An Organized System of Pillage

Major General John C. Fremont left St. Louis on October 7 to join his Federal Army of the West as it moved to confront Major General Sterling “Pap” Price’s secessionist Missouri State Guards. That same day, Secretary of War Simon Cameron and Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas left Washington to investigate charges of corruption and mismanagement in Fremont’s department. Cameron brought with him General Orders Number 18:

“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 (David) 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 his inspection results.

At the same time, President Abraham 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.”

Curtis replied that although Fremont was accessible, he never sought advice or divulged his plans. Regardless, Curtis stated that he would never offer his opinion to Fremont because of Fremont’s arrest of Colonel Frank P. Blair, Jr. in September. Blair, who served on Fremont’s staff, was deemed insubordinate when he tried using his Washington connections to get Fremont ousted. Overall, Curtis asserted that Fremont was “unequal to the command of an army.”

Cameron and Thomas arrived at St. Louis early on the 11th, where they visited Benton Barracks under Curtis’s command. They found the place impressive but, when told that it cost just $15,000 to build, Cameron concluded, “The actual cost should be ascertained.” That night, Cameron and Thomas visited a camp south of St. Louis commanded by a cavalry major who expressed concern that funds needed to sustain his garrison were being used elsewhere.

Lieutenant Colonel I.P. Andrews, the department’s deputy paymaster-general, alleged “irregularities in the Pay Department” had forced 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 told Cameron and Thomas that many of Fremont’s staffers 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 as a former political machine boss, considered Fremont’s expenditures offensive.

The next day, Lincoln received a report from Congressman Elihu B. Washburne, chairman of the House sub-committee on contracts. Washburne stated, “The disclosures of corruption extravagance and peculation are utterly astounding… A gang of California robbers and scoundrels rule, control and direct everything.” The congressman told Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, “Such robbery, fraud, extravagance, peculation as have been developed in Fremont’s department can hardly be conceived of. There has been an organized system of pillage, right under his eye. He has really set up an authority over the government and bids defiance to its commands. The government in failing to strike at Fremont and his horde of pirates acknowledges itself a failure.”

Ward Hill Lamon, a friend of Lincoln’s, investigated Fremont’s department as well. He concluded, “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 the general showed off his best division. However, both visitors agreed that even Fremont’s best troops were in no condition for battle. The men also met with General Hunter; he had been sent west by Lincoln to be Fremont’s chief of staff, but Fremont instead put him in command of a division at Rolla, which Hunter described as a banishment to a “miserable place.”

Hunter contended 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 showed Fremont the order by Lincoln to replace him with Hunter. Fremont pleaded to first be given a chance to lead the Army of the West in battle. Cameron agreed under certain conditions: Fremont was required to use all the money currently paying contractors’ debts for the army and to send all bills to Washington for examination. He was also required to stop paying officers he had commissioned, and the administration had to approve all future appointments.

Back at Washington, Lincoln discussed the Fremont situation with his cabinet. He read a letter from Gustave Koerner, Fremont’s aide-de-camp, complaining that Deputy Paymaster-General Andrews had been put in charge of approving Fremont’s expenditures. Koerner wrote to “His Excellency the President”:

“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 a serve without a valid commission, as no officers will or can serve without a valid commission.”

Lincoln met with his cabinet again on the 22nd to address “the vexed question of the recall of Genl. Fremont.” By that time, Cameron and Thomas had submitted a bleak report on the state of affairs in Missouri that had been published in the New York Times. Seeing that his cabinet had lost all confidence in Fremont, Lincoln finally wrote to General Curtis asking him to formally deliver General Orders Number 18 to the commander. However, Curtis was not to deliver the order 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 because 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. He bought himself some time by reclaiming Lexington and Springfield in late October, but by then it was evident that Price’s Missouri Guards were withdrawing into Arkansas, and there would be no decisive battle. Fremont learned of his removal order in the press, and he responded by posting troops as guards to bar any unauthorized persons from his headquarters. He would stay in command if the order could not reach him.

On the 29th, 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 past Fremont’s guards. This farcical operation continued into November.


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  • Guelzo, Allen C., Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2004.
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  • Rhodes, James Ford, History of the Civil War, 1861-1865. New York: The MacMillan Company (Kindle Edition, Reservoir House, 2016), 1917.

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