Washington D.C. Sept. 2, 1861.
Private and confidential.
Major General Fremont:
My dear Sir: Two points in your proclamation of August 30th give me some anxiety. First should you shoot a man, according to the proclamation the Confederates would very certainly shoot our best man in their hands in retailiation; and so, man for man, indefinitely. It is therefore my order that you allow no man to be shot, under the proclamation, without first having my approbation or consent.
Secondly, I think there is great danger that the closing paragraph, in relation to the confiscation of property, and the liberating slaves of traitorous owners, will alarm our Southern Union friends, and turn them against us – perhaps ruin our rather fair prospect for Kentucky. Allow me therefore to ask, that you will as of your own motion, modify that paragraph so as to conform to the first and fourth sections of the act of Congress, entitled, “an act to confiscate property used for insurrectionary purposes,” approved August, 6th, 1861, and a copy of which act I herewith send you this letter is written in a spirit of caution and not of censure.
I send it by a special messenger, in order that it may certainly and speedily reach you. Yours very truly A. Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln, September 2, 1861
John C. Fremont
Born in 1813, John C. Fremont is one of the most colorful characters in American history. From his college days, through U.S. military service, exploration of the west, role in the Mexican-American War, adventures in the California gold fields, political intrigues, and attempts to run for president, Fremont’s life is the stuff of legends. However, that doesn’t imply that he was necessarily “good” at everything he tried.
By the 1861, Fremont’s name and adventures were nationally-known. His exploits in the American west were printed in popular literature, and he had been the first presidential candidate for the newly-formed Republican party in 1856. (He lost.) Thus, by the Civil War era, Fremont had public influence and his stand for the Union meant the Federal government needed to find a military post for the still-popular hero.
They assigned him to the post of Commander of the West on July 1, 1861, overseeing the situation in Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, and western territories. It was a big job, and Fremont may not have been the best choice. However, he tried, organizing volunteer units and trying for form armies. The new general also made some odd decisions and was not known for his approachability; rumors started to spread that he would use his elite “bodyguard unit” to set up an empire of his own. At the end of 1861, Fremont would be replaced with a new commander.
Fremont’s Bold Proclamation
August 30, 1861. In response to Confederate guerrilla activity, Fremont published a proclamation placing Missouri under martial law. He declared that civilians found bearing arms against the Federal government could be arrested, court-marshalled, and executed. Furthermore, anyone supported secession would have his property confiscated and slaves were to be freed, if their masters did not support the Union.
It was well-intentioned, but President Lincoln was not pleased, prompting the primary source quoted in the previous section. Fremont refused to revise the order and Lincoln eventually removed him from command.
Fremont’s proclamation and Lincoln’s response bring more light to the question of slavery and abolition in 1861. The president was worried that the harshness to civilians and the semi-radical step (remember we are talking about this from an 1861 perspective) of freeing slaves would force Missouri and other border states out of the Union. Union is Lincoln’s 1861 goal.
What’s the difference between Fremont’s proclamation and Butler’s controversial order? Butler’s order gave protection to run-away slaves; Fremont wanted to automatically free all slaves held by secessionists.
Ironically, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 will state virtually the same principle as Fremont’s document. But in 1861, it wasn’t quite the right time.
P.S. Lincoln is ordering Fremont to conform. This was a challenging situation in politics, morals, and ethics. Do you think Fremont made the right choice by refusing to revise his order at the request of the president?