May 1, 1861: General Harney denounces secession

William S. Harney
William Selby Harney

William S. Harney was one of only four Union regular army generals at the start of the war. He commanded the Department of the West, and was stationed at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis. He was briefly held by Virginia troops at Harper’s Ferry, but soon released. The New York Times published a letter from Harney quashing rumors that he intended to join the Confederacy:

WASHINGTON, Wednesday, May 1, 1861.

MY DEAR SIR: The report of my arrest at Harper’s Ferry by persons assuming to act under authority of the State of Virginia has no doubt reached you. Gov. LETCHER immediately directed my release, with assurances disavowing the act of his subordinates, and expressing regret at their mistake or abuse of his authority. The kind attention and civility received from him, from the escort that accompanied me, and other distinguished citizens of Virginia and esteemed friends whom I there met, compensated for any personal trouble or annoyance; yet I cannot but feel deep mortification and regret that our country should be in a condition to expose any one to such an incident. It has furnished occasion for mistake or misrepresentation in respect to my views and sentiments, which a sense of duty requires to be promptly corrected. No better mode occurs to me than by a letter addressed to yourself, as an esteemed personal friend.

It has been represented through the public Press that I was a willing prisoner to the State of Virginia; that I designed to resign my commission in the United States Army, throw off my allegiance to the Federal Government, and join the forces of the Confederate States.

Forty-two years I have been in the military service of the United States, and have followed during all that time out one flag — the flag of the Union. I have seen it protecting our frontiers, and guarding our coasts, from Maine to Florida; I have witnessed it in the smoke of battle, stained with the blood of gallant men, leading on to victory; planted upon the strongholds, and waving in triumph over the capital of a foreign foe. My eyes have beheld that flag affording protection to our States and Territories on the Pacific, and commanding reverence and respect from hostile fleets and squadrons, and from foreign Governments, never exhibited to any other banner on the globe. Twenty stars, each representing a State, have been added to that banner during my service, and under its folds I have advanced from the rank of Lieutenant, to that which I now hold. The Government, whose honors have been bestowed upon me, I shall serve the remainder of my days. The flag, whose glories I have witnessed, shall never be forsaken by me while I can strike a blow for its defence. While I have breath, I shall be ready to serve the Government of the United States, and be its faithful, loyal soldier.

Without condemning, or in any degree criticising, the course other persons have deemed proper to pursue in the present juncture, my line of duty is plain to my own heart and judgment. The course of events that have led to the deplorable condition in which our country now stands, has been watched by me with painful interest. Perceiving that many of my fellow-citizens in the Southern States were discontented with the Government, and desired some change to protect them from existing evils, my feelings have been strongly averse to coercion, and anxious for some compromise or arrangement that would restore peace and harmony. The provisions of the Federal Constitution afforded, in my judgment, ample means of redress through a Convention of all the States, which might adopt amendments that would reconcile all difference, or if that could not be accomplished, might provide for peaceful separation in a manner becoming friends and brethren. So long as this hope of peaceful settlement of our troubles could be indulged, I have felt it to be the wise duty of the General Government to bear with patience outrages that no other Government could have endured, and to forbear any execution of force until the last hope departed.

But when the Confederate States, with seven thousand men, under cover of strong fortifications or impregnable batteries, assailed a starving garrison of seventy men in Fort Sumter, compelled the banner of the United States to be lowered, and boasted of its dishonor before the world, the state of the question was immediately changed. Instead of the Government coercing States demanding redress of grievances by constitutional means, the case was presented of revolutionists waging war against their Government, seeking its overthrow by force of arms, assailing public property by overwhelming force, laboring to destroy the lives of gallant officers and soldiers and dishonoring the national flag. The question now before us is, whether the Government of the United States, with its many blessings and past glories, shall to overthrown by the military dictatorship lately planted and now bearing away in the Confederate States? My hand cannot aid in that work.

Finding ourselves in a state of civil war, actually existing or fast approaching, some of my brethren in arms, citizens of seceding States, and for whom I have the highest personal respect, have considered it their duty to throw up their commissions and follow their States, in that view of duty I cannot concur. As an officer of the army and a citizen of the United States, I consider my primary allegiance to be due to the Federal Government, and subordinate to that is my allegiance to the State. This, as you are aware, has been the concurring opinion of the most eminent jurists of this country. It was the judgment of the Court of Appeals of South Carolina in the case of HUNT, where the subject was discussed with matchless ability. In that case, the highest Court in South Carolina deliberately decided that the soldier’s and citizen’s primary duty of allegiance is due to the United States Government, and not to the Government of his State. Of late it has been contended that the allegiance due by a citizen to the Federal Government, was dissolved when his State secedes from the Union. Into that snare many have fallen. But, in my judgment, there is and can be no such right as secession of a State by its own act. The Government of the Union can only be dissolved by the concurrence of the States that have entered into the Federal compact. The doctrine of secession is destructive to all Government, and leads to universal anarchy.

But supposing States may secede and destroy the Government whenever the fancy takes those who are strong enough to set up any arbitrary power in the State. Missouri, the State of my residence, has not seceded, and secession would, in my opinion, be her ruin. The only special interest of Missouri, in common with the Confederate States, is Slavery. Her interest in that institution is now protected by the Federal Constitution. But, if Missouri secedes, that protection is gone. Surrounded on three sides by Free States, which might soon become hostile, it would not be long until a slave could not be found within her borders. What interest could Missouri then have with the Cotton States, or a Confederacy founded on Slavery and its extension? The protection of her slave property, if nothing else, admonishes her to never give up the Union. Other interests of vast magnitude can only be preserved by a steadfast adherence and support of the United States Government. All hope of a Pacific Railroad, so deeply interesting to St. Louis and the whole State, must vanish with the Federal Government. Great manufacturing and commercial interests with which the Cotton States have no sympathy, must perish in case of secession, and from her present proud condition of a powerful, thriving State, rapidly developing every element of wealth and social prosperity, Missouri would dwindle to a mere appendage and convenience of the military aristocracy established in the Cotton States. Many other considerations might be offered to show that secession would be ruin to Missouri. And I implore my fellow-citizens of that State not to be seduced by the designing men to become the instruments of their mad ambition, by plunging the State into the vortex of revolution.

Whether governed by feelings inspired by the banner under which I have served, or by my judgment of duty as a citizen, or by interest as a resident and property owner in Missouri, I feel bound to stand by the Union, and remaining in the Union, shall devote myself to the maintenance of the Federal Government, and the perpetuation of its blessing to posterity.

Yours truly, WM. S. HARNEY,


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