Monday, April 11, 2011

John Charles Fremont, the Pathfinder at war

One of my favorite parts of Bruce Catton’s Terrible Swift Sword is his account of the failed military career of General John Charles Fremont, who was assigned command of the troubled border state of Missouri and nearly lost it to the Confederacy through a combination of bullheadedness, inexperience, and straight-up blundering. Catton’s portrait of Fremont is pithy and memorable, and it demonstrates what I find one of Catton’s most refreshing characteristics, an ability to render crisp judgment while remaining humane about weakness:
John Charles Fremont brought to Missouri a great reputation, a brand-new commission as major general, and a formidable set of abilities which did not quite meet the demands that Missouri was about to make. He entered the Civil War at the precise place where it wore its most baffling aspect, and although he presently saw with tolerable clarity what needed to be done he knew hardly anything about the way to go about doing it. He was famous as The Pathfinder, the man who had charted trails across the untracked West; he had been the first presidential candidate of the new Republican party in 1856, helping to make another sort of trail into an even more trackless wilderness; and now he was in Missouri, a bewildering jungle where a trail could be blazed only by a man gifted with a profound understanding of the American character, the talents of a canny politician, and enormous skill as an administrator. Of these gifts General Fremont had hardly a trace.
Missouri at this point was more or less in open rebellion on its western half, with the Union army flailing to get it under control while not alienating the touchy but loyal block of citizenry nearer the Mississippi that was holding the state in the Union. Fremont was not good at juggling these responsibilities, and his self-regard and grandiloquent style (both of which he shared with that other ever-vexed Union general, McClellan), didn’t help:
It was the grand monarch atmosphere that hurt. Fremont had managed to surround himself with a gang that made western America fear the worst, and the posturing of his aides and guards apparently affected his own judgment. A European army officer, visiting St. Louis early in September, felt that he was seeing something common enough in Europe but extraordinary in America. The glittering display suggested “both a commander-in-chief and a proconsul,” and Fremont displayed “an ardent, ambitious personality” which “obviously is inclined to dictatorship.” The place hardly seemed American. Fremont was “French, but revolutionary French,” he disliked not only the Democrats but “all governmental parties,” and all West Pointers to boot, and the European summed him up in words that would have interested Abraham Lincoln: “He is one of those men who serve a government, not according to official instructions but rather with an understanding of its hidden intentions, men who understand in half-words what is expected of them.”

That was the real trouble. All the men suddenly raised to high place in 1861 were supposed to understand hidden intentions, to know how to act on half-words, to see far below the surface and to learn what the times required of them before the requirement was actually stated. This called for both vision and balance, and Fremont had only the vision. The balance was gone, distorted by the pro-consul’s trappings and the immeasurable ambition, by the sense of isolation from Washington, by the unending pressures of administrative chaos, probably also by the feeling that the Missouri situation was slipping out of control. Swollen with the need to perform a drastic act that would set everything straight, Fremont moved on to an act of immense folly—an act which his government would quickly disavow, but which nevertheless had at its haunted center something that must eventually be attended to.
That something was freeing the slaves, which Fremont did in all the contested areas of Missouri, via an order declaring all rebel property contraband and slaves explicitly free. Needless to say, he was overstepping his bounds and giving yet another indication of his unfitness for command; nevertheless the war, and Lincoln, would eventually catch up to him.

No comments:

Post a Comment