Posted 5/19/02



By Addison Hart

If the American Civil War was a race between giants like Lee, Jackson, Grant, and Sherman, than John Charles Fremont was the midget who got squashed underfoot on the first lap. He hadn't won a victory in Missouri since he got in office by the time that he was finally relieved, and then when he was sent out to fight Stonewall Jackson's army in the Shenandoah Valley in May and June of 1862, he lost even more dismally. And yet, this guy still retained his intense (and probably downright insane) popularity and fame throughout the rest of his life. He evidentially still is beloved today by some people otherwise the rather idealized version of his life as shown in the TV Miniseries Dream West would never have been made. Despite this popularity, his list of accomplishments in the Civil War is dismally small, and in fact, it just makes the real John Fremont look more unlike the heroic status that he has achieved due to his expeditions in the West before the war. In fact it makes him look like a stupid jerk.

So what went wrong in the opening months of the Civil War that changed a national icon into a military quack? This is a question often posed by historians and amateurs alike, and answers like 'Well, I mean hey! He was getting on in years, you know?' and 'Well, he was born in Georgia, so maybe his heart just wasn't in it' or even 'Hey look, he hadn't fought in battle since Mexico, so lay off!' are disconcertingly common. To be honest, he was never much of a military officer in the first place.

John Charles Fremont, the future Pathfinder, was born in Savannah, Georgia on January 21 st , 1813 into an old and respectable family. He seems to have spent little time at all in Georgia, and lived much of his life out West, leaving remarkably soon after being expelled from Charleston College. After being expelled, his career skyrocketed. He would marry into a family even more respectable than his own, running off with Jessie Benton, whose father, the great Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, seems to have disapproved of young John, which is why Fremont ran off with Jessie. One would think that after that Benton would disapprove of John far more, but in fact he seemed to have grown to respect him. Such a marriage was obviously good for a political future, and few men were as ambitious in this field as Fremont himself was. At this time he was an instructor of mathematics aboard the U.S.S. Natchez, and soon he got the commission of lieutenant in the topographical engineers, a post unusual for non-West Pointers like Fremont. Thus started his career in exploring and charting.

Actually, this sort of thing was one of the few things Fremont was actually good for, and while his beard came in, he led several trailblazing expeditions over the great Rocky Mountains, and was ably guided by such scouts as Kit Carson. When the war with Mexico broke out, he eagerly signed up and became a commander in General Stephen W. Kearny's command that was moving towards California. Fremont played a quite substantial role in the separation of California from Mexico, even managing to lead some charges and the like, but he fought relatively few times in the California campaign, and never did show whether he was an able commander or not, but it seems everyone immediately assumed he was. He quickly became a hero for his expeditions and his work in California, despite being court-martialed by Kearny, and he was given the affectionate sobriquet 'Pathfinder', which was a far cry from the later 'Chicken Guts'. After being allowed to honorably resign from the army because of his hero-status, Fremont slunk his way into politics, in the meantime developing a massive fortune from gold deposits discovered on his land in California.

John Charles 'Pathfinder' Fremont was, in 1856, singled out by the Republican Party to be it's first member ever to run for the Presidency, as with his popularity the Republicans were sure to win. He didn't. He then remained quiet for a couple of years until 1861 when the American Civil War broke out. Despite his loss in politics, John C. Fremont still thought he was the hottest thing on two legs. At about this time, he was a handsome man of medium height, but powerfully built. He appeared to be a lanky fellow, but he was in fact fairly muscular (this does not mean, however, that he boxed Confederate civilians around like he is shown doing in Dream West). He was also particularly handsome, with piercing eyes, black hair, and a graying beard. He also fancied himself quite a singer.

When the Civil War broke out, John Charles Fremont found himself replacing aged General William Selby Harney as commander of the Department of the West, with it's headquarters in St. Louis, Missouri. When he was given this position, many individuals (including Governor Yates of Illinois) warned him that his command was literally a wreck. These guys in Missouri, it seemed, had just as much organization as a chicken farm with a dead farmer would have. To make matters worse, the pro-Confederate Missouri State Guard was romping about the state on the loose. Major General Sterling Price, in command of the Missouri State Guard, actually had more organization in his ranks than the so-called 'Home Guards' of the Union Department of the West did under Harney. Still, when Harney was booted out by Senator Francis P. Blair, Jr., a junior officer, Captain Nathaniel Lyon, was promoted to Brigadier and placed in command of the Department's 'army', and he managed to organize it fairly well with the help of the one- armed Irish Brigadier Thomas Sweeny, who was apparently more fluent in "the language of obscenity" than about any other language there was.

Instead of rushing off to Missouri to organize his men properly, Fremont decided to lie about in Washington a while, enjoying his time there (and at parties in the area). He finally left in mid-June, after receiving word that Lyon had won a minor victory in a skirmish at the town of Boonville. Still, at the times when Lyon would need Fremont's help the most, the 'Pathfinder' ignored him. Before leaving Washington, Fremont scrawled out a message asking whether Lincoln had any specific instructions for him. Lincoln, tired of Fremont's lolly gagging in D.C., responded with a message he would soon come to regret, "No, I have given you carte blanche, you must use your own judgement, and do the best you can." A tremendous mistake indeed.

As soon as he arrived in Missouri, Fremont decided to waste his time to the best of his ability. In the next two months, Fremont's chief concerns seemed to be dreaming up a grand master plan for the brilliant conquest of the Mississippi River Valley and for finding members to make up his personal staff and bodyguard. Managing to make himself as aloof and detached as possible to his men, Fremont spent long hours locked in his HQ in St. Louis pouring over maps of the Mississippi like the Pathfinder he had been. His 'grand master plan for the brilliant conquest and domination of the Mississippi River Valley' wasn't even all that great anyway. He dreamed of his army sweeping down the Mississippi, taking in a bold swoop Columbus, Kentucky (violating it's neutrality), Memphis, Tennessee, Vicksburg, Mississippi, and finally New Orleans, Louisiana, in effect cutting the South in two. He hid the plans from everyone else as well, only his trusty staff officers could view them. As Lincoln himself wrote, "His cardinal mistake is that he isolates himself, and allows nobody to see him; and by which he does not know what is going on in the very matters he is dealing with." Of course, Lincoln is also quoted as saying of the Pathfinder, "the damnedest scoundrel that ever lived, but in the infinite mercy of Providence…also the damnedest fool."

And unlike the cases of generals like George McClellan, who would soon cause trouble for Lincoln in the East and suffer criticisms as nasty or nastier than those handed out to Fremont, Pathfinder was unloved by his troops. In fact, the majority of the men of the Army of the West disliked Fremont, and it doesn't seem that Fremont was all that crazy about his men either. He was too aggressive for his own good, and the problem was that his aggression was not as much stemmed towards Price and the Confederates who were helping Price, but instead towards the Lincoln administration. While Fremont was supposed to be organizing his men to be sent to go after the State Guard, he was dreamily thinking about the 1864 Presidential Election and how he might be able to squeeze himself in as an alternative for the Republican ballot.

Though he sent Benjamin Prentiss to take Ironton and Ulysses Grant to take Jefferson City, Fremont did little else in his first few months in command in Missouri besides allowing James Mulligan to go take command of forces in Lexington and sending James Lane's jayhawkers off to do what they did best (namely steal, terrorize, and murder). He did, however, manage to get some criticisms over his choices for staff positions. Unlike many generals, Fremont wanted to be allowed to pick and choose each member of his staff and his bodyguard, and he did in fact do so. One priority, it seems, was that a candidate had to have a funny name, or at least a European one. In fact, the majority of Fremont's staff members seem to have been Europeans, primarily Germans and Hungarians. A large amount of them seem to have been extra-legally commissioned and most had no idea of how the war in the West was to be fought. Those who knew military tactics advocated using the outdated tactics of Napoleon and Frederick the Great, as well as the Baron Jomini and that lot. A lot of them were as inefficient as possible, some were even minor nobility, and many were corrupt, mixed in with anti-Lincoln groups, Know-Nothings, and the like. It seemed that if there were a Mafia in America at the time, the majority of Fremont's staff members would be members of it.

The fact that the list of the staff members (about three hundred men in his personal bodyguard alone and a good thirty members, all over five foot eleven inches in height, made up his staff) is practically endless also bothered some individuals, especially when scrolling down the list one reads many times over French or Italian names, or running over several individuals with the surnames of 'Kalmanuezze' or 'Zagonyi'. A lot of these fellows spoke English very badly at best, which only deepened the stupidity of the situation. When Fremont's opponent in the field (not that Fremont ever bothered to fight him), General Albert Sidney Johnston, C.S.A., was shown a copy of the staff list at his headquarters in Nashville, he simply commented with one of his deep chuckles "There's too much tail to that kite!" Even the locals could feel their stomachs turn when they saw Fremont's bodyguards and staff officers walking the streets, many wreaking of perfume, and wearing ridiculous (overly grandiose) uniforms with plumes and braids. Such men were the reason that the locals gave the men of Fremont's staff (and the General himself) the somewhat embarrassing title 'Chicken Guts'. Pathfinder probably never mentioned that one in public.

The other thing that bothered his officers when speaking to Fremont is that he had the infuriating habit of giving orders in foreign languages, or, even worse, giving orders in such a way that, as Grant said, left one "without the least idea of what he wanted you to do." That's something they never touched upon in Dream West.

At the same time, John C. Fremont managed to spend a great deal of money. Firstly he heavily fortified the city of St. Louis, which was not at any time during the Civil War in danger of being attacked. The next thing he did was a bit more mysterious. Apparently, Fremont did not fancy the idea of having his soldiers go about fighting (not that they did that too often) without pay. He made repeated requests to the War Department for more money to pay his men, but these were ignored. Finally he sent Lincoln a message on the 30 th of July informing him that "$300,000 entirely unappropriated" sat in the U.S. depository at St. Louis, and that he'd sweetly asked the official in charge to shell out $100,000 to Justus McKinstry (one of Grant's notorious pals), Fremont's paymaster. The official gave a snide refusal, which infuriated Fremont to no end.

"This morning I will order the Treasurer to deliver the money in his possession, and will send a force to take the money, and will direct such payments as the exigency requires. I will hazard everything for the defense of the department you have confided to me, and I trust to you for support," wrote Fremont. He may just as well have carved a little 'Z' on the letter with his dress sword, as it seemed Fremont had just declared war on the U.S. depository of St. Louis. This scheme seems to have just lead to more trouble, as Justus McKinstry embezzled a substantial sum of this money, leaving several regiments, like the unfortunate 27 th Missouri Infantry, without a dime to show for what Fremont had done that July afternoon.

As Fremont was fooling about in St. Louis, he was allowing his subordinates in command of the Army of the West go berserk in southern Missouri. Generals Lyon and Sweeny and Colonel Sigel nearly managed to lose half the army at Carthage that July, and on August 10 th , 1861, Lyon lead an attack on Price and the Confederate army of Ben McCulloch at Wilson's Creek outside Springfield. In the chaotic fighting, the outnumbered (and split) Army of the West managed to get itself thrashed; Lyon himself killed with multiple wounds in his body. At the time, Fremont did literally nothing to protect him. To add to this, in early September he sat about at St. Louis pouring over his plans for the master scheme as Price managed to overwhelm James Lane's guerillas at Drywood Creek and then taking Lexington and it's defenders in a siege lasting one week and a half. Fremont could have easily sent help via railroad to Lexington, but preferred to sit about in St. Louis, doing nothing.

Perhaps after this, Fremont flipped his lid. Whatever the case, he managed to orchestrate one hair-brained action after another. Firstly, the city of St. Louis was put under martial law; any Southern sympathizers could be legitimately put up against a wall. Furthermore, anyone found with firearms in their hands while prancing about in the areas of military jurisdiction (about the whole of St. Louis), they would be arrested, tried by military court martial, and executed. Absolutely charming. It doesn't say anything about 'buffaloing' at least. To add to this, the property of this unfortunate fellow would be confiscated, and if he was a slave owner, the slaves were to be set free.

Then, on August 30 th , 1861, without asking the permission of the United State's government, Fremont issued his infamous Emancipation Proclamation. Figuring that slavery assisted the bushwhacking guerillas of Missouri, he proclaimed that the slaves of Missouri were from August 30 th onward forever free. He did not inform Lincoln until a week later. Perhaps that entire week he was plagued with recurring notions that he'd managed to overlook something rather important, but I rather doubt it. It's probable that Fremont's friend, Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, was first to notice this act of Fremont's. Whatever the case, Blair was obviously shocked with his friend's actions. What the heck was the Pathfinder thinking of?

On September 2 nd , Lincoln sent Fremont a little letter, just to ask him what on earth he was thinking of. Lincoln was upset at the idea that Fremont had decided that he had the power to order the execution of civilians, and that he got it into his head that he could act on his own accord and simply launch his own little declaration of freedom for the slaves of Missouri. Lincoln was definantly ticked. This sort of thing wasn't good for politics. How was he to keep these Copperheads and the Abolitionists off his back now? One group would yell at him to suppress it, and the other would yell at him to free all slaves. Furthermore, how was he to keep Kentucky in the Union with this document floating about? He asked Fremont to modify it to accord with the Confiscation Act of 1861 which stated that all slaves useful to the enemy's war effort were forever free, but not all slaves owned by Southerners. Fremont bluntly refused. This was not the sort of thing Lincoln wanted to hear.

Chicken Guts never played his cards well, and so sending his wife Jessie off to box Lincoln's ears was probably one of his fatal errors. He sent the response to Lincoln to his wife Jessie Benton Fremont to pass onto Lincoln personally. Now, this woman was high-strung and impulsive, fiercely loyal to her husband. Monty Blair called her 'General Jessie'. It was a mistake from the start, as when she came to Lincoln she was already in a rage about the way her poor heroic husband was being so monstrously mistreated. She marched into the Red Room of the White House with her ally and childhood chum Judge Edward Coles of New York. After a short while, Lincoln casually walked into the room and sat down. He was not in the bad mood Dream West has him in, either.

"Well?" asked Lincoln. Apparently, Lincoln recalled that she soon "taxed" him violently with many different things. "It was a war for a great national idea, the Union, and that General Fremont should not have dragged the Negro into it—that he never would if he had consulted with Frank Blair. I sent Frank there to advise him," said Lincoln, feeling just a bit exhausted after the berating he received from the female general before him. Mrs. Fremont looked at him angrily and began to give him long and terribly bad lectures on the difficulty of defeating the Rebs by military conquest alone, throwing everything in from abolitionists like Gurley and Lovejoy to Great Britain. Finally, Lincoln irritably said, "You are quite a female politician."

Mrs. Fremont may not have screamed back something accusing Lincoln of being snide in action, but she did manage to end up making things just as bad for Lincoln, challenging the poor guy to "try titles" with Chicken Guts. She then managed to boom out the rather odd line "He is a man and I am his wife!" One would certainly hope that this was the case, Mrs. Fremont. He tried to soothe her, but she "left in anger", as Lincoln recalled, only turning about in the action of "flaunting her handkerchief in my face." When passing her the next day, Frank Blair snapped at her, "Look what you have done for Fremont; you have made the President his enemy!" Good going, Jessie.

After his close call at the hands of General Jessie, Lincoln managed to scribble out a letter to Fremont, stating that he really had "perceived in general no objection", but all the same the Confiscation Act of 1861 could not be ignored, and so Fremont's Emancipation Act would have to be scrapped, permanently. Fremont would simply have to modify that document. There would be no back talk at all. John Charles Chicken Guts Fremont's dictatorial reign over St. Louis was in very clear and present danger. Fremont was aware now that Lincoln was just about ready to give Fremont the boot, and one of the few things that could protect him would be engaging the enemy in combat for the first time. Up until this time, Fremont's boys had not engaged the enemy a single time. It'd be really tough getting these boys into action. However, it was the only thing Fremont could do now that he was in danger of removal.

Sending Grant off to the area of Cairo, Illinois and the Columbus/Belmont area (under enemy control), Fremont gathered up his men, the beaten up forces that had once belonged to the dead Lyon included, for a strike against Springfield, Missouri, where Price was still encamped. Now that he'd spent half a year writing up plans for a phantom movement down the Mississippi as well as spending a good $12,000,000 on the defenses of St. Louis and on his men, Fremont was ready to move. In mid-October, Lincoln asked Major General David 'Black Dave' Hunter, a hero of 1 st Bull Run, to go off to Missouri and relieve Fremont. Hunter agreed.

At the time, 38,000 men under Fremont's command were marching forth from St. Louis to oppose Sterling Price's 15,000 to 20,000 men at Springfield. "My plan is New Orleans straight," he wrote Jessie on October 7 th . At the same time, while thinking over how much of an idiot old Fremont seemed to be and how much corruption managed to thrive within his high command (notably in his staff and in his paymaster department), Lincoln decided to send Major General Samuel Curtis a message asking him to personally see to Fremont's removal and to Hunter's appointment in Fremont's position. As Fremont expected, Lincoln did order him not to do so if Fremont was attacking the enemy or moving hard against the enemy. Fremont would have to move fast.

By October 24 th , Fremont's men had reached the Springfield area and his army was encamped on the Pomme de Terre River just 50 miles southwest of Springfield. Fremont found out about his removal that day from newspaper accounts, and he had his staff arm themselves and surround him protectively, if needs be he would have to keep out any emissary from the capital for the time being. John Charles Fremont was acting like a total nutter. He would have to take Springfield within a day or so to beat old Curtis. The first thing to do was to take Springfield, of course, and to pursue Price, who was steadily retreating. There was now only a 500-man force holding Springfield. He had to get it very quickly. At the time he had a fairly large group of cavalrymen with two elite units, Major Francis J. White's Prairie Scouts and Fremont's own bodyguard led by the Hungarian Major Charles Zagonyi. White, it seemed, was down with camp fever, and so Zagonyi was in command. Fremont ordered them to go in and seize the town as his army advanced behind them.

By mid day on the 25 th , Zagonyi's men had come to the area, arriving west of the city at the Fairgrounds on the Mount Vernon Road. By 3:00 PM, Zagonyi was ready to attack. Riding down the Vernon Road towards the town, a burst of rifle fire from the trees along the Jordan Creek just outside Springfield down several men and horses. Somehow, the enemy had learned of Zagonyi's presence and had managed to their forces organized. A determined charge led by Zagonyi broke right through the Missourian's lines, sending the enemy scurrying away into the town. When they reached the Town Square, the Yanks made a brilliant (and totally pointless) show of Federal power, firing dozens of shots into the air. They also managed to shoot Professor John A. Stephens of the Springfield Academy for Boys dead. It was then that several Missouri men launched a little counter attack, sending Zagonyi and his men from the Town Square and back to the fairgrounds. The guardsmen then beat a hasty retreat as Zagonyi sent his men back into town.

The short, confusing affair wasn't so much of a great victory as Fremont had hoped. Indeed, a good 80 men from both sides were dead and wounded, and the fact that his men had murdered the poor civilian Professor didn't improve things. Price was allowed to withdraw unmolested, and by the time Fremont arrived there was no chance of being able to catch up with them before Curtis could catch up with Fremont. However, the intrepid Pathfinder tried his best. A grueling march was better than being booted out of command any day, right?

Six days later, Fremont was nearer to Price than ever. Just one day more, it was believed, and then he might just be able to attack Price, or at least his rearguard at any rate. He knew Curtis was on the move, and now he had his guards about him more than ever. Not only were his staff members (or as Lincoln called them "a gang of California robbers and scoundrels") all armed to the teeth, but Zagonyi's bodyguard unit were all strung out about Fremont's headquarters. He was untouchable. However, it was this day when Curtis arrived in the region, and he decided to go after Fremont as cleverly as possible. He ordered the captain that he sent off to Fremont's camp to dress and act as a local farmer with important information about the enemy. After all, Curtis thought that Fremont lacked "the intelligence, the experience, and the sagacity necessary to his command", so he felt Fremont would fall for this one. What a clever old devil Curtis was.

At 5:00 AM on November 1 st , 1861, the disguised Captain arrived outside Fremont's headquarters. His "kind general, I've important information" act easily fooled Fremont's pickets, and the Captain was shown to the HQ. A European aide to the General came up and said in broken English that the information that this 'civilian farmer' had would have to be turned in to him, as the General was far too busy to see this puny little 'civilian farmer' anytime soon. After all, he had to go get Price to ensure his survival as commander of the Department of the West! The 'farmer' declined and decided to wait. By noon, Fremont was at last ready to see this guy. Well, at least he wasn't a military officer sent by Curtis, right?

As he came into Fremont's presence he removed a crinkled piece of paper from his rough disguise and informed the General that he was relieved of command. Fremont was suddenly filled with horror and rage. Shaking with fear and anger, his lips quivering, his shaky hands hovering inches above his dress sword, he looked straight into the farmer/captain's eyes. With trembling lip, Fremont uttered, "Sir, how did you get admission into my lines?"

Before the Captain could respond, Fremont suddenly acted on one of the dumbest ideas of his long career of dumb ideas. The only way to get himself out of this mess was to have this Captain arrested and to hide the news of his relief! Yeah! And then, while he's locked up, Fremont could move up against Price and win a tremendous victory! Here's something they didn't stick in Dream West. Fremont suddenly ordered his staff officers to arrest the Captain, and as the big Europeans dragged the astonished Captain away, Fremont sent off one of his officers to order his men to prepare to attack Price, who was swiftly retreating towards the direction of the Arkansas border.

Fremont's staff members left Curtis' Captain/courier under the guard of some armed pickets. There he sat for several hours. However, during the period of imprisonment in this muddy, woody area, he overheard the password. At one point or another, the pickets paid inadequate attention to him and he managed to sneak off. Other pickets stopped him, but he shouted out the password and was allowed back into Fremont's lines. This time he made it clear to Fremont's staff officers what his orders were from Curtis, and he was sent in to relieve Fremont.

When Fremont saw him emerge into his Headquarters, he looked at the Captain as if he were a ghost, and then tears came to his eyes. The jig was up. Fremont was, it seemed, through. He'd have to throw in the towel now. Slowly, Fremont made his way to his room for a little nap. Hunter was coming up to relieve him. There was no way out now. When she received the news in Washington, Mrs. Fremont, General Jessie herself, broke down in tears. "Oh, if my husband had only been more positive," she cried to Judge Coles, who was trying to comfort her, "But he never did assert himself enough. That was his greatest fault." His greatest fault, I would think, was acting like a total nut from beginning to end of his stay in Missouri.

The next day, a heart broken Fremont bade farewell to his men, tears glistening in his eyes. He then made his way toward his carriage and road off. Curtis soon heard of what had happened with the Captain and he was none too pleased about it, as was to be expected. Perhaps amazingly, Fremont wasn't sacked from the United States Army after all. He was sent to command a corps in the Shenandoah, and fought a string of brilliant battles against Stonewall Jackson. The only problem, however, was that the brilliance in these battles wasn't his but Stonewall's, and he came out thoroughly whipped (yet another thing Dream West conveniently neglects to mention). After being briefly sent to serve under Major General John Pope in Northern Virginia, he finally left the army for good. He would spend most of the rest of his life in Arizona and New York, and he finally upped and died in July 1890.

John Charles Fremont, the great Pathfinder of the Oregon Trail and the Chicken Guts of Missouri, was a total military failure. A total blunderer. A rotten tomato of a general. It can be truly said that he never did anything that amounted to anything militarily during the American Civil War. In short, he was a military dictator who couldn't live without always getting his way in everything imaginable. Surely few men, short of Franz Sigel and Judson Kilpatrick, were as unfit for command as John Charles Fremont was, and still, a lot of people love the guy simply for his greatness in the 1840s, and they love to ignore his actions in the 1860s, which bordered on the treasonous. He may have been a great Pathfinder and explorer, but as a general he was nothing but a lump of chicken guts. ---