With the death of Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon at Wilson’s Creek, Major General John C. Fremont issued orders that would send him on a collision course with President Abraham Lincoln. Fremont’s orders of martial law and emancipation of Missouri slaves shortened his military career in the U. S. Army.
Even before the Civil War, Fremont was already a hero of sorts. His exploits while leading settlers west to California earned him the distinction of the Great Pathfinder. While Fremont often had worthy plans and ideals, his methods often clashed with the entrenched political establishment. Such a scenario arose in August 1861 in Missouri.
In 1856, Fremont was the first presidential candidate for the new Republican Party. He ran on a ticket of “Free Soil, Free Men and Fremont.” Democrats rallied against Fremont’s campaign, stating the election of Fremont would bring about civil war. Democrat James Buchanan eventually won the election and civil war was averted until the election of Lincoln in 1860.
In May 1861, Fremont, now a major general, was given command of the Army’s Department of the West. Fremont replaced William S. Harney, who had negotiated a compromise which might allow Missouri to remain neutral in the upcoming Civil War.
Fremont ordered Lyon to bring Missouri into the Union. In doing so, Lyon evicted sitting Gov. Claiborne Jackson, who was a southern sympathizer, captured southern militia at Camp Jackson and installed a pro-Union government.
Lyon was killed early in August 1861 at the battle of Wilson’s Creek. In response to Lyon’s death, Fremont declared martial law in Missouri, confiscated private property of secessionists and emancipated the slaves.
By doing this, Fremont overstepped his authority and put himself at odds with Lincoln. While Lincoln was no fan of slavery, his first priority was to preserve the Union. The president feared that Fremont’s actions of emancipating the slaves would cause Border States such as Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri to join the Confederacy. Making the Civil War about slavery in 1861 could cause the secession of some Midwestern states currently in the Union.
Most Americans at that time, North and South, thought blacks were inferior to whites and were not prepared to fight a war on their behalf.
Lincoln ordered Fremont to rescind his order but the general refused to do so. On Nov. 2, 1861 Lincoln removed Fremont from command and revoked the general’s order of emancipation.
Fremont and Lincoln were destined to clash in 1864. Radical Republicans, who were made up of hard line abolitionists that disliked Lincoln’s positions on slavery and reconciliation with the southern states, nominated Fremont for president. A deal was eventually brokered between the Lincoln and Fremont camps and the Pathfinder abandoned his campaign.