Major General John C. Fremont, commanding the Federal Military Department of the West from St. Louis, had been struggling to maintain control in Missouri ever since he had assumed command in late July. St. Louis had been a hotbed of resentment against Federal rule ever since the riots in May, and Fremont’s lavish headquarters within that city did not help matters. Defeats at Carthage in July and Wilson’s Creek in early August weakened Fremont’s military authority. Efforts to install an unelected Unionist state government, internal feuding with the politically influential Blair family (staunch Lincoln administration allies), and reports of corruption and mismanagement further damaged Fremont’s credibility and invited more secessionist activity in his department.
After Wilson’s Creek, Fremont responded to growing resistance to his authority by declaring martial law in the city and county of St. Louis. A Federal provost marshal was assigned to enforce the decree upon residents. This was only the third time in American history that martial law had been proclaimed; the other two were in 1815 (when the British were attacking New Orleans during the War of 1812) and in 1842 (during the Dorr Rebellion in Rhode Island).
Brigadier General John Pope, commanding Federals in northern Missouri, had issued an order holding civilians responsible for guerrilla attacks on his men, supplies, and transportation. Fremont revoked the order, and according to Pope, his plan that “would save at least North Missouri from guerrilla warfare and the torments of irresponsible military domination fell to the ground.” Pope alleged that the result of the revocation was that his district “was soon infested by bands, both secessionists and Union men, waging midnight war with each other and with the peaceable citizens.”
Fremont then desperately called upon Secretary of War Simon Cameron to provide reinforcements to suppress the growing dissension in Missouri: “Let the governor of Ohio be ordered forthwith to send me what disposable force he has; also governors of Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin. Order the utmost promptitude.” In response to unfavorable reports about him in the St. Louis press, Fremont issued orders closing the Missourian and the War Bulletin, two allegedly pro-Confederate newspapers. Fremont accused them of being “shamelessly devoted to the publication of transparently false statements respecting military movements in Missouri.”
As the military situation worsened, on the 30th Fremont resolved to “demand the severest measures to repress the daily crimes and outrages which are driving off the inhabitants and ruining the State.” Without seeking approval from superiors, he expanded his St. Louis martial law declaration to the rest of Missouri under Federal control. This consisted of the zone extending “from Leavenworth, by way of the posts of Jefferson City, Rolla, and Ironton, to Cape Girardeau, on the Mississippi River.”
Fremont’s order stated that any Missourians suspected of having Confederate or secessionist sympathies “taken with arms in their hands within these lines shall be tried by court-martial, and if found guilty will be shot” by firing squad. This contradicted military tradition, under which captured suspects would be held as prisoners of war, not summarily executed. In addition, saboteurs would receive “the extreme penalty of the law,” and those engaging in “treasonable correspondence” or “fomenting tumults” would receive “sudden and severe punishment.”
But the second part of Fremont’s proclamation went even further. Similar to the recent Confiscation Act, it declared that “the property, real and personal, of all persons… 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.”
Fremont concluded: “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.” He claimed that this order was needed to combat the “disorganized condition, helplessness of civil authority and total insecurity of life” in Missouri. However, it quickly had the odd effect of uniting both Unionists and secessionists in opposition and outrage.
To Unionists, freeing slaves contradicted the policy that President Abraham Lincoln had pledged in his inaugural address (i.e., he would not interfere with slavery where it already existed). It also contradicted the Crittenden-Johnson Resolution, under which Congress declared that the war was being fought to preserve the Union, not to free slaves. And perhaps most importantly, it far exceeded the Confiscation Act, which authorized Federal commanders to confiscate slaves only when directly aiding the Confederate war effort, and then to place them under Federal supervision, not free them.
Secessionists asserted that Fremont had revealed the Republican Party’s true purpose for waging war–to free slaves. And Fremont’s threat to shoot anyone suspected of disloyalty prompted anti-Unionist guerrillas operating throughout the state to issue threats of their own to retaliate against any actions that Fremont might take. This had the potential to turn Missouri into a state of unending violence and terror. It also threatened to irreparably divide the brittle Union party in Missouri, which was split between radical and conservative factions that were “hardly less bitter in their hostility to each other than to the party of secession.”
In Washington, only the Radical faction of the Republican Party applauded Fremont’s move, but they still comprised a minority voice in the Federal government. Many Radicals (and even some moderates) maintained greater loyalty to Fremont than Lincoln, as Fremont was an avowed abolitionist and had been the Republicans’ first-ever presidential candidate in 1856.
For his part, Fremont proudly called his decree “equal to winning a deciding battle.” The abolitionist press also applauded the move; an article in Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper stated that Fremont, “rightly interpreting the sentiment of the nation, and adverse to half measures, has given the law the only application which can be at all practical and useful in the present emergency.”
But the critics far exceeded the supporters, with many in both North and South calling Fremont’s order dictatorial. At the very least, the order crept beyond the military realm in which Fremont belonged and encroached upon Lincoln’s political prerogative as commander in chief. However, Fremont’s popularity within the party, which rivaled Lincoln’s, made this a delicate issue for the president to handle.
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