Sunday, August 30, 2015

Union General John C. Fremont Declares Martial Law and Emancipates Slaves in Missouri


John C. Frémont
On August 30, 1861, Union Major General Frémont imposed martial law and emancipated slaves in Missouri.
All persons who shall be taken with arms in their hands within these lines shall be tried by court-martial, and, if found guilty, will be shot. The property, real and personal, of all persons in the State of Missouri who shall take up arms against the United States, and who shall be directly proven to have taken 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.

After Brigadier General U. S. Grant captured Paducah, Kentucky, Frémont applied the terms of his Missouri decree to that city and all of Kentucky. The emancipation order set off a hailstorm that disrupted the Department of the West and threatened Kentucky's allegiance to the Union. 
Abraham Lincoln
President Lincoln had strong reservations about two aspects of Frémont's Missouri proclamation, and he sent a special messenger to St. Louis on September 2 outlining his concerns. Lincoln objected to the order to shoot those taken with arms. The president feared that such action would lead to Confederate retaliation and ordered that no such action be taken without his consent. Lincoln also asked Frémont to limit "emancipation to those slaves forced to take up arms or otherwise actively participate in the war on the Confederate side." Lincoln believed that confiscation and freeing of slaves "will alarm our Southern Union friends, and turn them against us — perhaps ruin our rather fair prospect for Kentucky." Lincoln asked Frémont to modify the proclamation to conform to the terms of the Confiscation Act, which allowed the Union, through legal actions, to confiscate and free those slaves helping Confederate forces.
Robert Anderson
The president's fears were confirmed when he learned from General Robert Anderson that a company of Union volunteers from Kentucky "had thrown down their arms and disbanded" in response to Frémont's edict. The president was also warned that Kentucky would go "over the mill dam" if the proclamation was not retracted. Lincoln's friend Joshua Speed said Frémont's edict would "crush out every vestage [sic] of a union party in the state if not annulled."
Frémont responded to Lincoln's concerns on September 8, and sent his wife Jessie to Washington to talk to the president. Frémont said he issued the proclamation with his "best judgement [sic] to serve the country and yourself" and was "perfectly willing to receive the amount of censure which should be thought due if I had made a false step." He described his decision "as much a movement in the war as a battle is" and asked Lincoln to order him "to make the correction."
Jessie Frémont did not help her husband's case. President Lincoln recalled, "She sought an audience with me at midnight and taxed me so violently with many things that I had to exercise all the awkward tact I have to avoid quarreling with her." Mrs. Frémont failed to convince Lincoln to alter his position. By September 10 Lincoln had had enough of the Frémonts, and the president "cheerfully" ordered the general to modify the order so it conformed to the Confiscation Act. Lincoln recognized that removing the most objectionable parts of Frémont's proclamation was essential to keeping Kentucky in the Union. Unfortunately, for Lincoln, the northern press, abolitionists, and even some members of his cabinet supported Frémont's proclamation.
Lincoln's response to Frémont's edict had two significant effects. It clearly defined the boundaries for officers concerning slaves. They could be confiscated as property but not given their freedom as human beings. In answer to his critics, Lincoln described the status of slaves: "If the General needs them 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 lawmakers, and not by military proclamations." The public and private responses provided Lincoln with extensive information that he would incorporate in his own Emancipation Proclamation.
The president's position also put commanding officers in a difficult position. Should Union officers strictly adhere to the government's guidelines and risk public censure as Southern sympathizers or defy the parameters by freeing, keeping, and protecting escaped slaves and face military censure and dismissal? While politically appointed officers would cater to public opinion, professional soldiers would obey their commander-in-chief’s orders.

Source: Mesch, Allen H., Teacher of Civil War Generals - Major General Charles Ferguson Smith, Soldier and West Point Commandant, 149-151.

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