John Charles Frémont Court-Martial: 1847-48
John Charles Frémont Court-Martial:
Defendant: John Charles Frémont
Crime: Mutiny, disobedience, conduct prejudicing good order and military discipline
Chief Defense Lawyers: Thomas H. Benton, William Carey Jones
Chief Prosecutor: John Fitzgerald Lee, Judge Advocate
Presiding Officer: G. M. Brooke
Court: De Russey, T. F. Hunt
Place: District of Columbia (Washington Arsenal)
Date of Trial: November 2, 1847-January 31, 1848
Verdict: Guilty of all charges
Sentence: Dismissal from the army and loss of all privileges
SIGNIFICANCE: In one of the most tainted court-martials in American history, a man who would be a candidate for president in less than 10 years was charged with the most serious crimes an officer might commit. The trial itself was highly irregular and the sentence was never carried out, but the reputation of the principals would forever remain tarnished.
When Captain John Charles Frémont set off from St. Louis, Missouri in the summer of 1845, he was commanding his third major western expedition for the U.S. Army Topographical Corps and was already something of a national celebrity. By March 1846 he was in northern California and challenging the Spanish who owned this land. When war broke out between the United States and Mexico in April, Frémont moved quickly to provide military support to the American settlers who raised the Bear Flag in revolt in June and declared an independent republic. By January 1847, now a lieutenant colonel, Frémont was accepting the surrender of the last of the Spanish forces in California. He seemed to be at the peak of his career, but his troubles were just beginning.
Commodore Robert F. Stockton had arrived in California in 1846 as commander of a U.S. Navy squadron and then proceeded to take the lead in the fight to oust the Mexicans. With the end of the fighting, Stockton regarded himself as in charge of California and appointed Frémont as its military governor. In several of the final battles in December 1846 and January 1847, however, the American army forces were led by the newly arrived General Stephen Kearny, who was soon asserting that his orders placed him in command of all the civil and military forces in California. Frémont not unnaturally sided with Stockton. By March, however, Kearny had established that he was the real commander and, when Frémont continued to resist his orders, Kearny had Frémont arrested in August 1847 and ordered him to return to Washington to face a court-martial.
By the time the court-martial commenced at the Washington Arsenal in the District of Columbia, it had become a national scandal. Frémont, after all, had for some years been hailed as the explorer of the American West and more recently as a hero in helping to acquire California. Now he was being accused of mutiny in what most close observers regarded as a petty squabble between General Kearny and Commodore Stockton. Further adding to the drama was that Frémont's defense lawyers were Thomas Hart Benton, the flamboyant senator from Missouri and Frémont's own father-in-law, and William Carey Jones, Frémont's brother-in-law. Because the rules of court-martial restricted civilian lawyers to serve only as advisors, Frémont would conduct his own defense, although he was allowed to consult at all times with his lawyers.
The major witness against Frémont was the very man who had brought the charges, Brigadier-General Stephen Kearny. With preliminaries out of the way, Frémont began his cross-examination on November 4. Although Kearny was only 53 (Frémont was 34), he was soon made to appear almost befuddled, as he could not recall detail after detail. He could not remember exactly when he decided to arrest Frémont. He could not explain why he had waited so long to do so—if, as he claimed, he had the orders from Washington that put him in charge from the day he arrived there? And why, after the decisive battles that ended the fighting with the Mexicans, had Kearny submitted a casualty list addressed to "His Excellency R. F. Stockton, Governor of California"? He first denied that Frémont had offered to resign from the U.S. Army when his role was questioned, then he said he remembered that he had refused to accept it. Although Frémont was constantly asking questions that the court would not allow, when Kearny stepped down after two weeks of such relentless probing, he appeared to be both incompetent and untrustworthy.
The prosecution called several other witnesses who attempted to support Kearny's case; again, Frémont's questioning cast doubt on most of their assertions. Then on December 6, the first crucial witness for Frémont's defense took the stand—Commodore Stockton. Although he was about the same age as Kearny, he was a more attractive figure and was expected to clinch the case for Frémont. Instead much of his testimony proved to be irrelevant and inconsistent and the judge advocate managed to dilute his value. Other defense witnesses, however, clearly and decisively supported Frémont's case.
Kearny returned to the stand on January 5, 1848, and again insisted that he had never regarded Commodore Stockton as holding rank above him. Then, just before stepping down, he addressed the court with an extraordinary claim: "On my last appearance before this court … the senior counsel of the accused, Thomas H. Benton of Missouri, sat in his place making mouths and grimaces at me, which I considered were intended to offend, to insult, and to overawe me. I ask of this court no action on it… I am fully capable of taking care of my own honor."
In the code understood by all present, Kearny was suggesting that he would be challenging Benton to a duel. But Benton, never one to shrink from a quarrel, was allowed to address the court. He claimed that he had been watching Kearny's stares at Frémont during the trial and was determined to avenge his son-in-law. "And the look of today," said Benton, "was the consequence of the looks in this court before. I did today look at General Kearny when he looked at Colonel Frémont, and I looked at him till his eyes fell—till they fell upon the floor." In the code of the day, Benton had intimidated Kearny!
Frémont was allowed to present his defense summary, which took three days. The officers retired for three days of deliberations, and then reconvened on January 31. All the spectators and the nation's press were convinced that Frémont would be found innocent, but the presiding judge read the verdict: guilty of all charges and specifications. But then, in total contradiction to the gravity of the offenses, six of the twelve members of the court, issued a "Remarks by the Court:"
Under the circumstances in which Lieutenant Colonel Frémont was placed between two officers of superior ranks, each claiming to command-in-chief in California—circumstances in their nature calculated to embarrass the mind and excite the doubts of officers of greater experience than the accused—and in consideration of the important professional services rendered by him previous to the occurrence of those acts for which he has been tried, the undersigned members of the court respectfully recommend Lieutenant Colonel Frémont to the lenient consideration of the President of the United States."
On February 16, President James K. Polk did set aside the first charge of mutiny but approved the other verdicts; however, he then set aside the sentence and concluded, "Lieutenant Colonel Frémont will accordingly be released from arrest, will resume his sword [rank], and report for duty." Frémont felt too hurt to accept this and instead resigned from the army. Stockton also resigned from the navy in 1850. Kearny was assigned as the military governor of newly defeated Mexican cities but within a year was dead from a disease he caught there. By 1856, Frémont was the brand-new Republican Party's first candidate for president of the United States.
—John S. Bowman
Suggestions for Further Reading
Dellenbaugh, Frederick S. Frémont and '49. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1914.
Egan, Ferol. Frémont Explorer for a Restless Nation. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1977.
U.S. Adjutant-General's Office. Proceedings of the General Court-Martial in the Case of Lieutenant-Colonel Frémont, 1847. Washington: Senate Executive Document No. 33, 30th Cong., 1st sess., 1848.