September 1861: "I am in the very midst of the great warlike preparations of the West."

By Elaine Grublin

Letter from Howard Dwight to William Dwight, 29 September 1861

Letter from Howard Dwight to William Dwight, 29 September 1861 Manuscript

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    In this four-page letter, written 29 September 1861, Howard Dwight relates the state of Union affairs in Missouri to his father, William Dwight, Sr. Having recently arrived in St. Louis, Howard shares his thoughts about the command of Major General John C. Frémont and his own attempts to secure a commission from Frémont.

    Howard Dwight was born 29 October 1837, in Springfield, Massachusetts, to William and Elizabeth A. Dwight. In September of 1859, shortly after completing his studies at Harvard, Howard traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, where he managed a cotton press for several years. Returning to Massachusetts in July 1861, Howard assisted his brother, Major Wilder Dwight, in securing arms for the Second Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Howard also sought his own commission and on 1 September he was named lieutenant in the Twenty-Fourth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. He quickly resigned that commission, leaving Massachusetts to join the newly reorganized Department of the West. Hoping his experiences in Tennessee would be beneficial to the troops there, Howard sought to join the staff of General John C. Frémont in St. Louis, Missouri.

    General Frémont, a hero of the Mexican War, was named commander of the Department of the West in July 1861. He assumed command during a difficult transition, making his task of organizing federal forces in order to hold the border state of Missouri and her important railroads and rivers for the Union complicated. The presence of a large secessionist faction in the state government -- pro-Confederate governor Claiborne Fox Jackson had recently been forced out of office and replaced by pro-Union provisional governor Hamilton R. Gamble -- created a volatile political situation, while the Confederate troops under the command of Major General Sterling Price were well organized and prepared to fight for their cause. After a number of military defeats and miscalculations, a controversial proclamation freeing the slaves held by Confederate sympathizers in the state, and accusations of mismanagement of funds, Frémont was relieved of his command and replaced by Major General David Hunter on 3 November 1861.

    In this letter Howard Dwight recognizes the difficulty of Frémont's task stating, "for whatever he accomplishes he should receive a double share of praise." Dwight further notes that "regiments that should have come to him [Frémont] have been ordered to Washington and it has been almost impossible for him to obtain arms and clothing for his troops." In mentioning "the late affairs at Lexington," Dwight refers to the surrender of 2800 Union soldiers under the command of Colonel James A. Mulligan to General Price on 20 September 1861. The surrender ended a week-long siege of the Union garrison at Lexington and provided a morale boost for the secessionists. Dwight expresses confidence that the armies of Frémont and Price will "meet in the field and... at last a great battle on nearly as possible equal terms" will take place. Frémont is slow to pursue Price, and is relieved of his command before the battle can occur.

    Howard Dwight received a commission as second lieutenant in Company C of the Fourth Regiment Missouri Cavalry on 4 October 1861. He remained with the Fourth until November 1862, rising to the rank of captain. He was appointed Assistant Adjutant General of the Volunteers by Abraham Lincoln and was transferred to the Department of the Gulf. Captain Dwight was killed in Louisiana on 4 May 1863 while attempting to deliver dispatches on behalf of General Nathaniel P. Banks. Separated from the larger body of soldiers in his brigade, he encountered three Confederate cavalrymen bearing rifles and was shot. His body was returned home and he was buried at Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts.

    Sources for further reading:

    This letter is one of hundreds of Civil War era letters contained in the Dwight Family Papers. This collection contains materials written and received by various members of the Dwight Family, including Howard's parents, William and Elizabeth Dwight, and his four brothers, three of whom -- Wilder, William, Jr., and Charles --served in the Union Army.

    Boman, Dennis K. Lincoln and Citizens' Rights in Civil War Missouri: Balancing Freedom and Security. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2011.

    Higginson, Thomas Wentworth, ed.. Harvard Memorial Biographies. Volume 1, 382-394. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Sever and Francis, 1867.

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