John Fremont

John Fremont

John Fremont was born in Savanannah, Georgia, on 21st January, 1813. Educated at Charleston College, he taught mathematics before joining the Army Topographical Engineers Corps in 1838. The following year Fremont joined a party led by Joseph N. Nicollet, that surveyed and mapped the region between the upper Mississippi and Missouri rivers.

Fremont surveyed the Des Moines River in 1841. Sponsored by the Missouri senator, Thomas Hart Benton, in 1842 Fremont mapped most of the Oregon Trail and climbed the second highest peak in the Wind River Mountains, afterwards known as Fremont Peak.

In 1843, with Kit Carson and Tom Fitzpatrick as his guides, Fremont's party followed the Cache de la Poudre River into the Laramie Mountains. He then crossed the Rocky Mountains via the South Pass and Green River. He then followed the Bear River until it reached the Great Salt Lake.

After spending time at Fort Hall he followed the Snake River past Fort Boise to Fort Vancouver, where he met John McLoughlin. Fremont then turned south where he explored Klamath Lake and the Great Basin before making a midwinter crossing of the Sierra Nevada mountains and despite great hardships reached Sutter Fort. Fremont eventually reached St. Louis on 6th August, 1844.

John Fremont
John Fremont

Fremont made his third expedition in 1845 during which he explored the Great Basin and the Pacific coast. While this was taking place the Mexican War started. Fremont was given the rank of major in the United States Army and helped annex California. Commodore Robert Stockton appointed Fremont as governor of California. However, in 1847 Fremont clashed with General Stephen Kearny and as a result was arrested for mutiny and insubordination and was subsequently court-martialed. President James Polk intervened and Fremont was eventually released.

In the winter of 1848 and 1849 Fremont led an expedition to locate passes for a proposed railway line from the upper Rio Grande to California. During the Californian Gold Rush gold was discovered on his estate and he became a multi-millionaire.

In 1850 Fremont was elected as senator for California. A strong opponent of slavery, Fremont founder member of the Republican Party. In 1856 Fremont was chosen as its first presidential candidate and although the Democratic Party candidate, James Buchanan, won with 1,838,169 votes, he did well to obtained the support of 1,335,264 electors.

When Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, Fremont was expected to be appointed to the Cabinet. Lincoln was reluctant to do this and instead proposed that Fremont should be appointed minister of France. William H. Seward, Secretary of State, objected, claiming that as Fremont had been born in Georgia, he could not be trusted to remain loyal during a conflict with the South.

On the outbreak of the American Civil War Fremont was appointed as a Major General in the Union Army and put in command of the newly created Western Department based in St. Louis. On 30th August, 1861, Freemont proclaimed that all slaves owned by Confederates in Missouri were free. Abraham Lincoln was furious when he heard the news as he feared that this action would force slave-owners in border states to join the Confederate forces. Lincoln asked Fremont to modify his order and free only slaves owned by Missourians actively working for the South. Fremont refused claiming that "it would imply that I myself thought it wrong and that I had acted without reflection which the gravity of the point demanded."

Montgomery Blair, the Postmaster General,who had originally supported the appointment of Fremont, now urged Abraham Lincoln to sack him. Lincoln responded by sending Simon Cameron, Secretary of War, Congressman Elihu Washburne and General Lorenzo Thomas to investigate the situation in St. Louis. After they reported back to Lincoln he decided to relieve Fremont of his command. He was replaced by the conservative General Henry Halleck.

Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, wrote an open letter to Abraham Lincoln defending Fremont and criticizing the president for failing to make slavery the dominant issue of the war and compromising moral principles for political motives. Lincoln famously replied: "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it."

Fremont was a popular figure with Radical Republications and in March, 1862, Abraham Lincoln agreed to appoint him as the commander of the newly established Mountain Department. However, Fremont was severely criticized for failing to deal with Thomas Stonewall Jackson during his Shenandoah Valley. On 26th June, Freemont's troops came under the command of General John Pope. Fremont refused to serve under Pope and spent the rest of the war in New York.

In May, 1864 a convention of Radical Republications selected Fremont as their candidate for president. Fremont accepted the nomination and told the audience: "Today we have in this country the abuses of a military dictation without its unity of action and vigor of execution." The idea of a radical candidate standing in the election worried Abraham Lincoln and negotiations began to persuade him to change his mind. Fremont's price was the removal of his old enemy, Montgomery Blair, from the Cabinet. On 22nd September, 1864, Fremont withdrew from the contest. The following day, Lincoln sacked Blair and replaced him with the radical, William Dennison.

After the American Civil War Fremont became involved in railroad financing and building. This was a failure and he lost the fortune that he made during the Californian Gold Rush. He returned to politics when he became governor of Arizona Territory (1873-83).

Fremont wrote several books including several about his expeditions and his autobiography, Memories of My Life (1887). John Fremont died in New York City on July 13, 1890.

Primary Sources

(1) Carl Schurz served as an officer under General John Fremont during the American Civil War.

I joined General Fremont's army at Harrisonburg, Virginia, on June 10th, 1862, and reported myself for duty. At the beginning of the Civil War I heard him spoken of in Washington as one of the coming heroes of the conflict, in most extravagant terms. I remember especially Mr. Montgomery Blair, the Postmaster General in Mr. Lincoln's administration, insisting that Mr. Fremont must at once be given large and important military command, and predicting that the genius and energy of this remarkable man would soon astonish the country. Fremont was, indeed, promptly made a major general in the regular army, and entrusted with the command of the Department of the West, including the State of Illinois and all the country from the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains, with headquarters at St. Louis. But he sorely disappointed the sanguine expectations of his friends. He displayed no genius for organization. Fremont's headquarters seemed to have a marked attraction for rascally speculators of all sorts, and there was much scandal caused by the awarding of profitable contracts of persons of bad repute.

(2) In September, 1861, The New York Post commented on Abraham Lincoln's decision to modify John Fremont's order on slaves.

He (Lincoln) should not allow himself to be outstripped by his Cabinet, by Congress, by the Major Generals, and by the people. He is the head of the nation, to which it naturally looks for forward movements. But in the reluctance with which he signed the Confiscation act and in his late modification of Fremont's order, it almost appears as if he desired to go backward.

(3) (3) Horace Greeley, letter to President Abraham Lincoln (19th August, 1862)

I do not intrude to tell you - for you must know already - that a great proportion of those who triumphed in your election, and of all who desire the unqualified suppression of the rebellion now desolating our country, are solely disappointed and deeply pained by the policy you seem to be pursuing with regard to the slaves of the Rebels.

We think you are strangely and disastrously remiss in the discharge of your official and imperative duty with regard to the emancipating provisions of the new Confiscation Act. Those provisions were designed to fight slavery with liberty. They prescribe that men loyal to the Union, and willing to shed their blood in the behalf, shall no longer be held, with the nation's consent, in bondage to persistent, malignant traitors, who for twenty years have been plotting and for sixteen months have been fighting to divide and destroy our country. Why these traitors should be treated with tenderness by you, to the prejudice of the dearest rights of loyal men, we cannot conceive.

Fremont's Proclamation and Hunter's Order favoring emancipation were promptly annulled by you; while Halleck's Number Three, forbidding fugitives from slavery to Rebels to come within his lines - an order as unmilitary as inhuman, and which received the hearty approbation of every traitor in America - with scores of like tendency, have never provoked even your remonstrance.

(4) President Abraham Lincoln, letter to Horace Greeley (22nd August, 1862)

If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery. I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.

(5) Carl Schurz, Autobiography of Carl Schurz (1906)

Fremont won the favour of advanced and impatient anti-slavery men by the issue of an order looking to the emancipation of slaves within his department, which Mr. Lincoln found himself obliged to countermand, seeing in it an act of military usurpation, and a step especially inopportune at a time when the attitude of some of the Border States was still undetermined. But it gave Fremont a distinct political position and he was given another chance of service at the head of the Mountain Department. But in that sphere of action he was no more fortunate. He was operating in West Virginia, protecting railroads and putting down guerrillas, when the renowned rebel general, Stonewall Jackson, made his celebrated raid into the Shenandoah Valley, driving Banks before him to the Potomac, and apparently threatening to cross that river, and to make an attack upon Washington. This, however, Jackson did not attempt, but having succeeded in gathering up stores and in disturbing the plans of the Washington government, he turned back and rapidly retreated up the Shenandoah Valley. Fremont was ordered to intercept, and, with the co-operation of Banks' and McDowell's troops, to "bag" him. This required some forced marches, which Fremont failed to execute with the expected promptness, a failure which excited the dissatisfaction of the administration in a marked degree.

(6) John Fremont, speech at a meeting of Radical Republications (31st May, 1864)

Today we have in this country the abuses of a military dictation without its unity of action and vigor of execution.