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On this day: Gen. Fremont fired after ‘proclamation’

On this day (Sept. 3) in 1861, Union Gen. John Charles Fremont received word from President Abraham Lincoln that the president would like Fremont to rescind or at least modify his Aug. 30, 1861, proclamation that declared martial law throughout Missouri.

The unauthorized proclamation also freed slaves of rebellious Missourians, confiscated their property, and threatened the death penalty for all Missouri secessionists who bore arms against the Union.

In his message to Fremont, Lincoln asked, but did not specifically order, his pugnacious and uncontrollable general to countermand his ill-considered proclamation. Instead, the increasingly exasperated president wrote: “Allow me therefore to ask, that you will as of your own motion, modify ... it to conform” to the First Confiscation Act passed by Congress on August 6, 1861, which called for the confiscation of the property (including slaves) of Missourians used only directly to aid the Confederate war effort. Lincoln went on to warn Fremont that freeing slaves in Missouri would “alarm our Southern Union friends, and turn them against us ...”

Missouri was one of the four slave states that had remained in the Union, and Lincoln was fearful that Fremont’s premature emancipation proclamation might prompt Missouri and/or one or more of the other three slave states (i.e., Delaware, Kentucky and Maryland) to secede from the Union as 11 Southern slave states had already done.

Lincoln did, however, directly order Fremont to rescind that part of the proclamation that threatened execution of Missouri secessionists when he wrote: “It is therefore my order that you allow no man to be shot ... without first having my approbation or consent. Should you shoot a man ... the Confederates would very certainly shoot our best man in their hands in retaliation; and so man for man, indefinitely.”

The president obviously was beginning to regret that he had commissioned Fremont as an army general soon after the outbreak of hostilities in April 1861, and specifically his July 1861 appointment of the increasingly troublesome Fremont to head the Department of the West.

Fremont’s commission as an army general obviously was Lincoln’s recognition that Fremont (nicknamed the “Pathfinder” for his pre-war western explorations) was a political power in the Republican Party.

In 1856, Fremont had become the first presidential candidate of that anti-slavery party. Although he narrowly was defeated by Democrat James Buchanan (Electoral College vote: 174-114; popular vote: 1,927,995 for Buchanan and 1,391,555 for Fremont), the unruly Fremont remained an influential political power-broker. Lincoln’s various appointments of the militarily incompetent Fremont were obviously dictated solely by political considerations.

Even after being “asked” by his commander-in-chief (i.e., Lincoln), Fremont refused to rescind or even modify his controversial proclamation. Fremont’s response to the president’s “asking” him to at least modify his proclamation was to send his wife, Jessie Benton Fremont, daughter of former politically influential Sen. Thomas Hart Benton, to the White House to confront the beleaguered president for his audacity in disagreeing with her husband.

There ensued a heated argument between the high-spirited Jessie Benton and the increasingly irritated president. Lincoln quickly lost patience with Fremont. In November, Lincoln relieved Fremont of his command. Thereafter Fremont’s military career went down hill. He finally resigned his commission in September 1864.

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University and author of “The American Revolution” and “Shapers of the Great Debate at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.” He is available for tutoring, talks and workshops on American history. Email him at demjcm@comcast.net

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