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A Man Too Popular

The nervous, rocky West is intruding a new and continental element into the National Mind,
and we shall yet have an American. Emerson, The Young American, February, 1844

At the age of forty, General Frémont was probably more widely known throughout the world, than any man not of royal birth.
John S. C. Abbot, Civil War in America.

The ultimate curse of being a national hero
is that once the fires of acclaim go out, only the ashes of criticism remain. This was the fate of John Charles Frémont, for he climbed the peaks of glory to endure the deserts of despair.
Ferol Egan, Frémont: Explorer for a Restless Nation

As long as a man remains below a certain mediocrity all is well, he is promising, gallant, this, that and the other; but the moment he rises beyond that point, a host of enemies crowd around, their fawning turned to envious snarles. Lt. James Theodore Talbot

Born out of wedlock and poor, Frémont had achieved much in a very short time. He was a man who did things, but often without clear authority; the latter quality would cause him problems throughout his life. His rapid advancement in the Army, and great popularity with the public, at times may have inspired jealousies that further contributed to his troubles.

As a second lieutenant of the newly formed Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, his Report of his first mapping expedition to the Rocky Mountains in 1842, and his conquest of what was considered the highest peak in the Rockies, was published by Congress, and appeared in newspapers all over the country.

The Report of his second expedition in 1843-44, and his winter crossing of the ten thousand foot Sierra Nevada Mountains into California, received even wider notice. It was also published in Europe in several languages, which led to many honors presented by European societies, including Founders Medalist of the Royal Geographical Society, Baron von Humboldt Gold Medalist, and the Société de Géographia, Paris. President Tyler awarded him a double brevet in rank to that of Captain.


As a man of Science, he had received the praises of Humboldt, and, as a popular hero, the applause of the people. Van Buren Denslo

His third expedition the following year involved him in the War with Mexico.

"The cross of St. George hung idly down from the peak of the great ship "Collingwood," the breeze occasionally spreading out against the sky the small red patch which represented centuries of glory. There lay the pieces on the great chessboard before me with which the game for an empire had been played…I was but a pawn, and like a pawn I had been pushed forward to the front at the opening of the game." Frémont

Hailed as "The Conqueror of California," he became involved in the middle of a dispute over seniority between Commodore Robert F. Stockton, and General Steven Watts Kearny, which eventually led to Frémont's court martial. He was convicted, but President Polk reinstated him at his full rank of Lieutenant Colonel; however, personally convinced that he had done nothing wrong to warrant the charges against him, he resigned from the Army. Even this did nothing but to make him even more popular with the people.

Frémont's goCapitulation of Cahuenga

In 1856, as an abolitionist, he was nominated as the first presidential candidate of the newly organized Republican Party.

To the Freemen of the North! Shall not Free Labor assert its birthright--shall not we of the North take and retain for Freemen the territories conquered from tyranny by our Forefathers, and which they consecrated to Liberty with their own blood?

Rallying cries were "Free Men, Free Soil, Free Press, Free Labor, Free Kansas, Free Speech, Frémont!" and "Frémont and Jessie!"

"Rise up, FRÉMONT! and go before;
The hour must have its man;
Put on the hunting shirt once more'
And lead in Freedom's van."
John Grenleaf Whittier, 1856

He carried the North, and nearly won in the 3-way race. Had he won, it is likely that the Civil War would have started in 1856 instead of 1860 when Lincoln was the successful Republican Candidate. (Note the 1st and 3rd ribbons from the left issued by the opposition.)

In 1860, Lincoln called on Frémont to command the Army of the West in Missouri--a slave state. There was no army, no weapons, no money, and half its population were secessionists. Against all odds, Major General Frémont managed to put together an army. To deal with guerrilla warfare in Missouri he was forced to institute martial law, and to issue an Emancipation Proclamation. (see link below). This led to his removal from command by Lincoln. On the eve of battle [November 2, 1861], when the order superseding him, and directing him to transfer to General Hunter arrived---

Whole companies threw down their arms. In the evening, one hundred and ten officers, including every brigadier-general in the army [of the West] visited General Frémont in a body. They presented him a written address, full of sympathy and respect, and earnestly urged him to lead them against the enemy. Never was an officer so adored by his troops as Frémont.
"He arrived at St Louis on the eighth of November. The loyal citizens flocked to meet him. At night, a magnificent torchlight procession marched through the city to his headquarters. A triumphant general,clothed in the splendors of victory, could scarcely have received a more magnificent ovation than did General Frémont, dishonored by the government which he had so faithfully served.
John S. C. Abbott, Civil War in America.

Frémont's goEmancipation Proclamation.

Frémont was not by training a soldier. His training and talents were in the sciences, and he was commissioned an officer in the Topographical Corps. Of his role in the Mexican War, and the Conquest of California, he would later write:

The cross of St. George hung idly down from the peak of the great ship "Collingwood [at Monterey]," the breeze occasionally spreading out against the sky the small red patch which represented centuries of glory. There lay the pieces on the great chessboard before me with which the game for an empire had been played…I was but a pawn, and like a pawn I had been pushed forward to the front at the opening of the game.

Frémont, largely as a result of a very dirty presidential campaign of 1856, where he ran as an abolitionist, and because of a dispute with historian Hubert Howe Bancroft, has received a century and a half of bad press. Along with others of the period, including his friend Kit Carson, Frémont is today often considered not P.C. But all things must be considered in the context of the times.

When he wrote and published his memoirs in 1887, Frémont further reflected on the course of his life.

I lived its earlier part with the true Greek joy in existence--in the gladness of living...Quickly as the years rolled on and life grew serious, the light pleasures took wing and the idling days became full of purpose; and, as always, obstacles rose up in the way of fixed objects at which I had come to aim. But it had happened to me that the obstacles which I had to encounter were natural ones, and I could calculate unerringly upon the amount of resistance and injury I should have to meet in encountering them. Their very opposition roused strength to overcome them. The grand mountains stood out fairly in their armor of ice and snow; the sterile face of the desert warned the traveler off and if he ventured there it was with full knowledge of his danger. No treachery lurked behind behind the majesty of the mountain or lay hidden in the hot glare of the inhospitable plain. And though sometimes the struggle was hard, it was an honest one and simple; and I always had my own free will how to combat it. There was always the excitement which is never without pleasure, and it left no griefs behind.

Now this was to end. I was to begin anew...because my path of life led out from among the grand and lovely features of nature, and its pure and wholesome air, into the poisoned atmosphere and jarring circumstances of conflict among men, made subtle and malignant by clashing interests.

©1999, 2007
Bob Graham