August 30, 1861: Fremont Orders Freeing of Slaves of Rebels in Missouri

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John C. Fremont led a life of considerable achievement and seemed to many of his contemporaries a man of destiny.  However, in the Civil War his destiny  eluded him.  An engineering officer in the US Army Corps of Engineers, his personal charm led to his marriage in 1841 to Jesse Benton, a woman of considerable ambition and the daughter of the legendary Senator from Missouri, Thomas Hart Bent.  Now politically well connected, Benton achieved fame and the title The Pathfinder, by leading settlers along with scout Kit Carson over the Oregon Trail.  In the 1830’s Fremont had taken part in various topographical mapping expeditions into the West and this served him in good stead in determining the best routes for the pioneers.  His exploits were steadily followed in the eastern papers, and Fremont became a national celebrity.  During the Mexican War, Fremont played a major role in the conquest of California, although he displayed much energy but little military skill.  After the war he served as military governor for California, and, after California was admitted to the Union, Fremont served briefly as a US Senator for the state.

Although he was of Southern birth, Fremont was an ardent foe of slavery and became the first Republican candidate for President in 1856.  Obtaining a third of the vote, and 114 electoral votes, Fremont proved that the new Republican party was a serious contender in national politics.  His electoral slogan of “Free Men!  Free Soil! Fremont!”, resounded throughout the North, Fremont winning all of the Northern states except Illinois, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Indiana, demonstrating that if the North was unified, it could elect a President.  Fremont suffered in the election by false allegations that his father was a French aristocrat and that Fremont was a Catholic.  (Fremont’s father was a middle class Frenchman who fought for the Royalists in France and who immigrated to America.  Fremont was an Episcopalian.)  The Democrats also made hay of the fact that Fremont had been born out of wedlock, and that at the time they started their romance, his mother had been married to a man not his father.  Salacious political gossip is not an invention of the Twenty-First century.

After the election of Lincoln and the onset of the war, it was assumed that Fremont would receive an important command, and so he did.  Placed in command of the vast Department of the West from May to November 1861, Fremont, with his headquarters in Saint Louis, seemed set to play a decisive role in the coming conflict.  Alas, as in the Mexican War, Fremont displayed far more energy than military skill.  Fremont lacked administrative ability and could not co-ordinate the Union forces under his command.  The final straw for Lincoln was on August 30, 1861, when Fremont issued a proclamation declaring martial law throughout Missouri and ordering that the slaves of rebels be freed.  Lincoln was engaged in a delicate process of keeping the slave border states in the Union, and now Fremont, with no consultation with Washington, was doing his very best to ensure that all the slaveholders in Missouri regarded the Union forces as a deadly threat.  Lincoln ordered the proclamation to be rescinded.  Incredibly Fremont, a Major-General in the Union army, refused to obey an order of the Commander-in-Chief and sent his wife to Washington to plead his case.  Lincoln had a brief and acrimonious meeting with Mrs. Fremont in which he referred to her as “quite the female politician.”

Lincoln dismissed John C. Fremont on November 2 and rescinded the proclamation.  Fremont would serve in the Valley campaign of 1862 against Stonewall Jackson with a notable lack of success.  That was his last command of the war.  Briefly in 1864 Fremont served as the standard bearer for anti-Lincoln Radical Republicans seeking to deny Lincoln the Republican nomination for President, dropping out after Lincoln removed Montgomery Blair, an enemy of Fremont, from his position as Postmaster General.  After the war Fremont served as governor of the Arizona territory.  He died in New York in 1890, destitute and forgotten.  Congress came to the rescue of his widow, with an annual pension of $2,000.00.

Here is the text of the Fremont proclamation:

Headquarters of the Western Department
St. Louis, August 30, 1861.

Circumstances, in my judgment, of sufficient urgency, render it necessary that the commanding general of this Department should assume the administrative powers of the State. Its disorganized condition, the helplessness of the civil authority, the total insecurity of life, and the devastation of property by bands of murderers and marauders, who infest nearly every county of the State, and avail themselves of the public misfortunes and the vicinity of a hostile force to gratify private and neighborhood vengeance, and who find an enemy wherever they find plunder, finally demand the severest measures to repress the daily increasing crimes and outrages which are driving off the inhabitants and ruining the State.

In this condition, the public safety and the success of our arms require unity of purpose, without let or hindrance, to the prompt administration of affairs.

In order, therefore, to suppress disorder, to maintain as far as now practicable the public peace, and to give security and protection to the persons and property of loyal citizens, I do hereby extend and declare established Martial Law throughout the State of Missouri.

The lines of the Army of Occupation in this State are for the present declared to extend from Leavenworth by way of the posts of Jefferson City, Rolla, and Ironton, to Cape Girardeau, on the Mississippi River.

All persons who shall be taken with arms in their hands within these lines shall be tried by Court-Martial, and if found guilty will be shot.

The property, real and personal, of all persons, in the State of Missouri, who shall take up arms against the United States, or who shall be directly proven to have taken an active part with their enemies in the field, is declared to be confiscated to the public use, and their Slaves, if any they have, are hereby declared Free men.

All persons who shall be proven to have destroyed, after the publication of this order, railroad tracks, bridges, or telegraphs, shall suffer the extreme penalty of the law.

All persons engaged in Treasonable correspondence, in giving or procuring aid to the Enemies of the United States, in fomenting tumults, in disturbing the public tranquility by creating and circulating false reports or incendiary documents, are in their own interests warned that they are exposing themselves to sudden and severe punishment.

All persons who have been led away from their allegiance, are required to return to their homes forthwith; any such absence, without sufficient cause, will be held to be presumptive evidence against them.

The object of this declaration is to place in the hands of the Military authorities the power to give instantaneous effect to existing laws, and to supply such deficiencies as the conditions of War demand. But this is not intended to suspend the ordinary Tribunals of the Country, where the Law will be administered by Civil officers in the usual manner, and with their customary authority, while the same can be exercised.

The commanding general will labor vigilantly for the public Welfare, and in his efforts for their safety hopes to obtain not only the acquiescence, but the active support of the Loyal People of the Country.

Major-General Commanding.

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  1. “Lincoln was engaged in a delicate process of keeping the slave border states in the Union, and now Fremont, with no consultation with Washington, was doing his very best to ensure that all the slaveholders in Missouri regarded the Union forces as a deadly threat.”

    Well, he certainly succeeded in that regard. T.J. Stiles, in his book “Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War” (which I’m currently finishing up), says the implications and consequences of Fremont’s action were nothing less than “earth-shattering”:

    “Never before had a state been placed under the control of the armed forces; the idea was so new that Lincoln himself mistakenly referred to ‘military law’ instead of ‘martial law’…. For the first time in American history, military commissions began to prosecute U.S. citizens. The inaugural trial took place on September 5, when Joseph Aubuchon was found guilty of ‘having an attitude of open rebellion.'”

    According to Stiles, Lincoln didn’t completely revoke Fremont’s order. He did get Fremont to back off on the emancipation provision, and he also insisted that no civilians be executed without the White House reviewing their cases first. But the mechanisms for maintaining martial law (a network of provost marshals, spreading outward from St. Louis) remained pretty much intact.

    By the end of the war, according to Stiles, Missouri accounted for almost half (46.2 percent) of all recorded military trials of civilians nationwide, far more than in all 11 Confederate states combined. However, the people responsible for said trials were for the most part Missourians themselves, not soldiers brought from other states. That’s one reason, according to Stiles, why the war in the Show Me State took on an extremely personal, neighbor vs. neighbor aspect to an extent not often seen elsewhere. (Until Al Gore invented the internet, that is :-))

    You might want to check out this excellent blog post from the Kansas City Star on the parallels between Civil War Missouri/Kansas and modern-day conflicts like Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan:

  2. Stiles has a point Elaine, although I think the war in Missouri would have been vicious in any case. Prior to the War Missouri pro-slavery “Border Ruffians” had done their very best to attempt to turn Kansas into a slave state. Although the slave population of Missouri was minute the pro-slavery forces in Missouri tended to go to extremes, and their sympathies were clearly with the Confederacy from the outset of the war. On the other hand, Saint Louis tended to be firmly abolitionist, especially with the influx into the city of German immigrants. Missouri during the Civil War combined elements of Massachusetts and South Carolina with predictable consequences.

  3. True enough; if you read Stiles’ book more extensively he makes it clear that Fremont’s action was more like tossing gasoline on a fire that was already there, than actually starting the fire.

    For some reason, though, I can’t keep myself from laughing, at least slightly, at the notion that someone could be jailed merely for “having an attitude of open rebellion”, because that SOUNDS like something every person over the age of 2 has been guilty of at one time or another, at least in the eyes of their parents 🙂

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