Fremont Defends His Proclamation; Lee Plans an Attack

Sunday, September 8, 1861

General John C. Fremont, Union commander of the Western Department, took pen in hand and made an attempt to defend his policies in Missouri against the chastisement of President Lincoln. On September 2nd, Lincoln took issue with Fremont’s proclamation which emancipated the slaves of disloyal owners and threatened the death penalty to armed secessionists.

Fremont believed, so he said, that he was acting according to Lincoln’s wishes. Of his proclamation, he took full responsibility, admitting that he took no consultation from anyone. This was a war, reasoned Fremont, his proclamation being “as much a movement in the war as a battle.” Like going into battle, he would “have to act according to my judgment of the ground before me.”

Lincoln first took issue with the emancipation of slaves. He asked Fremont to abide by the Confiscation Act, which kept the “freed” slaves under the authority of the United States government rather than actually freeing them. It was, however, not a direct order. “If upon reflection your better judgment still decides that I am wrong in the article respecting the liberation of slaves,” offered Fremont, “I have to ask that you will openly direct me to make the correction.”

The General pointed out that if he (Fremont) “were to retract of my own accord, it would imply that I myself thought it wrong, and that I had acted without the reflection which the gravity of the point demanded.” Fremont acted “upon the certain conviction that it was a measure right and necessary, and I think so still.”

Fremont defended the execution of armed secessionists every bit as voraciously as emancipation. “The shooting of men who shall rise in arms against an army in the military occupation of a country is merely a necessary measure of defense,” countered Fremont, adding that it was perfectly acceptable “according to the usages of civilized warfare.”

Though Lincoln refused to recognize the Confederacy as a legitimate government, he was not about to treat the Rebels as anything worse than prisoners of war, which would require them to be treated humanely. Fremont, on the other hand, saw this as nothing more than a rebellion of treasonous United States citizens who “have no ground for requiring that we should waive in their benefit any of the ordinary advantages which the usages of war allow to us.”

Fremont then did what he should have done from the beginning. He asked for Lincoln’s permission to enact the provisions of his proclamation, “hoping that my views may have the honor to meet your approval.”1

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Catching up with Johnston

In the six weeks since the battle of Manassas, the Confederate Army of the Potomac under General Joseph E. Johnston, had hardly moved from the battlefield. Much of the time had been spent by Johnston trying to refit his command, now situated at Fairfax Court House. Dispatch after dispatch sent from Fairfax to Richmond detailed the need for supplies.

The Army was lacking in cavalry, artillery, ammunition and sustenance. Johnston was hardly shy about his needs and was beginning to feel snubbed. It was his army that had defeated the Yankees at Bull Run, therefore, he thought, it was his army that should be strengthened.

In light of this, Johnston was considering reestablishing his command closer to Richmond. He and General Beauregard had talked over the possibility of a divided force and finally submitted it to President Davis.

“We cannot afford to divide our forces unless and until we have two armies able to contend with the enemy forces at Washington,” wrote Davis. “Two lines of operation are always hazardous. I repeat that we cannot afford to fight without a reasonable assurance of victory or a necessity so imperious as to overrule our general policy.”

“The cause of the Confederacy is staked upon your army,” the President reminded Johnston. However, he was also reminded that his wasn’t the only army in the field: “Missouri and Kentucky demand our attention, and the Southern coast needs additional defense.”2

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Explaining Away Kentucky

Kentucky was also certainly on Davis’ mind. The formerly neutral state had been invaded by both Confederate and Union armies. As the Confederate occupation of Columbus and Hickman preceded the Union occupation of Paducah, it was possible that Kentucky’s Governor, Beriah Magoffin, was more than a little disturbed. Richmond wired General Polk, requesting him to send a dispatch reassuring Magoffin.3

This Polk did at once, first apologizing to the Governor for not writing sooner. The army under his command, said Polk, entered neutral Kentucky based on “information upon which I could rely that the Federal forces intended and were preparing to seize Columbus.” Polk’s information was indeed correct. Again, without consulting Lincoln, Fremont was also preparing to capture Columbus.

Polk also agreed to withdraw his troops, should Washington agree to withdraw their own troops simultaneously. Magoffin, an intelligent man, probably knew that that would never happen. His state would soon become a battleground.4

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General Lee Orders an Incredibly Complex Plan of Attack

In Western Virginia, General Lee decided that it was time to attack the Federal troops on Cheat Mountain. On this date, Lee issued Special Orders No. 28, which directed five different brigades from the Army of the Northwest to attack Cheat Fort. Though it was issued in General Loring’s name (he technically commanded the Army), the plan was thoroughly Lee’s.

It was also thoroughly complex.

The Army of the Northwest was divided into two wings. The first wing, consisting of two brigades, was at Traveler’s Repose on the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike. The second wing of three brigades was at Valley Mountain, along the Huntersville Turnpike. The Union troops occupied Cheat Mountain to the east and Elkwater [near Salt Lick on map], south of Huttonsville, to the west.

The five Rebel brigades would take five separate routes and would have to somehow act in concert with one another. This was extremely difficult for green troops. The two brigades at Traveler’s Repose were to advance on the Turnpike, one to the front of the Union fortifications, one to the south of it. At Valley Mountain, the three brigades would advance on the Huntersville Turnpike and then separate. One brigade was to move behind Cheat Fort, while the other two would attack their enemies at Elkwater, hitting the front and left flank.

Cheat Fort was to fall first and then the victorious Confederates would move west, taking out Elkwater and the remaining Union troops.

The brigades were to be in position by September 11th, ready for an attack the next day.5



  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p477-478. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p833-834. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 4, p403. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 4, p185-186. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 51 (part 2), p282-283. []
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Fremont Defends His Proclamation; Lee Plans an Attack by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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