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American Civil War: Major General John C. Frémont

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American Civil War: Major General John C. Frémont

Major General John C. Frémont, USA

Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

John C. Frémont - Early Life:

Born January 21, 1813, John C. Frémont was the illegitimate son of Charles Fremon (formerly Louis-René Frémont) and Anne B. Whiting. The daughter of a socially prominent Virginia family, Whiting began an affair with Fremon while she was married to Major John Pryor. Leaving her husband, Whiting and Fremon ultimately settled in Savannah. Though Pryor sought a divorce, it was not granted by the Virginia House of Delegates. As a result, Whiting and Fremon were never able to marry. Raised in Savannah, their son pursued a classical education and began attending the College of Charleston in the late 1820s.

John C. Frémont - Going West:

In 1835, he received an appointment to serve as a teacher of mathematics aboard USS Natchez. Remaining on board for two years, he left to pursue a career in civil engineering. Appointed a second lieutenant in the US Army's Corps of Topographical Engineers, he began taking part in surveying expeditions in 1838. Working with Joseph Nicollet, he aided in mapping the lands between the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. Having gained experience, he was tasked with charting the Des Moines River in 1841. That same year, Frémont married Jessie Benton, the daughter of powerful Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton.

The following year, Frémont was ordered to prepare an expedition to South Pass (in present-day Wyoming). In planning the expedition, he met noted frontiersman Kit Carson and contracted him to guide the party. This marked the first of several collaborations between the two men. The expedition to South Pass proved a success and over the next four years Frémont and Carson explored the Sierra Nevadas and other lands along the Oregon Trail. Earning some fame for his exploits in the west, Frémont was given the nickname The Pathfinder.

John C. Frémont - Mexican-American War:

In June 1845, Frémont and Carson departed St. Louis, MO with 55 men for an expedition up the Arkansas River. Rather than follow the expedition's stated goals, Frémont diverted the group and marched directly to California. Arriving in the Sacramento Valley, he worked to agitate American settlers against the Mexican government. When this nearly led to a clash with Mexican troops under General José Castro, he withdrew north to Klamath Lake in Oregon. Alerted to the outbreak of the Mexican-American War, he moved south and worked with American settlers to form the California Battalion (US Mounted Rifles).

Serving as its commander, with the rank of lieutenant colonel, Frémont worked with Commodore Robert Stockton, commander of the US Pacific Squadron, to wrest the coastal towns of California away from the Mexicans. During the campaign, his men captured Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. On January 13, 1847, Frémont concluded the Treaty of Cahuenga with Governor Andres Pico which terminated the fighting in California. Three days later, Stockton appointed him the military governor of California. His rule proved short-lived as the recently arrived Brigadier General Stephen W. Kearny asserted that the post was rightly his.

John C. Frémont - Entering Politics:

Initially refusing to yield the governorship, Frémont was court-martialed by Kearny and convicted of mutiny and disobedience. Though quickly pardoned by President James K. Polk, Frémont resigned his commission and settled in California at Rancho Las Mariposas. In 1848-1849, he conducted a failed expedition to scout a route for a railroad from St. Louis to San Francisco along the 38th Parallel. Returning to California, he was appointed one of the state's first US senators in 1850. Serving for a year, he soon became involved with the newly-formed Republican Party.

An opponent to the expansion of slavery, Frémont became prominent within the party and was nominated as its first presidential candidate in 1856. Running against Democrat James Buchanan and American Party candidate Millard Fillmore, Frémont campaigned against the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the growth of slavery. Though defeated by Buchanan, he finished second and showed that the party could achieve an electoral victory in 1860 with the support of two more states. Returning to private life, he was in Europe when the Civil War began in April 1861.

John C. Frémont - The Civil War:

Eager to aid the Union, he purchased a large amount of arms before returning to the United States. In May 1861, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Frémont a major general. Though largely done for political reasons, Frémont was soon dispatched to St. Louis to command the Department of the West. Arriving in St. Louis, he began fortifying the city and quickly moved to bring Missouri into the Union camp. While his forces campaigned in the state with mixed results, he remained in St. Louis. Following a defeat at Wilson's Creek in August, he declared martial law in the state.

Acting without authorization, he began confiscating property belonging to secessionists as well as issued an order emancipating slaves. Stunned by Frémont's actions and concerned they would hand Missouri to the South, Lincoln immediately directed him to revoke his orders. Refusing, he dispatched his wife to Washington, DC to argue his case. Ignoring her arguments, Lincoln relieved Frémont on November 2, 1861. Though the War Department issued a report detailing Frémont's failings as a commander, Lincoln was politically pressured into giving him another command.

As a result, Frémont was appointed to lead the Mountain Department, which comprised parts of Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky, in March 1862. In this role, he conducted operations against Major General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley. Through the late spring of 1862, Frémont's men were beaten at McDowell (May 8) and he was personally defeated at Cross Keys (June 8). In late June, Frémont's command was slated to join Major General John Pope's newly-formed Army of Virginia. As he was senior to Pope, Frémont refused this assignment and returned to his home in New York to await another command. None was forthcoming.

John C. Frémont - 1864 Election & Later Life

Still noteworthy within the Republican Party, Frémont was approached in 1864 by hard-line Radical Republicans who disagreed with Lincoln's lenient positions on postwar reconstruction of the South. Nominated for president by this group, his candidacy threatened to split the party. In September 1864, Frémont abandoned his bid after negotiating the removal of Postmaster General Montgomery Blair. Following the war, he purchased the Pacific Railroad from the state of Missouri. Reorganizing it as the Southwest Pacific Railroad in August 1866, he lost it the following year when he was unable to make payments on the purchase debt.

Having lost most of his fortune, Frémont returned to public service in 1878 when he was appointed governor of the Arizona Territory. Holding his position until 1881, he was largely dependent on income from his wife's writing career. Retiring to Staten Island, NY, he died in New York City on July 13, 1890.

Selected Sources

  • Civil War: John C. Fremont
  • California Military Museum: John C. Fremont
  • Biographical Dictionary of the US Congress: John C. Fremont

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