Major General John C. Fremont, commanding the Federal Department of the West from St. Louis, had received a message from President Abraham Lincoln on September 2 asking him to modify his recent proclamation, in which he imposed martial law in Missouri and warned disloyal slaveowners that their slaves would be confiscated and freed. Fremont finally responded to the president six days later.
The commander took full responsibility for the controversial decree, admitting that he had consulted with nobody, including his superiors, before issuing it. Fremont explained that he was more familiar with the situation in Missouri than the president, and his forces had their hands full with “the Rebel armies, the Provisional Government, and home traitors.” He regarded the proclamation “as much a movement in the war as a battle,” and like a battle, he would “have to act according to my judgment of the ground before me.”
Regarding Lincoln’s request to change the slave emancipation order, Fremont wrote, “If upon reflection your better judgment still decides that I am wrong in the article respecting the liberation of slaves, I have to ask that you will openly direct me to make the correction,” otherwise, “to retract of my own accord, it would imply that I myself thought it wrong, and that I had acted without the reflection which the gravity of the point demanded.” He asserted that he acted “upon the certain conviction that it was a measure right and necessary, and I think so still.”
Fremont also defended his order to execute armed Missourians suspected of disloyalty: “The shooting of men who shall rise in arms against an army in the military occupation of a country is merely a necessary measure of defense,” and according to Fremont, it was valid “according to the usages of civilized warfare.” Fremont believed that “strong and vigorous measures have now become necessary to the success of our arms,” and since Lincoln had defined this conflict as an insurrection and not a war against an independent nation, the rebels “have no ground for requiring that we should waive in their benefit any of the ordinary advantages which the usages of war allow to us.”
Fremont then asked for Lincoln’s permission to enforce the proclamation, “hoping that my views may have the honor to meet your approval.” Then, in an unprecedented move, Fremont assigned his wife Jessie to personally deliver his response to the president “by the night train.” Jessie Benton Fremont was the daughter of legendary Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton.
Meanwhile, people throughout the country continued weighing in on the matter. Many Republicans, especially the Radicals in Congress, sided with Fremont because he was a fellow abolitionist and he had been the very first presidential candidate for the Republican Party. Senator James W. Grimes of Iowa wrote, “The people are all with Fremont and will uphold him ‘through thick and thin.’ Everybody of every sect, party, sex and color approves his proclamation in the Northwest and it will not do for the administration to causelessly tamper with the man who had the sublime moral courage to issue it.” Senator Charles Sumner, a Massachusetts abolitionist, resented Lincoln for supposedly having the power to free slaves but refusing to use it: “Our President is now dictator, imperator which you will; but how vain to have the power of a god and not use it godlike!”
Mrs. Fremont reached Washington late on the 10th and sent the president a card asking when she could meet with him. She intended to not only deliver her husband’s response, but to lecture Lincoln on why he was wrong to ask Fremont to modify his order. Emboldened by the Radicals, she would explain that the conflict needed to become a war against slavery to prevent the European powers from recognizing Confederate independence. She quickly received the president’s response: “A. Lincoln. Now.”
Lincoln was part of the conservative faction within the Republican Party, and he sought to not only maintain harmony within the party but also maintain the delicate wartime alliance between the Republicans and Unionist Democrats. As such, Fremont’s proclamation had gone too far, and while Fremont’s defiance had amused the Radicals, Lincoln did not share their amusement when he met with Mrs. Fremont in the Red Room at 9 p.m.
Without offering the lady a seat, Lincoln coldly took Fremont’s letter from her and read it, dissatisfied that the general had refused to take his advice. Mrs. Fremont began her speech in support of her husband, but Lincoln cut her off by saying, “You are quite a female politician. It was a war for a great national idea, the Union, and… General Fremont should not have dragged the Negro into it.”
Lincoln said that he would write a reply and let Mrs. Fremont know when it was ready for delivery. Irritated, Mrs. Fremont defended her husband’s wisdom and prestige, which she contended were “above and beyond” most military officers. Lincoln later said that she “left in anger, flaunting her handkerchief before my face.” He also claimed that “she more than once intimated that if General Fremont should decide to try conclusions with me, he could set up for himself,” though Mrs. Fremont denied this.
Prominent statesman Francis P. Blair, Sr., whose family had lobbied for Fremont to become the Western Department commander, visited Mrs. Fremont while she was in Washington and admonished her for her conduct in the White House: “Who would have expected you to do such a thing as this, to come here and find fault with the President?” Blair told her that his son Frank had written to his other son Montgomery (Lincoln’s postmaster general) recommending that Fremont be removed from command. Mrs. Fremont angrily replied that her husband could kill Frank in a duel. The friendship between the Blairs and the Fremonts was over.
On the 11th, Lincoln gave Mrs. Fremont his reply. He explained that although he “perceived in general no objection” to Fremont’s proclamation, he could not allow military commanders to override official policies mandated by Congress. Lincoln stated that the part of the order authorizing slave emancipation exceeded the Confiscation Act. Therefore, Lincoln expressed his “wish that that clause should be modified.” Lincoln would take responsibility for removing those non-conforming portions of the decree so that Fremont would not have to admit to any mistake. The president wrote:
“Your answer, just received, expresses the preference on your part that I should make an open order for the modification, which I very cheerfully do. It is therefore ordered that the said clause of said proclamation be so modified, held, and construed, as to conform to, and not to transcend, the provisions on the same subject contained in the act of Congress entitled ‘An Act to confiscate property used for insurrectionary purposes’ Approved, August 6. 1861; and that said act be published at length with this order.”
Lincoln granted Fremont’s request to issue an “open order” to change the proclamation by submitting the letter’s contents to the press for publication throughout the country. Mrs. Fremont promptly returned to St. Louis to deliver the letter to her husband. After she left, Lincoln wrote her to deny “being understood as acting in any hostility” toward General Fremont.
While Fremont’s emancipation proclamation may have been morally just, it threatened to divide the North since most politicians and soldiers were fighting to preserve the Union, not to end slavery. It also threatened to undermine the policies of both Lincoln and Congress. Nevertheless, Fremont remained firm that he would not “change or shade” his proclamation because it “was worth a victory in the field.”
Lincoln never intended to remove Fremont from command for issuing his emancipation proclamation. But the growing rumors of mismanagement and corruption in his department were another matter. The Blairs were now openly calling for Fremont’s dismissal, and Lincoln responded by sending Montgomery Blair to St. Louis to assess Fremont’s fitness for command. Blair traveled with Major General David Hunter (who had agreed to replace Fremont if need be as a favor to Lincoln) and Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs. They arrived at Fremont’s headquarters early on the 12th.
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