Frémont Gets Fired

On October 22, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln relieved Major General John C. Frémont as commander of the U.S. Army’s Department of the West. Lincoln’s action was not unexpected. Frémont’s end-of-August martial law proclamation, which ordered freedom for the slaves of disloyal Missouri slaveholders, had caused Lincoln considerable trouble with the loyal border states. It nearly had undone the President’s hard work over the summer reassuring Unionist slaveholders there, in the face of slaves fleeing into Union army camps, that their property rights were safe. So the sentiment in Lincoln’s cabinet was that Frémont, especially in light of his defiance of the President’s attempts to get him to reverse course, would have to go. It merely took a bit of time to gather evidence of disorganization and incompetence during his brief stewardship of the Department of the West to justify the Pathfinder’s removal. But Lincoln and his men fooled no one. Anyone that cared knew the real reason was Gen. Frémont’s attempt to emancipate slaves in his jurisdiction.

John C. Frémont would pay a high personal price for his boldness. He would briefly be restored to a battlefield command in the 1862, but after losing the Battle of Cross Keys he would be sidelined for the rest of the war. Yet for the cause of emancipation, his sacrifice would be worth it. Frémont’s proclamation forced the Lincoln administration and the nation to see the logical end of the Confiscation Act passed at the beginning of August. The law did much to undermine the future of slavery. As the New York Times put it on September 3, shortly after Frémont had issued his original proclamation:

The Proclamation of Gen. FREMONT, though the first appeal to the law dissolving, in case of treason, the tie between master and slave, only states the inevitable result of the rebel war, no matter what legal provision Congress may have made. Inter arma silent-leges [“In times of war, the law falls silent”]. Slavery is founded upon force, and the moment this is removed the subject is, for the time, free. A return of peace may leave local laws unchanged, which may entitle the master to recover his slave within the domain of such laws. But in the total dislocation and disruption of society, invaded and overrun by a conquering host, a vast number of owners will forever disappear, leaving no claimant for the temporarily enfranchised slave. Others will be too weak to enforce their legal rights. Slaves will be so scattered that identification will often become impossible, so that the previous condition of society can never be restored. Everywhere will be visible the effect of the war in those that have fled, as well as in the freed that remain behind, in working a partial extinguishment and fatal blow to the system.

While Frémont’s proclamation predictably was panned by white Northerners who wished a war for Union only, it received support in some surprising places. Illinois Senator Orville H. Browning, a close friend of Lincoln, and by no stretch of imagination an abolitionist, privately chided the President for overruling Frémont. He wrote Lincoln in mid-September 1862, “That proclamation had the unqualified approval of every true friend of the Government within my knowledge. I do not know of an exception. Rebels and traitors, and all who sympathize with rebellion and treason, and who wish to see the government overthrown, would, of course, denounce it. Its influence was most salutary, and it was accomplishing much good. Its revocation disheartens our friends, and represses their ardor.

Even Harper’s Weekly, definitely not an abolitionist publication, published a spirited defense of Frémont’s proclamation arguing the General in time of war was within his power to free the slaves of rebel owners in his command. It further stated:

It is a solemn warning to the inhabitants of the rebel States, that wherever the armies of the United States are resisted in the interests of slavery, the cause of the resistance will be removed. It is a pregnant hint that the rebels who have falsely accused us of being abolitionists may, if they choose, make their accusation true. It is a notification to Kentucky, which seems to be on the eve of explosion, that open treason will necessarily involve the extirpation of slavery. This rebellion has more than once recalled the old adage, ” Those whom the Gods wish to destroy they first render mad :” we shall now see how far the madness extends. The cost of rebellion is abolition. Those who choose may purchase.

Another important result of General Fremont’s proclamation has been the discovery of the fact that the people of the North are much more solidly united on the question of slavery than was imagined. It had been generally supposed that the first utterance of the cry of emancipation would divide the North into two hostile camps. How this strange delusion came to be entertained it is difficult to discover; the least reflection should have satisfied every one that it was impossible to build up at the North a party based on protection to slavery any where. But, however the notion originated, there is no doubt it did exist, and that leading men and journals in the confidence of the Administration were so thoroughly imbued with it, that they indignantly repudiated the imputation of being friendly to freedom under any circumstances. It seems, from the temper in which the public receive General Fremont’s proclamation, that they are not so tender on the subject. They seem very well satisfied with the prospect. We hear no complaints, no lamentations over the downfall of slavery in Missouri.

So, John C. Frémont’s abortive proclamation showed the North where the war should be going. He also succeeded in making the possibility of freedom for the slaves more real than it had been before. Whereas before the end of slavery had not seemed a logical outcome of the war, now it was for many persons who had previously discounted the possibility. So while Frémont’s proclamation did not free many slaves, if any, in Missouri, it had a salutary effect on the national debate on slavery and emancipation and sowed seeds of freedom that as the war progressed would germinate and grow strong.

Sources: 1); 2); 3)

About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at
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1 Response to Frémont Gets Fired

  1. Gil Wilson says:

    Public opinion is a strange bird. What is unacceptable one moment becomes acceptable the next moment. Even General Hunter’s proclamation the following May met with almost universal disapproval…but the tide was turning. Lincoln felt safe enough to issue his preliminary by September.

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