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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
He maintains that the decisive blows of the war will not be struck on the Potomac where the two opponents insist upon massing their forces, but in the West, on the Mississippi, which everyone else considers a secondary theater of operations. He explains the importance of Cairo, 70 leagues below Saint Louis, at the junction of the Mississippi with the Ohio. There General Frémont concentrates all the means of transportation he can obtain from the navigation on the Upper Mississippi and tries to adapt it to a military expedition. He intends to embark his army at Cairo, and depending upon the circumstances, head straight for New Orleans, capturing Memphis on his way, or go upstream on the Tennessee and the Cumberland (tributaries of the Ohio) to enter the States of Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi.
I believe the General refrained from discussing with the Prince his political position in respect to Washington. It is a rather delicate question. As you know, Colonel, Mr. Lincoln and his friends—abolitionists at heart—have carefully hidden their flag in their pockets. They show scrupulous respect for all the articles of the Federal constitution concerning slavery, and for the various measures of Congress which regulate, limit or protect the peculiar institution. At this price they hope to keep within the Union those slave states which have not yet completely seceded, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri. By thus leaving the door open for a compromise, they hope some day to bring back to the fold the States now fighting for the South.
General Frémont was the unruly child of the Republican Party, or rather he had the nerve and audacity to compromise and embarrass those colleagues whom he does not like while ensuring his own political future. A few days before our arrival in Saint Louis, he issued a proclamation ordering, within the whole area under his command, the confiscation of property and immediate freedom of all slaves belonging to citizens who declared themselves against the Union. You notice the very important shade of meaning. What is serious, is not the confiscation of people’s properties, although for us administrative and military confiscation is a monstrosity; the capital point is the distinction established, in the General’s decree, between the property represented by a slave, and the property represented by a house or a plantation.
That the slave be confiscated is so much the betterl Thus he will be sold for the benefit of the Public Treasury, just as the house and the plantation will be auctioneered! But to free him is an innovation whose importance escapes no one. This is to recognize that the abolition of slavery is the principal aim of the war, and to create between North and South an abyss that even piles of corpses will not suffice to fill.
General Frémont’s proclamation burst over Washington like thunder. The sensation was immense, as is the case whenever an audacious mouth dares to shout the words which others dare only to whisper, or whenever a bright light suddenly lightens the halfdarkness of a situation obscured by lies. Every day, New York newspapers declare that General Frcmont is disavowed, and that he has been called to Washington to account for his conduct. So far, no such thing has been done! The Cabinet, in Washington, is quite embarrassed; they play dead and pretend not to have heard of his proclamation. But everyone knows how perplexed the Cabinet is. [Shortly after Colonel Ferri Pisani wrote these lines, President Lincoln annulled Frémont’s proclamation of emancipation. A few weeks later, Frémont was removed from command.]
We had been more or less told that the Army of the West was almost entirely composed of recently arrived emigrants, especially Germans. I must confess that I did not expect such a strong foreign character. It practically isolates the army from the rest of the population. This army was mainly recruited in the western States where the German element is predominant, and in the State of Missouri.
The predominance of the German element in the Army of the West is therefore the result of the nature of the sources which fed the recruitment of volunteers. Many causes forced the Germans to serve the flag. First, the high pay of soldiers, an almost irresistible attraction for wretched emigrants who left their country because of their misfortune, and who, if they found bread in their new motherland, were none the less forced to earn it daily with their sweat. Moreover, Germany is the traditional land of professional soldiers. Germans embrace the military profession willingly, and not so long ago, they served as mercenaries in many of the world’s armies. These tastes and traditions follow the men of Hesse, W’fcrttemberg and Prussia, wherever they go, and disappear only after several generations.
Finally, must I say it? Most Germans who come to America nowadays bring along a kind of hatred for the political regime of their fatherland, a democratic sentiment less pure from traces of envy than that of the older Americans. They have, sometimes, a background of latent socialism; in the United States this feeling would be considered as madness, but nevertheless it is working at the bottom of their souls. In Missouri, the man who represents best, in German eyes, aristocracy and fortune—the objects of his dislike—is the slave owner. This explains the instinct which leads these people, as a whole, to enlist under the flag of abolitionism, and now under the flag of the Union. The German element played an important role in the electoral success of Mr. Lincoln, and now is at the basis of the extreme popularity and the political future of General Frémont.