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Frémont Steals California
A junior Army officer, acting on secret orders from the president, bluffed a far stronger Mexican force into conceding North America's westernmost province to the United States
Winter 2011 | Volume 60, Issue 4
By late June, the Anglo rebels effectively controlled northern California from Sutter’s Fort to Sonoma. Once the USS Portsmouth entered San Francisco Bay, Frémont openly joined the rebellion, racing with 100 men to Sonoma on word that Castro was on his way to retake it. Finding no Mexican soldiers, they marched to San Francisco and back, meeting no Mexican troops at any point. At the Fourth of July celebration in Sonoma, complete with a public reading of the Declaration of Independence, the rebels put themselves under Frémont’s command. Three days later, under orders from Washington to occupy San Francisco and all other ports, the Pacific squadron—three frigates, two transports, and three sloops—was poised off the coast. On July 7, 250 sailors swept into Monterey and raised the American flag above the central plaza. Frémont learned that the U.S. Navy now occupied San Francisco.
Commodore Robert Stockton arrived aboard the USS Congress, formed the Battalion of Mounted Volunteer Riflemen, and placed Frémont in command. Frémont then recruited 428 men around Sonoma and Sutter’s Fort, as well as 50 Walla Walla Indians from Oregon, paying them the liberal salary of 25 dollars per month. He planned to move south to Los Angeles, seizing the towns along the way; but Stockton ordered him to take 150 men aboard the Cyane to San Diego. Having raised the American flag there on July 29, they marched north to Los Angeles, taking control from both Castro and Pico on August 13.
Stockton sailed north, convinced that the conquest was complete, while Frémont took his troops overland to Monterey, leaving Gillespie in charge of Los Angeles. After Gillespie found himself in trouble from Mexican insurgents, Stockton ordered the battalion back. On January 13, 1847, after a few brief skirmishes, Frémont received the surrender of the remaining Mexican forces at Cahuenga Pass outside Los Angeles, granting them generous capitulation terms, which he himself drafted. It guaranteed their lives and property and permitted them either to return to Mexico or to remain in California with the same rights and privileges as American citizens. Once they had turned over their arms, they were free to go home and would not be required to take an oath of allegiance to the United States until a final peace treaty.
Amid cheers and fireworks, Frémont proudly led his men back into Los Angeles. On January 16, 1847, Stockton named him civilian governor of California. “The territory of California is again tranquil,” Stockton wrote to the Navy secretary, “and the civil government formed by me, is again in operation in the places where it was interrupted by the insurgents. Colonel Frémont has five hundred men in his battalion, which will be quite sufficient to preserve the peace of the territory.”
Such was the state of affairs as Jessie knew it when Stockton’s report arrived in Washington. Her husband was a hero. It thus came as a devastating shock to learn that Buchanan was publicly accusing Frémont of acting impulsively and outside his authority, and that several newspapers were reporting his arrest for insubordination. She clung to the hope that Buchanan was running interference for the State Department. New Englanders and Midwesterners, along with Europeans and Mexicans, roundly decried the Polk administration’s imperialism, and although the president at the outset had strongly supported Frémont’s mission, he now backpedaled. The United States was not seeking empire, Polk would maintain, but merely trying to establish peace and order after a conflict instigated by—conveniently for the president—a rogue explorer.
Frémont’s problems began when he accepted his appointment from Stockton and refused to acknowledge Army Brig. Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny, who had been enraged when overshadowed by Frémont’s effecting the dramatic surrender at Cahuenga Pass. When Kearny appeared in San Diego in December 1846, he was in no mood to endure the antics of an irregular junior Army officer. The 47-year-old Kearny—a spit-and-polish martinet known as “the father of the U.S. Cavalry”—was set on putting Frémont brutally in his place. The following June, Frémont was arrested and marched from California to Washington under the custody and surveillance of Kearny, who forced him to trail behind Kearny’s men.
On January 31, 1848, after deliberating for three days, a jury composed of 13 military officers found Frémont, one of the U.S. Army’s most celebrated and popular figures, guilty on three charges and sentenced him to dismissal. But seven of the jurors cited his distinguished service and recommended that he be granted clemency by the president. Polk immediately did so, ordering him to “resume his sword.” Frémont instead submitted his resignation.
Frémont had certainly known the risks when he had agreed to undertake the covert assignment, and he would have been willing to take the fall had he failed. On the contrary, California had capitulated with astoundingly little bloodshed. But his reward for swiftly obtaining a province as large and rich as a European great power had been humiliation. Though public sentiment was firmly on his side, Frémont was fated to be among the earliest American undercover operatives to be sent into the swamp by a calculating president.
His father-in-law would draw the final implication: Frémont’s worst crime, according to Benton, had been to distinguish himself without graduating from West Point.