By Eilene Lyon August 30, 2022
On this date in 1861, Major General John C. Frémont, commander of the Department of the West, issued a proclamation declaring martial law in the State of Missouri, and that those in open rebellion against the Union would forfeit their personal property, including enslaved persons, who would be emancipated.
Frémont’s Emancipation Proclamation angered President Lincoln, who first took the step of modifying the order to comply with Congressional law, and then found a reason (incompetency) to remove the general from his post by October that same year. It was another devastating blow to the reputation of an already-controversial figure and former presidential candidate (the first of the modern Republican party in 1856).
So-called Black Republicans hailed his bold move. They favored the immediate abolition of slavery. More moderate members of the party, including Lincoln, did not wish to aggravate Union supporters in the border states of Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri. Kentuckians were particularly incensed at the proclamation. In addition to the freeing of slaves, the measure stated that any armed rebels found in the area held by Union forces would be court-martialed and shot if found guilty.
The Republican-leaning papers in St. Louis favored Frémont’s edict. Unfortunately, no Democrat Missouri newspapers covering September 1861 have been digitized and put online. I had hoped to get a feel for how my slave-owning ancestors in western Missouri reacted to the news.
Missouri remained in the Union, but it was a slave state and a large contingent of the residents favored the Confederacy. The battles within the state were nearly continuous throughout the entire term of the war.
Lincoln later had reason to turn in favor of emancipation, and Frémont provided a model for how to go about it. There are many reasons to find fault with John C. Frémont, but in this singular event, he simply did the right thing, but perhaps at the wrong time and wrong place.
Feature image: John C. Frémont in uniform in 1861. (Wikimedia Commons)