Understanding John Fremont

The most crucial moment in John C. Frémont's life came when he found himself one of the top three Union Regular Army major-generals, ranked only by George B. McClellan. The credentials that got him there, had nothing to do with his professional reputation, or established skill, as a Regular Army officer, and everything to do with his political status among the Radicals of the Republican Party. Nonetheless, he was at the top of the list of generals appointed by Lincoln to the rank of major-general in the Regular Army.


Why, then, didn't Lincoln have Frémont in command of the armed forces that he withheld from McClellan, in the spring and summer of 1862?


From the point of view of West Point principles of military science, Lincoln's top two generals should have been in command of all the Union troops in the field in Virginia and should have been cooperating with each other in the advance and siege of Richmond.  Why weren’t they doing this? Had they done so, can anyone, knowledgeable about the details of the war, think the probability would not have been greatly in favor of the Union seizing the Confederate Capital, in 1862?


Despite the obvious importance of understanding why this did not happen, the historians have ignored the issue completely, those who have written biographies of Frémont ignore the details of why Lincoln appointed Frémont to take the place of William Rosecrans, in the command of the "Mountain Department," and to extend the scope of the department's mission to include the capture of Knoxville, Tennessee; instead of putting him in command of the forces in front of Washington. Indeed, it seems the historians go out of their way to distract us from this issue, by harping on Frémont's acknowledged fame as the "Pathfinder," and his brief army days in California, during the War with Mexico.


Was the problem for Lincoln, political? Did Lincoln actually fear Frémont as a political competitor for the White House? Did he shrink from giving Frémont such a crucial command position, because he thought Frémont was professionally incompetent to perform the task of commanding troops in an effort to capture Richmond? If Lincoln thought this, why was it that Frémont found his name on the Union list of first-appointed "top" generals in the first place? Apparently, the historians―several generations of them—have not taken the trouble to investigate these questions and report the evidence pointing to the most probable answer.


It makes sense why Frémont was placed in command of the "Department of the West," the region including Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, and western Kentucky. Frémont was married to the daughter of Thomas Hart Benton, who had represented Missouri in the Senate for thirty years. (He died in 1858) Frémont, at this time, was a close personal friend of Francis P. Blair, Jr., a very influential Missouri Democrat, whose father and brothers were key supporters of Lincoln. The evidence shows that Frémont was in France when the war broke out and did not know he was appointed major-general until some weeks after the appointment was made. Frémont returned to the United States on June 28, 1861, arrived in Washington to meet Lincoln on July 1, and was appointed commander of the Department of the West on July 6, two days after the Battle of Bull Run.


It also makes sense why Lincoln removed him from this command about three months after he assumed it. Frémont, as he had showed time and again in his life, was a morally ambiguous man, who palled around with the sort of men who steal easily from the public weal. He quickly fell out of favor with Frank Blair, and his publication of an "Emancipation Proclamation," along with his refusal to modify its terms at Lincoln's insistence, explains the removal. All that is easy.


But how could it be that, within just a few months of his dismissal from the command of the Department of the West, Frémont is hired by Lincoln again, Lincoln hiring him to supposedly mount what can plainly be seen by everyone to be an impossible mission: march an army of about 30,000 men through the Alleghenies 400 miles to Knoxville. Just ridiculous; especially, when those 30,000 men could have been used, in conjunction with another 25,000 men Lincoln was hoarding, to move on Richmond from the north while McClellan moved against it from the east.


The Comte de Paris, in his tome, History of the Civil War in America, described the situation this way:


The President, who, six months before, had suddenly taken away the command of the great department of the Missouri from General Fremont, had just created a new one in West Virginia expressly for him, called the `Mountain Department.' This department had been so curiously marked out that Fremont was unable to find an enemy within its prescribed limits, and yet the President could not withstand the representations of those who were urging him to dismember the army of the Potomac for the purpose of adding unnecessary strength to this new army. Blenker's strong division, composed exclusively of German soldiers, was, for no other reason, taken away from General McClellan on the eve of his departure for Fort Monroe, and transferred to Fremont. General Banks, with his twenty-five thousand men of the Fifth coprs, was kept in the valley of Virginia by the fears which Jackson and his eight thousand soldiers created in Washington, and the authorities only waited for the departure of McClellan to convert this corps into another independent army. And yet neither Fremont's troops, with no enemy in front of them, nor Blenker's ten thousand men, sent in search of the former, nor Banks's twenty-five thousand were considered by the President as forming part of the defenders of Washington. He regarded them as separate armies, destined to wage war on their own account and desired to provide for the protection of the capital [by taking McDowell's corps away from McClellan].


For Allan Nevins, the author of Frémont: Pathfinder of the West, a 700 page book, the issue of Frémont's second departure from command is addressed in one convoluted and misleading sentence:


[John] Pope believed that he should be the major-general of the dominating Illinois army. He was perhaps just as lukewarm in Frémont's service as Fitz-John Porter later proved to be in John Pope's. He at any rate escaped the court-martial that befell Porter; but Frémont felt so strongly that he declined to serve under Pope in the Virginia theater.


Mr. Nevins has no clue what he is writing about. John Pope was very effective as a corps commander in Frémont's department, having successes in the field and getting promoted to bigger and bigger work. Pope never participated in a battle with Frémont. Porter participated in a battle with Pope and Pope believed the loss of the battle was Porter's fault; Porter, according to Pope's view, having disobeyed orders at decisive moments in the battle. Nor is Nevins correct in his assumption that Frémont had feelings against Pope based on his past association with him. Frémont refused to serve under Pope, because he held senior rank to Pope.


The historian, Cardinal Goodwin, in his John Charles Frémont: an explanation of his career, writes 260 pages of text, but devotes only a sentence or two to the issue of Frémont's resurrection to army command in March 1862, just as McClellan is heading out to do battle on the Yorktown Peninsula.


But Fortune did not desert Frémont. Before a partial committee made up from members of both Houses of Congress, using evidence which it admitted was incomplete, Frémont won a verdict from a majority approving his administration in the West, and his influential friends kept up a ceaseless agitation and clamor for his reassignment to action in the field. If Lincoln ever had any confidence in the General he had lost it, but his tolerance and forbearance prompted him to yield, and toward the end of March, 1862, while the House Committee (the full committee) was still instigating charges against Army officials, Frémont replaced General Rosecrans in command of a recently created Mountain Department in West Virginia.


It was not an important command, but it served to allay the most virulent criticisms for a while. However, it was not in the cards for Frémont to succeed as a commander of armies. He held the new appointment for a few months, until convinced that he did not have the full confidence of his superior, and then he withdrew sullenly to New York, there to become the center of a disgruntled faction.


Just amazing the gibberish of these people. What are the names of these "influential friends" and where is the physical evidence of this "ceaseless agitation and clamor?" Is it evidenced in the newspapers, letters, speeches, diaries, the historians claim they have read? And what silliness to write that Lincoln was "prompted to yield" by "his tolerance and forbearance?" What does Goodwin mean by Lincoln's "tolerance" and "forbearance?" How did Lincoln's "tolerance and forbearance" induce him to "yield" to Frémont's "influential friends? Just gibberish. And this is after Lincoln had "lost confidence" in Frémont? Why would a President, who has lost confidence in his general, return that general to a command of importance, at a critical moment in the development of an offensive that might easily lead to the capture of Richmond?


Why exactly was it that Lincoln was prompted to yield? What was the reason? Obviously the answer is not that Lincoln thought Frémont might actually be a decent general, one capable of cooperating with another decent general to get the job done. So why, at this critical moment, give Frémont command of any troops? Just does not make sense, unless there is something laying underneath that no one seems willing to find. The answer certainly does not lie in the concept of pressure being applied by members of Congress at this time. We have reviewed all the important bills that passed through Congress in the second session of the Thirty-Seventh Congress, none of them, except the funding bill, Lincoln could have cared about, and the funding bill the Radicals could hardly have filibustered given the circumstances. Who could have brought to bear, then, against Lincoln pressure to force him to do what obviously he had no good reason to do?


William Rosecrans had been a subordinate, under McClellan's command, when the latter commanded the "Department of the Ohio," which included West Virginia. After McClellan went to Washington, the Department of the Ohio was divided in two: one half, retained the name, Department of Ohio, and included east Tennessee, and came under the command of a general named Mitchel; the part of the old department that was West Virginia, became the Department of West Virginia and it went to Rosecrans. Rosecrans held command of this department from about July 4, 1861, to March 1862. During that time, his forces penetrated into the west Virginia counties and fought successfully several small scale encounters with forces ostensibly under the command of General Lee. Then, out of the blue, on March 11, he was superceded in command by Lincoln's appointment of Frémont to command the "Mountain Department," which was to include what had been Rosecrans' command. Later, when Lincoln called Pope to Washington, Rosecrans went west to take his place as commander of the Army of the Mississippi. Here is Rosecrans' story, as told by William M. Lamers, in The Edge of Glory: A Biography of William S. Rosecrans.


Meanwhile, unknown to Rosecrans, his affairs were becoming entangled with those of Major John C. Frémont, the "Pathfinder." Frémont's record in the post of commander of the Department of the West was undistinguished. He had won no victories. . . , became involved in procurement scandals etc. The Radicals proclaimed him a martyr, and determined to restore him to command. Lincoln yielded to their pressures. Not wishing to remove McClellan, yet needing a post for Frémont, he created the Mountain Department, which included West Virginia, and on March 11, 1862 put Frémont in charge.


So the Radicals "pressured" Lincoln into giving Frémont a command, with the mission of marching as far away from the vicinity of Richmond as possible? The "Radicals" were about ten to fifteen senators and a percentage of the members of the House of Representatives. It escape intelligence altogether, to understand what possible strength of pressure could have been brought to bear by these men against Lincoln, sufficient to compel Lincoln to appoint Frémont to command. Something must have gone on here that does not meet the eye.


At the same time, the Radicals are pushing Fremont on Lincoln, the Democrats, especially the Blair family, Montgomery Blair, Lincoln's Postmaster General included, were publicly at war with Frémont. Frank Blair, in the House, made fiery speeches castigating Frémont at this time. So Lincoln would have gotten about as much pressure to ignore Frémont as to favor him.


During this same time―March 1862—Lincoln is pulling troops away from McClellan and giving some of them to Frémont. It really seems as if Lincoln did not want to succeed in the capture of Richmond, or was it that he knew he did not have the generals to get the job done and was simply keeping some eggs out of the basket?


Apparently, in the past, at least some of the historians have been married to the conspiracy theory. For example, T. Harry Williams wrote,


"Plots and counterplots boiled beneath the troubled surface. Stanton hatched innumerable schemes to destroy his enemies. McClellan twisted and turned as the Radical struck (again!). And behind all was the implacable Committee [On The Conduct Of The War]. The Radicals wanted a quick victory, but not at the expense of abolition; a great victory but not one that would make McClellan a candidate."


The Radicals wanted a quick victory, but not at the expense of abolition? What does Williams mean? A quick victory? Does Williams mean victory in Virginia, victory over the Confederacy? The fall of Richmond would have led eventually to the Confederacy abandoning Virginia to Union control, but then the Union armies would still have to penetrate into the Confederate heartland which would not have happened "quickly." How could a "quick victory," whatever Williams expects his readers to think that means, have been at the "expense of abolition?" These historians are writing pure gibberish. How pathetic is this?


And the great political scientist, John W. Burgess, wrote this:


"Whether a crushing victory over the Confederates, ending at once the rebellion, before slavery was destroyed, was wanted by all those who composed the Washington government may well be suspected."


More silliness! Even if Richmond had fallen to Lincoln in the summer of 1862, it certainly would not have ended at once the rebellion. By the close of the second session of the Thirty-Seventy Congress, as we have seen, the Union Government's policy had clearly changed from restoring "the Union as it was," to conquering the seceded States and taking control of their domestic policies. By the close of that session, it was becoming quite clear to everyone that the war would destroy slavery, however long it were to continue.


Oh but for the likes of a David Halberstam to drill into this mess the historians have made and get it straightened out. The only rational explanation for Lincoln's conduct, is that Frémont was popular, and must have been perceived by Lincoln as a threat to his office. Assuming these factors induced Lincoln to give Frémont a military command, the nature of the command selected raises another stack of questions: because of Frémont's obvious incompetence, the command could not be one that might actually be the key to conquering Virginia.


Lincoln did not trust McClellan to have charge of all Union troops in Virginia, and he did not trust Frémont to command in tandem with McClellan.


 Lincoln must have thought he had no general available to him, with the necessary level of skill and ability, to use to push the forces he was holding back from McClellan against Richmond. McClellan was all he had, and so he hedged.


In the process, harking back to Frémont's glory days as the Pathfinder, Lincoln created the "Mountain Department" and sent Frémont on an illusionary mission to nowhere, conveniently stashing on the perimeter of Virginia territory thirty thousand men. It appears that most of these men were Germans, many of whom spoke no English. Whether this fact has something to do with Lincoln's thinking here, who knows?


Joe Ryan


Joe Ryan

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@ AmericanCivilWar.com

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About the author:
Joe Ryan is a Los Angeles trial lawyer who has traveled the route of the Army of Northern Virginia, from Richmond to Gettysburg, several times.

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