How Abraham Lincoln Fired General John C. Fremont

One of the more extraordinary episodes in the American Civil War took place when President Abraham Lincoln decided to relieve Major General John C. Fremont of his command. The president knew that Fremont would do everything he could, short of outright mutiny, to avoid being replaced. So Lincoln took extraordinary precautions to insure that the order relieving Fremont would get through to him.

John Charles Fremont (1813-1890) was one of the most romantic and colorful characters of the Civil War era. In the decades before the war he had gained nationwide fame by leading exploratory expeditions to the American far west. Often accompanied by celebrated frontiersman Kit Carson, Fremont led five expeditions between 1842 and 1853, surveying and mapping routes through what is now the Midwest and on to Oregon and California. He is commonly given credit for naming what became a great Midwestern state. In his report to the Secretary of War on his expeditions, he listed the most prominent river in that area by its Native American name, “Nebraska.” The Secretary later applied that name to the entire territory.

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Fremont’s published accounts and maps were a crucial resource for settlers during their westward migration. His explorations seized such a hold on the popular imagination that he became known as the “Pathfinder.”

That fame, along with his credentials as a committed anti-slavery advocate, put him in position to become the first Republican candidate for President in 1856. Although he lost to Democrat James Buchanan, scoring a very respectable 114 electoral votes to Buchanan’s 174, Fremont retained an excellent reputation based on his pioneering exploits. When the Civil War broke out, President Lincoln appointed the Pathfinder a Major General and Commander of the Department of the West, based in St. Louis, Missouri.

But however great Fremont may have been as an explorer, it soon became clear that he was in over his head as a general. Under his leadership, the Department of the West was an administrative shambles and a hotbed of corruption, though Fremont himself was never personally implicated. He proved ineffective as a military leader, failing to rid Missouri of Confederate forces. Plus, he implemented public policies in his department that gained him powerful enemies both in Missouri and in Washington.

Perhaps worst of all, Fremont seemed stubbornly blind to the political realities with which President Lincoln had to contend.

An ardent abolitionist, Fremont issued a proclamation in August of 1861 freeing the slaves of all owners in Missouri who refused to swear allegiance to the Union. With little apparent regard for the national political implications of such an action, he issued his proclamation totally on his own, without even notifying the president of his intention.

Fearful that premature emancipation would drive slave-holding border states like Missouri and Kentucky into the embrace of the Confederacy, President Lincoln asked Fremont to quietly rescind his order. Fremont refused, thus requiring Lincoln to publicly overrule him. That, in turn, subjected the president to extensive criticism in the press and from the more radical members of his own party who were demanding immediate abolition.

Fremont’s intransigence in the face of a direct request from his Commander in Chief cost the president sorely needed political support. That, along with his demonstrated administrative and military inadequacy, was the last straw for Lincoln. By late October 1861, less than four months after appointing him, the president was ready to relieve Fremont of his command.

Fremont knew what was coming. Sensing the severity of Lincoln’s displeasure with him, he sent his wife to Washington to plead his case with the president. Jessie Benton Fremont was the daughter of Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, and could be expected to swing some weight in Washington. President Lincoln, however, was entirely unmoved by her imperious manner. Sensing that the president’s mind was already made up and would not change, she informed her husband that, in effect, his fate was sealed. Lincoln was going to relieve him of his command.

Fremont, however, had no intention of taking his fate lying down. Although he had been born in the South (in Savannah, Georgia), he was a loyal, and in many ways highly commendable American patriot. To actually defy a presidential order relieving him of command was never an option for him.

On the other hand, an order that was not received need not be obeyed. Fremont had accumulated at his headquarters aides and bodyguards numbering literally in the hundreds. In them he saw his opportunity to remain in command. He would simply lock down security at his headquarters so tightly that no officer from Washington would be able to get through to deliver any order replacing him.

But President Lincoln knew his man. Somehow he sensed what Fremont’s strategy would be. He had orders prepared relieving Fremont and appointing General David Hunter to succeed him in command, but didn’t send those orders through normal military channels. Instead, he forwarded them, accompanied by the following letter, to General Samuel R. Curtis in St. Louis, who would be charged with overseeing the transfer of power from Fremont to his replacement.

DEAR SIR: On receipt of this, with the accompanying enclosures, you will take safe, certain, and suitable measures to have the inclosure addressed to Major-General Fremont delivered to him with all reasonable despatch, subject to these conditions only, that if, when General Fremont shall be reached by the messenger,–yourself or any one sent by you,–he shall then have, in personal command, fought and won a battle, or shall then be in the immediate presence of the enemy in expectation of a battle, it is not to be delivered but held for further orders.

To me, this is one of the more remarkable letters in American presidential history. In it Lincoln lets General Curtis know, without explicitly saying so, that Fremont could be expected to try to shield himself from ever getting the order to relinquish his command. So, Curtis would need to take the extraordinary step of employing some “safe, certain, and suitable measures” to insure that the orders got through.

Delivery of Lincoln’s letter to Curtis, with the accompanying orders relieving General Fremont, was entrusted to Leonard Swett, an Illinois attorney who was a long-time personal friend of the president’s. When he arrived in St. Louis, Swett sat down with General Curtis to discuss their next step in getting Lincoln’s orders into the hands of Fremont and his designated replacement, General Hunter.

A complicating factor was the fact that news of the president’s intention to replace Fremont had been leaked to the press, and had appeared in New York newspapers. Thus it was probable that Fremont would be on the lookout for any messenger from Lincoln attempting to deliver such orders to him. If that was the case, it was unlikely that Swett himself would be allowed to come through Fremont’s lines. Instead, it was necessary to find someone not known to be connected to the president, but who could claim legitimate business that would take him to Fremont’s headquarters.

Swett and General Curtis decided to send two different messengers, in the hope that at least one of them would get through. They chose Captain Ezekiel Boyden, and another man whom Swett listed in a letter describing the incident as Captain McKinney (possibly Thomas J. McKenny).

Recognizing that any unknown officer might have difficulty getting through Fremont’s self-protective cordon, Captain McKinney disguised himself as a country farmer. After being questioned and denied entrance at least twice, he was finally admitted to the headquarters area and managed to deliver the order to Fremont relieving him of his command.

Irate at receiving the dreaded order, Fremont angrily slammed his fist on the table and demanded of McKinney, “Sir, how did you get through my lines?” McKinney, his mission successfully completed, cheerfully explained his ruse. His explanation didn’t seem to comfort the newly unemployed general.

But Fremont wasn’t ready to give up yet. The president’s instruction was that if Fremont was on the brink of a battle with the enemy, he was not to be relieved. So, Fremont called his division commanders together (with the exception of General Hunter, the man chosen to replace him), to get their troops arrayed for battle. But there was one slight problem. There were no Confederate soldiers anywhere near Fremont’s headquarters. Getting that battle started was going to take time.

As it turned out, there was no time. Captain Boyden had managed to get through to General Hunter with the order for him to take over Fremont’s command. Hunter arrived to do just that while Fremont was trying to find a way to bring on the battle he needed to retain command. With no battle in sight, he had no choice but to turn over the command to General Hunter.

This was not, however, the end of John Fremont’s military career. Mindful that the Pathfinder was still very popular with the abolitionist wing of the Republican party, President Lincoln appointed him in March 1862 as commander of the newly created Mountain Department in Western Virginia. But after he failed to trap and defeat a force under Confederate General Stonewall Jackson, the president reassigned Fremont and his army, moving them from being an independent command to being one of several corps in the Army of Virginia under General John Pope. Since Pope had been Fremont’s subordinate in Missouri, and Fremont still outranked him, Fremont refused the assignment. He was never offered another command.

Fremont’s final hurrah during the war might be seen as an attempt at revenge against Abraham Lincoln. In May 1864 Fremont was nominated by a radical faction of the Republican Party to replace Lincoln as the party’s candidate in the presidential election to be held that November. Like most things Fremont attempted during the war, this too failed. It became obvious that he could never gain enough support to supersede Lincoln, and he eventually withdrew his candidacy.

Once the war was over, Fremont was able to regain a measure of his old prominence. Having previously been elected governor of California in 1850, he served as territorial governor of Arizona from 1878 to 1881. He died in 1890, honored as a retired Major General of the United States Army, and as one of the great Americans of the 19th century.