Major General John C. Fremont, commanding the Federal Department and Army of the West, had incurred the dissatisfaction of the Lincoln administration ever since he issued his unauthorized proclamation declaring martial law in Missouri and freeing all slaves belonging to disloyal masters. Since then, various investigations had uncovered vast amounts of corruption and fraud in Fremont’s department, which bore either Fremont’s complicity or his ignorance. A fruitless pursuit of secessionist State Guards in southwestern Missouri did nothing to inspire confidence in Fremont either. Therefore, President Abraham Lincoln had decided that Fremont had to go.
News of Lincoln’s decision reached Fremont before the official order did, so Fremont tried to prevent messengers from delivering it by posting guards and prohibiting anyone from entering his Springfield, Missouri, headquarters without his authorization. Old Lincoln friend Leonard Swett and Brigadier General Samuel R. Curtis, who had been entrusted to deliver the order, anticipated Fremont’s move. They enlisted a Captain McKinney to disguise himself as a farmer and enter Fremont’s headquarters on the premise that he had information about the State Guards.
McKinney arrived just outside Fremont’s lines at 5 a.m. after traveling 200 miles from St. Louis. Noting the stipulation that he was not to deliver the order if the army was about to go into battle, McKinney scouted the forces for five hours before determining that a battle was not imminent. One of Fremont’s aides halted McKinney as he approached, and after hearing the nature of the “farmer’s” visit and consulting with Fremont, the aide allowed McKinney to enter.
McKinney presented the order to Fremont, who “did not take his removal at all kindly.” He pounded the table and exclaimed, “Sir, how did you get admission into my lines?” Fremont dismissed McKinney, who was arrested by aides to prevent him from notifying Major General David Hunter (who had been assigned to replace Fremont) of the change. But McKinney explained that a second messenger had been dispatched, and Hunter had most likely already been informed. Later that evening, McKinney escaped the aides’ custody.
Fremont called a meeting of all his division commanders (except Hunter) and announced that he would keep command by immediately confronting the Missouri Guards. However, the Guards had fallen back 60 miles, well beyond Fremont’s immediate reach. Brigadier General John Pope, one of Fremont’s critics, said, “It might be best, before deciding upon a plan of battle, to know whether there was any enemy to fight.” Hunter then arrived and announced his intention to carry out the order replacing Fremont. This ended both the meeting and Fremont’s reign as Western Department commander.
The news of Fremont’s removal soon spread through the army, causing resentment and outrage among his loyal followers, especially the German immigrants. Brigadier General Franz Sigel, one of his division commanders, threatened to resign in protest, as did fellow division commander Alexander S. Asboth. Some troops suggested staging a mutiny, but cooler heads ultimately prevailed as Fremont issued a farewell address that began, “Soldiers! I regret to leave you,” and asking them to be faithful to Hunter. He then left Springfield and returned to his wife at St. Louis.
At the time of Fremont’s departure, the Federal army was around Springfield in southwestern Missouri. Lincoln had written Hunter in late October, stating his belief that the State Guards would likely fall back into Arkansas. While giving Hunter “a considerable margin for exercise of your judgment and discretion,” Lincoln advised the new commander to stop pursuing the Guards and instead fall back to defend the railroad depots at Rolla and Sedalia, where “it would be so easy to concentrate and repel any army of the enemy returning on Missouri from the southwest.”
Hunter followed Lincoln’s advice and fell back, but instead of halting at Rolla and Sedalia, he scattered the army’s five divisions throughout Missouri. This reopened southwestern Missouri to the State Guards, and Sigel condemned it not only as a “deplorable military blunder, but also a political mistake.” The New York Times called it “one of the most stupendous and miserable farces ever exhibited to us or any other public.” Lincoln, who was already under intense criticism from the Republican press for removing one of their favorite generals, was now under fire for possibly losing southwestern Missouri as well.
- Cutrer, Thomas W., Theater of a Separate War: The Civil War West of the Mississippi River. The University of North Carolina Press, (Kindle Edition), 2017.
- Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, (Kindle Edition), 2011.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.
- Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- Wert, Jeffry D. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.