Saturday, September 10, 2011

150 Years Ago -- Jessie Fremont's Audience with the President

Jessie Benton Frémont (1824-1902), American au...Image of Jessie Benton Frémont via Wikipedia

On Tuesday, September 10, 1861, Jessie Benton Frémont arrived in Washington to plead her husband's case for his August 30 emancipation proclamation.

John Frémont, commander of the Western Department, had issued a proclamation declaring martial law in the state of Missouri, but he had gone further, promising to free the slaves of anyone found to be in rebellion against the United States.  There was also the matter of threatening to shoot anyone who was found guilty by a court-martial "who shall be taken with arms in their hands within these lines."

Lincoln had written to Frémont urging the general to modify his proclamation.  He saw it as dictatorial, far beyond any authority a general in the field might have.  The proclamation threatened to expand the war; Lincoln was trying to keep the war a simple matter of preserving the Union.  Freeing slaves would have a disastrous effect on the war effort, alienating Northern Democrats and the few slave states that were still in the Union, especially Kentucky.

Frémont took six days before replying to Lincoln.  He refused Lincoln's suggestion to modify the proclamation -- "If I were to retract of my own accord it would imply that I myself thought it wrong and that I had acted without the reflection which the gravity of the point demanded. But I did not. I acted with full deliberation and upon the certain conviction that it was a measure right and necessary and I think so still." He would only modify the proclamation if ordered to do so by Lincoln.

Now Mrs. Frémont was in Washington to plead her husband's case.  Jessie Benton Frémont was the daughter of Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton.  She was no stranger to Washington and had met with most of the leading politicians of the day.  This trip would not be a pleasant one though.

After a tiring, two-day journey by train, she arrived at the Willard Hotel late in the evening of September 10 and sent a message to the White House, inquiring as to when she might meet with the president.  The reply was surprising:  "Now, at once. A. Lincoln."  Mrs. Frémont hurried to the White House.  Lincoln met her in the Red Room.  He was standing and did not offer her a seat.  She presented the general's letter.  Lincoln "smiled with an expression that was not agreeable" and read it.
 "(B)oth voice and manner made the impression that I was to be got rid of briefly...In answer to his question, 'Well?' I explained that the general wished so much to have his attention to the letter sent, that I had brought it to make sure it would reach him.  He answered, not to that, but to the subject his own mind was upon, that 'It was a war for a great national idea, the Union, and that General Frémont should not have dragged the negro into it. -- that he never would if he had consulted with Frank Blair.  I sent Frank there to advise him.'"

When Mrs. Frémont began to make the argument that emancipation would keep England and France from recognizing the Confederacy, Lincoln cut her off, noting "in a sneering tone," "You are quite a female politician."

Lincoln's side of the story was almost as equally unpleasant.  He told his secretary John Hay,
"She sought an audience with me and tasked me so violently with so many things, that I had to exercise all the awkward tact I have to avoid quarreling with her.  She more than once intimated that if Gen. Frémont should conclude to try conclusions with me he could set up for himself."

The next day, Mrs. Frémont met with Francis Blair, a longtime friend.  He scolded her, "Who would have expected you to do such a thing as this, to come here and find fault with the President?"  He later added, "Look what Frémont has done; made the President his enemy!"

Also on September 10, 1861, Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston was appointed commander of the Western armies, commanding troops in Tennessee, Missouri, Arkansas and Kentucky.
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