Born on November 29, 1798, Hamilton R. Gamble was the youngest son of Joseph and Anne Hamilton Gamble. He was a Winchester, Virginia, native and received his education at Hampden-Sidney College. By 1816, Gamble had earned licenses to practice law in three states: Virginia, Tennessee, and Missouri. He moved to Howard County, Missouri, two years later. His brother, Archibald, was a clerk on the Missouri Circuit Court and appointed Hamilton to a deputy clerk position. Gamble soon became a prominent St. Louis attorney by arguing land litigation cases. He married Caroline J. Coalter of Columbia, South Carolina, in 1827. During the next three decades, Gamble increasingly allied himself with the Whig Party. He served one term in the state legislature in the 1840s. In 1851 he was elected to serve as a justice on the Missouri Supreme Court but resigned after four years and semiretired.
Gamble resided in Pennsylvania shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. At the insistence of his brother-in-law Edward Bates, the US attorney general, Gamble returned to Jefferson City in late February to run for a seat in the state convention convened to decide whether Missouri should leave the Union. Missouri was a crucial border state for the Union and a major cause of concern for President Abraham Lincoln’s administration because of its noted Southern sympathies. At the meeting Gamble emerged as the dominant pro-Unionist spokesman after delivering an impassioned speech that persuaded Conditional Unionists to vote against secession. His peers selected him as chairman of the Committee on Federal Regulations. The committee’s final report rejected any notions of secession and gave its full support to the Unionist position.
Once war erupted in April 1861, Gamble realized that the state government could be torn apart by partisan politics and differing loyalties. In early summer, moderate Unionists organized a provisional government to restore peace after Missouri's governor, Claiborne Fox Jackson, and his pro-Confederate supporters fled from Jefferson City. Gamble emerged as the leader of the moderates and became provisional governor in mid-July. Over the next three years, he tried to achieve conservative Unionist goals despite increasing obstacles from officials in Washington, military personnel, and Radical Republican opponents.
The question of emancipating enslaved Missourians became the first issue on Gamble’s agenda when the General Assembly convened at Jefferson City on December 29, 1862. He endorsed a gradual system of emancipation, but he confronted opposition from Radicals who wanted an immediate end to slavery in Missouri. That disagreement prevented the enactment of any emancipation measure. By the summer of 1863 the Radical Union Party was gaining strength under the leadership of Charles Daniel Drake.
Gamble’s relationship with the military also proved less than amicable at times. He clashed repeatedly with General John Charles Frémont, appointed by President Lincoln as head of the Department of the West. Gamble tried to reorganize the militia under his direct supervision and control, but Frémont viewed his actions as undermining military authority. A compromise was finally reached between the governor and the Lincoln administration when Frémont was replaced with Major General Samuel Ryan Curtis. Yet military and civil relations continued to worsen. Gamble considered Curtis’s leadership dictatorial, especially after the commander issued General Order No. 30 in 1863, which allowed military courts to issue death sentences to those suspected of traitorous activities. Lincoln eventually transferred Curtis and chose General John McAllister Schofield as his replacement. Schofield and Gamble managed to establish a cordial relationship.
Gamble received another blow to his administration shortly after Schofield assumed command. The Missouri Democrat reprinted a letter from Lincoln to Schofield warning him to avoid the factionalism that caused his predecessor’s removal. Gamble believed the letter was a negative appraisal of his abilities as governor. Upset by the personal attack, he wrote a letter of resignation but later withdrew it.
The pressures of office began to take a physical toll on Gamble’s health by 1863. The governor had been plagued by illness throughout the war and sustained a devastating injury to his elbow after slipping on a patch of ice on the steps of the State Capitol. In his weakened state, he contracted pneumonia and died on January 31, 1864. With his death, the moderate position he had favored began to dwindle as the Radicals gained control in Missouri.
Historian William Parrish perhaps best summarized Gamble’s importance to the state in his History of Missouri: Volume III, 1860 to 1875: “The state stood much in debt to the departed leader. Although in the end he was too conservative for many Missourians, he had inherited an exceedingly difficult situation in 1861 and performed a highly creditable job in dealing with it. . . . he was pushed by events rather than leading them as time went on. But he had followed his conscience, and, in the long run, his steady hand made possible a smooth transition of political power.”
Boman, Dennis K. Lincoln’s Resolute Unionist: Hamilton Gamble, Dred Scott Dissenter and Missouri’s Civil War Governor. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006.
Cain, Marvin R. Lincoln’s Attorney General: Edward Bates of Missouri. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1965.
Gamble, Hamilton Rowan. Papers. Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis.
Meyer, Duane G. The Heritage of Missouri. St. Louis: River City Publishers, 1982.
Nagel, Paul C. Missouri: A Bicentennial History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1977.
Parrish, William E. A History of Missouri: Volume III, 1860 to 1875. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1973.
——— . Turbulent Partnership: Missouri and the Union, 1861–1865. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1963.
Potter, Marguerite. “Hamilton R. Gamble, Missouri’s War Governor.” Missouri Historical Review 35, no. 1 (October 1940): 25–71.
Published October 26, 2023
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