The Fremonts and Emancipation in Missouri

By Volpe, Vernon L. | The Historian, Winter 1994 | Go to article overview

The Fremonts and Emancipation in Missouri


Volpe, Vernon L., The Historian


An edict freeing slaves owned by rebel Missourians was issued in 1861 by Major General John C. Fremont, commander of the Western Department. When President Abraham Lincoln revised the order and removed Fremont, the poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote that the general had acted "A brave man's part, without the statesman's tact." Many historians agree that the general acted without political tact, but few have expressed Whittier's admiration of Fremont. Fremont's Missouri command has provoked strong criticism, but his emancipation effort inspired Unionists and revealed slavery's vulnerability during the war. Fremont's loyal and talented wife, Jessie Benton Fremont, called her husband's emancipation edict the "First Emancipation Proclamation." She contended that the general's order had "struck the first blow for freedom for the slave, and declared war on slavery as well as on secession." Fremont's emancipation effort deserves more recognition than Civil War scholarship has extended.(1)

When Fremont assumed command in St. Louis in July 1861, partisan warfare had already erupted. The city had many Southern sympathizers, and the entire state was torn by conflicting ethnic and sectional loyalties. Fremont was handicapped by shortages of men, materiel, and money, as well as by the "censurable myopia" about the West in Washington, D.C. The commander's urgent pleas for help received replies such as Postmaster General Montgomery Blair's: "I have two telegrams from you, but find it impossible now to get any attention to Missouri or western matters from the authorities here. You will have to do the best you can, and take all needful responsibility, to defend and protect the people over whom who are specially set." Aware of government preoccupation with the eastern theater, Fremont believed Lincoln had granted him full authority over the Western Department: "I have given you carte blanche, you must use your own judgment and do the best you can." Fremont later testified that he had been given "whatever power was necessary to carry out the work I was sent to accomplish."(2)

Early in August 1861, Fremont's command suffered a blow when Union general Nathaniel Lyon, rejecting advice to withdraw, attacked superior rebel forces and suffered defeat at Wilson's Creek, near Springfield, Missouri. Fremont placed St. Louis under martial law and pondered a more dramatic move to restore order. On 30 August, without consulting the president, Fremont placed the entire state under martial law and ordered that anyone captured under arms behind Union lines could be court-martialled and shot. More controversially, he decreed that the property of rebel supporters would be seized and their slaves freed.(3)

For some Missouri slaves Fremont's order brought immediate redemption. The first slaves liberated by the order were Hiram Reed and Frank Lewis, owned by Thomas L. Snead, an aide to the former secessionist governor. Jessie Fremont later wrote with satisfaction that these two were the first to be freed under the authority of the United States government. She added that they retained their freedom only by fleeing the country, while the government "made every effort to capture and return them to their owner." Missouri slaveowners took Fremont's proclamation seriously; some, including Snead, attempted to protect their property by claiming their wives owned the slaves. Although only two men actually received manumission papers, the impact of the order swept across the region. A New York Tribune correspondent reported that Union troops marching from Cape Girardeau to Benton, Missouri, had enforced the proclamation by seizing rebel property:

They also gave liberty to a number of slaves. . . . Of course they were glad to be set at liberty. One of them said he "had been wondering [why] Fremont hadn't done so befo'." They were engaged at fair wages as servants to the officers, and all seemed pleased and dignified by their new position.

The Tribune reported that twenty-three slaves, the property of leading rebels, had been freed by the proclamation. …

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