150 Years Ago: “The crisis of the fall elections is upon us….”

A headline from today’s newspaper? No … correspondence sent from Major General Samuel Curtis to Brigadier General Benjamin Loan on this day (November 1), 150 years ago (OR, Series I, Volume 13, Serial 19, page 772-3):

Brig. Gen. Ben. Loan, Central District, Lexington, Mo.:

GENERAL: The crisis of the fall elections is upon us, and some embarrassment perhaps may be expected. I would not at such a time be so exact in relation to words spoken in debate or in canvas. Excitement runs high, and men are apt to be swayed by temporary feeling.

I would under such circumstances seek an early opportunity to parole such men as you have considered it necessary to arrest.

You need not fear my answer soon for acts I may deem exceptions when I am convinced they grow out of earnest zeal for the Government.

In regard to the negro question, I perceive it will complicate your duties; but it should be treated with firm consideration of law. The negroes of loyal Union men should be encouraged to stay at home and mind their business. It is only the negroes of men in rebellion or giving encouragement to rebellion that are free. Some overt act is implied, and here in Missouri, where a large majority of the State is loyal, we should be quite certain that the occasion for free papers justifies it.

The election will soon be over, and the occasion for public expression and the excuse will pass away. Meantime I shall watch matters in your district with much anxiety, knowing that you have more than your share of trouble and responsibility. I cannot immediately send you another regiment, but I am anxious to do so, and will, if possible, comply with your wishes.

I am, general, very truly, yours,
SAML. R. CURTIS, Major-General.

Does anyone say “these are just routine elections”? Every election year is “critical” or “historically important.” And there’s always some mention of an impending crisis – real or imagined. But I would tend to give General Curtis some slack here. A full blown war is probably a crisis, to say the least.

For those unfamiliar with the organization of Curtis’s command, Loan was in charge of the troops in a large center-west section of the state of Missouri. His troops garrisoned Jefferson City, Sedalia, Tipton, Lexington, Independence, Kansas City, Harrisonville, Calhoun, and Osage City. His main objective was simply to keep the peace. His most frequent adversary at this time were bands of irregulars and the occasional Confederate recruiting party.

As Curtis pointed out in the letter, the majority of the state was loyal. But that is not to say fully “Federal”. Robert Moore has often written about the range and strength of allegiances – both Federal and Confederate – in the Shenandoah. Well that same range existed in Missouri (… and Tennessee… and Arkansas… and Alabama… and Georgia… and so on…). Yes Curtis was playing a political hand here. Curtis was directly appealing to those supporting the formal government of the state, be they loyal blue, light blue, or just a “leave-me-alone”.

That hand was needed in order to retain the majority in the state. At this stage of the war, the residents of the state could vote with two different means. One was at the ballot box. The other was with with their feet and the musket.