U.S. Senator and Congressman from Missouri, Frank P. Blair was one of President Abraham Lincoln's more successful political generals, rising to command the 15th and 17th Army Corps during most of the major campaigns in the Western Theater of the Civil War.
Francis Preston Blair, Jr. (more commonly known as Frank Blair) was born on February 19, 1821, in Lexington, Kentucky. He was the youngest child of Francis Preston and Eliza Gist Blair. His older brother, Montgomery Blair, served as Postmaster General of the United States during the American Civil War.
Blair’s mother, Elizabeth “Eliza” Violet (Gist) Blair, was the daughter of Colonel Nathaniel Gist, who fought in the American Revolution. Her grandfather was the famous Ohio Country explorer and surveyor Christopher Gist, who reportedly saved George Washington’s life twice during Washington’s early expeditions in western Pennsylvania.
Blair’s father, Francis Preston Blair, Sr., was a public official in Kentucky, who later was a close confidant and a strong supporter of President Andrew Jackson. When the family moved to Washington, D.C., in 1830, during Jackson’s first term, the senior Blair was the editor of the Washington Globe, an influential pro-Jacksonian newspaper. The elder Blair also served as an unofficial adviser to President Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War.
As a young man, Frank Blair attended the University of North Carolina and also Yale University, but each of the schools expelled him for misconduct. He eventually found his way to Princeton University, where he finished his required coursework in 1841, but did not receive a diploma a punishment for attending a raucous party a few weeks before graduation. One year later, bending to pressure from the influential Blair family, Princeton granted Blair his degree. By then, Blair was studying law at his father’s alma mater, Transylvania University, in Lexington, Kentucky. After finishing his coursework, Blair returned to Washington to do some editorial writing for his father at the Globe. In the autumn of 1842, Blair joined his older brother, Montgomery, in St. Louis, Missouri, to practice law.
In 1845, Blair made a trip west for health reasons. When the Mexican-American War erupted in 1846, he was in Colorado. As General Stephen W. Kearny passed through the territory leading an expeditionary force to New Mexico, Blair enlisted as a private. When Kearny subdued and occupied Santa Fe, New Mexico, he appointed Blair as attorney general of the Territory of New Mexico, before moving on to California.
Blair remained in New Mexico for about one year, before returning to St. Louis. Upon his return, he married Appoline Alexander on September 8, 1847. Their marriage, which lasted until Blair’s death in 1875, produced eight children. Blair’s wife was later a co-founder of the St. Louis Children’s Hospital.
After returning to St. Louis and resuming his law practice, Blair became active in politics as a member of the Democratic Party. Although he came from a slave-holding family and personally owned a few slaves, Blair opposed the extension of slavery into the territories. Consequently, he became engaged in the Free Soil Movement. In 1848, Blair established a short-lived Free Soil newspaper, the Barnburner. Four years later, in 1852, Blair was part of a group that purchased the St. Louis Morning Signal. The new owners soon renamed the newspaper the Missouri Democrat and adopted an editorial stance opposed to the extension of slavery.
In 1852, voters elected Blair to a seat in the Missouri House of Representatives, where he served for four years. By 1856, Blair’s Free Soil beliefs had motivated him to join the newly emerging Republican Party. In November 1856, voters in Missouri’s 1st Congressional District elected Blair to represent them in the U.S. House of Representatives. Blair served in the 35th Congress as a Republican representative from March 4, 1857, to March 3, 1859. During his tenure, he was an outspoken proponent of gradual emancipation, but he also endorsed the deportation of freed slaves for overseas colonization.
Blair ran for reelection in 1858 but initially lost to his Democratic opponent, John R. Barret. Blair successfully challenged the election results, however, and was subsequently declared the winner. Seated on June 8, 1860, he resigned on June 25.
In November 1860, Blair supported Abraham Lincoln’s bid for the United States presidency, while he himself stood for reelection. Due to the sometimes volatile nature of the campaign, Blair organized the Wide Awakes, a group that provided protection for pro-Republican speakers in Missouri. When the results were tabulated, Lincoln earned enough votes to send him to the White House, and Missouri’s 1st-District voters reelected Blair to represent them in the 37th Congress.
Missouri Secession Crisis
Three months prior to Lincoln’s victory, Missourians elected Democrat Claiborne Fox Jackson as their governor on August 6, 1860. Jackson campaigned as an anti-secession candidate, but when the Union began to dissolve, he began expressing support for Southern states that were leaving the Union. Nonetheless, after a special state convention voted ninety-eight to one against Missouri’s secession, Jackson announced that Missouri would remain neutral if war erupted.
When President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers after the American Civil War erupted, Jackson responded that “Not one man will the State of Missouri furnish to carry on any unholy crusade.” The staunchly pro-Union Blair, however, had other ideas. He transformed the Wide Awakes into a paramilitary group known as the Home Guards and began drilling them for action. On April 22, 1861, Captain John Schofield mustered four regiments of Blair’s men into the Union’s volunteer army as the 1st Missouri Volunteer Infantry, The newly enlisted soldiers elected Blair as their regimental colonel and regular-army Captain Nathaniel Lyon as their brigade commander.
While Blair was raising troops, Governor Jackson was making clandestine plans to seize the federal arsenal at St. Louis, which housed extensive stores of arms and ammunition. Jackson’s designs were thwarted when Lyon’s regular army troops, working in conjunction with Missouri volunteers, secretly moved the arsenal’s contents across the Mississippi River to Alton, Illinois in late April.
Jackson responded by assembling the Missouri Volunteer Militia on May 3, 1861, ostensibly for training purposes. When Lyon and Blair learned of Jackson’s call to arms, they ordered their troops to surround and to imprison approximately 670 militiamen who were training at Camp Jackson on May 10. Lyon then marched the prisoners through the streets of St. Louis, thereby inciting pro-secessionist residents to protest. When a riot ensued, Lyon’s soldiers fired on the angry crowd, killing twenty-eight civilians and wounding as many as fifty more. Lyon’s actions fanned anti-Union flames in Missouri. On May 11, the Missouri General Assembly approved a bill that created the Missouri State Guard, commanded by former Governor Sterling Price. The measure also granted Governor Jackson with extensive executive powers to resist Union forces in the state.
Despite Lyon’s provocative actions, Price was committed to maintaining peace in Missouri. On May 21, 1861, Price met with Lyon’s superior officer, Brigadier-General William S. Harney, commander of the Department of the West. The two men concluded a pact known as the Price-Harney Agreement. Part of the agreement charged the Missouri State Guard with protecting pro-Unionist citizens in Missouri. When Price proved unable to fulfill his end of the bargain, Blair, who was still a U.S. Congressman, successfully contrived to have Harney removed from his command.
On May 16, 1861, the United States War Department issued Special Orders, No. 135, relieving Harney as commander of the Department of the West. The War Department then promoted Lyon to the rank of brigadier-general effective May 17, 1861. Harney received word that he had been sacked on May 30, and Lyon succeeded him temporarily as departmental commander.
Feud with Frémont
On July 3, 1861, the War Department issued General Orders No. 40, assigning Major General John C. Frémont to command the Department of the West, which was reconfigured and renamed the Western Department. Although Blair had supported Frémont during his 1856 presidential campaign, he soon became disenchanted with Frémont’s leadership and was lobbying to have him sacked as well. Frémont retaliated on September 15, 1861, by placing Blair under arrest for “insubordination in communicating . . . with the authorities at Washington; making complaints against and using disrespectful language towards Gen. Frémont, with a view of effecting his removal.” When Frémont eventually proved to be an embarrassment to the Lincoln administration, Blair had his way. On October 24, 1861, the President directed General Winfield Scott to issue General Orders No. 18, Headquarters of the Army, relieving Frémont of command of the Western Department.
In July 1862, Blair resigned his seat in the House of Representatives. On August 7, 1862, President Lincoln appointed him as a brigadier general in the volunteer army, (as announced in General Orders, No. 181, U.S. War Department, November 1, 1862).
Just three months later, Lincoln promoted Blair to the rank of major general, effective November 29, 1862, (as announced in General Orders, No. 316, U.S. War Department, September 18, 1863).
At the beginning of Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign, Blair commanded the 1st Brigade, of the 4th Division, of Major General William T. Sherman’s 13th Corps during the Battle of Chickasaw Bayou (December 26–29, 1862). By the end of the Vicksburg Campaign (July 1863), Blair was commanding the 2nd Division of the 15th Corps.
In the autumn of 1863, the Army of the Tennessee was ordered to Chattanooga, Tennessee to help lift Confederate General Braxton Bragg’s siege of that city. On October 27, Major General Sherman was promoted from 15th Corps commander to head of the army. Two days later, Blair temporarily replaced Sherman as corps commander, serving from October 29 until December 11, 1863. During his brief tenure, Blair played a significant role in the Battle of Missionary Ridge on November 25, 1863.
At the conclusion of the Chattanooga Campaign, the War Department sent Blair’s corps north to help relieve Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s troops, who were under siege by Confederate General James Longstreet at Knoxville, Tennessee.
Return to Congress
At the request of President Lincoln, Blair relinquished his command of the 15th Corps on December 11, 1863, to return to Congress, where he defended Lincoln’s Reconstruction plans against radical elements of the Republican Party. His attacks against fellow Republicans strained his relations within the party. His comments about Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, who was planning to challenge Lincoln in the 1864 presidential election, were especially harsh.
Return to the Army
Eventually, Blair caused so much animosity within the party that Lincoln chose to return him to military duty. On April 23, 1864, the War Department issued General Orders, No. 178, naming Blair as commander of the 17th Army Corps.
Blair assumed his new command on May 17, 1864, in Cairo, Illinois and soon joined General Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign. While Blair was fighting his way south with the Army of the Tennessee, his political enemies in Congress stripped him of his seat in the House on June 10, 1864, and awarded it to Samuel Knox, who had been contesting Blair’s victory in the previous election.
March to the Sea
Following the capture of Atlanta on September 2, 1864, Blair was suffering from ill health, so the War Department granted him a leave of absence. He returned to St. Louis for several weeks to recuperate. On October 31, 1864, he resumed command of the 17th Corps and joined Sherman on his March to the Sea.
During the subsequent Carolinas Campaign, Blair’s 17th Corps, along with the 15th Corps, formed the right-wing of the Army of the Tennessee. On April 26, 1865, two weeks after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, Blair was present when General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered his forces to Sherman at Bennett Place, North Carolina, effectively ending major organized combat in the American Civil War.
Return to Civilian Life
On July 11, 1865, Blair left the 17th Corps, which was discontinued three weeks later on August 1. Blair moved back to his home state, where he served as the chief of cavalry in the Department of the Missouri until November 1, 1865. On that date, he resigned his commission in the volunteer army and returned to civilian life. Both Sherman and Grant cited Blair as one of the more successful of President Lincoln’s political generals. In his personal memoirs, Grant wrote that “There was no man braver than he, nor was there any who obeyed all orders of his superior in rank with more unquestioning alacrity.”
During Reconstruction, Blair did not support the civil and legal rights reforms enacted by Radical Republicans. Consequently, he switched parties and unsuccessfully ran as the Democratic candidate for vice-president of the United States during the 1868 election. Blair’s defeat did not dampen his political aspirations. In 1870, Blair won a seat in the Missouri State Legislature. Shortly after assuming office, Blair’s fellow legislators chose him to complete the unexpired term of U.S Senator Charles D. Drake, who had resigned to accept a judicial appointment. Blair served as a U.S. Senator from Missouri in the 41st and 42nd Congresses from January 20, 1871, to March 3, 1873.
While serving in the Senate, Blair suffered a debilitating stroke in November 1872. Although he remained in office until the end of his term in March 1873, the Missouri Legislature chose not to reelect him. One year after leaving the Senate, Missouri Governor Silas Woodson appointed Blair as the state superintendent of insurance. The appointment was largely a benevolent gesture to provide Blair a source of income, as he futilely tried to recover from his stroke.
Blair died at his home in St. Louis on July 9, 1875. Upon hearing of Blair’s death, his former commander, William T. Sherman, proclaimed, “I always regarded him as one of the truest patriots, most honest and honorable men, and one of the most courageous soldiers this country ever produced.” After an unpretentious funeral on July 11, Blair was buried at Bellefontaine Cemetery, St. Louis.