Sunday, October 30, 2011

Fremont and Freedom


Thomas Jefferson Hampson
When last we heard from Thomas Jefferson Hampson, my great grandfather who had been left for dead at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, August 10, 1861, his chest and leg wounds were healing nicely in the relative comfort of the Greene County courthouse, where the many wounded prisoners of the battle were being held. 
The earlier privations of the courthouse were overcome by some medicine getting through and cots and bedding brought in.  He meets a kindly Union woman who visits the hospital and makes a case for him to come outside the city to her farm.  She could use some help – her husband is on the other side of the Rebel lines, and she takes pity on Hampson.
After a promise not to escape, Hampson spends most of September, getting better and being outfitted with a set of outlandish clothes to replace his that had been stolen in the courthouse.
However, while sitting down to dinner on late summer evening, Rebel troops enter the house and arrest everyone, suspecting that they are part of a scheme to smuggle Union sympathizers past rebel lines.  They send the woman North to where the Union troops are and transport Hampson back to the prison in Springfield, Missouri.  A fairly big man, Hampson weighed 175 pounds when he entered the Army after Fort Sumter.  When he is telling the part of the story that follows, he weighed about half that.
Springfield
Son of the South
The prospect of spending the winter in Rebel hands weighs on Hampson.  Then the prisoners begin hearing word of General John C.  Fremont’s advance toward Southwest Missouri.  An advance party of Fremont’s force, led by Captain Charles Zagonyi, one of many European immigrants who fought in the Union Army, engages in a sharp battle on the outskirts of Springfield.  His rout of the Rebel troops, behind the battle cry "The Union and Fremont" causes the Confederate leadership to believe that the full force of Fremont’s 38,000 troops is just up the road.  They pull back to the more defensible Wilson’s Creek, leaving Springfield undefended, and wait for the big battle to come with Fremont. 
Hampson is an uneven speller and has General Fremont as Freemont.  The Hungarian Zagonyi comes out Zagonia.   When we pick up the story, it is October 22nd or 23rd, 1861.

The joyous thought of being liberated from our hated prison seemed to give us new life.  We eagerly caught up any news regarding Freemont’s advance; we pictured, in our minds, the glorious reunion between ourselves and our deliverers. 
One day there was great excitement among the Rebel Army and we saw that they were making hasty preparations for the evacuation of Springfield; falling back with all of their Army to their old position at Wison’s Creek.  We learned from the conversation of some of our guards that Freemont was within five miles of Springfield, and advancing in force. 
It would be a hard matter for me to describe the feeling of all of us upon receiving this most welcome news.  We started in to raise a little quiet enthusiasm among ourselves, but our guards soon put a stop to it by dealing out a few broken heads and bayonet thrusts. 
About four o’clock that day the town was free of all able bodied Rebels as Price had forced them all to fall back with his army and was preparing to give Freemont a warm reception at Wilson's Creek.  For a time we were free from all restraint, and gave vent to all our happiness as we fully expected to see our gallant boys in blue marching in next morning with Old Glory waiving over them. 
There lived in Springfield a doctor who was a staunch Union man, but was an invalid and unable to do military service; consequently, he had not been pressed into the Rebel ranks.  When the news came that the Union army was near the town, and that Price and his army had fallen back to Wilson Creek, it seemed to infuse new life into the doctor, and he managed to come over to the hospital.  Under his arm, he carried a bundle.  He came up to our ward and, of course, received a warm reception; after shaking hands with all of us. he said, “well, boys, I have something here that you all want to see.”  He then unfolded his bundle and it was a flag eight feet long.  The sight of our dear old flag set us wild again and again.  We gave three cheers for the Union.  The doctor soon explained to us what he wanted. 
The Rebels, when they left, left their flag flying over the court house and the doctor wanted it hauled down and Old Glory put in its place.  Now he exclaimed “Who will do it?”
My particular chum while in the hospital was a young fellow named James Davidson.  As brave and gallant a soldier as ever drew a sword in defense of his country.  He at once stepped forward and said, “I will go for one.”  “And I for another” yelled out yours truly, and the flag was handed over to us.  We were well aware of the fact that our mission was a dangerous one, and if our Army did not come to Springfield, and General Price and his Rebel force should return, the parties guilty of hauling down their flag would stand a splendid chance to stretch hemp. 
Not daunted, however, we had made up our minds that the flag should come down and Old Glory take its place.  David had been shot through both arms, but he had a good pair of legs.  I had a wounded leg but a good pair of arms, so between us, we made one good whole man.  We started for the courthouse, the streets were deserted save a few boys and three or four women – not a man was in sight.  Going into the courthouse, we soon made our way to the roof where about our head waving in defiance floated the flag of the Confederacy.
We hauled it down and soon had our flag floating proudly in its place.  We could hear a rousing cheer from the hospital as we hauled up our flag and when we had torn the Rebel flag into ribbons, we took off our hats and gave three cheers for the Union and its defenders.
The next morning came, but no Union army nor any sign of them.  Our disappointment was a bitter one and all of us were of the unanimous opinion that Freemont, who had the reputation of being a slow coach, deserved the application applied to him. 
That evening came back a part of the Rebel army and again occupied Springfield, much to our disgust and chagrin.  Of course the appearance of our flag and the disappearance of theirs raised a terrible row, and the uppermost thoughts in the minds of the Rebels was to find out who had the audacity to do such a thing; they threatened to hang every one of the prisoners if the guilty ones were not given up.  They came in the hospital in gangs, threatening and abusing us, endeavoring to find our who had hauled down their flag.
Things looked pretty blue for us; they threatened to burn down the hospital and cremate every inmate.  About this time it was discovered by the Rebels that we were seen by a lot of women and boys, and they hastened away to find them and bring them to the hospital to identify the Union boys who had done this deed. 
The doctor took Davidson and myself to one side and ordered us to go up to Ward No. 3 where all the most desperately wounded cases were kept.  Dr.  Melcher soon had us in cots, our legs and arms were done up in splints, our hands bandaged up in such a manner that our best friend would not have known us.  We were not any too soon, either, as the witnesses to our daring act were in the hospital and only too willing to help discover the guilty ones.  They inspected every inmate, us included, but failed to identify any of us as the ones wanted.  Dr.  Melcher told them that immediately after hauling down their flag we had left the hospital and in all probability were trying to make our escape into Freemont’s lines. 
Hampson and Davidson Make a Break For It
At eleven o’clock that night we were ready to make our desperate attempt.  A piece of cornbread was all we had to subsist on during our travel.  After a warm grasp of the hand from the kind doctor, and a tearful “God bless you” we stole quietly away from the hospital. 
We had travelled about a mile down the Rolla road when we heard the clatter of horses feet coming down the road from the direction of town.  They were right on us before we were aware of the fact; hastily throwing ourselves down in a fence corner, they passed without seeing us. 
That dreary night we struggled on and when daylight came we were hungry and fatigued but not disheartened.  Rebel scouts and bushwackers were on every hand, and we knew that we would not dare to travel during the day.  Fortunately for us, the country through which we were travelling was covered with black jack thickets which made an admirable place to secret ourselves.  A few hundred yards from where we found ourselves when daylight came was a dense thicket of Black Jacks and we were soon hidden there, and made our breakfast on cornbread. 
Feast:  Persimmons and Chickens
After eating, Davidson thought he would reconnoiter and try to find water, which would not seem a hard matter as the country was full of springs, and in about half an hour he came back saying that we were in big luck, he had not only found water but a grove of persimmon trees – the ground was covered with them.  I never tasted anything so delicious in all my life and ever since that time persimmons have had a warm place in my heart. 
All at once we came to a clearing in the weeds and about fifty yards further we saw a house, the sight of which about took our breath away.  We crept up near to what looked like a chicken coop and in that new respect our conclusions were correct.  What was even better, there were chickens inside. 
Our hunger overcame our discretion, and we determined to have a chicken supper.  I volunteered to go in and get a couple while Davidson stood guard, and gave warning should he see anything coming.  Soon I had a chicken in each hand.  I had caught them around the throat to prevent their squalling and rest assured I held them with a firm grip, and never let up grasping when I came out of the chicken house.  No one had seen us and we resumed our journey, and our commissary department was richer by two chickens.  They were dead as Hector for I had choked them in my firm grip upon their necks.
Sitting down we soon had them denuded of their feathers and for the first time in our lives we had a feast of raw chicken.  If we had only dared, we would have built a fire and roasted them – what a supper we would have had, but as it was, they tasted awful good.  After a brief rest, we again resumed our journey and made good time until daylight.  We hid in the thicket feeling refreshed and stronger after our chicken supper.  This time we were located so we could see down the road for a mile and watch for our enemies.
Meeting Up With Zagonyi and In Jail Again

Captain Charles Zagonyi
Civil War Virtual Museum

About ten o’clock we saw a group of Cavalry on the road coming toward our hiding place and at their head was a trooper carrying a flag – that flag was the dear old Stars and Stripes – just imagine our joy the minute we recognized that precious emblem of the free.  We fairly screamed for joy and scrambled through the thicket as fast as our crippled condition would allow.  We were soon on the road advancing to them.  They proved to be a body of Freemont’s men and on a scouting expedition.
When we met them they halted, and we were soon surrounded.  We were indeed a queer looking pair and many a rude joke was passed by the men upon our appearance in general.  Well, we could not blame them much, for we were a hard looking outfit, especially myself, with my calico uniform, plug hat, etc.
Captain Zagonia was in command and he gave us a sharp examination as to who we were, where we were going, etc.  The old idiot did not believe a word we said, and ordered two troopers to take us up behind and they would take us back to camp with him.
He had an idea that we were wounded Rebels acting the part of spies.  He imagined he had made an important capture.  But that night we were once more inside of the Union lines, but in the guard house under suspicion.  Of course we were mad all the way through, but knew, when taken before General Freemont, we would come out all right, as his adjutant, Captain Kennedy, was an old friend of our family and knew us in Covington.
Fremont and Freedom

John C. Fremont
Son of the South

The next morning we were brought before Freemont.  He asked us a great many questions.  He had been prejudiced by that fool Zagonia’s report, and did not know whether to believe us or not.  Captain Kennedy was there and kept watching me.  I knew that under the circumstances he would not recognize me.  Finally, I remarked to the General that Captain Kennedy would identify me and when I told the Captain who I was, he jumped up and caught me in his arms, turning to Freemont, told him that he and I were old school mates.  Well, this ended our trouble, and the next day we were sent to Rolla and from there to St. Louis with orders to report to the Commander of Benton Barracks. 
We arrived at St.  Louis on Monday morning, and to say that our appearance on the street created surprise and astonishment would be stating it mildly.  Davidson’s dress was not quite so loud as mine.  Nevertheless, it was certainly an old, odd looking rig; one that was liable to attract public attention.  The pair of us attracted as much attention as a circus parade.  The fact that we were wounded soldiers and escaped prisoners was enough to enlist the sympathies and admiration of all.  We went through the market and everything was free to us.  The attention and curiosity we excited was rather pleasing to us, and as long as that lasted we had no idea of reporting to Benton Barracks.
Post Script
Hampson and Davidson’s meeting with Zagonyi and Fremont came at a momentous time.  Zagonyi’s charge had occurred just a few days before his force was confronted on the road by the hapless looking escapees, chicken blood on the stubble of their faces, and he may well have been on his way for a second incursion into Rebel country that brought he and his boss, General Fremont, into the center of Springfield itself on October 27, 1861.
Their meeting with Fremont was at an even more significant time.  Upon taking command of the western theater of operations, Fremont ordered that all slaves in Missouri be freed, a policy that Lincoln was not ready to adopt, though he would use the same rationale in the Emancipation Proclamation 14 months later. 
Lincoln ordered Fremont to rescind his order.  Fremont replied that it was well within Lincoln’s power to countermand the order and Lincoln fired him on November 2, 1861, about the time our lads are fattening up at the market in downtown St.  Louis.

Final Installment Next:  A good time in St.  Louis and home for Christmas

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