“Frémont is honoring our metropolis with quite a stay.”

Lavinia Goodell, December 21, 1861

During the years Lavinia Goodell lived in New York, she took advantage of the city’s cultural events and met many leading figures of the day. In late 1861, during the early months of the Civil War, she met General John C. Frémont.

General John C. Frémont, c. 1862

Frémont was born in Georgia in 1813. In the 1840s he led a series of expeditions intended to survey the far west. In 1856, the newly formed Republican party chose him, an outspoken abolitionist, as their first presidential candidate. He lost the election to Democratic candidate James Buchanan.

At the beginning of the Civil War, Frémont was commissioned a Major General, and President Lincoln gave him command of the Department of the West. In late August 1861, Frémont proclaimed martial law in Missouri, arrested known secessionists, suspended newspapers charged with disloyalty, and announced the emancipation of the slaves of individuals who took action against the Union.

Frémont’s proclamation caused national outrage and alarm.  President  Lincoln believed his actions would alienate the border states and urged Frémont to rescind his order. Frémont refused and sent his wife, Jessie, to speak to the president. Lincoln was not swayed. On September 11, 1861, Lincoln officially annulled the proclamation and in November he relieved Frémont of his command.  

Frémont, Jessie, and their daughter decamped to New York where they took up lodgings at the Astor House, New York’s first grand hotel, located at Broadway and Vesey Streets.

Astor House

New York’s newspapers carried chatty daily reports about the General including how he dressed (full fatigues); who accompanied him (four aides); and his room number at the hotel (No. 15). Frémont told the press that although delegations might call on him, he would receive them only as private individuals and would not make a speech. On Sundays, the Frémonts attended services at the churches of  Rev. Henry Ward Beecher and Rev. Dr. George B. Cheever. Both pastors were staunch abolitionists.

In mid-December 1861, twenty-two year old Lavinia Goodell accompanied her father, a lifelong abolitionist who was also editor of the anti-slavery newspaper the Principia, to visit the  Frémonts at their hotel. From the glowing report she gave her sister, Lavinia was quite smitten with both the General and his wife:

Father called alone one day and, having an exceedingly pleasant interview, decided to take me with him the next morning when the Gen. was to receive a company of anti-slavery ministers & their families. So we went over bright and early, made a little call on them in their private apartments and then went down to the public parlor where the ministers were in waiting. I was very much delighted both with Mr. and Mrs. F. Jessie sat down by me and we had quite a little chat…. Father was quite taken with her. But the Gen. – O, isn’t he glorious? Didn’t I wish I was in Jessie’s shoes! His features are same as represented in the pictures of him, but his expression struck me as quite different – none of that fierce look…. He is exceedingly modest in his manners, and not very talkative, tho all he does say tells. He told Father he was happy to have met him.

In 1862,  Frémont was given leadership of an army in the Appalachian region but he was ineffective against Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and he angrily resigned from the military. He remained popular enough to be considered for the 1864 presidential nomination by the radical wing of the Republican party but withdrew his candidacy to avoid dividing the party, which probably would have resulted in Lincoln’s defeat. He retired from public life and devoted himself to railroad projects in the west. He served as Governor of the Arizona Territory from 1878 until 1883. He died in 1890.

Sources consulted: Lavinia Goodell’s letter to Maria Frost (December 21, 1861); Brooklyn Evening Star (November 30, 1861; December 2, 1861); New York Daily Harold (December 5, 1861); https://civilwaronthewesternborder.org/encyclopedia/fr%C3%A9mont-john-c; https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-C-Fremont

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