The Fremont Controversy Continues

September 22, 1861 – As Major General John C. Fremont continued garnering ill favor with fellow officers and politicians, President Abraham Lincoln wrote to a colleague explaining why he could not support Fremont’s controversial emancipation proclamation.

Major General John C. Fremont | Image Credit:
Major General John C. Fremont | Image Credit:

Fremont, commanding the Department of the West out of St. Louis, had been in trouble with the Lincoln administration ever since he issued his controversial decree declaring martial law in Missouri and authorizing the liberation of slaves belonging to disloyal Missourians. Also, many of his former supporters were now turning against him because of what they saw as poor leadership and corrupt management.

Postmaster General Montgomery Blair and Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs had inspected Fremont’s department and recommended his removal. Blair’s brother, Colonel Frank P. Blair, Jr., served under Fremont and urged his removal as well. Fremont responded by arresting Frank for “insubordination in communicating… with the authorities at Washington; making complaints against and using disrespectful language towards Gen. Fremont, with a view of effecting his removal.”

Lincoln, who had not yet received the report from the Montgomeries, continued discussing the matter with his cabinet. Meanwhile, Fremont informed his superiors that he had ordered Frank’s arrest due to his “insidious and dishonorable efforts to bring my authority into contempt with the Government.” This perceived insult of the influential Blair family increased the uproar within the Lincoln administration against Fremont.

Francis P. Blair, Jr. | Image Credit:
Francis P. Blair, Jr. | Image Credit:

Upon returning to Washington and learning of his brother’s arrest, Montgomery wrote to Fremont offering to show him the letter that Frank had written urging Fremont’s removal. Montgomery wrote, “I will send (Frank Blair’s) letter. It is not unfriendly. Release him. There is no time for strife except with the enemies of the (Federal government).”

But Frank remained in a St. Louis jail for the time being. He accused Fremont of manipulating the press based on the fact that every Unionist newspaper in St. Louis except one supported Fremont, and the provost marshal (on Fremont’s orders) soon closed the lone newspaper supporting Blair. Frank wrote from jail, “All the talk about this quarrel being detrimental to the public service is bosh. If Fremont is not removed, the public service will go to the devil.”

During this time, Lincoln quarreled with fellow Republicans who backed Fremont over him. These Republicans included Senator Orville Browning, a longtime friend from Illinois, who had helped draft the Confiscation Act. Browning admonished Lincoln for failing to support Fremont’s proclamation, arguing that the Federal government could only be preserved by freeing the slaves.

In a lengthy response, Lincoln stated that he was “astonished’ to learn that Browning would discourage the president from “adhering to a law, which you had assisted in making.” Lincoln explained that Fremont’s “proclamation, as to confiscation of property, and the liberation of slaves, is purely political, and not within the range of military law, or necessity.” Lincoln asserted that if a general needed slaves for army purposes, “he can seize them, and use them; but when the need is past, it is not for him to fix their permanent future condition. That must be settled according to laws made by law-makers, and not by military proclamations.”

To Lincoln, conforming to military proclamations would be “itself the surrender of the government.” How could it be “pretended that it is any longer the government of the U.S… wherein a General, or a President, may make permanent rules of property by proclamation?” Lincoln acknowledged that he would support Fremont’s policy if it was endorsed by Congress, but a general or even a president could not “seize and exercise the permanent legislative functions of the government.”

Back at St. Louis, Fremont ordered the arrest of the St. Louis Evening News editor and the closure of his newspaper; the editor had accused Fremont of failing to relieve the Lexington siege. News of Lexington’s fall, combined with the disaster at Wilson’s Creek last month, placed more pressure on Fremont to produce a victory in Missouri. Fremont strongly defended himself, while Lincoln continued discussing his performance with his cabinet and Lieutenant-General Winfield Scott.

To take some heat off himself, Fremont quietly released Frank Blair from jail. However, Frank remained indignant and threatened to have Fremont court-martialed for imprisoning him under false pretenses. The controversy within Fremont’s department continued into October.


References; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 76; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 68; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 118-21; Nevin, David, The Road to Shiloh: Early Battles in the West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 33; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q361


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