In a cemetery overlooking the Hudson River just south of the Tappan Zee Bridge, lies John C. Fremont, who’s contribution to the end of slavery and the United States victory in the Civil War was tremendous, though he is little-remembered today.
Most generally associate Fremont with the State of California. He is the namesake of Fremont, California, and in 1846 was court-martialed for leading a revolt of American settlers there against the Mexican government. He lived most of the latter part of his life in New York State however, in the city of New York, and Westchester and Rockland counties. He also played a critical role in shifting the focus of Abraham Lincoln’s efforts in the Civil War from a sectional constitutional conflict to a crusade to abolish slavery.
It’s ironic that John C. Fremont, one of the nation’s leading opponents of slavery, grew up in Charleston, South Carolina. Fremont’s mother had been married to a man twice her age, but ran off with her French teacher, Fremont’s father, who she never formally married.
As a young man Fremont obtained an appointment to the topographical corps of the United States army, and thus gained expertise as an explorer and surveyor. Meanwhile, he met and married Jesse Benton, the daughter of Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, who would play a critical role in his career. Perhaps thanks of his father-in-law’s influence, he was placed in charge of an Army expedition and led three expeditions in California and Oregon from 1842 to 1846 (these included Kit Carson).
In doing so, they created one of the first reliable maps, which was used by those traveling the Oregon Trail. Under orders from President James K. Polk to reconnoiter what is today California, he helped to foment a rebellion of American settlers against the Mexican authorities and was court-martialed. However, his widely published adventures in the West, written by his wife Jesse, made him a national figure by 1850 as an explorer and promoter of Western expansion and increasingly, as an opponent of slavery.
Anti-Slavery Presidential Candidate
By the time President Millard Fillmore signed the compromises of 1850, which included the Fugitive Slave Act, the United States was beginning to come apart over the extension of slavery in the west. The strength of Democrats and Whigs began to break down, as a new party – the Republicans, made-up largely of Free Soil Democrats and Anti-Slavery Whigs – pledged to oppose slavery. During the election of 1856, John C. Fremont was approached by representatives of both the Democrats and the Republicans as a possible presidential candidate, but agreed to run as an anti-slavery Republican. They dubbed him “Pathfinder”.
It turned out to be a brutally hard-fought campaign, carried out, not by the candidates themselves, but by their surrogates. The Democrats, supporting the extension of slavery and the Fugitive Slave Act, nominated James Buchanan. He was a Pennsylvanian Democratic party leader, who had already served as Secretary of State, and Ambassador to England and Russia, as well as Senator and Congressman.
Millard Fillmore, a Buffalo lawyer who was the Whig Vice President in 1848, had succeeded to the Presidency in 1850 on the death of Zachary Taylor. Now, in 1856, Fillmore ran as an Nativist, or Know Nothing, in opposition to the perceived power of immigrants, particularly Catholics. During the campaign, Fremont was subjected to bitter personal attacks for his illegitimate birth, his alleged Catholicism (despite being an Episcopalian), his lack of political experience, and his positions on slavery.
During the canvass, Buchanan won with 1.8 million votes, heavily carrying the South, and Fillmore picked-up 900,000. Fremont received 1.3 million votes, almost all from the North, many Republicans considered a good showing against the then dominate Democrats. The combined vote of Fremont and Fillmore, a former Whig, exceeded those of the Democrat Buchanan. Ambitious Republicans, such as William Seward and Abraham Lincoln, looked to the 1860 election with promise.
Fremont did not take an active role in the election of 1860. Instead Abraham Lincoln was elected with the overwhelming support of the northern states, the south in turn succeeded, and the Civil War began.
Freemont’s Missouri Emancipation Decree
Fremont was traveling in Europe when he learned of the outbreak of civil war in America, and the prominent Republican military man immediately returned home. Lincoln, with whom he had met in February, 1861 in New York, assigned Fremont to Missouri and allegedly gave him “carte blanche” to do what he thought appropriate to keep that state in the Union.
Since Missouri had been a slave state, with many active, and armed, slave supporters this was a difficult assignment. In the view of Lincoln and his cabinet, it was critical that the border states that had not seceded, such as Kentucky, Maryland, West Virginia, Missouri and Tennessee remain in the Union. Although the abolition of slavery was a matter of great interest and Lincoln personally abhorred slavery, its abolition was not initially an objective of the war effort. Lincoln’s primary concern was to preserve the Union.
Initially, the war did not go well for the Union. The stunning defeat at the First Battle of Manassas shocked supporters of the Union, and in Missouri a Confederate force scored a significant victory at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. Some Union commanders believed the Confederacy’s use of slaves to plant and harvest their crops was a major advantage as Confederates could fight without worrying about their farms back home.
On August 30, 1861, Fremont declared martial law and issued a proclamation that immediately freed all slaves belonging to rebels in Missouri. This infuriated Lincoln and he immediately sent a letter to Fremont urging him to modify his order, saying his act “will alarm our Southern Union friends and turn them against us”. Fremont’s proclamation seemed to be undoing the progress Lincoln had been trying to make in Kentucky and Maryland.
In response, Fremont sent his wife Jesse by train to Washington to personally deliver a letter to Lincoln laying out his position. In it, Fremont said he would not modify the emancipation order freeing the slaves as that would indicate that he personally disagreed with it (which he did not), but that as President and Commander-in-Chief Lincoln could supersede it.
In a personal meeting with Lincoln in the White House, Jesse argued on behalf of her husband that slavery was the backbone of the Confederate economy, and by freeing their slaves their ability to fight would be crippled. She added that by emancipating slaves, the Union would receive international backing from countries that had already abolished slavery, such as England. And finally, the emancipation of the slaves would energize abolitionists in the North, create the possibility for freed slaves to fight in the Union army, and give the Union the moral high ground. Lincoln did not react favorably to Mrs. Fremont’s visit and he soon issued an order revoking Fremont’s proclamation. A short time later he ended Fremont’s command.
The fallout from Fremont’s emancipation proclamation was considerable, however. While there was some negative reaction in the border states, it was more than outweighed by the outporing of support for Fremont’s position in the rest of the country. Governor Andrews of Massachusetts called it “an impetus of the grandest character to the whole cause” and New England writer James Russell Lowell said: “How many times are we to save Kentucky and lose our self respect.”
Lincoln expected protests from northern abolitionist and free black leaders such as Frederick Douglas and Henry Highland Garnet, but he was surprised when conservative northern senators such as Orville Browning, his friend from Illinois, approved of Fremont’s actions as well. Browning wrote that “Fremont’s proclamation was necessary and will do good. It has the full approval of all loyal citizens of the West and North.”
Less than a year and a half later Lincoln would issue his own Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves held by those in rebellion in the South. This would convert the Civil War from a conflict over the constitutional right of secession to a fight for the abolition of slavery, and would prove to be the turning point for the Union victory.
Many civil war historians (particularly Lincoln biographers) dismiss Fremont’s emancipation proclamation in Missouri as the work of a desperate insubordinate commander who was insensitive to the Union’s political needs. It should be recognized however, that Fremont was a founder and standard bearer in 1856 for the Republicans that had elected Lincoln. His decision as military commander in the Missouri Department to confront the issue of slavery, which Lincoln and his cabinet wished to avoid, had significant national implications. It would ultimately induce Lincoln, and the nation, to refocus the purpose for which the Civil War was being fought. There is no reason to believe that the Fremonts didn’t understand the importance of the actions they were taking in challenging Lincoln’s policy, and forcing the Republican party to face the critical issue of the abolition.
Except for one minor but difficult command in Tennessee, Fremont was never given another significant command. The Fremonts moved to a New York City townhouse on 25th street and bought a country place near what is today Pocantico Hills in Westchester and Rockland Counties. Wealthy as a result of California land speculation and various railroad ventures in the West, he lost most of his wealth in the Panic of 1873.
In the early 1880’s he was appointed Governor of the Arizona Territory, but returned to New York and for a time lived in much-reduced circumstances on Staten Island. In 1890, just before his death he was awarded a general’s pension. He died in New York City of appendicitis that same year and was briefly interred in the Trinity Church vault at 155th Street, before being buried in a plot at cemetery owned by a friend in Sparkhill, New York.
In 1960 at the centenary of the Civil War, there was an elaborate ceremony rededicating his grave. It was attended by two of his granddaughters. In the 55 years since, even in these years of the Sesquentennial Celebration of the Civil War, he has been almost completely forgotten.
A recent radio show discussing Rockland County in the Civil War, which included a number of Civil War veterans from Rockland County, failed to mention him.
When a visitor stopped at a pizzeria just outside the cemetery gates in Sparkhill and asked about John C. Fremont – none who worked there had ever heard of him.
Illustration: John C. Frémont, 1852 portrait, by William S. Jewett.