Lincoln and the Radical Abolitionists

October 21, 1861/2011
Volume 2, Issue 44 (54 Issues Since 15 October 2010)

Lincoln and the Radical Abolitionists

Radical abolitionists had agitated for an end to slavery for more than thirty years before North and South finally came to blows in 1861, and they shouldered much responsibility for splitting the country in two. Of course, the abolitionists believed it was — or should be — a war of emancipation, and so they were bitterly disappointed in Lincoln, his administration, and Congress.

Northern political disputes meant nothing to enslaved African Americans, who proclaimed their belief in a war of emancipation by emancipating themselves. Fugitive slaves poured into Union camps, creating an immediate problem that was not amenable to political solutions. It was one thing to oppose emancipation in the chambers of Washington, DC, but quite another when the subjects of that emancipation were swarming around you. Generals had to decide — and quickly — how to treat the masses of eager freedom seekers.

General John Fremont, commanding the Department of the West in Missouri, sided with the slaves. In an unprecedented move, he declared martial law, confiscated secessionists’ property, and emancipated their slaves by proclamation on August 30, 1861. Looking for a political edge in the absence of military success, Fremont forced this central issue back into national attention. Lincoln asked him quietly to amend the order. When Fremont refused, Lincoln revoked it himself and relieved Fremont of command.

Abolitionists howled. The war was still young, and Fremont’s resistance fed their hopes that it might yet be a moral one. The Robinson family, abolitionists from Ferrisburgh, Vermont, were no exception. Writing in the middle of this debacle, Anne Robinson Minturn poured out her anger at “the old women at Washington” in this letter to her mother, Rachel Gilpin Robinson. Her final dig at Lincoln is shocking for its violence, particularly coming from the daughter of Quakers and nonresistants!

October 20, 1861. Anne Robinson Minturn, Waterloo, New York, to her mother, Rachel Gilpin Robinson, Ferrisburgh, Vermont

I have seen in some papers that Mrs. Lincoln is very ambitious and “muddles & makes” a great deal in political matters — in another paper I see that she has brothers, half-brothers, a nephew, etc., etc. in the Rebel army — putting this & that together I think we get some explanation of the tenderness displayed toward the rebels — & can form a pretty just idea of the amount of patriotism in the White House. . . . But let her & her miserable tribe go — one hundred years from now her husband will, I believe, be remembered only as the most contemptible & inefficient of all who have disgraced the Presidential office. Even Harpers Weekly bemoans in its cautious milk-&-water way the inactivity of the government. Thus far the country has gained very little from the change from Democracy [sic — a Democratic administration] to Repub except the exposure that the devotees of slavery are forced into — if they had known how tenderly the institution was to be cared for by the “new lords” they would scarcely have feared any “new laws.” Oh how I fume with impotent rage — & then burn with mortification & sicken with despair. How despicable is the attitude of the old women at Washington toward Fremont. . . . if Fremont is removed or worse disgracefully crippled there may be spirits raised in the wild north-west . . . I could write all night upon the subject, so strongly do I feel, so bitterly do I resent this injustice to the only man who has given one effective blow at this rebellion, to a man who was proving himself brave, self-sacrificing — conscientious . . . I wish to goodness that the rail-splitter of Kentucky had by a great mistake split his own head with that maul that was, one short year ago, as sacred to the Republicans as the cat to an Egyptian.

The Robinson Family, circa 1880, courtesy Rokeby Museum

The Robinson Family, circa 1880, courtesy Rokeby Museum

– Submitted by Jane Williamson, Rokeby Museum, Ferrisburgh, Vermont

Another Demoralizing Union Defeat

October 21, 1861.  A former Oregon Senator, Col. Edward D. Baker, an intimate friend of President Lincoln’s who had introduced Lincoln at the Inauguration just seven months earlier, was killed in a minor, but demoralizing defeat when Union forces were ambushed and repulsed at Ball’s Bluff, near Leesburg, Virginia. The battle cost 921 Union casualties, but only 149 Confederate.

The news of Baker’s death “smote [Lincoln] like a whirlwind.” Lincoln’s second son, Edward Baker Lincoln, or “Eddy,” who had died in 1850 at the age of three, had been named after Baker.

Ball's Bluff, October 21, 1861, Currier and Ives, Courtesy Library of Congress

Ball’s Bluff, October 21, 1861, Currier and Ives, Courtesy Library of Congress

– Submitted by Peter A. Gilbert, Executive Director, Vermont Humanities Council  


Witness to the Civil War, Stuart A. P. Murray, ed., p. 39.

Lincoln, An Illustrated Biography, Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr., editor, p. 160.


Civil War Trust, Ball’s Bluff

Ball’s Bluff Battlefield, National Park Service

Ball’s Bluff Regional Park

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Filed under Civil War Book of Days: 1861

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