Notable Visitors: Jessie Benton Frémont (1824-1902)
Jessie Benton Frémont was the wife of Major General John C. Frémont and the daughter of former Senator Thomas Hart Benton. She received a practical education in politics as well as a first-rate schooling for a young woman of her time. At 17, she defied her parents to marry Frémont, who in 1856 became the new Republican Party’s first presidential candidate. She played a major role in advancing her husband’s career and unsuccessfully defending his actions in a confrontation with President Lincoln in September 1861.
The Frémonts were in Europe when the Civil War broke out, but they began to lobby for an important military command for John, well known as an explorer and military leader in California. In July, President Lincoln, with strong support from the Blair family, appointed John to head military operations in Missouri. Jessie went along as a key advisor to her husband. The Missouri political and military situation was a minefield and Frémont proved inadequate to navigating among competing factions, both loyal and disloyal.
Historian Catherine Coffin Phillips wrote: “On August 28, Frémont called Jessie in consultation with the staff officers, John A. Gurley and Owen Lovejoy, on the matter of a proposed proclamation. This would place Missouri under martial law, so that secessionists under arms would be arrested and the property of all persons taking active part with the enemies in the field would be confiscated to public use, and their slaves, if any, declared free men. Frémont said that he wanted his wife to understand fully the background for this decision and its dangerous implications. He reviewed the entire situation...The result of this conference, Jessie afterward said, was ‘the conviction of us all that no other course was possible in Missouri under existing conditions.”1
The Frémont proclamation raised a storm of protest – especially in Kentucky. General Robert Anderson wrote President Lincoln: “I feel it is my duty to say that Major General Frémont’s Proclamation...is producing most disastrous results in this state....This morning, a company which was ready to be sworn into the service was disbanded. Kentucky feels a direct interest in this matter as a portion of General Frémont’s force is now upon her soil.”2 President Lincoln received even stronger admonition from his longtime friend Joshua F. Speed, a Kentucky slave-owner: “I have been so much distressed since reading, (to us and to the union cause) that foolish proclamation of Fremont, that I have been unable to eat or sleep – It will crush out every vestage [sic] of a union party in the state-- I perhaps & a few others will be left alone -- for I do not intend that the act of any military cheiftain [sic] or any administration shall drive me from my fidelity to my government:”3
Historian Allen C. Guelzo wrote: “Not only Speed, but every one of the administration’s vital lines to the Border states was humming was horror. Joseph Holt...spoke for his native Kentucky when he wrote Lincoln ‘of the alarm & condemnation with which the union loving citizens of Kentucky...have read this proclamation.’”4
Frémont biographer Andrew Rolle wrote: “The president, dumbfounded by the continuing turmoil within General Frémont’s command, simply had to take action to control this knight errant who had become a law unto himself. He had to be admonished, if not relieved of command. Part of Frémont’s unauthorized proclamation provided for shooting prisoners of war. For this reason Lincoln sharply warned him: ‘Should you shoot a man, according to the proclamation, the Confederates could very certainly shoot our best men in their hands in retaliation; and so, man for man, indefinitely.’”6 Biographers Ilene Stone and Suzanna M. Grenz wrote: “By again ignoring the president’s wishes and publicly challenging Lincoln to force him to rescind his edict, Frémont only made matters worse. The nation watched, waited, and wondered how Lincoln would deal with Frémont. The commander of the western division had committed an act of insubordination against his commander-in-chief. He had rejected all appropriate channels and sidestepped the proper chain of command.”7
Catherine Coffin Phillips wrote: “Shortly after the issuance of the proclamation, Jessie Frémont was called to welcome John Hay, just arrived from Washington. This bright-eyed, ruddy-cheeked youth, one of Lincoln’s private secretaries, had brought to Frémont Lincoln’s plea, a kindly letter asking him to modify that part of the proclamation touching the freeing of slaves.”8 Unfortunately for Frémont, the general did not immediately respond to the request of the President, who was under growing pressure to reverse Frémont’s order in order to pacify Kentucky. Instead, Frémont wrote a letter to President Lincoln and dispatched his wife to deliver it.
Jessie Frémont and her maid left Missouri on September 8 for the three-day trip to Washington. “I had to sit up the two nights in the overcrowded train; there was o much travel, the cars were crowded like street cars and it was the hot early September weather,” she recalled9 Arriving in Washington on September 10, Jessie wrote a note at 8 P.M. to President Lincoln: “Mrs. Frémont brings to the President, from Genl. Frémont, a letter and some verbal communications, which she would be very glad to deliver with as little delay as possible. If it suits the Presidents convenience will he name a time this evening to receive them -- or at some early hour tomorrow.”10 President Lincoln told her to come “Now”. Judge Edward Cowles escorted the short distance from Willard’s Hotel to the White House, where they were show into the Red Room near midnight. It was a cold confrontation, as Mrs. Frémont related it. She gave him the letter from her husband, which the President read. “I have written to the General and he knows what I want done,” responded Mr. Lincoln to which Mrs. Frémont said that her husband “feels he is at the great disadvantage of being opposed by people in whom you have every confidence.” She later recounted the conversation:
'Who do you mean?' he said, 'Persons of differing views?' I answered: 'The General's conviction is that it will be long and dreadful work to conquer by arms alone, that there must be other consideration to get us the support of foreign countries - that he knew the English feeling for gradual emancipation and the strong wish to meet it on the part of important men in the South: that as the President knew we were on the eve of England, France and Spain recognizing the South: they were anxious for a pretext to do so; England on account of her cotton interests, and France because the Emperor dislikes us.' The President said 'You are quite a female politician.'
Mrs. Frémont not only delivered a letter from her husband about military developments, but attempted to argue at length the political reasons for his order emancipating slaves in his theater of the Civil War. When she pressed for an answer to the general letters, President Lincoln responded, according to her” Maybe by to-morrow...I have a great deal to do – to-morrow if possible, or the next day.” She said she would call for the letter but he insisted he would send it to her at Willard’s hotel. The President told John Hay two years later: “She sought an audience with me at midnight and taxed me so violently with many things that I had to exercise all the awkward tact I have to avoid quarreling with her. She surprised me by asking why their enemy, Montgy Blair, had been sent to Missouri. She more than once intimated that if Gen. Fremont should conclude to try conclusions with me he could set up himself.”12
Biographer Pamela Herr wrote: “No doubt Jessie was tired and overwrought when she saw the president, and she neglected to use her considerable charm, But she was also a clear and forceful speaker who expressed herself easily and well. Abraham Lincoln, like most men of his time, was unaccustomed to taking women seriously on political matters. Usually patient with visitors, even those who challenged him, he simply dismissed her, unable to recognize that at the least, she could have been a valuable firsthand source of information on conditions in Missouri.”13
Until then, Jessie Frémont and Francis P. Blair, Sr. had what Blair called a “co-partnership.” In the spring of 1861, Frémont rounded up arms for the Union Army before returning from Europe. “I trust that you have already offered my services to the President,” Frémont wrote his friend Francis Preston Blair, Sr.. “My great desire is to serve my country in the most direct and effective way that I possibly can.”14 Blair had written Jessie in August: “Frank is with you by this time and has told you more than I can write about affairs here.
Now I hope we may begin a correspondence -- you and I -- about the great things which are to make history hereafter and in which we are to be equally interested -- you for your husband's exploits and I for my sons, as well as his. I will let you have what your father called "the inside view of things" at Washington and you must make me up "Caesars’ commentaries of the civil war" in Missouri....
But one month had considerably chilled their relationship and Jessie could see the hands of the powerful Blair family in her husband’s troubles. Biographer Pamela Herr wrote: “Suddenly, for Jessie, all the pieces fell into place. The Blairs had turned the president against her husband. Stunned at the betrayal, she threatened that John would challenge Frank to a duel.”16 Francis P. Blair, Sr., “came to see me early the next day,” wrote Jessie. Blair reported that he lectured her on what the Blair family had done to promote General Frémont’s fame and fortune. He then compared his daughter Lizzie to “Empress Catherine.” Jessie compared herself to Josephine.17 “He had always been fond of me, I had been like a child in their family, but Mr. Blair was now very angry: ‘Well:’ he said, ‘who would have expected you to do such a thing as this, to come here and find fault with the President;’ I laughed at first – laughed at him; but he was too angry; ‘Look what Frémont, had done; made the President his enemy!’”
Mr. Blair stayed over two hours and got heated up with his own words and from old habit of intimacy told far more than he should as he said finally, ‘If you had stayed here in Washington and done what I wanted you to do – it is not fit for a woman to go with an army. If you had stayed here in Washington you could have had anything you wanted as I wrote you, but there you went straight out to the West without even coming to Washington.’”18The confrontation between the President and Mrs. Frémont became the stuff of legend. Historian Allan Nevins noted: “ One account quoted him as saying, ‘Madam, I made your husband what he is, and I will unmake him; I nominated him for the Presidency in ‘56, and I will defeat him in the future.’ She sent her husband a cipher message warning him against any advice from Montgomery.”19 Postmaster General Montgomery Blair and General Montgomery Meigs had been sent to St. Louis to evaluate the situation. Jessie biographer Catherine Coffin Phillips wrote: “One comical version circulated by the Blairs intimated that in her rage Jessie had called the President ‘Abraham’ and had ‘threatened and stamped her foot like a virago.’ This version is particularly amusing in view of the fact that even informally she referred to her father as Mr. Benton or Senator Benton and to her husband as Mr. Frémont...”20 Historians Pamela Herr and Mary Lee Spence wrote:” Blair daughter Lizzie Lee was told of the angry meeting, she dreaded the consequences. ‘A formal quarrel fills me with a terror I can’t articulate.”21 Jessie later complained: “All that painful day of broken friendship passed and there was nothing from the President.”22 After Jessie left the senior Blair, she immediately wrote President Lincoln demanding to see correspondence written from Frank Blair, Jr.:
I was told yesterday by Mr. F. P. Blair Senr. that five days since a letter was received from his son Colonel F. P. Blair, containing certain statements respecting Genl. Frémont and his military command in the Western Department: which letter was submitted to you as President.Not satisfied with one request, Jessie wrote a second to Mr. Lincoln the same day: “Mrs. Frémont begs to know from the President if his answer to Genl. Frémonts letter can be given to her without much farther delay. Mrs. Frémont is anxious to return to her family and takes the liberty of asking a reply by the messenger.”24 President Lincoln refused her requests, writing:
Your two notes of to-day are before me–In his letter to General Fremont, President Lincoln wrote to reverse directly Fremont’s proclamation: “Yours of the 8th in answer to mine of 2nd Inst. is just received. Assuming that you, upon the ground, could better judge of the necessities of your position than I could at this distance, on seeing your proclamation of August 30th I perceived no general objection to it – The particular clause, however, in relation to the confiscation of property and the liberation of slaves, appeared to me to be objectionable, in it's non-conformity to the Act of Congress passed the 6th of last August upon the same subjects; and hence I wrote you expressing my wish that that clause should be modified accordingly -- Your answer, just received, expresses the preference on your part, that I should make an open order for the modification, which I very cheerfully do-- It is therefore ordered that the said clause of said proclamation be so modified, held, and construed, as to conform to, and not to transcend, the provisions on the same subject contained in the Act of Congress entitled "An Act to confiscate property used for insurrectionary purposes" Approved, August 6. 1861; and that said act be published at length with this order–26
The quarrel between the Blairs and the Frémonts worsened. Historians Pamela Herr and Mary Lee Spence wrote: “The Blair family marshaled their considerable influence in a concerted press attack on John, and, more privately, on Jessie. In the Blairs’ version of events, John was a brave but inept commander while Jessie was a clever and vengeful woman who had stepped beyond her proper sphere. ‘Did you ever hear of such a superb jackass as ‘John C. & Jessie Benton Frémont Major General Commanding,’ jeered one Blair ally. Long experienced in press manipulation her self, Jessie countered in kind, while John, prodded by Jessie if the Blair view is to be believed, even briefly jailed Frank Blair twice for insubordination.”27
President Lincoln considered replacing Frémont immediately but delayed his final action for more than a month. Meanwhile, he sent other administration officials out to Missouri to assess the situation. After going to Missouri to investigate the Frémont situation in the fall of 1861, aide John G. Nicolay reported to President Lincoln: “The universal opinion is that he had entirely failed and that he ought to be removed – that any change will be for the better.’”28 Historian Allen C. Guelzo wrote: “Something about Frémont did not quite add up in people’s minds. He was publicly aloof, unbending, and unnaturally preoccupied with the political limelight but without the wisdom to keep himself in it.”29
Meanwhile, Jessie continued to exercise control in St. Louis and influence in Washington. She found another conduit to the White House in U.S. Marshal Ward Hill Lamon, whom she wrote in late October, shortly before her husband was dismissed from his Missouri command: “General Lamon will find the copies he asked for enclosed. The originals I had rather not risk -- in the mails & they would have to be returned to me as necessary parts of the evidence which may or may not be required -- certainly will be, if Genl. Frémonts enemies succeed in carrying out their intention to remove him from this Dept.
On the transportation point if the division under Genl.'s Hunter Pope & McKinstry had had transportation enough -- they do not march light as Genl. Frémont does -- there would have been a complete victory over Confederate General Sterling Price & his whole force about the 20-22d. But it is another chance gone.President Lincoln ordered General Frémont replaced at the beginning of November. Historian Hans L. Trefousse noted that “Even Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, radical as he was, was thoroughly persuaded that, in all Lincoln had done concerning Frémont, he had been guided by a true sense of public duty.”31 The general was not immediately reassigned but returned with his wife first to New York and then to Washington. When Horace Greeley gave a lecture at the Smithsonian Institute in January 1862, General and Mrs. Frémont were in the audience and were prevailed upon to join President Lincoln and several Cabinet members on the stage. “The Smithsonian audience was vociferously upon the side of Frémont.” noted journalist William A. Croffut. “Shortly afterwards the General and his incomparable ‘Jessie’ gave an immense reception at the hotel. Of his difference with the President he spoke modestly and quietly, only wishing that the correspondence might be published, and saying confidently that the people could be of but one opinion when the whole truth was out. Mrs. Frémont , witty, graceful, and brilliant, was less reticent and forbearing. I recollect seeing her stand in the centre of a group leading an animated conversation concerning the indignities to which she thought her husband subjected. She spoke warmly and even defiantly, with the sharp emphasis of outraged honesty, as any loving woman might speak of her husband in peril, and her eyes flashed as she exclaimed: ‘Justice Justice! Justice! Why may not Mr. Frémont have some kind of a public trial before these bewildered millions who do not know the facts. For the General’s friends believed and asserted that he was the victim of a proslavery conspiracy, with the Blair family at its head.”32
The Frémonts also attended, albeit reluctantly the Lincoln’s reception at the White House on February 10, 1862. President Lincoln personally extended an invitation to the Frémonts to come. While the reception was underway, the Lincolns’ son Willie was on his deathbed upstairs. Jessie wrote: “It was announced officially that on account of the illness in the house, there would be no dancing, but the Marine Band at the foot of the steps filled the house with music while the boy lay dying above. A sadder face than that of the President I have rarely seen. He was receiving at the large door of the East Room, speaking to the people as they came but feeling so deeply that he spoke of what he felt and thought instead of welcoming the guests.
To General Frémont he at once said that his son was very ill and that he feared for the result. On seeing his sad face and grieved appearance, the feeling with which we had gone gave way to pity, and after expressing our hope for the lad’s recovery, we passed on to make our respects to the President’s wife. The ball was becoming a ghastly failure....33Jessie Benton Frémont was an accomplished writer – both under her husband’s name and her own. She wrote A Year of American Travel, Souvenirs of My Time, and Far West Sketches.