The Missouri Convention
By Thomas L. Snead
Excerpted and Introduced by G.E. Rule
from “The Fight For Missouri”, Thomas L. Snead, 1886
Missouri Civil War Reader, Volume I – now available
The Fight for Missouri by Thomas L. Snead, 1886
The Struggle for Missouri by John McElroy, 1909
The Story of a Border City During the Civil War by Galusha Anderson, 1908
The Crisis by Winston Churchill, 1901
Basil Duke in Missouri by Gen. Basil Wilson Duke, 1911
The Brown-Reynolds Duel, 1911
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Thomas L. Snead was, successively, a pro-Breckinridge newspaperman, aide to Governor Claiborne Jackson, adjutant to General Sterling Price, and CSA Congressman from Missouri. His “The Fight for Missouri: From the Election of Lincoln to the Death of Lyon” is the best first hand account of events in Missouri from late 1860 until August of 1861. Predictably, many Pro-Union partisans regard Snead as hopelessly biased towards the secessionist’s point of view. More surprisingly, some Pro-Confederate partisans consider that by 1886 Snead was too much of a “reconstructed Rebel” and not strident enough in defending the secessionist point of view. Snead himself was not above playing hardball during the war, signing the order in 1863 on behalf of General Sterling Price directing Captain Thomas E. Courtenay to raise a corps of 20 men for secret service to engage in sabotage behind Union lines in the Trans-Mississippi.
Chosen by special election in Feb. 1861, the members of The Missouri Convention met, speechified, and decided to do nothing. The timing of the convention worked out very well for the Unionists and very poorly for the Secessionists. A convention chosen, or even still in session, after Lincoln’s call for troops to suppress the South on April 17th might have ended quite differently. Indeed, such was the course of events in Virginia where it was believed that the Unionists held the upper hand right to the end. . .and secession of the state. But in Virginia the Unionists made the fatal mistake of allowing the Convention to stay in session, while in Missouri they were smart enough to disband as soon as possible. A Convention not in session cannot vote to secede.
The State Convention met at Jefferson City on the last day of February. Ex-Governor Sterling Price, a Union man, was chosen President, receiving the votes of seventy-five Union Men, while the votes of fifteen Southern Rights’ men were given to Nathaniel W. Watkins, a half-brother of Henry Clay. As soon as the Convention completed its organization it adjourned its session to St. Louis, whose loyal atmosphere it preferred to that of the capital.
Of its ninety-nine members fifty-three were natives of either Virginia or Kentucky; and all but seventeen had been born in the slave-holding States. Only thirteen were natives of the North. Three were Germans, and there was one Irishman. The President of the Convention, the Chairman of the Committee on Federal Relations Judge Gamble, the leader of the Unconditional Union men on the floor James O. Broadhead, and the most conspicuous opponent of Secession John B. Henderson, were all Virginians.
The Convention reassembled at St. Louis on the 4th of March, the day of Lincoln’s inauguration, and went straight to work. On the 9th the Committee on Federal Relations made a long report through its chairman, Judge Gamble. In this report, after reviewing the condition of the country, they said:
“To involve Missouri in revolution, under the present circumstances, is certainly not demanded by the magnitude of the grievances of which we complain; nor by the certainty that they cannot be otherwise and more peacefully remedied, nor by the hope that they would be remedied, or even diminished by such revolution.
“The position of Missouri in relation to the adjacent States, which would continue in the Union, would necessarily expose her, if she became a member of a new Confederacy, to utter destruction whenever any rupture might take place between the different republics. In a military aspect secession and connection with a Southern Confederacy is annihilation for Missouri.
“The true position for Missouri to assume is that of a State whose interests are bound up in the maintenance of the Union, and whose kind feelings and strong sympathies are with the people of the Southern States, with whom we are connected by the ties of friendship and blood… To go with those States —to leave the government our fathers builded— to blot out the star of Missouri from the constellation of the Union is to ruin ourselves without doing them any good. We cannot follow them, we cannot give up the Union, but we will do all in our power to induce them to again take their places with us in the family from which they have attempted to separate themselves. For this purpose we will not only recommend a compromise with which they ought to be satisfied, but we will endeavor to procure an assemblage of the whole family of States in order that in a General Convention such amendments to the Constitution may be agreed upon as shall permanently restore harmony to the whole nation.”
The committee also submitted to the Convention resolutions conformable to these opinions, and which in substance were,
1. That there was no adequate cause for the withdrawal of Missouri from the Union.
2. That believing that the seceded States would return to the Union if the Crittenden Proposition were adopted, the Convention would request the General Assembly to call a Convention of all the States to consider that proposition.
3. That they would entreat the Federal Government not to employ force against the seceding States, and the latter not to assail the Government, while this proposition was under consideration.
Mr. Bast moved that the Convention should further declare that if the Northern States should refuse to assent to the Crittenden Compromise, and the other border slave States should thereupon secede, Missouri would not then hesitate to take a firm and decided stand in favor of her sister States of the South.
For this proposition only twenty-three members voted. Among them were Sterling Price, Robert A. Hatcher, Harrison Hough, Prince L. Hudgins, John T. Redd, and Nathaniel W. Watkins. Among the seventy who voted against it were General Doniphan, Judge Gamble, James H. Moss, William A. Hall, John B. Henderson, and James O. Broadhead.
While Mr. Moss, who was, by the way, a man of ability and character, would not vote to declare that Missouri would, under any circumstances, secede, he was opposed to coercion, and therefore offered a resolution declaring that Missouri would “never furnish men or money for the purpose of aiding the General Government in any attempts to coerce a seceding State.”
In advocating this resolution he said:
“I submit to every man of common sense in this Assembly to tell me whether Missouri will ever furnish a regiment to invade a Southern State for the purpose of coercion. Never! Never! And, gentlemen! Missouri expects this Convention to say so… I believe it to be the duty of Missouri to stand by the gallant men of southern Illinois, who have declared that they will never suffer a Northern army to pass the southern boundary of Illinois for the purpose of invading a Southern State.”
To this William A. Hall replied with unanswerable argument that if Missouri remained in the Union it would be her duty to furnish both men and money to the General Government when properly called upon for them, whether to coerce a State into submission, or for any other purpose. To say that she would not do this, would be an idle threat at best, and a mischievous one. Threats on the part of Northern men or communities might have a good effect by showing the willingness of some men at the North to be just to the South. But such threats coming from a Southern State would only encourage the seceding States and enrage the North.
The Convention voted down the proposition of Mr. Moss; and “the pitiless logic of facts” forced him afterwards to raise and command a regiment for the subjugation of the South!
While acting consistently with their new-born determination to stand by the Union, the Conditional Union men still talked as they had been wont to talk when they were soliciting the votes of the Southern people of Missouri. Even John B. Henderson, daring and reckless as he had become in his newly awakened zeal and loyalty, opposed Moss’s resolution only because it was useless.
“Does any man suppose,” said he, “that the President of the United States will so far disregard his duties under the Constitution, or forget the obligation of his oath, as to undertake the subjugation of the Southern States by force? Will the abstract principle of the enforcement of the laws ever be carried by the President to the extent of military subjugation? If so, this Government is at an end. Will you tell me that Mr. Lincoln will send Don Quixotes into the Southern States with military force to subjugate those States? Certainly not… He who dreams that this Government was made or intended to subjugate any one of the States dreams certainly against the spirit, against the intent, and against the whole scope of our institutions… The President has no more power to use force than you or I. Why, then, should Missouri declare that she will under no circumstances lend means or money to the enforcement of the laws by the Federal Government?”
There were a few who still dared to speak as Southern men in a Missouri Convention, and to express in the presence of Blair’s Horne Guards and of United States troops and in the centre of the loyal city of St. Louis, the opinions which they had expressed during the canvass to their Southern-born constituents. Among these were: Prince L. Hudgins and John T. Redd. The former, in the course of an able and impassioned argument in support of Moss’ proposition, said:
“I do not believe that a State has a constitutional right to secede; but seven States claim to have seceded, and I, for one, am anxious to bring them back. You cannot do this by threats, nor by force, nor by abuse. They have done what they thought best for themselves, for their children, and for their children’s children. They have done it deliberately and after great consideration… If Missouri wishes to bring them back, she must remember that they are our brethren; that they must be treated not as traitors, but as patriots; and that they can only be brought back upon fair and honorable terms… The Federal Government has no right to force them back; and if it had such a right, this Convention should say that it ought not to be, and in the language of Virginia and Kentucky, must not be, used. It has been settled beyond the power of refutation that the Government has no right to march an armed force into a State in order to subjugate it. If this be so, cannot Missouri have the courage to say that, if Abraham Lincoln, in violation of the Constitution, and in violation of his oath, march an army into the South, she will not aid him with men and money?
“It is strange that any man who lives in Missouri, and believes in her institutions, should hesitate to declare that she will not engage in such a war. It would be a dreadful thing to do, even if the Constitution, and the flag of our country, and our own Honor required us to do it —to make war upon the land in which we were born, and whose churchyards are filled with the graves of our ancestors; to desolate the homes and to shed the blood of our kindred. It is too horrible to contemplate. Missouri never will do it…
“Nor can I believe for one moment that Missouri intends, or that this Convention will say that is her duty, to submit to Northern aggression, to give up her institutions, and to sacrifice her honor. Let our slaves go if they must, let all our property be sacrificed, but let us maintain our honor—the honor of freemen. If ever the President command Missourians to shed the blood of their Southern brothers, they should take the halter in one hand and the sword in the other and tell him that when he had taken the one he might use the other. I have no submission blood in my veins. If I had I would let it out with a knife.”
John T. Redd, of Marion, was even more emphatic than Hudgins. They were both men of ability, and of high standing, and their words had weight with the people of Missouri. It is a pity to offer the reader only a dry summary of their speeches. They ought to be read in full by every one who wishes to comprehend the motives which governed the conduct of the men who took up arms against the Federal Government.
“If the General Government send troops upon Southern soil to retake the forts now in the hands of those States, to retake the custom-houses for the purpose of collecting the revenue, or for any other purpose, the Union is gone. If it be once dissolved it can never be reconstructed, because between the sundered sections there will be a gulf of blood.
“It is my opinion that if the General Government will not wait till the country can, by conciliation and compromise, save the Union, Missouri should and will take the stand with her Southern sisters; and that, having failed to obtain their rights, having failed to obtain any guarantee from that great antislavery party which has so long trampled the Constitution under foot, she and they should take their stand outside of the Union, taking with them the Constitution, and that glorious banner which they have baptized in the blood of a hundred battlefields, and fight, if need be, for their rights and institutions, as their fathers fought, and until the last drop of blood be spilled… If she is to remain in the Union at the sacrifice of her institutions and her rights, she should change the device of her coat-of-arms, remove from it the grizzly bears, whose rugged nature was never animated by a craven spirit, and substitute in their place a fawning spaniel, cowing at the feet of its master, and licking the hand that smites it.
Even Broadhead, an Unconditional Union member from St. Louis, did not believe that the Federal Government had a right to coerce a State; but he found in the power which it had to call out the militia in order to execute the laws, to suppress insurrection, and to repel invasion, abundant authority to use force for the preservation of the Union.
Argument and declamation had, however, little to do with the settlement of the question, and with determining the action of the Convention. It was a fact which decided the matter and persuaded that Body to declare that Missouri would adhere loyally to the Union. This fact was bluntly announced to the Convention and to the people of the State by Broadhead, who was not only a delegate to the Convention but a member of the Union Safety Committee of St. Louis and a trusted counselor of Mr. Lincoln, at the conclusion of his speech, in these words: “Missouri cannot go out of the Union if she would. I think I know what I say when I speak it, Missouri has not the power to go out of the Union if she would.” What he meant will appear in the sequel. He did know what he was saying.
The Convention adopted Gamble’s report and resolutions, and a few days afterwards (March 21) adjourned subject to the call of a committee, which it named.
Early in the session, the General Assembly had refused to elect a United States Senator in place of James S. Green, whose term was to expire on the 3d of March. It had done this upon the ground that it was better to learn first whether Missouri would remain in the Union or not. It being now obvious that the State would not secede, the General Assembly proceeded to the election of a Senator (March 12th). The Democrats nominated Green for the place, but found it impossible, after several days’ balloting, to elect so pronounced a Secessionist as he. Waldo P. Johnson was thereupon elected. It is a noteworthy fact that Green, who was relegated to private life because he was a Secessionist, did not raise his hand or his voice in behalf of the South during the war, while Johnson, who had been elected because he was a good Union man, quickly resigned his seat in the Senate, entered the army, and fought for the Confederacy till the end of the war.
Of Green, Mr. Blaine, who rarely permits himself to write justly or fairly about any Southern man says: “No man among his contemporaries had made so profound an impression in so short a time. He was a very strong debater. He had peers, but no master, in the Senate. Mr. Green on the one side, and Mr. Fessenden on the other, were the Senators whom Douglas most disliked to meet, and who were best fitted in readiness, in accuracy, and in logic to meet him. Douglas rarely had a debate with either in which he did not lose his temper, and to lose one’s temper in debate is generally to lose one’s cause. Green had done more than any other man in Missouri to break down the power of Thomas H. Benton as a leader of the Democracy. His arraignment of Benton before the people of Missouri in 1849, when he was but thirty-two years of age, was one of the most aggressive and most successful warfares in our political annals.”
After serving several years in the House of Representatives, he had been elected to the United States Senate in January 1859, and became the leader of the pro-slavery men in the Congressional contest for the possession of Kansas. He bore himself there with so much dignity and courtesy, and was so able in argument and brilliant in debate, that he won the admiration of every one and deserved even higher praise than that which Mr. Blaine accords to him.
Although the Secessionists had, through defection of some of their number, lost control of the House of Representatives, and could not consequently enact any measure looking toward the secession of the State, they could, nevertheless, bring to their support a majority of the House, whenever they attacked the Republican party and not the Union; for many men who were devoted to the Union were bitterly hostile to the Republicans, and especially hostile to that party as it was constituted in St. Louis. In that city, it consisted almost wholly of Germans, though their leaders were chiefly Kentuckians and Virginians. They were in possession of the City Government, and their Mayor was a stern and uncompromising partisan, a member of the Union Safety Committee, and a man who would not hesitate to use the police force and all the power and resources of the city to repress any movements on the part of the Secessionists. He was sustained also by the powerful semi-military organization of Home Guards, and could, in the moment of need, call them to his aid as special constables and, by investing them with the panoply of the law, thrice arm them for the fight. These companies, as has already been told, had, previous to the election of the 18th of February, become so turbulent and aggressive as to alarm the peaceful residents of the city, and recent events had made them more arrogant and more dangerous still. It had therefore become a matter of supreme importance to the Secessionists to take these great powers from the Mayor, and accordingly a law was now enacted for creating a Board of Police Commissioners and authorizing a police force for the city of St. Louis. This bill, which passed the Senate on the 2d of March, and the House on the 23d, authorized the Governor, with the consent of the Senate, to appoint four commissioners, who, along with the Mayor of the city, should have absolute control of the police, of the Volunteer Militia of St. Louis, and of the sheriff and all other conservators of the peace. This act summarily took away from the Republican Mayor and transferred to the Governor through his appointees, the whole police power of the city of St. Louis. This was its expressed intention. It had other and more important purposes which were carefully concealed.
On the 22d of March, the President of the Convention transmitted to the General Assembly the resolution requesting that body to take the proper steps for calling a Convention of all the States to propose amendments to the Constitution.
Mr. Vest reported (March 27th) from the committee to whom the resolution was referred, that “Going into council with our oppressors before we have agreed among ourselves, can never result in good. It is not the North that has been wronged, but the South, and the South can alone determine what securities in the future will be sufficient. The interests of Missouri, all her sympathies and the affections of her people render her destiny the same with that of the Border Slave States. Mediation by one State alone will amount to nothing. Let us first agree with those whom God and Nature have made our associates in council, and then, in a temperate but firm manner, make known our united decision to the people of the North. If such a demand, coming from the people of eight sister States, swelling in a tone of grandeur and power which should sway the destinies of the universe, shall he disregarded, then, indeed, all hopes of reconstruction would be ended, and appealing to the civilized world a united South, with common lineage, common feelings and common institutions, would take their place among the nations of the earth. With these opinions the committee beg leave to report that it is inexpedient for the General Assembly to take any step towards calling a National Convention.”
In the course of the debate upon this report, Vest said: “The Convention has been guilty of falsehood and deceit. It says that there is no cause for separation. If this be so, why call a Convention? In declaring that if the other Border Slave Sates seceded Missouri would still remain within the Union, these wiseacres have perpetrated a libel upon Missouri. So help me God! if the day ever comes when Missouri shall prove so recreant to herself, so recreant to the memories of the past and to the hopes of the future, as to submit tamely to these Northern Philistines, I will take up my household goods and leave the State. Make another Constitution and these Northern Vandals will trample it under foot… I appeal to the people of Missouri to maintain their rights. I defy the Convention. They are political cheats, jugglers, and charlatans, who foisted themselves upon the people by ditties and music and striped flags. They do not represent Missouri. They have crooked the pliant hinges of the knee that thrift might follow fawning. As for myself, two grandfathers who fought for our liberties rest in the soil of Virginia, and two uncles who fought in the Revolution, sleep in the land of the Dark and Bloody Ground. With such blood in my veins, I will never, never, NEVER submit to Northern rule and dictation, I will risk all to be with the Southern people, and, if defeated, I can with a patriot of old exclaim,
“More true joy an exile feels,
Than Cæsar with a Senate at his heels.”
The Legislature, having adopted the report, adjourned the next day, March the 28th.
The Secessionists now began to gather strength again. The Governor had never wavered in his determination to hold the State firm to her pledge to resist the coercion of the South. And now many of those who had in January and February and in the early days of March been deluded into the belief that it was still possible to prevent war had at last come to the conclusion that war was inevitable, that a collision would sooner or later take place between the Federal Government and the South, and that Missouri would have to take part in the conflict, and they were now taking sides with the Governor. In St. Louis, particularly, a strong revulsion of feeling had set in against Blair and his followers. Their open preparation for war alarmed the great land owners and rich merchants of St. Louis, who preferred peace to everything else, and it frightened thousands of others whose prosperity depended on the continuance of Southern trade, which would be instantly stopped by war. It was plain now that the South was for peace, and the North for war. The Secessionists had thus become the party of peace, and they were joined by every man who wanted that above all things. It was useless for Mr. Lincoln to say that he was averse to war. All men knew that, but they also knew that it was only by war that he could maintain the Union. The common sense of the people recognized this fact, and that they acted upon it was abundantly proven when the Municipal Election took place in St. Louis on the 1st of April, and the Unconditional Union men, who had carried the city in February by a majority of 5,000, were defeated by a majority of 2,600.
This was a declaration in favor, not of secession, but of peace, and against making war upon the South; and there were still men —thousands of men— in St. Louis, and throughout Missouri who continued to believe that war might yet be averted; and there were others who foolishly fancied that, even if war raged from the Lakes to the Gulf and from the Atlantic to the Pacific, Missouri could, in the midst of the bloody strife, remain neutral and enjoy unbroken peace.
There were, however, two classes of men in Missouri who had never indulged in these baseless hopes; who had seen at the outset that war inevitable, and had then begun to prepare for war. At the head of the one stood the Governor of the State, Claiborne F. Jackson; at the head of the other Francis P. Blair, Jr. Never did either of them quail in the presence of any danger, nor shrink from the performance of any duty, however difficult or perilous, which he was called upon to encounter, or to undertake, in defense, or in maintenance, of the principles to which he had devoted his life. Under the banner of the State upheld by the one or under the flag of the Union uplifted by the other, all earnest men had at last begun to rally.