Category Archives: Slavery

The District Emancipation Act

April 16, 1862 – President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill into law abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia.

The seat of the Federal government, located between the two slaveholding states of Maryland and Virginia, had permitted slavery since its creation over half a century before. For a time, slaves had even been held in stockades and auctioned off near the U.S. Capitol. The 1850 ban on slave trading in the District ended that practice, but slavery remained legal there nonetheless.

Unlike the states, the District was under Federal jurisdiction, meaning that Congress could regulate its domestic affairs. Measures to free slaves in the District had been repeatedly introduced in Congress over the past generation; Lincoln himself had drafted an emancipation bill as a U.S. representative from Illinois in 1848. All these bills had been rejected, largely due to southern opposition to the Federal government infringing on property rights. But since the war began, most slaveholders had left the District, and the Republican-controlled Congress introduced the measure once again.

Sponsored by Republican Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, the original measure would appropriate $1 million to compensate slaveholders for their loss of labor if they could prove loyalty to the U.S. The 1860 census had counted 3,185 slaves in the District worth an estimated $2 million, but since many slaveholders had gone south and others may not be able to prove loyalty, the $1 million was a more reasonable figure to pay.

Most congressmen from the loyal slave states (i.e., Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri) opposed this measure because the payoff amount equated to just $300 per slave, far less than current market value. Washington city aldermen also resisted the idea out of fear that letting blacks live free in the city could spark racial violence. They lobbied Congress to add a provision expanding the capital’s police force. Congress responded with a provision earmarking $100,000 to deport freed slaves to other countries if they agreed to go.

The Senate approved the bill on April 3 by a vote of 29 to 14. The House of Representatives followed eight days later by a vote of 93 to 39. With both chambers approving the measure by over two-thirds, Lincoln signed it into law and submitted a message of approval to Congress:

“I have never doubted the constitutional authority of Congress to abolish slavery in the District, and I have ever desired to see the national capital freed from the institution in some satisfactory way. Hence there never has been in my mind any questions upon the subject, except those of expediency, arising in view of all the circumstances.”

Celebrating abolition in D.C. | Image Credit: aaihs.org

Celebrating abolition in D.C. | Image Credit: aaihs.org

A commission was created to attach value to each slave, with no slave worth more than $300. Slaveholders had 90 days to submit a list of their slaves’ names, ages, and descriptions for the commissioners to review and compensate accordingly. About 1,000 slaveholders submitted claims to the commission and received compensation. A small number were rejected, usually due to questionable ownership rights or suspected Confederate sympathies.

Freed slaves in the District received full civil rights except the right to vote or serve on juries. In neighboring Maryland and Virginia, slaveholders began selling their slaves to points farther south out of fear that they would try escaping to freedom in the nearby District. However, these slaves were still subject to be returned to their masters under the Fugitive Slave Act.

The District Emancipation Act was a partial victory for Lincoln, who had sought to impose a compensated emancipation program throughout the country. But freeing slaves in the District where the Federal government had jurisdiction was far different than trying to free them in states that had legal control over their own domestic institutions. This also marked the first step toward Lincoln’s supplemental plan of deporting freed slaves; Lincoln considered colonization to be the best way to address the issue of freed slaves competing with resentful whites for jobs.

Abolitionists hailed this measure as a first step toward full emancipation. Slaveholders in both North and South condemned the law for the same reason.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 82; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (16 Apr 1862); Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 14796-805; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 148, 160; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 7352; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 221; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 536-37; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 130, 136, 139; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 431-32; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 85; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 192, 198-200; 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), Q262

Lincoln Approves Compensated Emancipation

April 10, 1862 – President Abraham Lincoln signed a joint congressional resolution pledging Federal compensation to states that implemented programs to free slaves.

16th U.S. President Abraham Lincoln | Image Credit: Bing public domain

16th U.S. President Abraham Lincoln | Image Credit: Bing public domain

Lincoln had asked Congress to endorse his plan by which the loyal slave states (Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri, as well as western Virginia) would receive “pecuniary aid” if they voluntarily agreed to plans for gradual emancipation. The states would then use the funds however they saw fit, including to pay for freed slaves’ job training, education, welfare, or deportation; or to compensate slaveholders for their loss of labor and property.

Since the Federal government had no right to regulate slavery within the states, this measure sought to encourage the slave states with money to decide on a process to end the institution themselves. Lincoln had implicitly warned the political leaders of these states that if they did not accept this Federal offer, wartime exigencies could someday force him to free slaves involuntarily and without compensation.

The Republican press in the northern states overwhelmingly supported this resolution. An article in the New York Tribune declared, “This message constitutes of itself an epoch in the history of our country. It is the day-star of a new National dawn.” However, the more moderate New York Times questioned the large costs of such a program.

Some Radical Republicans in Congress argued that this plan was too lenient toward slaveholders. Abolitionists contended that bribing states to end slavery was immoral. Constitutionalists asserted that paying slave states to end slavery upset the Federal requirement to deal with all states equally, as the slave states would receive special treatment at the expense of the free states.

In the end, the resolution was approved by a vote of 88 to 31 in the House of Representatives, and 32 to 10 in the Senate. It was rejected by 85 percent of the Democrats and slave-state Unionists in Congress. This discouraged Lincoln because it demonstrated no change in their stance against it since he had met with the slave state congressmen in March. Moreover, this resolution was never enforced because none of the slave states would voluntarily end slavery.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 81-82; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 158; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 7352; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 536; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 136; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 192, 197-98; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 499; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 270; 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), Q262

Lincoln’s Compensated Emancipation Plan

March 6, 1862 – President Abraham Lincoln submitted a message asking Congress to consider a plan of gradual, compensated slave emancipation.

President Abraham Lincoln | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

President Abraham Lincoln | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

In his message, Lincoln called for a joint resolution declaring “that the United States ought to co-operate with any state which may adopt gradual abolishment of slavery, giving to such state pecuniary aid, to be used by such state in it’s (sic) discretion, to compensate for the inconveniences public and private, produced by such a change of system.” No U.S. president had ever submitted such an extraordinary legislative proposal to Congress before.

Lincoln asserted that the plan would help keep border slave states (i.e., Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri) from seceding. He wrote that “the leaders of the existing rebellion entertain the hope that this Government will ultimately be forced to acknowledge the independence of some part of the disaffected region, and that all the slave States north of such part will then say, ‘The Union for which we have struggled being already gone, we now choose to go with the Southern section.’ To deprive them of this hope substantially ends the rebellion, and the initiation of emancipation deprives them of it and of all the States initiating it.”

If the border states would “surrender on fair terms their own interest in Slavery rather than see the Union dissolved,” Lincoln believed it would hasten the war’s end. In this way, Lincoln argued for ending slavery not for moral reasons, but to preserve the Union and destroy the “proposed confederacy.”

To those concerned that such a plan would be too expensive, Lincoln argued that “less than one half-day’s cost of this war would pay for all the slaves in Delaware at four hundred dollars per head,” and 87 days’ worth of expenses would compensate for all the remaining slaves in Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri.

Lincoln maintained that such a plan was constitutional because it served the “general welfare,” with each state being able to decide for itself whether or not to take part. Opponents quickly countered that individual states could not enter into special relationships with the Federal government, such as one that would give the slave states a financial benefit that free states could not enjoy, even though they would be helping to fund said benefit.

The president urged the border state congressmen to support this measure because it was “impossible to foresee all the incidents, which may attend and all the ruin which may follow it.” This was an implied warning that if they rejected the plan, involuntary emancipation without compensation might someday be imposed.

In a meeting with Lincoln four days later, the border state congressmen questioned the constitutionality of the plan, inferred that Federal coercion toward emancipation would be resisted, and expressed fears that freeing slaves would harm race relations.

Lincoln countered that the plan “would not be half as onerous, as would be an equal sum, raised now, for the indefinite prossecution (sic) of the war.” In a letter to New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley, Lincoln stated that “we should urge it persuasively, and not menacingly, upon the South.” Nevertheless, congressmen from the border slave states maintained strong opposition to any Federal interference with slavery.

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References

Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 14906-32; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 7306-17; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 117; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 459-60; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 179, 184-85; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 498-99; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 270; 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), Q162

The Second Session of the Thirty-Seventh U.S. Congress

December 2, 1861 – The second session of the first Republican-dominated Congress opened amid growing discontent with the way the Lincoln administration was prosecuting the war.

U.S. Capitol Building under construction, circa 1861 | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

U.S. Capitol Building under construction, circa 1861 | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

The Republican majority in this Congress included an unprecedented number of New Englanders, most of whom belonged to the party’s Radical faction. Of the 22 Senate committees, 16 were chaired by senators either from New England or born in New England but representing other states. The two most powerful members of the House of Representatives, House Speaker Galusha Grow and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Thaddeus Stevens, represented Pennsylvania but had been born and raised in New England.

Debate quickly focused on more effective means to wage the war. For the Radicals, this meant transforming the conflict from preserving the Union by destroying the Confederacy to destroying the southern way of life by crusading against slavery. This was evidenced by the House rejecting a motion to reaffirm the Crittenden-Johnson Resolution of July 25, which had declared that the war was being waged solely to preserve the Union.

Members of Congress introduced several petitions and bills emancipating slaves, especially those belonging to masters “in rebellion.” Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois introduced a bill providing “for the confiscation of the property of rebels, and giving freedom to the persons they hold in slavery.” This would expand the Confiscation Act by seizing and freeing the slaves of anyone supporting the Confederacy (the current act only provided for seizing slaves actively serving the Confederacy and placing them under Federal supervision).

Trumbull had once been a close political ally of President Lincoln, but they had since clashed on the slavery issue, prompting Trumbull to declare that the president lacked “the will necessary in this great emergency.”

Aside from slavery, financing the war dominated debates. It was estimated that by the end of the fiscal year of June 30, 1862, the Federal debt would be $750 million, with only $165 million in revenue generated by taxation. Unprecedented tax increases were proposed, along with other measures such as increasing import tariffs on coffee, tea, sugar, and molasses. More proposals would be forthcoming upon receiving the Treasury Department’s annual report.

Regarding the military, Congress authorized the navy secretary to award the Medal of Honor to enlisted men in the Navy and Marine Corps. Creation of the Medal came about due to pressure from servicemen and the public. This was the highest military award ever granted by the U.S. Congress also approved an official thanks for “the gallant and patriotic services of the late Brig Gen Nathaniel Lyon, and the officers and soldiers under his command at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek.”

In addition, the Senate held a memorial service for Edward D. Baker of Oregon, a fellow senator-turned-colonel, killed at Ball’s Bluff in October. In an unusual occurrence, President Lincoln visited the Senate chamber to attend the service.

The Senate addressed the defection of John C. Breckinridge to the Confederacy by approving a motion: “Whereas John C. Breckinridge, a member of this body from the State of Kentucky, has joined the enemies of his country, and is now in arms against the Government he had sworn to support,” it was resolved “that said John C. Breckinridge, the traitor, be, and he hereby is, expelled from the Senate.”

Breckinridge, the former U.S. vice president under James Buchanan, had attended the special congressional session the previous summer but had since disavowed the Union and accepted a military commission as a Confederate brigadier general. Senators unanimously voted to expel him from the chamber, 36 to 0.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 99; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6818-29; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 88, 92; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 145-48, 151; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 358, 495-96; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 267-68; Smith, Dean E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 751-52; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 213-14; Sylvia, Stephen W., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 484; 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), Q461

The Fremont Controversy: Fremont’s Retort

September 8, 1861 – After six days, Major General John C. Fremont finally responded to President Lincoln’s request to modify clauses in his controversial proclamation.

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

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

Fremont, commanding the Federal Department of the West, admitted that he had consulted with nobody, including his superiors, before issuing his decree, which imposed martial law in Missouri and freed all slaves belonging to disloyal masters. Fremont took full responsibility for the order, which he called “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.” 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.”

Mrs. Jessie B. Fremont | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Mrs. Jessie B. Fremont | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Fremont then asked for Lincoln’s permission to enforce the proclamation, “hoping that my views may have the honor to meet your approval.”

In an unprecedented move, Fremont assigned his wife, Jessie Benton Fremont, daughter of the legendary Senator Thomas Hart Benton, to personally deliver this response from his St. Louis headquarters to the president at Washington. Mrs. Fremont arrived on the 10th not only to deliver her husband’s letter, but to persuade Lincoln to withdraw his objections to Fremont’s proclamation. Radical Republicans had emboldened the Fremonts, ardent abolitionists, by advising them that turning this conflict into a war against slavery would prevent Great Britain from recognizing Confederate independence.

Lincoln, a moderate Republican, 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. on September 10.

Without offering the lady a seat, Lincoln took Fremont’s letter from her and read it, dissatisfied that the general had refused to modify his order. Mrs. Fremont told Lincoln that he needed to consider liberating slaves to garner European support. Interrupting her, Lincoln said, “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.”

16th U.S. President Abraham Lincoln | Image Credit: Bing public domain

16th U.S. President Abraham Lincoln | Image Credit: Bing public domain

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.”

The next day, 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 order regarding freeing slaves 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. Lincoln 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.”

While Mrs. Fremont awaited Lincoln’s response, she was visited by Francis P. Blair, Sr., whose family was old friends with the Fremonts. However, that friendship quickly dissolved when Blair informed her that his son, Frank Jr., had written to his other son, Montgomery, recommending that General Fremont be removed from command. This prompted Mrs. Fremont to angrily declare that her husband could kill Frank Jr. in a duel.

Lincoln’s letter arrived shortly afterward, and Mrs. Fremont promptly returned to St. Louis to deliver it to the general. In addition, 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.

While Fremont’s emancipation proclamation may have been morally just, it threatened to divide the U.S. since most politicians and soldiers were fighting to preserve the Union, not to end slavery. It also threatened to undermine Lincoln’s policies as well as those of Congress. Nevertheless, Fremont remained firm that he would not “change or shade” his proclamation because it “was worth a victory in the field.”

After sending Mrs. Fremont on her way, Lincoln wrote to her denying “being understood as acting in any hostility” toward her husband. Lincoln then addressed the increasing complaints about Fremont’s leadership by dispatching Postmaster General Montgomery Blair (Frank Sr.’s son and Frank Jr.’s brother) to assess Fremont’s command at St. Louis. Blair traveled with Major General David Hunter and Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs, arriving at Fremont’s headquarters early on the 12th.

Two days later, both Blair and Meigs agreed in recommending Fremont’s removal. Meigs reported that “great distress and alarm prevail,” and Fremont “does not encourage the men to form regiments for defense.” Blair stated that Fremont seemed “stupefied and almost unconscious and is doing absolutely nothing.” Both men left St. Louis that day, but the Fremont controversy would continue.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 74-75; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6618-30; Faust, Patricia L, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 291-92; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 96-97; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 64; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 389-90; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 117-18; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 353; 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

Lincoln Responds to Fremont’s Proclamation

September 2, 1861 – President Lincoln addressed the delicate issue of Major General John C. Fremont’s August 30 proclamation imposing martial law in Missouri and liberating slaves belonging to Confederate sympathizers.

President Abraham Lincoln and Major General John C. Fremont | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

President Abraham Lincoln and Major General John C. Fremont | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Fremont had not sought approval from his superiors before issuing his decree; in fact, Lincoln learned about it from a newspaper. Southerners immediately expressed outrage and declared that Fremont had revealed the true purpose of the northern aggression: freeing slaves and destroying the southern way of life. An article in the Louisville Courier declared:

“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.”

Lincoln, who had better political timing than Fremont, 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. Therefore, he 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 Confiscation Act, which only allowed for seizing slaves directly aiding the Confederate war effort and then placing them in Federal custody, not freeing them.

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 perceived it as an insult and refused to modify the order as Lincoln requested.

Meanwhile, some of Fremont’s subordinates had begun questioning his competence. Colonel Francis P. Blair, Jr. wrote to his brother Montgomery, Lincoln’s postmaster general, that Fremont “should be relieved of his command.” While Blair agreed with Fremont’s anti-slavery stance, he claimed that Fremont’s disorganized leadership demoralized his men. Blair 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”:

“For every member of the Missouri State Guard, or soldier of our allies the Confederate States, who shall be put to death in pursuance of said order of General Fremont, I will Hang, Draw and Quarter a minion of said Abraham Lincoln…”

Thompson also pledged “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.” Thompson alleged that “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!”

At Washington, 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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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 72-74; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6618; Faust, Patricia L, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 291-92; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 96-97; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 61-62; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 389-90; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 114-16; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 352-53; 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

The Controversial Fremont Proclamation

August 30, 1861 – Major General John C. Fremont, commanding the Federal Military Department of the West, issued orders imposing martial law throughout Missouri and authorizing Federal troops to confiscate the property of disloyal Missourians, including slaves.

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

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

Fremont had been struggling to maintain control in Missouri ever since he had taken department 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 allies), and reports of corruption and mismanagement further damaged Fremont’s credibility and invited more anti-Unionist 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. Fremont then desperately called upon Secretary of War Simon Cameron to provide reinforcements against the growing Confederate military presence in eastern 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 August 30 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.

But the second part of Fremont’s proclamation went even further. It declared that “those 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,” would have their property “confiscated to the public use. And their slaves, if any they have, are hereby declared freemen.”

Fremont 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 may take. This had the potential to turn Missouri into a state of unending violence and terror.

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.

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 Lincoln to handle.

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References

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