Local Fremont supporters back challenge to Lincoln

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Before Abraham Lincoln could face Democrat George B. McClellan in the presidential election of 1864, the incumbent president had to beat back a challenge from within his own party.

"The friends of Major General John C. Fremont ... assembled on Thursday evening, in the third story of Wilkins Hall, for the purpose of organizing a campaign club," The Daily Pittsburgh Gazette reported on Friday, April 8, 1864. Wilkins Hall stood on Fourth Avenue, between Wood and Smithfield streets.

Fremont, an ex-soldier and Western explorer, had been the newly formed Republican Party's first candidate for president in 1856. His supporters eight years later believed the Lincoln administration had not been radical enough in efforts to abolish slavery.

Fremont was commander of the U.S. Army's Department of the West in August 1861 when he issued a military order that anticipated Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation by 16 months. He placed Missouri, a border state with split loyalties, under martial law, More significantly, he said he would confiscate and free slaves held by anyone in rebellion against the federal government.

Fearing that Fremont's actions would shift the focus of the war away from preserving the union and encourage secession in border states, Lincoln had the order rescinded and replaced the man who issued it.

Three years later Fremont's supporters in Pittsburgh argued that their candidate's goals had ultimately been shown to be correct, with Lincoln himself swayed. "A good many people were opposed to his action in Missouri, but time had proved to all there the necessity of standing upon the identical platform which he then stood upon," William F. Johnson told the crowd.

Fremont backers offered another strong argument for their candidate among the resolutions and principles they approved that evening. "We are in favor of the one-term principle," their statement said. No president had been elected to a second term since Andrew Jackson in 1832. While "we have high regard for President Lincoln, we conceive a re-nomination would be destructive of the principles for which we have heretofore contended," their statement continued.

While the Gazette reported at length on the Fremont camp's meeting and official positions, the story contained some subtle signs that the future did not look bright for the dissidents. The anonymous reporter at the event wrote that while several speakers were greeted with applause, a mention of Present Lincoln alone drew "marked applause."

Organizers of the meeting also may have forgotten the show-biz adage about leaving the audience wanting more. As Pittsburgh factory owner Nathaniel P. Sawyer read "a very dry biographical sketch of Gen. Fremont ... many persons left the hall," the story said. "Mr. Sawyer then moved that the meeting adjourn, with three cheers for Gen. John C. Fremont ... but the response was feeble -- painfully feeble."

"A brass band was in attendance during the evening," the story concluded. "And the music was excellent."

While Fremont became the candidate of the Radical Democracy Party, he withdrew from the race before the November election. Lincoln, running with Democrat Andrew Johnson under the National Union Party banner, went on to defeat McClellan decisively.

Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184. See more stories in this series by searching "Barcousky" and "Eyewitness" at post-gazette.com.

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