The Generals and Admirals: John C. Frémont (1813-1890)
President Lincoln removed John C. Frémont, "The Pathfinder," as Commander of Western Department in November 1861, only four months after his appointment to the position. According to Frémont biographer Allan Nevins, "Frémont "and Postmaster-General Montgomery Blair held several conferences with Lincoln upon the command to which he should be assigned; and he tells us that although the military authorities suggested eastern positions, he insisted upon the West." Frémont later wrote: "The President had gone carefully over with me the subject of my intended campaign, and this with the single desire to find out what was best to do and how to do it. This he did in the unpretentious and kindly manner which invited suggestion, and which with him was characteristic. When I took leave of him, he accompanied me down the stairs, coming out to the steps of the portico at the White House; I asked him then, if there was anything further in the way of instruction that he wished to say to me. 'No,' he replied, 'I have given you carte blanche; you must use your own judgment and do the best you can. I doubt if the States will ever come back."1
Frémont's wife, Jessie, was the daughter of Missouri Democratic leader Thomas Hart Benton. She was an accomplished woman who had long done much of Frémont's writing. Jessie detailed herself to travel to Washington to petition President Lincoln on behalf of her husband. She came to the White House late on the night of September 10 with Judge Edward Coles. They waited for the President in the Red Room. "It was clear to Judge Coles as to myself that the President's mind was made up against General Frémont and decidedly against me....in answer to his 'Well?' I explained that the general wished so much to have his attention to the letter sent, that I had brought it to make sure it would reach him. He answered, not to that, but to the subject his own mind was upon, that 'It was a war for a great national idea, the Union, and that General Frémont should not have dragged the Negro into it...'"2 Mrs. Frémont told the President that:
...the General thought it would be an advantage for him if I came to explain more fully what he wished him to know for, I said 'the general feels he is at the great disadvantage of being perhaps opposed by people in whom you have every confidence.'
Frémont's position had been undermined by the development of a feud between his family and the Blair family, who had been early Frémont supporters of Frémont, but became bitter enemies. Frémont was subsequently dismissed from his Missouri command.
In March 1862, President Lincoln appointed General Frémont to head the “Mountain Department” in western Virginia. Before he did so, Mr. Lincoln consulted with Henry C. Bowen, a businessman who owned the New York Independent, Lincoln biographer Alonzo Rothschild wrote:
The general's performance was again disappointing. After refusing to serve under General John Pope, he was dismissed on June 27, 1862. Pressure continued from Radical Republicans to find a command for Frémont. In March 1863, CongressmanGeorge Julian visited the President:
"On the 18th of March I called on Mr. Lincoln respecting the appointments I had recommended under the conscription law, and took occasion to refer to the failure of General Frémont to obtain a command. He said he did not know where to place him, and that it reminded him of the old man who advised his son to take a wife, to which the young man responded 'Whose wife shall I take?' The President proceed to point out the practical difficulties in the way by referring to a number of important commands which might suit Frémont, but which could only be reached by removals he did not wish to make. I remarked that I was very sorry if this was true, and that it was unfortunate for our cause, as I believed his restoration to duty would stir the country as no other appointment could. He said, 'it would stir the country on one side and stir it the other way on the other. It would please Frémont's friends, and displease the conservatives; and that is all I can see in the stirring argument."5Frémont was nominated for president by a convention of radicals meting in Cleveland on May 31, 1864. When on June 1, 1864, President Lincoln learned of the nomination by 400 anti-Lincoln activists, he immediately picked up a Bible and read from I Samuel:22: 'And everyone that was in distress, and everyone that was in debt, and everyone that was discontented gathered themselves unto him; and he became a captain over them; and there were with him about four hundred men."6
Frémont retired as an independent candidate for President in September 1864 just before Montgomery Blair resigned from cabinet. The withdrawal was negotiated by Michigan Senator Zachariah Chandler, who met with Frémont in New York. At first, the 'Pathfinder' had refused to commit himself, maintaining that he would have to confer with his advisors. Eventually, Frémont decided to withdraw from t he contest, but much to Chandler's disappointment, the general had made up his mind to retire unconditionally," according to biographer Gerald S. Hening.7 Fremont himself later wrote that Chandler's group "brought me offers, of patronage for my friends, and of disfavor to my enemies. I refused both; my only consideration was the welfare of the Republican party."8
Historian David E. Long wrote: "When Chandler returned to see the president on September 22, Lincoln was in a foul mood. He had received Frémont's letter 'and it was a document as offensive as it was tactless.' Though he assured Lincoln that he would support the party ticket 'in order to assure the permanence of the Union and the emancipation of the slaves,' his attitude toward the administration had not changed. 'I consider that this administration has been politically, militarily, and financially a failure, and that its necessary continuance is a cause of regret to the country.' The letter was not consistent with the spirit of the agreement, but Chandler argued that there had been no stated condition as to the form of the withdrawal. Finally Lincoln relented, and on September 23 addressed a letter to Blair: 'You have generously said to me more than once, that whenever your resignation could be a relief to me, it was at my disposal. The time has come.'"9
Frémont was the Republican candidate for President in 1856. He had become famous as an explorer in the West and for his role in the liberation of California from Mexico. According to biographer Nevins, his major faults were "his impulsiveness or rashness, and his weak judgment of men and of critical situations."9 He served briefly as Governor of California (1847), Senator (1850-51) and later as Governor of Arizona (1878-80).