Lincoln Fires Fremont

October 24, 1861 – President Lincoln issued formal orders replacing John C. Fremont with David Hunter. However, complications in executing the order would arise.

President Abraham Lincoln and Major General John C. Fremont | Image Credit:
President Abraham Lincoln and Major General John C. Fremont | Image Credit:

On the day that Fremont left St. Louis to join his army in pursuing Price, Secretary of War Simon Cameron and Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas left Washington to inspect Fremont’s department. Before leaving, Lincoln handed Cameron General Orders No. 18, written by General-in-Chief Winfield Scott:

“Major-General Fremont, of the U.S. Army, the present commander of the Western Department of the same, will, on the receipt of this order, call Major-General Hunter, of the U.S. Volunteers, to relieve him temporarily in that command, when he (Major-General Fremont) will report to General Headquarters, by letter, for further orders.”

Cameron was authorized to decide whether to present this order to Fremont, based on the inspection results.

At the same time, Lincoln wrote to Brigadier General Samuel R. Curtis, one of Fremont’s subordinates, asking, “Ought Gen. Fremont to be relieved from, or retained in his present command?” Curtis’s answer would be “entirely confidential,” with Lincoln hoping to receive advice from “an intelligent unprejudiced, and judicious opinion from some professional Military man on the spot.”

Cameron and Thomas arrived at St. Louis on the 11th, where they visited Benton Barracks under Curtis’s command. They were impressed by the facility, but when told that it cost just $15,000 to build, Cameron concluded, “The actual cost should be ascertained.”

Curtis received Lincoln’s letter and responded that although Fremont was accessible, he never sought Curtis’s advice or divulged his plans. Regardless, Curtis stated that he would never offer his opinion to Fremont based on Fremont’s arrest of Colonel Frank P. Blair, Jr. Overall, Curtis asserted that Fremont was “unequal to the command of an army.”

That evening, Cameron and Thomas visited a camp south of St. Louis commanded by a cavalry major who expressed concern that department officials might be using funds meant to supply his garrison for other purposes. Lieutenant Colonel I.P. Andrews, the department’s deputy paymaster-general, told Cameron and Thomas of “irregularities in the Pay Department” requiring him “to make payment and transfers of money contrary to law and regulations.”

Andrews contended that Fremont had sent a “file of soldiers” to arrest him unless he honored a questionable payment. Andrews also alleged that Fremont had commissioned a St. Louis theater musician as a “captain of engineers” and “director of music,” and this musician had twice demanded pay. Cameron overrode Fremont’s order to pay him.

The department quartermaster informed Cameron and Thomas that many of Fremont’s staff officers were contractors who arranged for the army to hire their businesses and pay the prices that they set for their goods, without competitive bidding and without considering whether the goods were necessities. Even Cameron, a man known for vast corruption himself, considered Fremont’s expenditures offensive.

On October 12, Lincoln received independent reports from Congressman Elihu Washburne of Illinois and friend Ward H. Lamon, who recently met with Fremont. Washburne reported: “The disclosures of corruption extravagance and peculation are utterly astounding… A gang of California robbers and scoundrels rule, control and direct everything.” Lamon reported, “Things are in a terribly unorganized state here… There is about as much likelihood of his catching (Price’s Missouri Guards) as there is of his being struck by lightning.”

Cameron and Thomas finally met with Fremont at Tipton, where Fremont gave them a tour of his best division. However, both Cameron and Thomas agreed that even Fremont’s best troops were in no condition for battle. The men met with Hunter that same day, who stated that the army was mired in confusion because Fremont was “utterly incompetent.” Hunter complained that Fremont had ordered him to move his 10,000 troops without rations, supplies, or arms. Only 20 of Fremont’s 100 cannon imported from Europe functioned properly, though Hunter alleged that Fremont received a kickback for purchasing them. Hunter also asserted that even though he was second in command, Fremont shared none of his military plans with him.

Cameron confronted Fremont with the order to replace him with Hunter. Fremont pleaded for a chance to lead the Army of the West in battle. Cameron agreed, but only if Fremont used all the money being used to pay contractors to improve the army’s condition. Fremont was to send all future bills to Washington for examination, and stop paying officers he had commissioned. The administration had to approve all future appointments.

In a discussion about Fremont with his cabinet, Lincoln read a letter from Gustave Koerner, Fremont’s aide-de-camp, to “His Excellency the President,” complaining that Deputy Paymaster-General Andrews had been put in charge of approving department expenditures:

“Deputy Paymaster-General Lieutenant-Colonel Andrews refuses to honor General Fremont’s commissions, which have heretofore invariably been accepted by him. Officers of the Army who have sacrificed their all to take up arms for their country are thus left destitute, and their families in want of the most urgent necessities of life. Very many of these officers are now in the field and in face of the enemy. Their efficiency and the spirits of many of the troops serving under them will be most seriously affected by this course. Unless you will provide a remedy to insure these men in their well-deserved remuneration a portion of the army will necessarily disband… as no officers will or can serve without a valid commission.”

Six days later, Lincoln finally wrote to Curtis asking him to formally deliver General Orders No. 18 to Fremont. Curtis was instructed not to deliver the orders if Fremont had “fought and won a battle, or shall then be actually in a battle, or shall then be in the immediate presence of the enemy, in expectation of a battle.”

Republicans expressed shock and dismay when Lincoln’s order was leaked to the press; Fremont had been their first-ever presidential candidate and a hero to abolitionists. Lincoln explained that Fremont was being removed because of charges that he had been “incompetent, wasteful, extravagant, and under the influence of fraudulent contract manipulators.” Nevertheless, Horace White of the Chicago Tribune wrote, “Our President has broken his own neck if he has not destroyed his country.”

But Fremont would stay in command until the order was personally delivered to him. Learning from the press that the order had been issued, Fremont worked to avoid receiving the order by posting troops as guards, prohibiting any unauthorized persons from accessing his headquarters.

On October 29, Leonard Swett arrived at St. Louis with the order removing Fremont from command. Swett, who had worked with Lincoln on the Illinois circuit court in the 1850s, was assigned to hand the order to Curtis, and Curtis was then to effect the transfer of power from Fremont to Hunter.

Swett met with Curtis that evening and expressed concern that Fremont might already know about the order since it had been published in some newspapers. The men decided to make two copies of the order and send them with two different officers in the hope that at least one of them would get through the lines and reach Fremont’s headquarters. This farcical operation continued into November.


References (multiple dates); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 85-86, 89; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 98; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 71, 75; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 124-25, 131; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q461


  1. Always helpful. Thanks for keeping it going. Curt ——————————————–

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