Frémont’s Missouri Misstep

By Eilene Lyon           August 30, 2022

The opening of Frémont’s proclamation establishing martial law in Missouri in the early months of the Civil War. (Newspapers.com)

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).

John C. Frémont, seen in this election poster, completing his term as a free-soil Senator from California, was the presidential candidate for the newly formed Republican party in 1856. Democrat James Buchanan won in the three-way contest with Millard Fillmore. (Wikimedia Commons)

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 relevant section of the Frémont proclamation regarding emancipation. (Newspapers.com)

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)

28 thoughts on “Frémont’s Missouri Misstep

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    1. It’s well known that Lincoln took time to come around to seeing the need to free the slaves. I just saw a book at the library, The House That Slaves Built, about the Blacks he received at the White House …starting in 1862.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. This is fascinating. Despite being an America history major with a special interest in the Civil War, I never learned about Fremont or any of this. I knew about the Missouri Compromise, but not about the internal political struggles it caused. Thank you for sharing this!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was news to me, too. It apparently is not considered a noteworthy event in some circles. I have a recently published book about John and Jesse Fremont and the Civil War, and it barely mentions it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Well done, Eilene. Yes, it would be interesting to hear from them, but also upsetting. With all the genealogy I’ve worked on over the years, the closest I came to finding slave-holders was my grandma’s brother-in-law’s family.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Very interesting! In California, there was Freemont’s Pass (now named Newhall Pass) that was named for this man, who was thought to have passed through it in 1847 on his way to sign the Treaty of Cahuenga. This pass links the San Fernando Valley to the Santa Clarita Valley and is a main entry to the Greater Los Angeles area.

    Liked by 1 person

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