August 30, 1861: Fremont Orders Freeing of Slaves of Rebels in Missouri

Tuesday, August 30, AD 2011

John C. Fremont led a life of considerable achievement and seemed to many of his contemporaries a man of destiny.  However, in the Civil War his destiny  eluded him.  An engineering officer in the US Army Corps of Engineers, his personal charm led to his marriage in 1841 to Jesse Benton, a woman of considerable ambition and the daughter of the legendary Senator from Missouri, Thomas Hart Bent.  Now politically well connected, Benton achieved fame and the title The Pathfinder, by leading settlers along with scout Kit Carson over the Oregon Trail.  In the 1830’s Fremont had taken part in various topographical mapping expeditions into the West and this served him in good stead in determining the best routes for the pioneers.  His exploits were steadily followed in the eastern papers, and Fremont became a national celebrity.  During the Mexican War, Fremont played a major role in the conquest of California, although he displayed much energy but little military skill.  After the war he served as military governor for California, and, after California was admitted to the Union, Fremont served briefly as a US Senator for the state.

Although he was of Southern birth, Fremont was an ardent foe of slavery and became the first Republican candidate for President in 1856.  Obtaining a third of the vote, and 114 electoral votes, Fremont proved that the new Republican party was a serious contender in national politics.  His electoral slogan of “Free Men!  Free Soil! Fremont!”, resounded throughout the North, Fremont winning all of the Northern states except Illinois, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Indiana, demonstrating that if the North was unified, it could elect a President.  Fremont suffered in the election by false allegations that his father was a French aristocrat and that Fremont was a Catholic.  (Fremont’s father was a middle class Frenchman who fought for the Royalists in France and who immigrated to America.  Fremont was an Episcopalian.)  The Democrats also made hay of the fact that Fremont had been born out of wedlock, and that at the time they started their romance, his mother had been married to a man not his father.  Salacious political gossip is not an invention of the Twenty-First century.

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3 Responses to August 30, 1861: Fremont Orders Freeing of Slaves of Rebels in Missouri

  • “Lincoln was engaged in a delicate process of keeping the slave border states in the Union, and now Fremont, with no consultation with Washington, was doing his very best to ensure that all the slaveholders in Missouri regarded the Union forces as a deadly threat.”

    Well, he certainly succeeded in that regard. T.J. Stiles, in his book “Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War” (which I’m currently finishing up), says the implications and consequences of Fremont’s action were nothing less than “earth-shattering”:

    “Never before had a state been placed under the control of the armed forces; the idea was so new that Lincoln himself mistakenly referred to ‘military law’ instead of ‘martial law’…. For the first time in American history, military commissions began to prosecute U.S. citizens. The inaugural trial took place on September 5, when Joseph Aubuchon was found guilty of ‘having an attitude of open rebellion.'”

    According to Stiles, Lincoln didn’t completely revoke Fremont’s order. He did get Fremont to back off on the emancipation provision, and he also insisted that no civilians be executed without the White House reviewing their cases first. But the mechanisms for maintaining martial law (a network of provost marshals, spreading outward from St. Louis) remained pretty much intact.

    By the end of the war, according to Stiles, Missouri accounted for almost half (46.2 percent) of all recorded military trials of civilians nationwide, far more than in all 11 Confederate states combined. However, the people responsible for said trials were for the most part Missourians themselves, not soldiers brought from other states. That’s one reason, according to Stiles, why the war in the Show Me State took on an extremely personal, neighbor vs. neighbor aspect to an extent not often seen elsewhere. (Until Al Gore invented the internet, that is :-))

    You might want to check out this excellent blog post from the Kansas City Star on the parallels between Civil War Missouri/Kansas and modern-day conflicts like Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan:

    http://civilwar150.kansascity.com/articles/july/

  • Stiles has a point Elaine, although I think the war in Missouri would have been vicious in any case. Prior to the War Missouri pro-slavery “Border Ruffians” had done their very best to attempt to turn Kansas into a slave state. Although the slave population of Missouri was minute the pro-slavery forces in Missouri tended to go to extremes, and their sympathies were clearly with the Confederacy from the outset of the war. On the other hand, Saint Louis tended to be firmly abolitionist, especially with the influx into the city of German immigrants. Missouri during the Civil War combined elements of Massachusetts and South Carolina with predictable consequences.

  • True enough; if you read Stiles’ book more extensively he makes it clear that Fremont’s action was more like tossing gasoline on a fire that was already there, than actually starting the fire.

    For some reason, though, I can’t keep myself from laughing, at least slightly, at the notion that someone could be jailed merely for “having an attitude of open rebellion”, because that SOUNDS like something every person over the age of 2 has been guilty of at one time or another, at least in the eyes of their parents 🙂