While ostensibly aimed at the State of Missouri, Gen. John Frémont’s martial law proclamation electrified the nation. Here was an army general taking bold action relevant to the basic cause of the war. It especially caused a reaction in the White House, where President Abraham Lincoln was alarmed. After the time spent during Summer 1861 placating aggrieved Unionist slaveholders in the Border States, especially in strategic Maryland, which had lost slaves to Union army units camped in the state, Frémont’s proclamation threatened to sabotage all of Lincoln’s careful work (see the July 1o and August 14 editions of Civil War Emancipation). By ordering freedom for the slaves of disloyal owners in Missouri, Frémont called into question for Southern Unionists the Lincoln administration’s sincerity in asserting that it intended to respect the property rights of loyal slaveholders.
So Lincoln quickly penned a letter to Gen. Frémont which read:
First. Should you shoot a man according to the proclamation the Confederates would very certainly shoot our best men in their hands in retaliation; and so man for man indefinitely. It is therefore my order that you allow no man to be shot under the proclamation without first having my approbation or consent.
Second. I think there is great danger that the closing paragraph in relation to the confiscation of property and the liberating slaves of traitorous owners will alarm our southern Union friends and turn them against us, perhaps ruin our rather fair prospect for Kentucky. Allow me therefore to ask that you will as of your own motion modify that paragraph so as to conform to the first and fourth sections of the act of Congress entitled “An act to confiscate property used for insurrectionary purposes,” approved August 6, 1861, and a copy of which act I herewith send you.
While concerned about Confederate retaliation with Union prisoners should Frémont execute rebel guerillas in Missouri, clearly Abraham Lincoln’s bigger concern was the general’s decision to free their slaves. Lincoln had only reluctantly signed the Confiscation Act in early August, which he feared would convince heretofore loyal slaveholders that the government intended to seize their people next. To Lincoln, the best response politically was quietly and quickly to get Frémont to retract the objectionable sections of his martial law proclamation. Unfortunately for Lincoln it would take more than a polite letter to get Frémont to back down.
One day, Abraham Lincoln would prove even more stubborn in defending his own proclamation of freedom for the slaves. But September 2, 1861, was not yet that day. The future Great Emancipator for what he believed were sound political and strategic reasons aimed at saving the Union was still defending the old order.