commanded by Captain Lyon—appointed General—had moved to Springfield about 60 leagues west of Saint Louis, facing large groups of rebel bands. The Federal army attacked [at Wilson’s Creek], was defeated, suffered many casualties; they lost their cannons and provisions. Lyon was killed.
It was the counterpart of Bull Run, the war being concentrated then on two points symmetrically located on both sides of the Alleghenies: Washington, Capital of the East on one side, Saint Louis, capital of the West, on the other. Just as the government—on the brim of abyss—called on McClellan to defend the Potomac, Frémont was sent on the Mississippi.
However, the former’s mission, in the mind of the Congress, in the middle of the older States and amidst austere and essentially Anglo-American populations, never went beyond the circle of purely military matters. McClellan’s own character, that of a kind of puritan and liberal soldier, could not have accommodated itself to an extra-legal, violent and revolutionary position. As for Frémont, his origin, his adventurous past, and his hatreds, especially marked him as one of these precious agents who would shun no responsibility to save the public thing; he is one of those men who serve a government, not according to official instructions but rather with an understanding of its hidden intentions, men who understand in half-words what is expected of them.
Soon after his arrival, Frémont acted as a proconsul; by enforcing martial law he concentrated power in his hands. He raises troops, forms army corps, appoints or confirms officers, and worries little, I believe, about Washington. Requisitions in money make provision for army funds and Nature takes care of the soldiers’ needs. He has arrogated to himself the right to expel or arrest citizens, to supress newspapers—although he does not seem to exercise these powers to the limit—thus frightening the population. More than 40,000 people have left Saint Louis.
Such is the situation of one of the most important States of the American republic. Similar conditions are often found in Europe, but in the United States, this is so extraordinary and rare that no other traveller can claim to have witnessed such a spectacle.
Today, September 5, Prince Napoleon devoted part of the morning to General Frémont’s visit. Then he visited him at his camp and met his principal lieutenants. He also paid his respects to the mayor of Saint Louis, Mr. Ramsay, and a few of the most important inhabitants, Mr. Choteau, brother-in-law of Mr. de Montholon [French consul in New York], Mr. Osborne, our friend and guide, etc— . General Frémont came to the Planter’s in great style, escorted by a squad of cavalry in full dress and accompanied by a brilliant staff. He received the Prince in his house, with display, dignity, and a protocol generally unknown in America.
The General informed the Prince of his military projects. They are very bold. They reveal both the adventurous genius of the traveller and the strategy of the General. In these immense plains, cut through by huge half-desert and unexplored areas, a military expedition has somewhat the character of an exploration, just as explorations must also look much like war expeditions. General Frémont intends, by going downstream, to penetrate directly into the very heart of the Southern States and to enter New Orleans.