How General Fremont Nearly Retained Command; McClellan Bids Scott Adieu

November 2, 1861 (Saturday)

General John C. Fremont had long been a thorn in the side of the Lincoln administration. Being an ardent abolitionist, Fremont took the opportunity to free the slaves owned by disloyal Missourians, an act Lincoln quickly reprimanded. He would also imprison those who, like Frank Blair, went against his rule as head of the Western Department. After discovering that he was handing out military appointments like candy, and was, in general, a poor officer, Lincoln decided that Fremont had to go.

On October 24, the President sent Leonard Swett, an Illinois attorney who used to travel the circuit courts with Lincoln, to St. Louis to deliver the message firing Fremont and placing General David Hunter in temporary command of the Army of the West.

Swett arrived in St. Louis on October 29. The next day, Capt. McKinney, a messenger bearing the orders began the 200 mile journey to Springfield, where Fremont had set up headquarters in pursuit of Missouri State Guard under General Sterling Price.

Arriving at 5am in the morning, it took McKinney two days to make the trip. President Lincoln had ordered that Fremont was to remain in command if he was on the eve of battle. McKinney, dressed as a farmer, observed the army for five hours and determined that it was not about to engage the enemy. He approached Fremont’s headquarters and was halted by an aid asking the purpose of his visit. McKinney told him that he couldn’t reveal why he was there, but that it was important that he speak to General Fremont immediately.

The aid went to confer with Fremont and, half an hour later, returned to again ask the reason for McKinney’s visit. He declined again, restating that it was urgent. After more deliberation, finally McKinney gained an audience with Fremont.

The General read the order and became understandably agitated, slamming his fist on the table. “Sir, how did you get through my lines?” he asked McKinney, who explained how, before being dismissed.

Shortly after McKinney left Fremont’s headquarters, the aid stopped him and told him to keep the nature of the order secret. He also asked if General Hunter was aware of the news. McKinney told him that another messenger was taking care of that. The aid then dismissed McKinney, who suspected that something was up.

McKinney then attempted to locate Hunter, but nobody, not even the higher ranking officers, seemed to know where he was. When he attempted to get a pass to leave Springfield, he was denied. Hanging around the outskirts of camp, he overheard the password to leave. Armed with that and an old pass from General Curtis in St. Louis, he was able to escape from within his own lines at 11pm. 1

Meanwhile, General Fremont latched onto the condition that he was to remain in command if on the eve of battle. He immediately called his division commanders (except Hunter, who was conveniently en route) together and showed them the order. Both Generals Sigel and Asboth, loyal to the last, offered to resign in protest. Fremont, however, had a better idea. If he was arrayed for battle, he could retain command.

The catch was that there were no Rebels within fifty miles of Springfield. General Pope, who arrived with his division that morning, was well aware of this fact. “It might be best, before deciding upon a plan of battle,” suggested Pope, “to know whether there was any enemy to fight.”

Just as Fremont was about to debate the point with Pope, General Hunter arrived. The second messenger had gotten through to him and he, unlike Fremont, was ready to follow Lincoln’s orders.

Stunned, thinking that Hunter wouldn’t be up until the next day, Fremont asked him if he intended to relieve him of command. Hunter confessed that that was his intention and that he meant to do it immediately. Fremont retired to his room and the council of war dissolved.2


The Changing of the Guard

The dark Washington morning bade farewell to General Winfield Scott with strong winds and torrential rains. General McClellan, who was replacing Scott as General-in-Chief in charge of all Union armies, accompanied the frail and aging Scott to the Washington Depot.

Scott, a Virginian by birth, was, as always, a gentleman. He had read McClellan’s praise of him written the previous day, and took the complements to heart, while ignoring the boasting between the lines.

General Scott, in turn, praised McClellan, calling him, perhaps the best general that ever existed. He gave his best to McClellan’s wife and newborn child and was off.3

The parting at the depot seemed to genuinely touch both Scott and McClellan. Later that evening, writing to his wife, McClellan recalled “the sight of this morning was a lesson to me which I hope not soon to forget.” Though humbled, he pitied Scott: “I saw there the end of a long, active, and industrious life, the end of the career of the first soldier of the nation; and it was a feeble old man scarce able to walk; hardly anyone there to see him off but his successor.”

In closing, he asked his wife, “Should I ever become vainglorious and ambitious, remind me of that spectacle.”4

  1. Leonard Swett to Abraham Lincoln, Saturday, November 09, 1861. []
  2. General John Pope by Peter Cozzens. []
  3. Army of the Potomac; McClellan Takes Command by Russel H. Beatie. []
  4. The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan edited by Stephen W. Sears, Da Capo Press, 1992. []
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How General Fremont Nearly Retained Command; McClellan Bids Scott Adieu by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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