Civil War General
Frémont had plenty of experience leading men through dangerous circumstances. During the Civil War, Frémont had to put that experience to use leading men in battle as a Major General for the United States Army. Through the help of some very influential connections, Frémont was given command over the newly created Department of the West in 1861. His time as a Major General was marked with tension and controversy and ended with Frémont’s resignation from the United States Army in 1862.
Department of the West
In July of 1861, President Abraham Lincoln made Frémont Major General over the Department of the West. The Department of the West was headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri. Leading the Department of the West was a difficult task. First, Frémont did not have as many men or as much equipment as he would like. Second, Frémont had to deal with both the regular Confederate army and the pro-Confederate Missourians who were also fighting against the U.S. forces.
On August 30, 1861, Frémont made a decision that would start a chain of events leading to his resigning from the military. On that day, Frémont made a proclamation to institute martial law and execute any Confederate guerrilla fighter captured behind Union lines. The proclamation also called for the confiscation of the property of Confederate sympathizers in Missouri and the freeing of all slaves owned by Confederate sympathizers in Missouri.
President Lincoln did not fully agree with the proclamation and tried to gently change Frémont’s mind and avoid firing him from his post. Frémont did not easily back down from his position. Lincoln sent Postmaster General Montgomery Blair and Army Quartermaster General M.C. Meigs to St. Louis to check-up on Frémont and explain the president’s position. Blair and Meigs were not happy with their meeting with Frémont and they, along with others, began to question Frémont’s ability to command. In November of 1861, President Lincoln took Frémont off command of the Department of the West.
From the Source
On September 2, 1861, President Lincoln sent Frémont a letter addressing his August 30 proclamation.
Washington, D. C, September 2, 1861.
My dear Sir: — Two points in your proclamation of August 30 give me some anxiety.
First. Should you shoot a man, according to the proclamation, the Confederates would very certainly shoot our best men in their hands in retaliation; and so, man for man, indefinitely. It is, therefore, my order that you allow no man to be shot under the proclamation without first having my approbation or consent.
Second. I think there is great danger that the closing paragraph, in relation to the confiscation of property and the liberating slaves of traitorous owners, will alarm our Southern Union friends and turn them against us; perhaps ruin our rather fair prospect for Kentucky. Allow me, therefore, to ask that you will, as of your own motion, modify that paragraph so as to conform to the first and fourth sections of the act of Congress entitled “An act to confiscate property used for insurrectionary purposes,’ approved August 6, 1861, and a copy of which act I herewith send you.
This letter is written in a spirit of caution, and not of censure. I send it by special messenger, in order that it may certainly and speedily reach you.
Yours very truly,
The writings of Abraham Lincoln Volume 5. Arthur Brooks Lapsley, editor. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1906.
- Does President Lincoln use an angry tone in this letter?
- What do you think Lincoln’s goals were in writing the letter?
- What two main issues does Lincoln have with the proclamation?
- What steps does Lincoln want Frémont to take after reading the letter?
- If you were Frémont, how would you respond to the letter?
In the spring of 1862, Frémont was formally cleared of any charges of misconduct and assigned to command the Mountain Department. Frémont did not have much success in his new command. Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson bested him at every turn. President Lincoln offered Frémont a lesser role as a division commander. Frémont refused to take the position because it was basically a demotion. Instead, Frémont resigned from the military.
Frémont ran for president again in 1864 as a Radical Republican. Although the August 30th proclamation cost him his command, it made him very popular with the Radical Republicans. Radical Republicans saw Lincoln’s approach to the Civil War as too weak and supported Frémont’s staunch anti-slavery sentiments. Frémont withdrew from the campaign on September 22, 1864, at the urging of Republicans who feared a split ticket would lead to the victory of Democratic candidate George B. McClellan.