Fremont Makes Freemen of Slaves, Declares Martial Law

Friday, August 30, 1861

There was no getting around how much of a mess Missouri had become in the months since armies marched across its borders. St. Louis had erupted in a murderous riot, the center of the state tolerated an overthrow of the government, the southwestern counties suffered the battles of Carthage and Wilson’s Creek while in the east, armies under Grant and Polk faced off, ready to do battle.

General John Fremont, commander of Union Western Department and the Republican’s first presidential candidate, tried the best he could to keep the peace throughout the state. Two weeks prior, he declared martial law in St. Louis, where he was headquartered. On this date, he decided to “demand the severest measures to repress the daily crimes and outrages which are driving off the inhabitants and ruining the State.”

Martial law could only be enforced in the parts of the states occupied by the Union army, of course. Fremont outlined precisely which territory, extending “from Leavenworth, by way of the posts of Jefferson City, Rolla, and Ironton, to Cape Girardeau, on the Mississippi River” would come under his direct rule.

Fremont declared that “all persons who shall be taken with arms in their hands within these lines shall be tried by court-martial, and if found guilty will be shot.” Typically in war, they would be treated as prisoners, not found guilty of treason.

The next step taken by Fremont was brazen and, technically, unconstitutional. His proclamation stated that any Missourian who was to “take up arms against the United States, or who shall be directly proven to have taken an active part with their enemies in the field,” would have their property “confiscated to the public use,” and their slaves, if they had any, “hereby declared freemen.”

Fremont, who was no doubt familiar with the Confiscation Act of August 6, which freed the slaves working for the Confederate government by forcing them to work for the Union government, did what many Southern slaveowners feared: he freed their slaves.

While the Confiscation Act placed the “freed” slaves under the jurisdiction of the Union army, Fremont’s proclamation declared them “freemen.” Of course, this only effected the slaves owned by secessionists in Missouri. Technically, slaves owned by Missouri Unionists would remain untouched.1


Grant Arrives in Wonder

Going hand-in-hand with his proclamation, Fremont ordered General Ulysses S. Grant to take command of Union forces in the southeastern part of the state. On this date, he arrived at Cape Girardeau, ready to take the reigns. His former command, in Ironton, was now under General Prentiss. Grant had hoped that his old command would join him at Cape Girardeau, but had no idea where Prentiss might be.

Though Fremont had taken the emancipation of slaves into his own hands, the August 6th Confiscation Act had been enforced as Grant noticed that “a number of contrabands, in the shape of negroes, are being employed, much to their satisfaction” on building and extending the defensive works around Cape Girardeau.2

Grant may have had no idea where General Prentiss’ command was, but General Jeff Thompson, commander of the secessionist Missouri State Guards in and around Sikeston, believed he did. The St. Louis newspapers reported that “Prentiss left Ironton with a large force, to hunt [General] Hardee,” who was near Greenville. Before being transfered, Grant had contemplated giving Hardee battle, but nothing came of it. From a scout, Thompson also learned that 4,000 Union troops had landed at Commerce and that there were 1,000 more at Dallas.3

Thompson was also in communication with Confederate General Pillow at New Madrid, trying to coordinate some sort of defense, attack or strategy.


  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p466-467. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p143-144. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p153. []
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Fremont Makes Freemen of Slaves, Declares Martial Law by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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