Writing in a Spirit of Caution

Major General John C. Fremont, commanding the Federal Department of the West from St. Louis, had issued a proclamation imposing martial law in Missouri and warning that anyone opposing the Federal occupation forces would have their property confiscated, including slaves, and those slaves would be freed. Fremont had done this without approval from his superiors at Washington.

Southerners quickly expressed outrage and declared that Fremont had revealed the true purpose of the northern aggression: freeing slaves and destroying the southern way of life. According to an article in the Louisville Courier: “Like a thief in the night the spoiler comes, and today or tomorrow or next day he may be in our midst, our presses may be silenced, and our citizens sent off to share the fate of hundreds of political prisoners who now fill the cells of Fort Lafayette.”

President Abraham Lincoln learned about Fremont’s decree from a newspaper, and his secretary John Nicolay noted that “this at once troubled the Prest. for the exceedingly discouraging effect upon the Union men of Ky. who had been pretty successfully coaxed along by the Admn to keep their State loyal.” One of Lincoln’s close friends, Joshua Speed, wrote the president: “I have just seen Fremont’s proclamation. It will hurt us in Ky. The war should be waged upon high points and no state law be interfered with–our Constitution & laws both prohibit the emancipation of slaves among us–even in small numbers–If a military commander can turn them loose by the thousand by mere proclamation–It will be a most difficult matter to get our people to submit to it.” Speed then wrote Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase: “You can not declare my neighbors negroes free–without affecting mine.”

Lincoln, whose political timing was better than Fremont’s, knew that such a proclamation would undermine the war effort by inciting the loyal slave states and disrupting the fragile alliance between northern Democrats and Republicans. He therefore dispatched a messenger to deliver a letter to Fremont at his St. Louis headquarters.

Writing “in a spirit of caution, and not of censure,” Lincoln stated, “Two points in your proclamation of August 30th give me some anxiety.” First, Fremont’s threat to execute any armed person suspected of disloyalty could have an unintended consequence: “Should you shoot a man, according to the proclamation, the Confederates would very certainly shoot our best man in their hands in retaliation, and so, man for man, indefinitely.” Lincoln directed Fremont to “allow no man to be shot, under the proclamation, without first having my approbation.”

Second, freeing slaves in Missouri, a state that had not yet joined the Confederacy, “will alarm our Southern Union friends, and turn them against us–perhaps ruin our rather fair prospect of Kentucky.” Lincoln asked Fremont to modify his proclamation to conform to “the first and fourth sections” of the Confiscation Act, which only allowed for seizing slaves directly aiding the Confederate war effort and then placing them in Federal custody, not freeing them.

Lincoln did not order Fremont to modify the proclamation, instead he merely advised that he should. Privately, Lincoln feared that the Radical wing of the Republican Party had more loyalty to Fremont, an abolitionist and the first Republican presidential candidate, than to Lincoln. And if the Radicals sided with Fremont rather than Fremont’s commander in chief, it would cause a major rift between the government and military. Lincoln’s fear was well founded because when Fremont read the president’s letter, he considered it an insult and refused to grant Lincoln’s requests.

Meanwhile, some of Fremont’s subordinates had begun to question his competence. Colonel Francis P. Blair, Jr., a member of the politically powerful Blair family who had advocated for Fremont to take command in the West, now stated that Fremont “seems to have viewed his appointment in imperial terms.” Bodyguards kept the commander separated from his subordinates, and “men coming here are not allowed to approach Fremont, and go away in disgust.” Many also speculated that the lavishness of his headquarters indicated vast corruption in Fremont’s department.

Frank Blair wrote to his brother Montgomery, Lincoln’s postmaster general, that Fremont “should be relieved of his command.” While Frank agreed with Fremont’s anti-slavery stance, he claimed that Fremont’s disorganized leadership demoralized his men. Frank also contended that Fremont’s “gross and inexcusable negligence” had allowed Confederate resistance to grow in Missouri. This marked a significant turnaround because the influential Blair family had lobbied for Fremont to be given the command in the first place.

In the field, Fremont’s proclamation invited Confederate retaliation just as Lincoln predicted. Brigadier General M. Jeff Thompson of the Missouri State Guard issued a counter-proclamation to the man “commanding the minions of Abraham Lincoln”:

“Therefore know ye that I, M. Jeff Thompson, brigadier general of the First Military District of Missouri, having not only the military authority of a brigadier general but certain police powers granted by Acting Governor Thomas C. Reynolds, and confirmed afterwards by Governor Jackson, do most solemnly promise that for every member of the Missouri State Guard, or soldier of our allies the armies of the Confederate States, who shall be put to death in pursuance of this said order of General Fremont, I will ‘hang, draw and quarter’ a minion of said Abraham Lincoln… I intend to exceed General Fremont in his excesses, and will make all tories that come within my reach rue the day that a different policy was adopted by their leader… mills, barns, warehouses, and other private property has been wastefully destroyed by the enemy in this district… Should these things be repeated, I will retaliate tenfold, so help me God!”

Speed sent another frantic letter to Lincoln on the 3rd, warning the president, “That foolish proclamation of Fremont… will crush out every vestage of a union party in the state (of Kentucky).” Louisville Unionists pleaded with Speed to tell Lincoln “there is not a day to lose in disavowing emancipation or Kentucky is gone over the mill dam.” Speed wrote the president again, stating, “All of us who live in the slave states whether Union or loyal have great fear of insurrection. Will not such a proclamation read by the slaves incline them to assert their freedom?” If the proclamation was not revoked, Speed warned, “Cruelty & crime would run riot in the land & the poor negroes would be almost exterminated.”

Former U.S. Secretary of War Joseph Holt told Lincoln “of the alarm & condemnation with which the union loving citizens of Kentucky… have read this proclamation.” Another letter warned that “if this is not immediately disavowed, and annulled, Kentucky will be lost to the Union.” Garret Davis told Chase that the proclamation “caused me despondency for the first time for Ky.” Even the abolitionist Chase acknowledged, “My own conviction is that Genl F’s position in regard to slaves is not the true one. Who is a Rebel, & Who are the Slaves of rebels… must be decided upon trial & proof & Gen. F. had no authority to institute courts for such proceedings.”

Lincoln met with General-in-Chief Winfield Scott on a rainy September 5th to discuss the Fremont situation. In addition to the proclamation, Lincoln had recently received more reports attesting to Fremont’s incompetence as department commander. One report alleged that Fremont and his staff had spent nearly $12 million on items such as steamboats, equipment, uniforms, and lavish entertainment.

Lincoln and Scott agreed not to remove Fremont, but rather to send an adjutant and inspector general to help him. Scott wanted to send Major General David Hunter, but Hunter held too high a rank for such a role, so he officially recommended that Lincoln send Brigadier General George Stoneman. Lincoln thought it over for a few days.

During that time, Lincoln’s cabinet and the Blair family urged Fremont’s removal. Sidestepping military etiquette, Lincoln wrote to Hunter asking a favor regarding the Fremont situation: “He is losing the confidence of men near him, whose support any man in his position must have to be successful… (Fremont’s) cardinal mistake is that he isolates himself, & allows nobody to see him; and by which he does not know what is going on in the very matter he is dealing with.”

Lincoln explained that Fremont needed “to have, by his side, a man of large experience. Will you not, for me, take that place? Your rank is one grade too high to be ordered to it; but will you not serve the country, and oblige me, by taking it voluntarily?” Hunter accepted.


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