John C. Frémont was a famous American explorer, U.S. Senator from California, and controversial political general who served in both theaters of the American Civil War.
John Charles Frémont was born in Savannah, Georgia, on January 21, 1813. He was the first of three children of Charles Fremon and Anne Beverly Whiting.
Fremon was a native of France who immigrated to the United States after the French Revolution. In 1811, Major John Pryor hired Fremon to teach his young wife to speak French. The tutor and student soon became involved romantically. When Pryor discovered the illicit affair, his wife and Fremon hurriedly left town, settling first in Norfolk, Virginia and then in Savannah, where Fremon continued to teach.
In 1818, Fremon died leaving Mrs. Pryor to care for their three illegitimate children. Seeking a means to provide for her family, Mrs. Pryor moved to Charleston, South Carolina, where her children were educated. Benefiting from the support of a local lawyer for whom he clerked, John Frémont entered Charleston College in May 1829. He excelled in mathematics but did not earn a diploma. College officials him for poor attendance just months before graduation in 1831.
Prior to his expulsion, Frémont met Joel Poinsett who later served as Secretary of War in President Martin Van Buren’s administration. In 1833, Poinsett used his influence to help Frémont obtain an assignment as a mathematics instructor aboard the United States sloop-of-war Natchez for a two-year cruise. Upon Frémont’s return, Poinsett helped his protégé get a position as a government surveyor. By July 1838, Frémont parlayed that assignment into a commission as a second lieutenant with the Corps of Topographical Engineers. During the next two years, he took part in several expeditions mapping in or near the Mississippi and Missouri River Valleys. It was during that time that Frémont began using the French spelling of his family name, adding the accent mark and the letter “t” on the end.
Following a survey of the Upper Mississippi Valley, Frémont returned to Washington, D.C., where he met Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton and his fifteen-year-old daughter, Jessie Ann. Frémont and Jessie Ann became romantically involved and eloped on October 19, 1841, over the objections of Senator Benton. Their union lasted forty-nine years and produced nine children.
By 1842, Frémont and his young wife had reconciled with Senator Benton. A champion of Manifest Destiny, Senator Benton secured an assignment for his son-in-law to lead an exploratory expedition into the American West in 1842. Frémont went on to lead five expeditions between 1842 and 1853, earning him the nickname “Pathfinder.” Published accounts of his adventures, probably written by his wife, made Frémont one of the more famous men in America.
During his third expedition, which left St. Louis, Missouri in May 1845, Frémont became embroiled in the Bear Flag Revolt by American settlers against Mexican authorities in California. Soon after the Mexican-American War (April 25, 1846–February 2, 1848) began, Frémont received a promotion to the rank of lieutenant colonel on May 27, 1846. On July 23, 1846, officials appointed him as a major of California volunteers and he commanded a battalion that played a major role in the overthrow of Mexican rule in California.
During the revolt, a rift over American control of California developed between Commodore Robert F. Stockton of the United States Navy and Brigadier General Stephen W. Kearny, of the U.S. Army. Frémont, by then a lieutenant colonel, sided with Stockton, who appointed Frémont as military governor of California after the fighting with Mexico ended. Kearny eventually won the power struggle and demanded that Frémont vacate his post. Frémont initially refused but eventually relented.
When the pair later returned east, Kearny had Frémont arrested at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Accused of mutiny and other less serious offenses, Frémont appeared before a court-martial in Washington, DC. On February 17, 1848, the panel found Frémont not guilty of treason, but guilty of insubordination. Two days later, President James K. Polk overturned the court’s decision to dismiss Frémont from the service. Polk proclaimed that “Lieutenant-colonel Frémont will accordingly be released from arrest, will resume his sword, and report for duty.” Deeply offended by the court’s sentence, however, Frémont resigned from the army.
After leaving the army, Frémont led two more privately-funded expeditions into the West. Ten months prior to his departure on the fourth trip, James W. Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California, on January 24, 1848. During Frémont’s third expedition, he had purchased seventy square miles of land in Mariposa County, east of San Francisco. The land turned out to be awash with gold, making Frémont a wealthy man.
Frémont established residence in Monterey. When Congress admitted California to the Union on September 9, 1850, voters elected Frémont as one of the new state’s first two United States senators. Frémont served briefly in the 31st Congress from September 10, 1850, until his term expired on March 3, 1851. As a Free Soil Democrat, lost his bid for reelection because of his strong anti-slavery views.
1856 Presidential Candidate
When Free Soilers and disenchanted Whig Party members united to form the Republican Party during the early 1850s, they turned to the nationally popular Frémont as their presidential candidate in the election of 1856. Frémont ran on a platform that opposed enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act and the extension of slavery into the territories. Although he lost the election to Democratic candidate James Buchanan, Frémont’s strong showing confirmed the viability of the Republican Party, paving the way for Abraham Lincoln’s election four years later.
Following his defeat, Frémont returned to private life and focused his attention on his California enterprises. Soon after the American Civil War began, President Lincoln offered Frémont a commission as a major general in the Union Army on May 14, 1861. Although Frémont had no experience commanding a large force, Lincoln found the Pathfinder’s popularity and political influence compelling. Like the other political generals whom the president commissioned at the beginning of the war, Frémont proved to be less than successful on the battlefield.
Western Department Commander
On July 3, 1861, the United States War Department issued General Orders No. 40, assigning Frémont to command the newly created Western Department, which comprised the State of Illinois, the Territory of New Mexico, and most of the land between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. Operating out of St. Louis, Frémont soon proved to be an embarrassment to the Lincoln administration.
On August 10, 1861, the combined Confederate forces of Generals Sterling Price and Ben McCulloch defeated Brigadier-General Nathaniel Lyon’s Army of the West at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. The Confederate victory buoyed secessionist sympathies in Missouri and emboldened the Rebels to launch an offensive to regain control of northern Missouri. On August 30, Frémont countered by issuing a proclamation declaring martial law in Missouri, without prior authorization from President Lincoln. An ardent abolitionist, Frémont went even further, declaring:
The property, real and personal, of all persons in the State of Missouri who shall take up arms against the United States, and who shall be directly proven to have taken an active part with their enemies in the field, is declared to be confiscated to the public use; and their slaves, if any they have, are hereby declared free.
Frémont’s emancipation proclamation placed President Lincoln in a political pickle. Although abolitionists avidly endorsed it in the North, it imperiled the neutrality of the Border States. Hoping to avert controversy, on September 2, 1861, Lincoln wrote to Frémont quietly asking him to rescind the order. Emboldened by the support of Northern abolitionists, Frémont refused. He replied to the President’s request:
If your better judgment decides that I was wrong in the article respecting the liberation of slaves, I have to ask that you will openly direct me to make the correction. The implied censure will be received as a soldier always should receive the reprimand of his chief. If I were to retract on my own accord it would imply that I myself thought it wrong, and that I had acted without the reflection which the gravity of the point demanded. But I did not. I acted with full deliberation, and the certain conviction that it was a measure right and necessary, and I still think so.
Considering Lincoln’s concern about maintaining support in the Border States, Frémont left the president with no alternative. On September 11, 1861, Lincoln ordered Frémont to change his order to “conform to, and not to transcend, the provisions on the same subject contained in the act of Congress entitled ‘An Act to confiscate property used for insurrectionary purposes'” (Confiscation Act of 1861).
Relieved of Departmental Command
Frémont’s passive resistance did not go unanswered. In September, Lincoln dispatched General Montgomery Meigs and Postmaster General Montgomery Blair to Missouri to investigate the state of military affairs in Missouri. After only a few days in the state, the pair recommended Frémont’s dismissal. Lincoln reacted quickly. On October 24, 1861, the President directed General Winfield Scott to issue orders relieving Frémont of command of the Western Department (General Orders No. 18, Headquarters of the Army). When Major General David Hunter replaced Frémont as departmental commander on November 2, army officials ordered the Pathfinder to report to general headquarters to await further instructions.
Mountain Department Commander
While Frémont languished without a command for the next five months, his supporters in the Radical wing of the Republican Party were successfully lobbying on his behalf. On March 11, 1862, President Lincoln issued an executive order (President’s Special War Order No. 3), stating, “That the country west of the Department of the Potomac and east of the Department of the Mississippi be a military department, to be called the Mountain Department, and that the same be commanded by Major-General Frémont.”
Frémont assumed command on March 29, 1862, but his tenure was short-lived. After being out-generaled by Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson during Jackson’s 1862 Shenandoah Valley Campaign, Frémont fell victim to President Lincoln’s dissatisfaction once again. On June 26, 1862, Lincoln issued a presidential proclamation that merged the forces commanded by Major Generals Frémont, Nathaniel Banks, and Irvin McDowell, and those under Brigadier-General Samuel D. Sturgis, to form the Army of Virginia. The president placed Major General John Pope in charge of the new army. Stung by being demoted to a corps commander serving under an officer he outranked, Frémont declined his new assignment. Instead, he traveled to New York to await another command that never came.
1864 Presidential Candidate
Two years later, a radical faction of the Republican Party displayed their dissatisfaction with President Lincoln’s leadership by meeting in Cleveland, Ohio and nominating Frémont as their presidential candidate on May 31, 1864. On June 4, 1864, Frémont resigned from the army to pursue his election. By September it was clear that Frémont did not have enough support to win, so he withdrew from the race and retired from public life to an estate he purchased in the Hudson River Valley in New York.
Territorial Governor of Arizona
In 1866, Frémont invested heavily in a railroad venture that did not go well. By 1875, poor investments forced him to sell his home. After losing his fortune, Frémont returned to public life when President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed him as territorial governor of Arizona effective June 12, 1878. Frémont proved to be an ineffective governor who Arizona residents criticized for his frequent absences from the territory. Faced with mounting criticism, he resigned his office effective October 11, 1881.
For nearly the next decade, Frémont and his wife lived on royalties earned from Mrs. Frémont’s literary works. On April 28, 1890, Congress enacted a bill appointing Frémont as a retired major general in the United States Army, thus making him eligible for a pension. A few months later, Frémont suffered an attack of peritonitis and died at his home in New York on July 13, 1890. The following day, President Benjamin Harrison issued an executive order for the national flag to be flown at half-mast in Frémont’s honor. Frémont’s remains were temporarily interred at Trinity Church Cemetery in Manhattan, New York. One year later, they were moved to their present location at Rockland Cemetery, Sparkill, New York.