Frémont, John C.

Encyclopedia entry by ,
University of Cincinnati

Portrait of John Charles Frémont, ca. 1856. Printed by J.H. Bufford. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Biographical information:

  • Date of birth: January 21, 1813
  • Place of birth: Savannah, Georgia
  • Claim to fame: First Republican Party candidate for president, 1856; territorial governor of Arizona, 1878-1881; California military governor, 1847, and senator, 1850-1851; major general in the Department of the West, 1861; son-in-law of Thomas Hart Benton; namesake of Fremont, California
  • Presidential campaign slogan: "Free speech, free press, free soil, free men, Frémont and victory!"
  • Political affiliations: Republican Party
  • Nickname: "The Pathfinder"
  • Date of death: July 13, 1890
  • Place of death: New York City
  • Cause of death: Peritonitis (inflammation of the abdominal lining)
  • Final resting place: Rockland Cemetery, Sparkill, New York

John Charles Frémont became a popular national figure after leading a series of expeditions intended to survey the Far West in the 1840s. The newly formed Republican Party chose Frémont, an outspoken critic of slavery, as their first presidential candidate in 1856. During the first year of the Civil War, Frémont fervently and controversially attacked slavery and slaveholders in Missouri, culminating in his declaration of martial law, which directed that the property of any individual acting against the United States would be confiscated, including slaves. The order engendered outrage, causing President Lincoln to overturn it and relieve Frémont of his command.

After receiving fame and the moniker “The Pathfinder” during his exploits as a western explorer, Frémont settled in California with his wife, Jessie, the daughter of Missouri politician Thomas Hart Benton. In California, Frémont acted as military governor in 1847 and later briefly served as senator. His pronounced anti-slavery stance made him an attractive candidate for the nascent Republican Party in 1856 amid their first campaign for the White House.

Although he lost the election, Frémont remained a strong critic of slavery.

After securing the nomination, Frémont’s campaign unveiled the slogan, "Free Soil, Free Men, and Frémont," to emphasize the party’s support of free white labor and free homesteads in the West. Although he lost the election, Frémont remained a strong critic of slavery, and after the secession of Southern states, he quickly used his political ties and military experience gained during the Mexican-American War to secure the commission of major general, after which he quickly gained command of the Army's Department of the West in May 1861.

Headquartered in St. Louis and supported by the city’s fervently pro-Union German community, Frémont pursued the ousted pro-secessionist governor of Missouri, Claiborne Fox Jackson, and other known Confederate sympathizers to the southwest corner of the state. Such efforts temporarily failed after Union forces, under the command of Nathaniel Lyon, were defeated at the Battle of Wilson's Creek.

An 1856 campaign poster. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

After learning of the embarrassing defeat, Frémont’s frustration was further compounded by the guerrilla warfare that plagued the state. On August 30, 1861, he proclaimed martial law in Missouri, arrested known secessionists, suspended newspapers charged with disloyalty, and announced the emancipation of the slaves of those who took action against the Union.

Frémont’s proclamation elicited outrage not only in Missouri but throughout the nation. As a border state, Missouri’s neutral stance was largely predicated on the assumption that the institution of slavery would be protected. That a federal officer would threaten the rights of slaveholders was a cause for alarm, and many feared it would be enough to push Missouri, as well as Kentucky, to leave the Union.

Abraham Lincoln astutely recognized such a potentiality, specifically citing the danger of losing Kentucky, and urged Frémont to rescind his order. Frémont refused and promptly sent his wife, Jessie, a persuasive and passionate figure in her own right, to speak directly with the president. Lincoln came away from the meeting with a further diminished patience, and on September 11, he officially annulled the proclamation. Less than two months later, Frémont was relieved of his command.

Frémont refused and promptly sent his wife, Jessie, a persuasive and passionate figure in her own right, to speak directly with the president.

In March 1862, Frémont was briefly placed in command of the Mountain Department of Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky before removing himself from the war, unsatisfied with his position within the Union Army. Frémont continued to crusade against slavery from the sidelines of the war and in 1864 was briefly championed by a minority contingent of radicals and abolitionists within the Republican Party, who sought to prevent Abraham Lincoln’s second term. The support was minimal and Frémont quickly abandoned the campaign.

After the war, Frémont invested heavily in the railroad construction boom, which proved to be a financial catastrophe. Later in life he served as the territorial governor of Arizona from 1878-81, although by then he was largely dependent on the profits made from Jessie’s published writings. In 1890, John C. Frémont died of an infection and was buried in Sparkill, New York.

Suggested Reading: 

Chaffin, Tom. Pathfinder: John Charles Frémont and the Course of American Empire. New York: Hill and Wang, 2002.

Rolle, Andrew F. John Charles Frémont: Character as Destiny. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.

Cite this page: 
Garrison, Zach. "Frémont, John C." Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. The Kansas City Public Library. Accessed Mar, 30, 2017 at http://civilwaronthewesternborder.org/encyclopedia/fr%C3%A9mont-john-c

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