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Lincoln and Fremont

In a community like that of the United States, where free press and free, speech prevail, where every native-born boy is a possible President, some undesirable results are inevitable. The successful men become egotistic, and it is a common, well-nigh universal, practise for all sorts and conditions of men to speak harshly of the authorities. In the loafers on the street corners, in the illiterate that use the country store as their club, in the very halls of congress, are heard the most unsparing criticisms and denunciations of the administration. These unwarranted comments fell thick and fast on Lincoln, because he was at the post of responsibility in a critical period, a time of general unrest. Self-appointed committees of business men, politicians, clergymen, editors, and what not, were continually telling him what to do and how to do it. Not a few of even the generals caught the infection.

It is not possible nor desirable to tell of Lincoln’s relations with many of the eminent men with whom he dealt. But a few will be selected –Fremont, McClellan, Greeley, and Grant–in order to explain some of the difficulties which were continually rising up before him, and by showing how he dealt with them to illustrate certain phases of his character. This chapter will treat of Fremont.

At the outbreak of the war he was the most conspicuous military man in the North. He had earned the gratitude of the country for distinguished services in California, and he was deservedly popular among the republicans for his leadership of the party in 1856. He was at the best period of life, being forty-eight years of age. His abilities were marked, and he possessed in an unusual degree the soldierly quality of inspiring enthusiasm. If he could turn all his powers into the channel of military efficiency, he would be the man of the age. He had the public confidence, and he had such an opportunity as comes to few men.

At the opening of the war he was in Paris and was at once summoned home. He arrived in this country about the first of July and was by the President appointed Major-General in the regular army. On the 3d of July he was assigned to the Western department with headquarters at St. Louis. This department included the state of Illinois and extended as far west as the Rocky Mountains.

At that time the condition of affairs in Missouri was distressful and extremely threatening. The state of Missouri covers a very large territory, 69,415 square miles, and it was imperfectly provided with railroads and other means of communication. Private bands of marauders and plunderers were numerous and did a great amount of damage among law-abiding citizens. There were also several insurgent armies of no mean dimensions threatening the state from the southwest. There were good soldiers and officers there in defense of the Union, but they were untried, insufficiently armed and accoutered, unprovided with means of transportation, and, above all, they were in need of a commanding general of sagacity, daring, and personal resources. Fremont seemed to be just the man for the important post at that critical hour.

Generals Lyon, Hunter, and others, were sore pressed in Missouri. They needed the presence of their commander and they needed him at once. Fremont was ordered to proceed to his post immediately. This order he did not obey. He could never brook authority, and he was not in the habit of rendering good reasons for his acts of disobedience. Though he was aware that the need of his presence was urgent, he dallied about Washington a long time and then proceeded west with leisure, arriving in St. Louis nearly three weeks later than he should have done. These three weeks were under the circumstances time enough for an incalculable amount of damage, enough to make all the difference between success and failure. It was long enough to insure the death (on August 10th) of that brave soldier, General Lyon, and long enough to account for many other disasters.

One of the most annoying things with which the subordinate generals had to contend, was that about this time the term of service of the men who had enlisted for three months was beginning to expire. Many of these reenlisted, and many did not. It was not possible to plan an expedition of any sort when it was probable that a large portion of the command would be out of service before it was completed. There was need of a master hand at organizing and inspiring loyalty.

Though Fremont had so unaccountably delayed, yet when he came he was received with confidence and enthusiasm. Lincoln gave to him, as he did to all his generals, very nearly a carte blanche. His instructions were general, and the commander was left to work out the details in his own way. All that he required was that something should be done successfully in the prosecution of the war. The country was not a judge of military plans; it was a judge of military success and failure. They expected, and they had a right to expect, that Fremont should do something more than keep up a dress parade. Lincoln laid on him this responsibility in perfect confidence.

The first thing Fremont accomplished in Missouri was to quarrel with his best friends, the Blair family. This is important chiefly as a thermometer,–it indicated his inability to hold the confidence of intelligent and influential men after he had it. About this time Lincoln wrote to General Hunter a personal letter which showed well how things were likely to go:–

“My dear Sir: General Fremont needs assistance which it is difficult to give him. He is losing the confidence of men near him, whose support any man in his position must have to be successful. His cardinal mistake is that he isolates himself and allows no one to see him; and by which he does not know what is going on in the very matter he is dealing with. He needs to have by his side a man of large experience. Will you not, for me, take that place?”

It was Louis XV. who exclaimed, “L’etat? C’est moi!” “The state? I’m the state!” The next move of Fremont can be compared only with that spirit of the French emperor. It was no less than a proclamation of emancipation. This was a civic act, while Fremont was an officer of military, not civil, authority. The act was unauthorized, the President was not even consulted. Even had it been a wise move, Fremont would have been without justification because it was entirely outside of his prerogatives. Even had he been the wisest man, he was not an autocrat and could not have thus transcended his powers.

But this act was calculated to do much mischief. The duty of the hour was to save the Union. Fremont’s part in that duty was to drive the rebels out of Missouri. Missouri was a slave state. It had not seceded, and it was important that it should not do so. The same was true of Kentucky and Maryland. It is easy to see, upon reading Fremont’s proclamation, that it is the work not of a soldier, but of a politician, and a bungling politician at that.

When this came to the knowledge of the President he took prompt measures to counteract it in a way that would accomplish the greatest good with the least harm. He wrote to the general:

“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.”

But Fremont was willing to override both President and congress, and declined to make the necessary modifications. This placed him, with such influence as he had, in direct antagonism to the administration. That which ought to have been done by Fremont had to be done by Lincoln, upon whom was thrown the onus of whatever was objectionable in the matter. It did give him trouble. It alienated many of the extreme abolitionists, including even his old neighbor and friend, Oscar H. Browning. They seemed to think that Lincoln was now championing slavery. His enemies needed no alienation, but they made adroit use of this to stir up and increase discontent.

So matters grew no better with Fremont, but much worse for three months. The words of Nicolay and Hay are none too strong: “He had frittered away his opportunity for usefulness and fame; such an opportunity, indeed, as rarely comes.”

On October 21st, the President sent by special messenger the following letter to General Curtis at St. Louis:

“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.”

The inclosure mentioned was an order relieving General Fremont and placing Hunter temporarily in command. It is plain that the President expected that there would be difficulties, in the way of delivering the order,–that Fremont himself might prevent its delivery. General Curtis, who undertook its delivery, evidently expected the same thing, for he employed three different messengers who took three separate methods of trying to reach Fremont. The one who succeeded in delivering the order did so only because of his successful disguise, and when it was accomplished Fremont’s words and manner showed that he had expected to head off any such order. This incident reveals the peril which would have fallen to American institutions had he been more successful in his aspirations to the presidency.

Fremont had one more chance. He was placed in command of a corps in Virginia. There he disobeyed orders in a most atrocious manner, and by so doing permitted Jackson and his army to escape. He was superseded by Pope, but declining to serve under a junior officer, resigned. And that was the end of Fremont as a public man. The fact that he had ceased to be a force in American life was emphasized in 1864. The extreme abolitionists nominated him as candidate for the presidency in opposition to Lincoln. But his following was so slight that he withdrew from the race and retired permanently to private life.

Yet he was a man of splendid abilities of a certain sort. Had he practised guerilla warfare, had he had absolute and irresponsible command of a small body of picked men with freedom to raid or do anything else he pleased, he would have been indeed formidable. The terror which the rebel guerilla General, Morgan, spread over wide territory would easily have been surpassed by Fremont. But guerilla warfare was not permissible on the side of the government. The aim of the Confederates was destruction; the aim of the administration was construction. It is always easier and more spectacular to destroy than to construct.

One trouble with Fremont was his narrowness of view. He could not work with others. If he wanted a thing in his particular department, it did not concern him that it might injure the cause as a whole. Another trouble was his conceit. He wanted to be “the whole thing,” President, congress, general, and judiciary. Had Lincoln not possessed the patience of Job, he could not have borne with him even so long. The kindness of the President’s letter, above quoted, is eloquent testimony to his magnanimity.