On this day in 1861, controversial Union General John C. Fremont is relieved of command in the Western Department and replaced by David Hunter.
Fremont was one of the most prominent Union generals at the start of the war. Born in Georgia and raised in South Carolina, he joined the military in 1838 and helped map the upper Mississippi River. He made a significant career move in 1841 when he married Jesse Benton, the daughter of powerful Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton. At first, the senator objected to the marriage, but he soon became Fremont’s staunchest supporter. With his father-in-law’s help, Fremont secured leadership of two famous expeditions to the West in the 1840s. He became involved in politics in the 1850s and was the fledgling Republican Party’s first presidential candidate in 1856.
When the Civil War started in 1861, Fremont became a major general in command of the Western Department based in St. Louis. In August 1861, the Union suffered a stunning defeat when an army under General Nathaniel Lyon was routed at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek in southwestern Missouri. Many criticized Fremont for failing to provide proper support for Lyon, who was killed in the battle. In response, Fremont took action to demonstrate his control over the region. He declared martial law and proclaimed freedom for all slaves in Missouri. In doing so, he placedPresident Abraham Lincoln’s administration in a difficult position. Lincoln was trying to keep the border states (Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri) from seceding from the Union. With the exception of Delaware, these states contained substantial numbers of slaveholders, and opinion over the issue of slavery was evenly divided. Fremont’s freeing of slaves threatened to destroy the balance and send these states into the hands of the Confederacy. Of particular concern was Kentucky, Lincoln’s native state. It was of vital strategic importance and the movement for secession there was strong. Fremont’s actions in Missouri fueled secessionist spirit and alienated many Northerners who were unwilling to wage a war to end slavery.
Lincoln requested privately that Fremont rescind the order, but he refused.The presidenthad no choice but to negate the order of emancipation and remove Fremont from command in the West. Fremont still had many supporters, so Lincoln placed him in charge of a small army in Virginia. He had little success in the Shenandoah Valley, where he was pitted against the brilliant Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. Fremont resigned in 1862 after Jackson defeated his force, and Fremont’s army was merged with the command of General John Pope, a longtime rival.
Some Republican allies urged Fremont to challenge Lincoln for the 1864 presidential nomination, but Fremont declined. After the war, he served as territorial governor of Arizona and died in New York in 1890.